Saturday 22 March 2008

Recipe: Crab Tart

This has evolved from a recipe originally taken, I think, from Michel Guérard, from many years ago. The original magazine cutting has long since gone the way of all flesh, so it's now impossible to be sure. In any event, whatever the provenance, it is fairly delicious....Separating the white and dark meat within the tart is a clever trick, as it means you get two clearly different flavours, rather than just having a rather indistinct compound. The layer of sautéed Leek between the two also works well - not only does it introduce a different flavour-hit, but Leek marries particularly well with any seafood (which is why I always use Leek rather than Onion for the sofritto for any fish-flavoured risotto)

Although this tart rises spectacularly well in cooking, it's best to let it sit and cool down for five minutes or so before serving (during which time it will inevitably deflate) as otherwise it is just too hot to eat, and it won't do itself justice on the plate.

For two individual tarts.

Ingredients: 2 sheets of Phyllo Pastry, each 12" x 6"; 2 level tablespoons of Slivered Almonds; 1 oz Butter; 1 Dressed Crab; the white part of a medium Leek, diced finely; 1 tablespoon of Olive Oil; 2 Eggs; 5 fl oz Cream; half an oz of grated Parmesan; Salt & Pepper; a generous pinch of Nutmeg.


1. Using the Butter, Phyllo and Almonds, make two individual tart shells (follow the normal procedure for doing this, but sprinkle the Almonds in the base of each tart shell before you add the second layer of Phyllo; this will give a good crisp base to the tart shell). After you've taken the baked shells out of the oven , reduce the temperature from 200 degrees C to 180 degrees C and let it reduce in temperature as you make the filling for the tarts.

2. Separate the white and dark crab-meat, and divide the dark meat between the two tart shells, spreading it evenly around the base of each shell.

3. Heat the Oil, and use it to sauté the diced Leek for two or three minutes, just until it starts to colour. Take the Leek from the Oil, and make a layer of sautéed Leek in each tart shell, on top of the dark crab-meat.

4. In a bowl,whisk the Eggs with the Cream, then stir into this the white meat, Parmesan and seasoning. When properly incorporated, divide this 'custard' between the two tart shells (any mixture you have left over, pour into a ramekin and bake alongside the tarts; delicious cold from the fridge as a snack the next day!).

5. Bake the tarts for about twenty minutes in the pre-heated oven. They will puff impressively, and colour quite nicely as they cook - but be sure to let them cool down slightly before you serve them!

Friday 21 March 2008

The Food Miles Conundrum....

Can anyone tell me where exactly the 'Food Miles' concept originated? Wherever it was, it's been a stunning PR success, if the result when you google 'food miles' is anything to go by - listing upon listing of people all greeting the idea as if it's the answer to the maiden's prayer. It's all so simple: climate change is a bad thing; climate change is caused by carbon emissions; planes emit carbon; food transported by planes are therefore responsible for carbon emissions; therefore food transported by air is A Bad Thing. Aha! So, we can feel better about ourselves and our contribution to the general good if we forswear bananas and pineapples (even though they are so tantalisingly cheap) and opt instead for Scottish Raspberries and Asparagus from the Mendips.....

The problem with that, is of course, that Life is rather more complicated than that. As a basis for socially responsible behaviour, it's about on a par with 'Yes, We Can' - which as Andy Hamilton so rightly pointed out is a political philosophy more worthy of Bob the Builder than of Martin Luther King.

Last year, apparently, over 70% of the harvest of green beans in Kenya ended up on supermarket shelves in the UK, and indeed something like one and a half million farmers throughout Africa are dependent for their livelihood on european customers. In Europe. And so, the process of denying ourselves the pleasure of eating Kenyan Beans in February in order to feel that we're doing our bit has the invisible knock-on effect of pulling the income rug from under the feet of those least able to withstand the impact as they fall. In effect, it's Lady Bracknell deciding to face the onset of recession by firing the under-gardener and the second parlourmaid - her minor bit of belt-tightening is their full-on crisis!

And, of course, the picture is nothing like as straightforward as the 'food milies' would have us think, in any case. How much more energy is used in growing produce 'locally' than in growing it in areas where the climate is naturally suited to the process? How much of the time is food transported long-distance in the cargo holds of passenger planes which would have been flying anyway - and so in reality the food miles calculation should be 'nil' (but isn't)? And how do the carbon emissions compare for transport by road of something which has been grown 'locally', on the other side of the country, as opposed to air-transport from halfway around the globe?

There's a strong whiff in all of this of very lazy thinking, of the with-one-bound-he-was-free variety. Which, as we all know, is almost never valid. Socially responsible actions should be taken on a properly-informed basis......and the problem is that the more informed one becomes, the more complicated the basis for the decision gets. For example, I've read that if the entire UK population changed one 100W light-bulb in their homes for a low energy bulb for a year, then the aggregate energy saving would equal 4.7 times the energy annually consumed in transporting food to the UK from Africa. It's a sufficiently unlikely figure that it might even have some basis in fact! But this entirely ignores the fact that energy-efficient light-bulbs actually need three times as much energy to manufacture than the other how do we factor that into the equation? The whole subject is a minefield, and I don't even pretend to have the answer to it. Frankly, it's as much as I can do to try and articulate the question intelligently!
What I know it isn't, though, is the process merely of self-righteously passing over the array of mangoes and Papaya in the Waitrose Fruit & Veg section, in favour of hothouse grapes and blueberries instead (probably before driving home afterwards in your gas-guzzling 4x4!).

And....why is it, by the way, that we hear so much about 'food miles', but nothing whatsoever about say, 'Prada Miles', or 'Playstation Miles', or 'Nike Miles'? Could it be something to do with the absence of interested groups (like the UK farming lobby, for instance) who are keen to make a lot of noise on the subject? Heaven forfend.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Salad of Garlic-sautéed Chicken Livers, with Baby Spinach and Lamb's Lettuce.

Moussaka; Borlotti in Cream.

Apple & Marzipan Tarts, with Crème Chantilly

Thursday 20 March 2008

Recipe: Egg-White & Almond Biscuits

Sunday Morning. The four-footeds had raced around in the park for twenty minutes or so, before heading home to doze in front of the fire. We had exactly half an hour to spare before heading out to the Royal Academy to see the Cranach Exhibition - so, time enough to make some almond biscuits to have with coffee before we left. Approximately three minutes to make the mixture, and a further two to pipe the biscuits onto a baking sheet; ten minutes later, and they're done!

Yet another way of ploughing into the Egg White Mountain, these biscuits are simple and delicious, and come across as surprisingly sophisticated for the amount of work involved. When first out of the oven, they are quite soft and could easily be moulded to use as the outer form for a charlotte; after a couple of hours, they become quite crisp - if there are any still left at that point, that is!

Oh, and the Cranach exhibition was stunningly good!

For about 24 biscuits.

Ingredients: 4 Egg Whites; 4 ox Ground Almonds; 2 oz Sugar + equivalent volume Splenda; 2 tablespoons Flour; half a teaspoon of Almond Essence.


1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees C.

2. Assemble all the ingredients. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold in all the other ingredients.

3. Pile the mixture into a piping bag, and pipe it onto a greased baking sheet, or a sheet lined with greaseproof paper or silpat. (I use a fluted piping nozzle, in order to produce a more 'finished' result).

4. Bake ten minutes in the pre-heated oven - don't leave them any longer than that, as they burn very easily.

Remove from the baking sheet and leave to cool on a rack. Ready to eat as soon as they've cooled down sufficiently, although they will also be fine after they've crisped up, several hours later. I'm told they keep reasonably well if stored in an airtight container - personally, I wouldn't know......

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Deconstructing Jamie.....

Jamie Oliver, that is.

A comment left on here the other day blithely opined that I probably regarded him as 'complete anathema'. I'm not sure why. I recall once having included in a blog-post a picture of him looking rather naff in a bath-tub full of pieces of part of a dismissive reference to the generally insidious influence that celebrity chefdom is having on aspiring young chefs in the UK....but, apart from that, I don't think he's particularly featured in anything I've ever written. So, I can only suppose the assumption that I'm anti-Jamie is based on an extrapolation from my overall positioning on food and cooks, and on those I think truly worthy of respect in the culinary firmament.

So, let's get something straight, from the outset: I do not regard Jamie Oliver as 'complete anathema'. Interestingly though - to me, at any rate - the suggestion that I might do so has got me thinking about exactly what I do think about him and about his fellow kitchen celebs. And why it is that I regard them all with the significant degree of, well, ambivalence which I certainly will admit to.

Ok. Jamie. The facts. Not knowing much about him, beyond the general fact of his existence centre-stage in the TV-Media-Publishing World of Food during the past decade, I looked him up on Wikipedia. And it's an impressive output: since being catapulted into the limelight, almost exactly ten years ago, he's managed seven TV series; ten books; a high-profile campaign in support of better school dinners; a rant against battery-farmed chickens; an extensive workload as the public face of Sainsbury's; launched a range of 'Jamie Oliver' saucepans (and possibly assorted other kitchen paraphernalia - don't know) ; set up work-opportunity restaurants to help underprivileged kids in London, Amsterdam, Newquay, Melbourne.... and somewhere else I forget. And in addition to all of that, he's managed to find time to get married and father a couple of children. The boy's time-management skills must be....what's the word....'pukka'?

Oh, and Wikipedia also listed in his CV the fact that after he'd left Catering College, he 'studied' in France, and was 'head pastry chef' at the Neal Street Restaurant, before spending three and half years in the kitchen of The River Café. And this is where the element of doubt begins to creep in. Not only does the mellifluous and flowing prose of the Wikipedia entry suggest that it was the work of Jamie's PR - and why not? - but the maths starts to give the game away. When you compare the various dates in the entry, and do some subtraction along the way, his time 'studying' in France and being 'head' pastry chef (for which, maybe, read 'the' pastry chef - Neal Street Restaurant isn't exactly Claridges) must all have been crammed into a little over a year of his short life. Reads well on the page, though - as long as you don't bother with the detail. But the fact remains that it's significantly a construct, for public consumption

And the same is surely the case for the ten years of his celeb-dom. All that impressive output is not credibly consistent with the labours of one person. What we're actually looking at is the output in reality of a slick Jamie-Oliver machine, which puts together TV programmes and books, and advertising campaigns.....which are then presented by the cheeky chappie himself. The 'Jamie's Italy ' phenomenon was a clear case in point - Jamie travelling the length of Italy (a country with which he had no particular previous association) in a battered little Fiat , on a slightly extended holiday, accompanied only by a camera crew, a production team, and a posse of researchers. I'm not knocking it - I'm just saying that it's an awful lot of magic lantern, that you can choose to believe if it suits you to.

The fact is that Jamie Oliver is extremely good at his job - which is that of a TV presenter and entertainer, and not that of a professional chef (or even a professional food writer). That's fine; the camera likes him - nothing wrong with that. To what extent he makes any contribution to the recipes I have no idea, but I suspect that an awful lot of them go straight from the research team to the editing process, without a lot of Oliver input along the way. Which doesn't make them a bad thing - in fact, I'm sure some of them are probably really quite good - but it does mean they have about as much personality associated with them as a set of Good Housekeeping Recipe Cards. Which of course is the whole reason for Jamie - to provide them with a personality, which otherwise they might lack.

And that, I suppose, is pretty much my take on Jamie and his ilk. They're very good at what they do, but it's all a bit of a pantomime - and frankly, I just don't find it very interesting.
In comparison with say Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, Marcella Hazan and Julia Child, Patience Grey and Alan Davidson, and, of course, Bruno Loubet. With these people, you feel their writing is the result of much thought and contemplation, rolling ideas around in their minds, comparing diverse experiences, considering options and combinations and techniques. Working from their recipes, you feel as though in some way you're touching, however lightly, the very rich tapestries that constitute their lives and knowledge and experience. The bit you read on the page is merely an echo of much, much more in the background, that is only ever hinted at.

All of which is very real........ and most of which is very definitely worthy of a lot of respect.

Tonight's Dinner:

Smoked Salmon tiède, with Creamed Onion & Basil.

Lamb Shanks, double-roast, in Red Wine; gratin of Turnip.

Lemon Tarts.

Monday 17 March 2008

Recipe: Pork Belly slow-roast with Garlic & Star Anise

Not the most fashionable cut of meat, I find Pork Belly absolutely delicious, as well as being pretty economical. This long and slow method of cooking reduces it to a consistency where you can practically eat it with a spoon.

This recipe was derived - distantly - from Heston Blumenthal's way of slow-cooking beef over a period of 24 hours or more. His version was the subject of some debate on the Today Programme, a year or so ago - and although I didn't consider for a second clogging up the stove with something for that length of time, the cooking method and the way he talked about the process gave pause for thought.....and this recipe was the end result. Not only is it splendid once it reaches the plate, but the smell which permeates the house as it cooks is pretty special, as well!

Necessity being the mother of invention, there's also a version of it which came about when, at the critical moment, the absence of both Vermouth and Star Anise were discovered, and so Port and Cardamom were used instead. A completely different - but equally delicious - dish emerged at the end of the process.

For Four.

Ingredients: 1 kg Pork Belly; 8 cloves Garlic; 6 heads of Star Anise; half a cup of Vermouth, or Dry White Wine; Oil; Salt & Pepper.


1. Remove the skin from the Pork Belly, and trim away from the meat any excess fat. Reserve the skin for making crackling later.

2. Take a pan which has a close fitting lid - I use a small sauté pan - and smear the bottom with a little Oil, just enough to prevent the meat from sticking as it cooks. Place the Pork Belly in the pan, along with the Garlic and the Star Anise. Add the Vermouth (or wine) and bring to a simmer on the stove.

3. Put the lid in place, and reduce the heat to a level where it simmers very very gently. In practice, I actually put the pan on top of a heat diffuser to reduce the heat to an appropriately low level. Keep it at a gentle simmer for about two hours, checking from time to time to see that the liquid hasn't all gone (If the liquid needs topping up along the way, do so either with more Vermouth or with water). Turn the meat two or three times in the course of cooking, to ensure that it cooks evenly.

5. At the end of the cooking process, move the pan off the heat, and allow the meat to cool down. Remove any liquid fat from the pan, season well with Salt & Pepper, and draw the rib bones out from the meat (they should pull out easily from the cooked meat). Discard the Star Anise.

6. Make the Crackling: Smear the Pork Skin with Oil, and sprinkle generously with Salt. Put it on a baking tray, in a 180 degree C oven for an hour (longer if necessary). Once ready, cut it up with scissors and keep warm until needed.

7. To serve, gently re-heat the Pork for twenty minutes or so, then slice thinly and accompany each portion with a couple of Garlic cloves and some crackling.