Thursday, March 31, 2005

ryanair and gastronomic value

we flew in from semana santa last night. as we checked in at the airport, the man at the ryanair desk informed us that we were 6kg over the checked-in baggage limit and would be subject to a fine. it is not unusual for us to carry a lot of baggage home, but it is unusual to be charged. appeals to logic (that we were in fact 14kg under the total baggage limit) and emotion (that i had hurt my back due to consuming too many tapas over the weekend and couldn't carry any hand-baggage) failed and ryanair became €42 richer as a result.

this is not going to be a disgruntled blog, but on looking at the contents of our bags i realised that we had imported enough for a small delicatessen. i thought it would be interesting to take the food contents of our baggage and compare their gastronomic worth to the value that ryanair ("the hidden cost airline" ... ok, i'm allowed one dig at them) puts on them ... €7 per kg.

spanish cheese: 1.5kg = €10.5

the price would seem about correct. within this assortment we have manchego (flor de ebuega) and membrillo (quince paste). this is perhaps the finest combination made with cheese in the history of man.

random sushi products: 0.3kg = €2.1

again, this would seem fine. we cooked sushi one night in guadix. we managed to burn the seaweed and i managed to burn my mouth when i thought that the wasabi was a guacamole dip. as someone who is spending half of the year in tokyo, this was pretty embarrassing. for anyone ever caught in a similar situation, mcgee recommends breathing out by the mouth (sparing the nasal passage) and in through the nose (avoiding drawing irritants into the lungs).

gin: 1.2kg = €8.4

this was a present from my father-in-law so i don't know the real price. the history of gin goes a long way back in menorca. the website is worth it alone for the interesting us of english that they adopted seem to have.

paracetamol and back pain gel: 0.1kg = €0.7

and a snap at that. you may not feel that this is food related, but in the wrong hands it may be required.

spanish tortilla turner etc: 0.7kg = €4.9

pretty much on the nose. the ancho chiles are from cool chile co in london, they are excellent in a chicken recipe that i'll blog in the future. they expired last october. to be honest, i'm not sure what the other bag is for, something to do with wheat. they will expire in august 2005 so we better eat them fast.

aceitunas (olives): 2.1kg = €14.7

expensive, but it is true that these are some of the best olives that you can get. i hated olives before i had real spanish olives in las alpujarras (hanging village in the sierra nevada). now i am a completely dedicated fan of stuffed manzanilla. i need a little more work on black olives; they will be a subject of a blog in the future.

assorted food products from el salvador: 1.1kg = €7.7

in terms of value, it seems that europe has put a high premium on what would otherwise be quality imports from latin america (hmm). there is a good explanation of horchata at we also have packed coffee fro el salvador and tamarind concentrate.

food related books: 1.8kg = €12.6

you can never put a price on knowledge, but this seems fine. we have packed the man who ate everything, casino royale, gazpachos, sopas y ajos blancos, nueva-clasica cocnia andalusi and la historia y cocina siglos xiii-xv. you may wonder why i include an ian fleming book. well, for a special agent, james bond seemed to really enjoy his food. he never seemed to be restricted by a kg limit, "the trouble is," he explained to vesper, "not how to get enough caviar, but how to get enough toast with it".

48 aluminium muffin tins: 0.1kg = €0.7

and a steal at that. these retail at €8.88 excluding tax.

all in all, 8.9 kg and a cost of €62.3; but not bad for the products. mr. o'leary (ceo of ryanair), if you ever have time off extending the reach of the ryanair network and manage to come across this blog you can send mails to me at the usual address ...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

just popped out for semana santa - back next week

"welcome onboard the 5 O´CLOCK stansted express from liverpool station ...", they may as well have added; "we know that you are beyond redemption from your hangover so we will continue speaking in a high volume about seemingly irrelevant things".

i realised that the likelihood of us reaching the airport was in doubt when blanca started muttering in spanish in the cab ... there is something of a serial killer about her when it comes to travelling. luckily for me, she had been able to get out of bed at 3am in order to pack. for someone who normally struggles with a daily 6.30am waking, she had some supernatural fortitude this morning; perhaps it was the call of her homeland.

i think back to happier times, yesterday, sitting in london, sun shining, writing my little blurb about our iminent holidays ...

we're off to spain for easter tomorrow. we have a ryanair plane jetting us off at 7am tomorrow morning from stansted (for anyone unfamiliar with ryanair or stansted, this is about as appealing as the need to get out of bed at 3am) ... the good news is that by noon we'll be sitting in san jose (almeria; south east of spain) eating prawns by the sea ...

there appears to be some confusion in spain as they have named easter after father christmas; 'semana santa' ... i have been there before for easter, but i'm going to pay particular attention this time to the food. from what i can remember of the last time, we went for japanese, but i'm guessing that this may not be all that traditional. having just checked out the spanish tourist site (
) i can now confirm that apparently torrijas (bread in milk), flores de semana santa (pastry), leche frita (fried milk), bunelos (fried pastries) are all typical delicacies ... hmm, there seems to be a trend going on here.

blogs will recommence next thursday with a special on mariscos. feliz semana santa!

i am called back to the grey reality of this morning. " ... the ticket inspector will soon be around to check your tickets. you may upgrade to first class for 7 pounds" ... i believe that in 1st class they have the pa system turned down so that it won`t burst your eardrums before you reach the airport ...

Thursday, March 24, 2005

tonkatsu - why do pork and cabbage date?


i'm getting one of the 'monkeys off my back' and eventually getting to blog about tonkatsu. interestingly, according to the dictionary of american slang, 'monkey off my back' relates to an addiction; physical or mental ~ i believe i may qualify for both ... the dependency on the food and the philosophical question that has intrigued me for the past number of weeks (more of which below) ...

the name tonkatsu is formed of 'ton' meaning pig/pork and 'katsu' meaning cutlet. the meal is young in relation to other japanese food, it dates to the 1930's. it is typical 'modern' japanese cuisine. some feel that its history goes to the european 'schitzel'; the difference being that it is deep fried rather than shallow fried.

when we first started working in tokyo in october last year, greg and myself instantly fell in love with it. after a couple of weeks we were up to about 3 servings a week until we decided we should slow down for health reasons. in honour of the michael jackson trial this week, we went to our favourite tonkatsu restaurant chain; tonkatsu wako (photo above). with 236 outlets nationwide, the 47 year old chain produces, in our opinion, the most consistently tasty tonkatsu meal in japan.

ingredients: 4 slices of pork loin or fillet, 1 beaten egg, 1 cup bread crumbs (panko), 1/4 cup flour, oil, salt and pepper

season the pork and coat it in flour. dip the meat in egg and cover in breadcrumbs. refrigerate for 30 minutes. fry until golden brown. there are two regular variations of the traditional tonkatsu: katsudon is tonkatsu served on a bed of rice, katsu-curry is served with rice and curry sauce.

the garnishing and pairings for the main dish are the most important part of the menu:

- tonkatsu sauce is a variation on brown sauce. it can be faked by mixing worchester sauce with some ketchup.
- grated cabbage. cabbage is nearly always served with tonkatsu. it is usually soaked in water for half an hour in order to preserve its flavour and crisp it. large faced graters are used to grate across the heart of the cabbage. an interesting marketing ploy in japan offers 'bottomless' cabbage in tonkatsu restaurants. i can't be certain, but i don't think it would be as popular in the west as coke, albeit more healthy.
- karashi (japanese mustard). very similar to english mustard.
- miso soup. as with many lunch menus, miso soup is generally served. wako does a great line on miso soup with clams.
- rice. as with everything in japan, there is logic and a good deal of thought that has gone into apparently simple or random occurrences ... generally, the tonkatsu is presented to the diner on a tray complete with main meal, rice and miso. the two smaller bowls (rice and miso) are generally in the left and right corners nearest to the diner. when i would receive the tray i would always rotate the tray in 180degrees in order to put the bowls on the opposite side and help accessibility to the main meal. this is a mistake. taro pointed out that the rice is served on the left side of the customer in order to allow them eat the main meal (chopsticks generally in right hand) and hold the rice bowl in left hand ~ more ergonomic, faster and aids the mixing of flavours; rice and tonkatsu.

rice on the left ... soup on the right ... steve is allowed stay in the restaurant

good blog about tonkatsu:

one thing i've wondered is why do these pairings fit together so well? if i hadn't asked myself this question, i would have perhaps been able to make this post weeks earlier ...

- the combination of cabbage and pork is one that is also made in the west where red cabbage is often used. i have searched books and internet like a man possessed, but there is very little concrete explanation as to why this connection is made other than it adds an interesting flavour dimension to the pork. my feeling is that the cabbage freshens the palate after a mouthfull of deep fry; it is a contrast in terms of texture and temperature to the warm and tender pork.
- brown sauce is typically served with meats, it is popular in japan and can be found in many restaurants. the sweet and strong flavour is considered to go well with any fried foods.
- mustard is a member of the cabbage family and has the same relationship with pork as cabbage itself. it balances the richness of the pork.
- the rice serves to form a base to mix the pork and sauce in the mouth ... the cabbage serves to cut through the starch of the rice and cleanse the palate?

one interesting idea that i stumbled across could be that the various ingredients aim to drive a neutral ph level in the meal... cabbage is moderately alkaline forming (ph 7.5), miso and mustard are slightly acid to neutral (ph 7.0) whereas rice and pork are extremely acid forming (ph 5.5). ph levels taken from

if anyone has any ideas why the above combinations are made please post them as comments or mail them to me ... it would help me sleep better over the next few weeks ...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

samosas in the workplace

'rope' folding samosas

now that i'm learning how to cook i am aware that lessons will come from not just the kitchen, but also outside. i didn't expect where i would learn about folding samosas today...

a friend, harj, just saw my photo of the lamb phyllo from yesterday. he was convinced that it was a samosa until i showed him the recipe. he went on to recount his childhood folding upto 350 samosas at a time with his brothers at their kitchen table. it was such a piece of cultural insight that i had to write it up quickly ...

he demonstrated the fold (it's not that harj isn't culinarily inclined, it's just that the office limited materials with which to make samosas taste good) ...

1. samosa dough is cut into semi-circles, butter brushed along the outsides (we have no butter)

2. it is folded into a conical shape

3. mixture is placed inside the cone and rope folded (overlapping turns) across the top

harj and his brothers have a party trick by which they save all bird's eye chilli (with seeds) and put them in a single samosa. once an unfortunate nephew was forced to eat the whole parcel so as not to offend the family. if anyone is at an indian family meal and they notice a single samosa with an 'X' in it ... don't eat it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

minced lamb parcels with pinenuts

minced lamb parcels with pinenuts

i don't know how the other bloggers do it. between looking after the kids, the local scout troop, delivering meals on wheels and my 3 golden retrievers, i sometimes find it difficult to get time to write up my blogs. ok, i don't have the kids, scouts, wheels or even the dogs, but i am finding myself being weighed down by a few blogs that are queuing up to be written and posted. as a result, this is gonna be a little brief and to the point ...

cooking from the raunchily named "tarts with tops on" (originally from claudia roden's "the book of jewish cooking"), today we prepared some lamb phyllo pastries.

ingredients: minced lamb for 2, tomato, courgette, onion 1/2, pinenuts, all spice, cinnamon, phyllo pastry, butter, salt, pepper

brown the lamb whilst cutting the vegetables finely (dice). note: today i learnt the difference, much to my chagrin, between slicing and dicing ... dicing is cutting small and slicing is in cutting circles (more or less). when browned, remove the lamb into a bowl. add the tomato, courgette and onion to make a sufrito. add spice, cinnamon, salt and pepper to flavour. there was a minor breakthrough today in that i did know that the sufrito was under flavoured ... i'm learning. put the mince back in and mix / flavour. leave the mixture to cool. it is incredible, but this smell triggered a complete food memory for me ~ shwarma. the pastry has strong greek and middle eastern tradition so there could be something in that ...

sufrito ... with spoon and minced lamb

today was the first time for me to use phyllo pastry as part of the course. we cheated and used premade, but i promise to add to my shortcrust science lesson and make some phyllo very soon. what i do know about it; it is the greek for leaf and can be spelt as phyllo (basically any cookbook ensuring that you can't find it) or filo (any premade pastry ensuring that you can't find them). a trick that blanca taught me; wrap the filo in a towel while you are not using it in order to ensure that it does not dry out.

preheat the oven to 170c. when you're ready to eat, cut a square (note, this is an unorthodox technique ~ you may be better following below) of the phyllo. brush melted butter to the edges of the pastry. place the mixture and fold around. at this point it is best not to have a specific shape in mind ... start folding, then become painfully aware that you are holding the equivalent of pastry gold in your hands that can rip and dry out literally any second. start to panic and just wrap the pastry in whatever shape that it will go into that will not send diners running for miles ...

cook for approx 8 minutes until golden brown and serve to horrified guests.

on take 2 we consulted the web:
. thank you dilip - your masterful photos and drawings saved my dinner and probably mean that i will persevere into writing a blog another day ... follow the ribbon, fold technique to produce good looking triangle shaped pastries.

ribbon of pastry with lamb ready for rolling ...

as it happens, not only did i buy premade pastry, but i also bought pastry that has pictures on the back of the carton of how to fold the triangles ... you can bring a cook to water, but you can't make him fold proper triangles ...

Monday, March 21, 2005

the caulifather

roasted cauliflower with caper crumbs salad

it started simply enough - a casual dinner with some friends. nothing fancy, it was a sunday evening so we'd do a couple of salads, roast chicken and dessert. i'm still too much of a novice to choose the menu so blancs suggested two salads from julie le clerc's excellent "more simple cafe food". i was on roasted cauliflower with caper crumbs duty ...

ingredients: 1 cauliflower, 1/2 cup roughly crumbled stale bread, 1/4 cup capers, 4 cloves garlic, crushed, 1/4 cup olive oil, 4tbsp chopped fresh parsley, 1/4 cup pinenuts, toasted, 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, sea salt and ground pepper

the instructions are very simple - roast the cauliflower, bread, capers, garlic and oil in a 170c oven for about 30 mins. heating has different effects on the flavour of cauliflower - flash boiling will maintain the flavours, but longer cooking will produce milder flavour or lingering smell of cabbage if prolonged. stir occasionally to ensure even cooking. remove to cool. mix in rest of ingredients and season to serve.

before i started into the research for this blog, i thought that this would be a fairly simple recipe with little info about the ingredients. they're all vegetables, not like the complex meat and fish that i would go on to write about. the further i dug into researching this the more i seem to uncover something strange afoot in the vegetable world. a cover-up that potentially goes to the heads of the great families of the vegetable kingdom...

similar to broccoli, cauliflower is part of the cabbage family. it was discovered in europe around the 16th century. arrested development of their flowers means that their flower tissues proliferate and accumulate into large masses. due to the immature nature of the flower, it is relatively unfibrous and can be pureed to a very creamy consistency. as with the onion family, you notice the strong flavour of the cabbage family when you chop it (mixing flavour and enzyme precursors together). when compared with other members of the family (e.g. brussels sprouts, white cabbage), cauliflower is one of the lowest in terms of relative amounts of sulfur pungency (flavour). interestingly, capers are in fact a distant relative of the cauliflower.

garlic, as part of the onion family and like cabbage, has a strong sulfury flavour. like the rest of onion family, it accumulates energy not in starch, but in fructose (long slow cooking produces sweetness. garlic has far more fructose than onions; this is illustrated in the stickiness when crushed and in how it dries out and browns during roasting or frying. baking and drying garlic has a similar effect to the cauliflower; the generation of trisulfides means that it tends towards the smell of overcooked cabbage. it also contributes sweetness (caramel) towards the overall dish. the best way to peel the garlic is to mash it with the broad side of a large nice in order to loosen the skin.

parsley is a member of the carrot family. it is best maintained in a towel in the fridge. elizabeth david says that parsley is the perfect foil for garlic.

most of the above was revealed by mcgee. it seemed unusual and stirred my intrigue. i thought about the facts for a moment ... we had a connection made between the cabbage and onion families; cauliflower and garlic would smell of cabbage if overcooked. furthermore, the seemingly benign comment that capers and cauliflower were in fact distant relations. david's comment about the parsley foil for garlic furthered my questions. could it be that there was more to this simple recipe than just taste and coincidence? a malicious collusion that went on between the big families of the vegetable world? if so, how long has this been going on? what other "simple" recipes are actually further signs of this conspiracy?

the further i read, the more the night seemed to close around me. usually innocent noises in the house seemed to take on a darker tone. i shook my head, went to get some air for a while and convinced myself that i must be imagining things. in order to discredit my fears i consulted some new research material; dornenburg and page's "culinary artistry". it was at that moment that my worst fears were confirmed. there, in black and white, on page 103; bread crumbs, garlic and parsley all feature as leading companions for cauliflower.

i'm going to submit this blog now before something happens to me. i have to get the truth out there. i'm afraid to go into the kitchen, those little cauliflowers seem to look at me with threatening eyes. i'm afraid of being followed ... i went to the gym and thought that i saw some parsley on the street behind me, i turned to see nothing ...

Friday, March 18, 2005

shf - red plum caramel cake

red plum caramel cake

note: yes, this is an upside down cake and, yes, this is the downside ... believe me, on the first attempt it was better looking than the upside

a runaway karaoke session last night meant that i nearly didn't get to make this blog. luckily, knowing that i would be in tokyo this week, i wrote most of this last week when i cooked. let your mind go back a week and read on ...

... i've been working from home today; i don't think that i could ever be a writer, apart from the apparent lack of style, i think that i would go mad being in the house all day. in an effort to see some people i went to the starbucks down the road (it's healthier than going for a pint and i've discovered that it is recommended by fairtrade so can't be all bad). the fact that i could barely mumble my order and that i found myself slinking off to the corner with pete mccarthy's "mccarthy's bar" to hide from any other customers perhaps means that i really do need to interact more when i work from home - maybe i should start shouting over the fence at my neighbours?

in an effort to avoid seeing no-one on my blog as well as in my house, last week i contacted a few people running food blogs ... debbie from (that makes us related somehow?) recommended that i stop hassling her and instead cook something for her sugar high friday blogoff (i may have imposed that term on you debbie - sorry).

so i thought - what to cook?

first i considered toffee - the last time i made this was over an outdoor fire in a trangia pan. it didn't turn out all that good as all the toffee burnt to the bottom of the pan and we bent the thing trying to get it out. we did get it out in the end, but the trangia remained scarred and unusable from the experience. considering i'm still new to the learning to cook gig i thought best of breaking the pans ... at least for the moment.

next caramelised onions came to mind - but decided they didn't qualify as the lack of sugar and caramel probably made them a little too abstract for a friday ... (i'm trying to be professional here).

finally, with a little bit of prompting from the chef and a look at the "Books for Cooks 5" i decided on red plum caramel cake. i have it on good authority that this is a big time favourite at books for cooks (; why should i not take this opportunity to prove to the world that recipes are not a license to produce quality cakes, but that in the hands of truly inexperienced cooks, the entire thing can come out tasting like ... well, caramelised onions?? in conjunction with their recipe, i am also using a recent bfc purchase; mcgee on food & cooking for the science behind the food as i go along ...

the ingredients: [for the caramel] 175g caster sugar, 6 tbsp water, 4 large red plums [for the cake] 180g plain flour, 1tbsp baking powder, 160g butter, softened, 160g caster sugar (this is sugar high friday!), 4tpsp ground almonds, 3 organic eggs (med), 1 tsp natural vanilla (note: this is adjusted from the book recipe ~ other option is to use the book recipe, but increase the oven heat)

the caramel is obviously what we're all here for - this was the first time that i've ever made caramel and i have escaped without burns and the kitchen still in one piece. a secret that blanca taught me during the cooking: clean the pan with vinegar in order to ensure that there are no impurities that would destroy the caramel. place the sugar and water over the heat and stir until dissolved. increase the heat to boil, reduce and heat until dark brown begins to form at the edges. another good tip is to brush the sides of the pan while cooking in order to prevent the caramel from crystallising.

caramelisation is taking place; the process of heating the molecules to the point at which the begin to break apart. during this reaction, they change from a single, odourless, sweet molecule into literally hundreds of molecules that generate flavours (alcohol, butter, fruit, nuts etc.) and a rich brown colour. the longer you leave the caramel on the heat, the more the original sweet is broken down and the more bitter the end product will be. at this point of cooking, i involuntarily decided to part from the recipe; my caramel started bubbling as if i had cleaned it with fairy liquid instead of vinegar and hadn't washed out. i battled through to produce relatively good caramel (albeit with bubbles) at the other end. when cooked, pour the caramel into a cake tin (spring) and place the plum halves face down on top.

for the cake, cream the butter and sugar in a mixer. add the wet (eggs and vanilla) slowly allowing them to mix in with each addition. add the dry (flour, baking powder, almonds) and mix. pour the cake mixture onto the caramel base. cook in an oven at 150c for approximately 100 minutes+ (see note above and comment below about the heat) ...

it is good for the soul to write about culinary disasters and, no doubt, there are many in my future giving me tonnes of inspiration and soul. i managed to undercook the cake. when i released the spring the top of it was pretty liquidy. i tried to reseal the spring and put back in the oven, but the cake was never really the same again. it did taste good, but wasn't exactly attractive. the second attempt was a raging success ... but i'm happy to dwell on the failures for a while ...

p.s. i'm back to london tomorrow so blogging will resume to usual low standard, but regular timing ... until then ... have a happy sugar high friday!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

of shortcrust science, history and culture (actually, just science)

shortcrust pastry

i'm in tokyo this week, i didn't want to miss out writing something so i outsourced this weekend's cooking to friends; claire and simon. cooking from the avoca cookbook (avoca handweavers in ireland), they were making the raspberry chocolate tart. claire's question (to which i naturally didn't know the answer) was why do we put shortcrust pastry into the fridge after mixing it?

well, given that i'm traveling, i haven't been able to take my weighty mcgee bible with me ...

a photo of me & mcgee; happy days on our dining room floor

the size of the book would have left me with perhaps room for a pair of shoes in my luggage, so i opted for the far more reasonable mcgee on cooking 1st volume (this is only 684 pages). the decision was arrived at after an indepth analysis of the various differences between the two editions; in summary, (a) the former is not a hardback (it's a dogeared softback) and (b) the former is grey (it seems that mcgee has compensated for this fairly drab approach to colouring by opting for the clever rainbow effect of the second edition ~ i'm sure market researchers were involved somewhere along the line). other than that, i'm not certain of the difference ...

mcgee dressed casually for a night on the town in tokyo

now, for the pastry - shortcrust pastry (also called pate sucre, pate brisee) is one of 6 types of pastry (more in the future). the main reaction occurring during the making of pastry is that of protein molecules within the flour developing into gluten (a mass of molecules). too much gluten will make the pastry tough, too little will make it crumble excessively. as a disclaimer, i must quote mcgee here "our understanding of gluten is, to put it mildly, imperfect; the subject is very complicated". yes, a master of understatement, i am ever so grateful i lugged him all the way here. however, i will persevere. short pastry gets its name from the fact that we are shortening the development space & time and hence the length of the gluten chains while at the same time keeping the pastry as tender as possible ...

in researching this topic it is curious that many chefs / authors take an pro or anti-gluten view on the process. delia sits in the pro-gluten camp;
whereas the open university (oh yes, none other than) takes a anti-gluten view the reality is, as with most things, somewhere in the middle ...

shortcrust is principally made of flour, water and butter. there are 3 key elements to making the pastry; kneading, resting and cold. and the three key ingredients play a delicate role as the story unfolds (excuse the pun) ...

1. kneading the ingredients: butter is cut into the flour, it is acting to artificially shorten the length of the gluten chains by physically putting itself in the way. it is cut into the mixture in order to ensure that the maximum amount of surface is exposed to the flour. you don't overknead as you want air to be incorporated amongst the fat and the flour. water is used to fill the gaps between the flour and the butter and ensure that it binds together. therefore: pure fats are best at shortening the gluten due to the lower amount of water present (water needs to be balanced between too little (overly crumbly) and too much (gluten rich, tough pastry)).

2. resting & gluten: delia states that resting is required in order to let the gluten react with the water to develop the pastry elasticity. all pastry should be rested before rolling out. if the resting period (approx. 30mins) is not given, the pastry won't have enough stretch and will keep breaking as it is rolled. she recommends placing it in a polythene bag and into the fridge. resting time also helps to ensure that the pastry is well blended and as a result fights against shrinkage in the baked crust.

3. cold & gluten: refrigerating is required in order to ensure the butter does not get too warm while resting. if it gets too warm, it will soak into the pastry and loose its effectiveness at keeping the gluten chains apart. additionally, at higher temperatures gluten absorbs more water and develops more readily.

3.5 cold & handling: butter binds the pastry together, as it warms it will be less effective at holding the pastry in one piece. a cold pastry is far easier to handle than warm. it tends to hold its shape better and as a result can be molded into tart dishes for quiche and tarts.

from all of the above come some of the useful tips that we have today - use cold water, use metal mixing bowls, use marble boards etc.

an interesting and good rule of thumb analysis also exists:
toughener (structural enhancer): flour, egg, egg white, water & milk
tenderiser: fat, sugar, egg yolk & acid (lemon)

during the cooking blancs was on hand to point out the things that we had done wrong. it turns out that it's not generally a good idea to believe or follow pictures in cook books - if you ever see a picture of a cooked pastry tray with dough generously spilling over the edges - don't do it! best chances at producing good pastry is to mold it into the tray, roll a pin over the top to cut the edges and hold back some raw dough in order to fill in any gaps that can occur during cooking.

i've just realised that i've traveled half way around the world, brought mcgee and steingarten and stayed up in order to write this blog; this may be a phase, but i definitely am getting into food!

Friday, March 11, 2005

the great soup debate

simple vegetable soup - butternut squash, cauliflower and blue cheese

we recently went to sheepdrove organic farm in berkshire it is a really incredible place. we were late in getting there and missed a rather comical tour of the farm in which the happy, content animals were able to catch a glimpse of londoners out of their natural habitat; without latte in hand and getting mud on their 4x4 cars. we did manage to catch a presentation about the farm by peter kindersley. it was an extremely thought provoking discussion on the history of the farm and their farming techniques. the farm is 2000 acres (big) and is family run, the objective is to ensure animal welfare and natural expression (i guess this means there are gay bulls) whilst at the same time being profitable.

their website is packed with information and i recommend you to look through it. it is worth it for the animated cursor sheepherding farmer alone ...

without a doubt what the kindersleys are doing is excellent and should be contacted by anyone in the BUSINESS (yeah - block capitals for big business) of producing food for sale. at the same time, it left me with a debate in my mind ...

there is a massive push on organic produce in the UK and many other countries in the world, the reasons for this are generally fourfold; health (avoidance of bse, e-coli, foot and mouth and the concern over gm crops), environment (increased biodiversity, decreased pesticides and chemical fertilizers), taste and animal welfare. but are we not missing the point? if i look at my friends, it is amazing the amount that don't cook or feel they don't have the time to cook. it seems as though in our drive towards an organic society we are treating the symptom and not the cause. is the cause not as simple as lack of education of the basic cooking techniques? could it not be that our generation no longer know how to cook with basic ingredients and are therefore being forced into processed ready meals? it seems that as the quality of ingredients has improved over the last few years, on a similar and opposite scale the ability to cook has decreased ...

ingredients: butternut squash, blue cheese, onion, water, vegetable stock, salt

take a simple soup as an example - one of the simplest meals that you can make at home. what does it take? heat a pan with oil, chop the onions roughly and cook over a low heat until soft but not coloured. add butternut squash, cauliflower and a little water and leave to steam with the lid on. add more water and some vegetable stock, blue cheese and boil. when the vegetables are sufficiently soft remove from the heat and put through a blender to serve.

there is an incredible amount of cookery classes called "quick cooking", "cooking in no time" or something similar, but they sometimes miss the point. we should be explaining the basic rules of cookery - the central tenets that, if followed, can be used to produce any dish under to sun. this is closer to the science of cooking and probably close to what i strive for in my little investigations ... for example - what is the process that occurs when you make soup? what are the basic rules for making a soup and how can these be applied to other vegetable soups?

well, the above is an example of pureed soup, it is, as mcgee says, "the simplest deconstructed version of fruits and vegetables". the application of force mixes the cell innards with the cell walls. the velvety nature of purees is produced by the fact that the cell walls are predominantly carbohydrate and hence thicken the high water content of the cells.

there are some rules that leiths asks us to observe (but these can be ignored in many cases); avoid passing acidic ingredients through a metal sieve as it can attach a metallic flavour, puree the vegetables apart from the liquid in order to ensure that the soup is not too thin and don't overwork the vegetables as they can become gluey. i would add in addition, that as long as you start with onions and add some good vegetables, you can't go wrong

perhaps equipped with these basic methods and techniques, we would be better prepared to make use of the organic produce that we are now being offered. we would at least have a chance to ensure that our ability to cook was able to match the improved quality of food that we are being offered and no doubt buying ...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

cod en papillote

cod en papillote

thanks to ana in ottawa for your recommendations on my little blog - as you can see, i've got the 'read more...' working and hopefully will be adding photos soon - i'm trying to balance the geek inside me with the cook outside of me ...

in the meantime, blancs keeps recommending me to go to a 'proper' cooking school, i'm not sure whether it's because she doesn't want to be responsible for me or whether she would prefer if i stop harassing her with questions. either way, i'm going to stand firm on my artistic credentials and not go to any cookery school ~ i have relented to her in one aspect; i am willing to cook food that she has learnt in cookery classes ... how magnanimous of me.

with that in mind, today we embarked on cooking cod en papillote (her first dish from the excellent telva cookery course in madrid, spain). my first mission was to find out what the hell papillote is
; first attempt revealed "a frilled paper cover used to decorate the bone end of a cooked chop or cutlet" ... hmm, interesting, but didn't seem to make all that much sense. my second attempt revealed an altogether more sensible definition "an oiled paper or foil wrapper in which certain foods are baked". papillote apparently gets its name from papillon (butterfly) due to the fact that the traditional cut of the parchment is in a heartshape. in my travels, i found an excellent description at ~ now this website calls itself the "voice of women", but i won't let that dampen my enthusiasm ... it is now the voice of steve aswell ...

cooking in envelope is an ancient way of preparing fish, layers of other materials would be used in the past, such as clay, salt (pescado a la sal) and leaves. the benefit is that the fish is protected from the direct heat and is thus more gently and evenly cooked. it is a combination of baking (the initial direct heat) and steaming (from the heated juices of fish and vegetables). contemporary techniques are most often with parchment, foil or lettuce. it is normal for the dish to be left intact and actually opened by the diner. as a technique it works best with shrimp and white meat or flaky / tender textured fish such as cod, snapper, whiting and salmon.

ingredients: cod, courgette, carrots, potatoes, oil, salt and pepper

the technique is amazingly simple; slice the potatotes finely and fry in oil until nearly browned. julienne the courgette and carrot (fine: 1.5cm 1.5cm x 1.5cm). whilst i had heard the term before, this was the first time that i got to julienne the old fashioned way (with a knife) ~ best style seems to be to block off the vegetable, cut to roughly four fingertips in length, slice and stack the slices together in order to dice (thanks to leiths techniques bible). saute the vegetables for a couple of minutes. oil the foil. place the potatoes in rows on the foil and put the fish on top. season as required. put the vegetables on top and seal. we used a very basic seal, simply rolling up all the edges. place in a pre-heated oven (170c) until it's cooked (approximately 15 minutes). ~ seems to be the home of professional parchment paper; i surely couldn't have missed a reference to this!

this is a very robust cooking technique; it is possible to cook many dishes including chicken and potatoes ..


creamy scrambled eggs

i seem to remember a time, in the distant past, that i would go into a kitchen and actually consider myself able to put a meal together. since embarking on my homeschooling and given my recent adventure on sugar high friday, i am losing confidence. as with all courageous adventurers, my confidence shattered, i quickly turn tail and go to prepare something that surely can't fail ... perhaps nothing quicker, tastier and more nutritious than scrambled eggs.

some basic rules to apply in making scrambled eggs:

- use about 2 eggs per person. harold mcgee notes that as they are made from yolks and white, lower quality eggs can be sufficient for still producing excellent scramble.
- stir the mixture, but try not to incorporate too much air.
- heat a heavy-based pan to medium heat melting a good knob of butter until it bubbles.
- lower the heat and add the mixture, i prefer to let curdles form before stirring ~ this produces slightly thicker eggs.
- the secret of good scrambled eggs is not to rush the process, but revel in the slow cooking and allow a few minutes for them to be ready. overcooking (or rapid heating) at this point results in the protein packing further together until water is squeezed out and the eggs are rubbery dry.
- remove from heat just prior to completing cooking (they will cook themselves for a while).
- add 2 tbsp cream per egg and another knob of butter. the addition at this point in the cooking effectively dilutes the egg and they will thicken at a higher temperature and produce a tenderer egg. be careful not to heat (or overheat) at this point as it could result in the cream separating and producing watery eggs.
- add smoked salmon / chives if required and serve.

as it is simple dish, it is worth making a nice presentation around it ~ use pepper and salt as appropriate and serve with a tall pile of salad and toast.

sometimes great food can really be as simple as that!

Monday, March 07, 2005

una racion de croquetas

the second time that i went to spain was in the summer of 1999, i went to visit blanca in her beloved guadix (andalucia). this is without a doubt one of the most special places in the world - yes, it is barren, hot and dry, but during the winter and the night time it is a vision - snowy peaks, rivers, cool evenings with the voices of the local villages wafting over in the night air to you ...

i arrived into granada airport via connection from madrid. it was an uneventful flight, particularly for my bag as it didn't seem to make the flight ... after the usual bustle of activity and confusion that i believe greets every flight in spain, i made it through the doors to see blanca. we kissed and she whispered that her parents had come to collect me. she also mentioned something that hadn't been all that important previously; they didn't actually speak english. we walked through the arrivals to meet her parents - we all kissed and after an awkward moment blancs's mum suggested we go to the airport cafe.

now, i'm no big fan of airport food at the best of times but, whether it is on account of the food in spain or the service, i do enjoy airport cafes in spain. i think this is because the food in andalucia seems almost singularly suited to airports; the concept of tapas is often served as a bite to eat just prior to running and eventually missing your flight on account of the extra meat and flour that you have digested. we went to the cafe and it was proposed that i should have a croqueta. upon being asked whether i had ever had one i replied no, assuming that this was the safest answer - if it was the country's delicacy i would have passed the first test with flying colours by not turning it down and if it was too dangerous for uninitiated irish stomachs i was sure i wouldn't be forced to eat the ungodly thing.

the croqueta arrived;
well in fact it arrived with its whole family on a saucer. fairly unmemorable things, they looked like deep fried fish fingers without the edge. i tasted the first one; prepared for the worst. it was then that it hit me - the sweetest tasting, most incredible piece of deep fried flour that i'd ever had in my life. from that point i was hooked on spanish life. that chicken and ham joy came to symbolise the south of spain to me - not always something pretty, but something that you need to taste to really understand.

the most typical croquettes are chicken and ham ...
ingredients: 3 tbs butter, 5 tbs olive oil, 3/4 cup flour, 1 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup chicken broth, salt, ground pepper, nutmeg, 1 cup finely chopped boiled chicken breast, 1/2 cup finely minced cured ham, flour for dusting, 2 eggs (lightly beaten), bread crumbs and oil for frying.

i still can't make good croquetas, i think that it is my fear of the ingredients and my frugal use of olive oil (not as cheap as spain). you basically make a bechemel sauce; heat the butter and olive oil until the butter melts. add the flour and cook 3 minutes, constantly stirring. gradually add the milk and the broth, salt (balance this with the ham), pepper and nutmeg and cook over a medium flame until the sauce is thickened ~ it is the process of heating that binds the ingredients. add the chicken and ham and cook a further 10 minutes until boiling. cool and refrigerate until cold. to make, flour the worksurface and dip a tablespoon sized amount in egg prior to breading. fry in about 1" of oil (if you dare). turn until golden. thanks to penelope casas for this great description of the recipe ~ the foods & wines of spain.

for those of you liguistically inclined, a recipe in spanish and a delightful picture of spain's olympic synchronised swimming croqueta team:

in the intervening years, i have traveled a good bit of the south and central spain in search of the perfect croqueta. i think that i found it last summer in bar espana (c/san fernando) in sevilla. don't take the fact that the best croquetas come from sevilla as an indication of the rest of the place; the blasted tapas seem to be the best thing about the city. here are the characteristics of the croqueta that i've fallen for:

- golden brown; if it is a call between burnt brown or pale yellow, i'll take the burnt anytime
- crispy; the outside should be a shell, like the outside of an egg
- liquidy and hot inside; the innards should ooze out once the shell is cracked ensuring that you eat it fast

if you're ever passing through an airport in spain, look out for me, i'll be around the croqueta bar ...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

classic cottage pie

classic cottage pie

now that i'm officially trying to learn how to cook, it seems that formerly simple dishes have taken on cosmic complexities that i had not anticipated. today we made a classic cottage pie. i call this classic in an effort to emphasis to you that there was nothing special about this - it was supposed to be very simple ... i suppose it's my fault for not calling it simple cottage pie ...

ingredients: carrots, celery, onion, oil, salt, pepper, water, oregano, parsley, minced beef steak, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoe puree, worcester sauce and parmesan.

the cooking was really characterised by a number of mistakes and faux pas ... in order to save you the embarrassment of an anecdote, i will simply state the 5 core rules of classic cottage pie (ccp) ...

ccp rule 1: in order to sweat the (XXX) you must cut all in similar sizes to ensure that they cook at the same speed and evenly. i am now beginning to use the half onion cut / fingers and chop as i'm going to patent it ... although, i'm not sure i like the sound of fingers and chop in the same name. delia has described this technique far better than i could, albeit without the intimidating name:

ccp rule 1.1: cooking is all about the flavour of your sweating. ok, this is a little crude, but the theory as it is explained to me goes that the most important ingredient is a simple sweating of onions, carrots and celery (a combination that is often called mirepoix from the c18 chef of the duc de levis-mirepoix in france). it can be used to flavour soups, stews, stocks, risottos and the odd devious pie etc. the process gets its name from the fact that the vegetables "give off" their water, it is designed to cook and concentrate the juices of vegetables. the sweating can be accelerated at the beginning with the addition of water (this will produce a purer taste than oil) and the lid placed on the pan. subsequently wine can be added for flavouring. i'm going to start counting how many meals in the future have this component and award honourable service prizes to vegetables and water as appropriate. please don't confuse this technique with the other technique that i adopt with alarming frequency when in the kitchen in which i also "give off" water.

ccp rule 2: add salt to the vegetables to draw the water out of the cooking. i'm obviously still learning about the role of salt in flavouring, it appears there is another purpose that the mineral serves during cooking vegetables. salt will draw the water from the vegetables while they are cooking. this will give a richer flavour to the food. interesting facts and reading about my problematic friend:

ccp rule 3: cook root vegetables in boiling water from cold. now, this one is a little controversial. i had blindly accepted this as i related to it from childhood, but it appears there is some debate on the correct way to boil a root vegetable. the debate focuses on how the starch (carb) reacts to the boiling water. the process of boiling means the water is absorbed into the starch and it gelatinises (softens and hence feels cooked). in this matter, i am going to let jeffrey steingarten (the man who ate everything) have the final say; he feels that peeled and washed (to remove free starch) potatoes should be placed into 175-degree water and maintained at approx 160 through the gradual addition of cold water. this produces better cooked potatoes and in fact has been shown to retain a higher amount of vitamin C (i'm sure in equal and opposite portions to free time) ..

ccp rule 4: don't add salt to your potatoes while in water - wait until after. jeffrey agrees with this approach, he rather vaguely mentions that an odd flavour can develop if cooked with salt (?!).

ccp rule 5: don't bang the wooden spoon off the side of the pot - it scratches the bottom. yeah, yeah ... but someone is getting too sensitive about pots and pans.

the rest of the ccp is pretty simple - cook for about 30 minutes until the top is nicely golden.

i never thought i'd say this, but i found a great page on onions:

mr steingarten is part of my course mandatory reading and can be found at:

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

to my frying pan

farmhouse pancakes

she was my first love in the kitchen - the simplicity of the frying pan that now seems to mock my every effort to learn how to cook. the first meal that i could cook was probably pancakes (of course that counts). each time that shrove tuesday would come around my mother would flatter me into thinking that i could flip pancakes well. an implement that would flatter my meagre skills! ... you can imagine that to a proud young boy this was the initial luring of me into a career of frying pan dishes.

as a child we had family holidays in holland. all i managed to take away with me as addition to my already limited cooking repertoire was two of hollands gastronomic delicacies; farmhouse pancakes and poffertjes. neither of these stand out as particularly complex cooking techniques - the former are really savoury pancakes with raisins, bacon and apple added to the normal ingredients of flour, milk, eggs and salt. poffertjes are just small pancakes; the use of a dimpled frying pan doesn't really justify these not being called frying pan food. i did try to make these once as a child, but couldn't master the pan and the taste just wasn't the same. they are normally served in a mound on the plate with butter and caster sugar, so perhaps even as a child this was just too much for me? to this day, i think the pan still lies unused at home in dublin (a photo of the culprit:

as i moved through my youth, i managed to earn the scouting chef badge with only a single frying pan. i'm not sure if it reflects a certain irony on the scout movement or the limited tastes of young irish adolescents. for the badge i believe i cooked a particularly complex steak (signified by the accompaniment of pepper seasoning and potatoes with butter). my cooking of steaks didn't change for many years until, as a young sophisticated london professional, i read my first cookbook; maureen tatloe's "the back to basics cookbook". maureen, bless her, radically changed my view on cooking steak, she gently pointed out a number of things that i had done wrong:

1. avoid non-stick pans ~ i only used non-stick
2. preheat the pan dry ~ i always preheated with oil (sunflower)
3. pepper the steak before putting in the pan ~ i never added pepper or salt
4. leave the steak until a crust has formed ~ i always turned after 1 minute and kept turning with the efficiency of a dealer at vegas
5. never cut the meat to check cooking; use the prod test ~ aah, the prod test, the fact that cooking of the meat comes from the boiling of the juices; the harder the prod the more cooked your meat ... the less cooked, the more soft your meet ... maureen, you genius!

blanca noticed this cheap love that i have for frying sometime last year. she has done the only thing that a sane person would do ... she bought the mrs. robinson of frying pans, something so technical and expensive that she knew i would be too intimidated to use it that i would be forced to leave my frying behind. the german designed and built skk is a heavy-gauge aluminum beast coated with titanium (interestingly 40 times harder than stainless steel; albeit my pancakes have never broken a pan before). this pan resists both high heat and metal utensils. it also has more science invested in it that most universities. i have just tried to find information on the web, but it seems to have no actual website. this leads me to imagine that perhaps there is something far more sinister about this pan - i may never go into the kitchen again ... or stick to soups.

an ode to my departed love ...

she was my lover when i was but a scout,
with a wooden spoon to move my eggs about,
in times of need she'd feed my hunger,
she's been with me since i was much younger,

but oh, perhaps this love was just a lie,
she'd let me eat, only what i could fry,
a pancake starter; what today i call a crepe,
a steak for main; cholesterol step by step,

but now i'm older, health is what i yearn,
now onto soups and the saute pan i'll learn.