Saturday, July 30, 2005

Spanish Birthday Cake

It was Blanca's birthday yesterday. She asked me to make a traditional Spanish birthday cake. You can imagine how happy she was this morning to wake up and find that I had been baking all morning for her. The excitement as she walked into the kitchen to find her own cake...

The recipe has been passed down through generations, but is fairly simple and you can still find it in many fine food establishments in Spain; eggs, tomato, chorizo, bread and olive oil.

Happy birthday baby!

Monday, July 25, 2005

charity folding - lemon polenta cake

Lemon Polenta Cake

Sometimes getting up at 6 am on a Saturday morning can be good for your health. Blancs has been working the last few Saturdays, so I “decided” that I “wanted” to help out last weekend. We started by doing the shopping for the day. I was mildly disturbed to hear the local supermarket lady say how she “always thought Blanca was a señorita… what a surprise; you’re a señora!”. I don’t want to know why she thought Blancs was a señorita. The stall owners in Notting Hill now call me “Blanca’s little helper” or probably “sucker”… I’m trying to decide which I prefer.

This was my first time in a professional kitchen (I hope that Blanca’s boss never reads this blog). I was on Lemon Polenta duty. This is in the Books for Cooks cookbook volume 1,2 & 3. It is originally from the River Cafe Book 1.

Lemon Polenta Cake
250 g soft butter
250 g caster sugar (granulated)
Zest of 2 lemons
250 g ground almonds
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon
125 g polenta
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt

Beat butter, sugar and zest until fluffy (and almost white). Stir in almonds and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating each before adding the next. Fold in lemon juice, polenta, backing powder and salt. Spoon the mixture into a buttered cake tin.

Bake in a 160 c oven until sides pull slightly from the edges of the tin. This should take approximately 50 minutes. The cake is cooked when it feels firm and springs back from placing your hand on it.

The science...
Of course, I was acting as a professional, which apparently doesn’t mean that I get paid, it means that I just do things when I’m told and how I’m told… I’m not even Blanca’s “little helper”; I’m her bitch.

Nevertheless, I did have some questions going through my head:
- why use soft butter?
- why use caster sugar?
- why add the eggs one at a time?
- what is fold?
- why fold?
- when can I go back to bed?

I left Books for Cooks as the morning rush started (talk about too hot in the kitchen). When I got home I did some investigations in the Leith’s Techniques Bible. As far as I can see, this method of backing is called the “creaming method” (mainly because it doesn’t involve the use of cream… oh, the irony). This is the method used in making simple sponge cakes. There are 3 steps to the creaming method…

Why do we need to use soft butter and caster sugar?
- Step 1: Cream the butter and sugar. This incorporates air to enable the cake to rise. Some of the sugar does not dissolve, but rather is held in suspension and therefore stabilises the mixture. Caster sugar is the best sized crystals in order to be suspended / support the egg yet retain their invisibility.

Why do we need room temperature eggs and why do we need to add them one at a time?
- Step 2: Room temperature eggs are added (colder eggs can cause the butter to cool and separate into clumps… i.e. curdling). As the mixture is beaten, the egg proteins stretch, holding air bubbles within itself. If the eggs are added to quickly, it can cause the mixture to… guess what; curdle.

Why do I fold.. eh, how do I fold?
- Step 3: Flour is folded into the mixture. This is to ensure that the air is not simply “stirred out”. A large metal spoon with a sharp edge is best (it cuts easily through the mixture). “Cut” the spoon in to the center of the mixture down to the bottom, draw a scoop of batter towards you, bring it up the side of the bowl, lift and turn the spoon to flip the mixture over, rotate the bowl ¼ and repeat. This is called the figure-eight method – chiefly because it looks nothing like a figure of eight. Don’t overfold as this can knock the air out and allow gluten to develop in the flour, making the cake tough.

I thought polenta was an Italian meal – why am I adding it into a cake?
Polenta is a fine ground cornmeal principally used in Italian cooking. When warm it has a soft texture like potato and is regularly eaten as a starchy accompaniment to meats. It is frequently eaten cold (when it has a firm texture) or fried. As I may have mentioned above, it can also be used in cakes as flour.

DAMNIT… now I need to do a blog on flours.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

zarzamora gets an overhaul

Spent this morning in books for cooks with blancs. Loads of stuff that I'll blog over the next week, but in the meantime - big thanks to clare... from eatstuff. Not only does she have a cool blog, cook, but she also turned into my tech support line this afternoon and helped me sort out loads of stuff on zarzamora... not bad for a cat.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Green Tea Noodle Salad (or, how I got my comments back)

Green tea noodle salad

The comments on the blog have decreased of late. With unfailing confidence, I assume this is more a result of the content rather than the quality. With this in mind, I have come to the following conclusions and changes:
- Blame myself – are you mad? Never!
- Blame technology – I’ve removed my old friend the haloscan comments and moved onto simple blogger comments / blogger hack comments... see how they entice you.
- Leave Japan – I’ve left Japan now and will refocus my efforts on quality recipes rather than the more travel type writing of late.
- Quality recipes - I reckon that one is covered off below...

With no further ado – here is a salad from Peter Gordon’s “Salad”... appropriate name for the book. Peter is the chef at my favourite brunch restaurant; downstairs at Providores in London. This recipe appears more complicated than it is…

For the almonds
100 g almonds
1 tsp pimenton
1 tsp icing sugar
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp roasted sesame oil

Preheat the oven to 170 c. Almond skin is thought to have antioxidant properties (increase resistance of LDL to oxidation), therefore, it breaks my heart (get it?), but blanch the almonds (approximately 2 minutes in boiling water / freshen in cold water) to remove the skins. The reason for blanching seems to be that the skin is fibrous and somewhat bitter (comments or other suggestions welcome). A knife is useful to remove these. Mix with other ingredients. Line a baking tray with parchment and spread nuts out flat. Cook in oven for 10-15 minutes tossing occasionally. Leave out to cool and chop.

For the “main”
Green tea or Soba Noodles for 4 people
400 g pak choy
2 spring onions
300 g mushrooms
2 tbsp soy sauce
200 g firm tofu
2 tbsp flour
Vegetable oil for frying

Boil the noodles as appropriate – using cold water to refresh once cooked. Blanch the pak choy (we didn’t have any so just used cabbage) by plunging in boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh. Sauté the mushrooms in a frying pan with some sesame oil, add soy sauce and take off the heat. Cut the tofu into cubes (1.5 cm). Press out the water using kitchen towel. Leave for 10 minutes. Coat with flour and fry in a few mm of oil until golden. Set all aside.

For the wasabi mirin dressing
1 tsp wasabi paste
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp mirin
3 tbsp sunflower oil
Salt and pepper

The dressing is amazing! We didn’t have any wasbi paste, but made it from powder. Mix all ingredients and whisk in the oil prior to seasoning.

Peter goes the extra step to suggest how to present the food. Put half of the dressing into the noodles to marinate. Place the tofu, pak choy and mushrooms (individually) on a bed of noodles. Drizzle remaining dressing over. Finally put the almonds on top. Serve.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Celia's School for Performing Vegetables

Last Saturday I went for my first cookery class. A big day in any amateur cook’s life; after crying for half an hour and refusing to let go of the kitchen table leg, Blanca managed to get my socks and shoes on and turf me out onto the street – destination Notting Hill.

Honestly, the idea of going to a cookery class is more significant than it appears:
- It naturally goes against the zarzamora philosophy of learning through hands-on; “being married to a cook and loitering in the kitchen”.
- It showed blanca up as being waaay more scheming than she appears – she told me that she had booked two places, but when I turned up she reported that she didn’t have time and I’d have to go alone. The things she does to get me learning…
- Most importantly; it was a great class and has reinforced in me much about what makes interesting cuisine and cooking...

It was “Vegetarian Indian Workshop” at books for cooks, london. I’m neither vegetarian nor Indian, but blanca reliably informed me that the instructor was one of the best around so would be well worth seeing. I trusted her on this point. The class was given by celia brooks brown a “passionate cook” and vegetarian. I can now vouch for both. It was a sweltering London afternoon; the 1pm – 2.30pm slot (I don’t know much about cooking classes, but this has got to be a challenging slot… the room was full of 25 hot, hungry and demanding food geeks (I mean this with the greatest respect to my fellow geeks)). Celia had tripped that morning; bashed her chin and her back, and by her own admission was not “firing on all cylinders”.

Arty photo of the back of heads of the two ladies in front...

She instantly engaged the audience by asking how many were vegetarian or had been to India. Surprisingly only half were vegetarian and 2 people had been to India. This is quite a tribute to the draw of celia.

The class covered 5 recipes:
- Kerala-style egg curry – I’m going to blog this during the week
- Masala dosa – traditional southern dish with pancakes
- Idli – a morning semolina muffin
- Coconut chutney
- Tomato and cashew chutney

Celia cooked all of the dishes with utter confidence; juggling 2 burners, an oven and chopping at the same time, she made the dishes look comparatively simple (I’ll put this to the test later). She explained the recipes to a great level of detail.

On this basis alone it would have been a good cookery class, but celia excels in something that raised it out of the realms of PRACTICAL workshop into a class on the JOY of food. It is obvious that she enjoys the technical aspects of cuisine as much as the philosophical. It was in the “asides” and hints that she appealed to me; some examples of this:
- Slice chillies lengthways in order to reduce the heat of the curry. This is a style adopted in many Indian dishes and allows eaters control their spiciness – they can either bite into the chilli or avoid it.
- The capsaicin in chilli trigger the pain receptors in the brain and release of endorphins in the body similar in order to fight the pain. This is similar to “runner’s high”. In this way curry can prove somewhat addictive.
- Jaggery was new to me. This is solid palm treacle. It has a sweet honey like flavour and is a great addition to chutneys.
- A really strong, pungent pepper (that I’ve forgotten) which is native to Kerala.
- Kerala, the south western part of India, is quite poor. This can been seen in the fact that they cook with sunflower oil instead of clarified butter. This substitution of saturated fats actually increases the wholesomeness of the cuisine.
- The size of chilli is a good indication of its pungency; the smaller chillies tend to be more potent. By cutting and holding the tip of the chilli to your tongue you can determine the heat of it.
- When cooking onions for curry, you want them to retain their moisture. As a result you don’t add salt as this has the effect of drawing out the water.

The science of food is obviously my “thing” at the moment so I was particularly aware of this aspect of the class. Celia was also very open and personal about her joy of food. One great analogy that she made was to compare a meal to a theatrical production. In both cases you have a script, actors and an audience. The only difference, I guess, is that you shouldn’t eat the actors in real-life.

I dig the ceiling mirrors in cookery schools - I wonder could I convince Blanca that we need one at home...

Probably the best testament to the class is that it has inspired me to make the dishes. I will blog about these over the forthcoming days. I’m not going to break the habit of learning through loitering / blogging etc., but, I have learnt to jump at the opportunity to attend workshops of passionate, informed and personal discussions of food…

Go to one of Celia’s classes or gastrotours. You can find booking details at her website. If you don’t live in London, check out her books – we have most of them and use them a lot. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fancy a Lawsuit for Lunch?

Cause rellena de atun

Lucy and Anil were over recently – they have just got engaged so we wanted to do something special. London has also been doing something special lately – the sun has been shining. Given the occasions conspired; Blancs pulled out the sunny recipes from a sunnier clime – Peru …

Causa is Spanish for “cause” or “lawsuit”. To be honest I don’t believe that either of these are very meaningful translations of the name, but let’s move on. A good lawsuit is generally served cold for lunch (that’s justice for you). The basics are pretty simple and once you get it, you can stuff with whatever takes your fancy.

La Causa:
- Potatoes for mashing (mature, floury are best)
- Aji Amarillo
- Oil
- Salt and pepper

- Avocado
- Tuna
- Mayonnaise

Cook the potatoes and mash. It is best to keep them fairly dry so you could boil with the skins on and subsequently peel as I’ve mentioned before regarding gnocchi. Cool the mash. Mix in the Aji Amarillo to suit your flavour or courage. Mix tuna and mayo in order to form a good mixture constituency.

Aji amarillo (Capsicum Annuum) is the most used chilli in Peru. It is a hot, yellow chilli pepper native to the Andes. It is said to retain its citrus flavour, which I think I agree with (either way, I wouldn't argue with a chilli). To those of you living in London; the only thing more dangerous than eating aji amarillo is buying it. Blancs and I go to Amazonas, a great little Peruvian shopping centre at 206 Old Kent Road, Elephant and Castle, SE1 5TY. When I say shopping centre I should make this clear – they would normally be just one shop, but it appears that the owners have managed to squeeze two shops and two restaurants into the space. It is a great trip and we have it from a reliable source that it’s the best place to buy authentic Peruvian food in London. We went for the shopping and stayed for the food. Blancs stayed longer to get some recipe recommendations from the owner (or robber) of one of the little restaurants.

To mould: Cover the bottom of a small mould with a ball of the potato. Note: it is good to line the mould with cling film to make the release easier. Layer tuna on top. Next causa and another tuna layer. Finally causa with avocado layer. Refrigerate for approximately 1 ½ hours. Release from mould and serve with avocado on the plate side.

We served the causa with endives, samphire and orange sections with a balsamic dressing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Akasaka Tofu

Well, you can’t say, but that the weather is changeable in Japan at this time of the year. We have gone from 94 degrees last Tuesday to a rainy 77 degrees. We sheltered from the weather in a tofu restaurant in Akasaka*.

It may seem odd to have a restaurant dedicated to just tofu, but this is not uncommon in Japan. Throughout Japan you will notice that most restaurants will specialise in some sort of food, from sushi to sukiyaki, chanko nabe etc. It is only the izakaya or Japanese restaurants outside of Japan that commonly have broader ranges. The reasons for this are apparent in some cases; sushi chefs take up to 10 years to train and not in others.

The meal was more of an assault on the senses than normal. Many dishes were eaten before we could even establish the name. I will attempt to describe:

- Okara. Similar texture to a turkey rissole, but different flavour and you aren’t forced into eating it breakfast, lunch and dinner for a full week after Christmas. This isn’t the best start as we had already eaten the bowl by the time I got the camera out.

- Tofu on a skewer (I don’t know what it is called). Topped with a sweet green sauce and kinome sprig. This is great, I don’t know if we just ate out of order, but it would make a superb dessert.

- Strips of tofu; like spaghetti (also, I don’t know what it is called). Nice starter, very refreshing.
- Oden. There are two main types; Fu which is very absorbent and the Gammo which is fried.

- Yuba; Tofu skin in soya sauce. The table’s favourite (actually, Taro and Taya, not the table itself).

- Yakionigiri. Deep fried rice ball. Okay, strictly not tofu, but I do love the onigiri.
- Agedashi-dofu. Fried, startch-dusted tofu with sauce of heated dashi, soy, mirin with starch. Always great!
- Miso soup with Tofu. Simple dashi stock, cubed tofu (enormous amounts), miso paste and chopped green onion.

Tofu is another one of those interesting by-products of the ubiquitous soy (soy milk, edamame and soya sauce being some of the others). It is the curd of fresh hot soyamilk. A variety of ingredients can be used to produce the curd from calcium sulphate to lemon juice and vinegar. Whilst quite bland in nature, it is ideal in dishes as it takes on the flavour of surrounding foods. It was discovered about 2000 years ago in China (it is not known how). There are many health benefits to tofu; it is a good source of protein (regular intake of soy protein has been shown to lower total cholesterol by as much as 30%). It is rich in minerals (iron 34% daily value, copper 11% DV and B vitamins). The only bad thing about tofu is tofu burgers, but that’s a debate for another day.

Interesting piece of trivia is that legend has it that tofu was discovered by Lord Liu An (grandson of the founding Han emperor) in his search for immorality. Given all the health benefits, it is fair to say that it has become the modern day equivalent in our search for better health.

* Taya has been with us this week; she is far more driven than either Taro or I. She has used the great as a source of inspiration for this visit.

Monday, July 04, 2005

the fat quack

It was our anniversary a couple of weeks ago; I was in Japan so we had to wait until yesterday to celebrate. We were going to do something on Saturday night, but opted to watch Live8 with Simon and Claire – best moment; Mariah Carey asks in the most diva-like way 3 times for the mike stand ... getting more frustrated each time she was denied, you felt like a tantrum was moments away. Yesterday we went to the fat duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire. We have wanted to go for ages, but have never been organised enough to make the reservation.

I'm naturally way to cool to take a photo in a restaurant ... check out the greenery in Bray though

The fat duck is run by Heston Blumenthal; half chef, half scientist. Its menu is as diverse as it is tasty. We had the tasting menu:

- Nitro-green tea and lime mousse with vodka. This is a palette cleanser. The tannin in the green tea is said to open the pores on your tongue, the acid of the lime to stimulate them and the vodka to cleanse the fats. It is cooked at your table in liquid nitrogen.
- Oyster, passion fruit jelly, horseradish cream, lavender.
- Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho on cucumber. One of the first savoury ice creams on the menu. The gazpacho is excellent and retains the red cabbage flavour.
- Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras served in a porcelain egg shell.
- Snail porridge. This is probably the signature dish. The porridge is made from parsley, garlic, butter and oats.
- Roast foie gras, almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile. A great dish, the cherry is incredibly strong.
- Sardine on toast sorbet. Ballotine of mackerel, marinated daikon. My favourite, the taste of the sardine is incredibly concentrated. The daikon absorbs much of the fish flavour.
- Salmon poached with liquorice. Asparagus, pink grapefruit, ‘manni’ olive oil. Great advice from the sommelier was to combine the vanilla mayonnaise with salmon in order to enhance the flavours.
- Poached breast of Anjou pigeon pancetta. Pastilla of legs, pistachio, cocoa and quatre epices.
- White chocolate and caviar. Mrs Marshall’s Margaret cornet.
- Mango and Douglas fir puree. Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet.
- Carrot and orange tuile, beetroot jelly.
- Smoked bacon and egg ice cream. Pain perdu and tea jelly. This forms the ‘breakfast’ part of the menu, served with parsnip flakes from a small cereal box and parsnip milk.
- Praline rose tartlet.

The fat duck was recently voted the world’s best restaurant. I wouldn’t even presume to discuss that, but there are a number of reasons why it is one of the best all-round dining experiences I’ve had in a long while:

- Getting out of London into Bray; a forgotten land of rivers, swans and stone walls.
- An incredibly relaxed environment; there is a fun loving atmosphere and the noise of conversations and laughter.
- A relaxed, smart staff that is willing (and able) to joke with the customers. We bumped into Rut, a friend of Blanca’s from El Bulli Hotel who is now the assistant sommelier. She is extremely knowledgeable and brought us back to the kitchen to meet the man himself.
- The sight of Blanca trying to convince Heston to come into books for cooks to do some signings and recommendations on what should be in his next book; how he should write about the reasons he changed from being a solicitor to chef.
- Clifford and Cecile at the table beside us who put up with us chatting to them for about 3 hours on topics ranging from Japan to Italy, Claudia Roden to Jeremiah Tower. Thanks for the glasses of pinot noir by the way; we’ll return the hospitality in Spain sometime.
- A 10 year old girl at the table opposite us who greeted every course with delight and eyes wide open. She took the menu around the entire waiting staff for signatures.
- The tasting menu is given to all the diners. This saves the hassle of having to steal it; either way it was going with me.

- Rut will kill me for saying this, but if you book early, ask for the Sunday lunch with an early time (say noon or 12.30); you can take your time and enjoy the whole afternoon as they don't rotate the tables.
- And the food …

Now we’re back in London a world away, a town of tube congestion, starbuck’s coffee and gyms – “I said, give me a damn mike stand!” …