Monday, August 22, 2005

Sopa de Tortilla

Sopa de Tortilla

If our tomato and ginger soup could be termed a “classical European soup” (classical being the standard prefix for European food), there is perhaps no better contrast than this spicy tortilla soup from Mexico (spicy being the standard prefix for Mexican food). This is a rough and ready soup; a sieve would get the crap kicked out of it if it came within a ladle’s reach from the pot. I first had it about 5 years ago; it has been a hit with everyone that we’ve made it for, even those guests that protest “I don’t like too much spice in my food…”

Ingredients for 6
1 tbsp corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 ripe vine tomatoes, chopped
1 dried ancho chilli, de-seeded
2 ¼ pints stock
30 corn tortilla chips (real tortillas, fried, or bought chips)
2 avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
110 g feta cheese
110 g crème fraiche
½ bunch coriander, chopped
4 limes, halved

As it is with the best traditional Mexican recipes, you can never find good versions in books. This recipe comes from Blanca's friend Sofia Craxton. It is her family recipe. She has just published "The Mexican Mama's Kitchen"... from a marketing point of view I guess I should strike my previous comment.

Ancho chilli (“wide”) is a broad, flat, heart-shaped dried pod of the poblano chilli (“of the village” and of Puebla in Mexico). These are relatively mild (1,000 to 1,500 Scoville Units or 3 on the Heat Scale). The chilli can be sold fresh, often stuffed with meats and cheese (chilli relleno) or dried for food colouring or sauces, in particular moles.[1]

Soak the chilli in 150 ml pint boiling water for 5 minutes (until soft). Add the soaking water to the stock. Chop the chilli.

Heat the oil in a pan; add the onion, then garlic, chopped tomatoes and chilli. Saute for 5 minutes. Add 2 tbsp of stock; blend all the ingredients. Return to the pan, add the remainder of the stock and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the chips and simmer until soft. Serve with avocado, feta cheese, crème fraiche, coriander and a squeeze of lime. Add a half of lime to each bowl.

One issue I had with this soup was the amount of cooking and degradation of the nutritional value of the tomatoes. From consulting Cookwise, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that tomatoes degrade very little during cooking. For baking, boiling and stewing 0% of minerals are lost and only 5% of vitamins.

[1] Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach “The whole chile pepper book”

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Todo sobre su espuma (all about his foam)...

Spanish Tortilla… deconstructed

The intermediate term in the kitchen has started with a bang! Blancs and I have been playing around with some of Ferran Adría’s cooking books lately. I think that this is either Blanca’s way of improving my Spanish or scaring me out of the kitchen. Given that she did a stage before at El Bulli Hotel she has a bit of an advantage, but I have sheer bald-faced stupidity on my side.

When dealing with such a superstar chef, where better to start than with one of his iconic dishes. Ferran has made his name as the king of all things "unusual" in the kitchen. He is credited with bringing the foam (espuma) into the commercial kitchens. Methinks with an ironic style, his books attempt to bring the foams into domestic kitchens. Whilst Blancs prefers his classic (and very much out of print) “Concinar en 10 Minutos”, we cooked from “El Bulli: 1998 – 2002”. This is the dark hardcover book that you will find in good bookstores.

There are a few things to understand before we get into the recipe.

What is deconstruction?
In what I believe to be his best book; “Los Secretos de El Bulli”, Ferran explains the prior to 1993, 3 techniques were used to create meals: adaptation, association and inspiration. After 1993 he focused on deconstruction. Basically, it ”uses (and respects) the harmonies already known, transforming the textures of the ingredients, such as form and temperature”. It should retain the ingredients and flavours, but change the textures. Typically, the name of the dishes will remain the same.

What’s an example of deconstruction?
Well, we’re about to look at an example of deconstruction. Everyone knows the classic Spanish omelette; eggs added to olive oil fried potatoes and onion and served upside down. Ferran puts a spin on this, he foams potato mash and layers this over onion and a sabayon of egg yolks.

What’s the deal with foams?
Foams is one of the techniques that allows Ferran produce different textures and techniques. It is an extension of the mousse, with the basic difference that cream and eggs are not necessarily required. Ferran appears to have shares in iSi; he takes every opportunity to recommend their siphon to achieve a pure flavour of foam. He lists the benefits of foams as follows:
- More flavour. As mentioned above, with less lactic products and eggs, the foams hold only the main ingredient flavour.
- Better health value. All fruit or vegetable vitamins and proteins are served intact. There are no additional fats.
- Lighter. The pressured incorporation of air (nitrous oxide) produces a lighter end product.
- Better conservation. The siphon is hermetically sealed and thus preserves food better.
- More economic. Eh, this is kind of questionable. Ok you don’t need extra eggs and cream, but you do need to buy a fairly pricey siphon and gas refills.
- More creative. Also questionable, but undoubtedly, the foam is somewhat more flexible than traditional mousses.

Ingredients for Potato Foam(including mistakes… for 1 very relieved person)
1 iSi siphon
250 g potato
100 ml water from boiled potatoes
3 tbsp olive oil
100 ml cream

Bring the potatoes to the boil and simmer until cooked. Decant 100 ml of the boiling water before discarding the remainder. Briefly mash the potatoes. Put all the ingredients into a container for blending. Blend until creamy. Season according to taste (we also added pepper).

Sieve in order to remove any lumps that could block the siphon. Be careful here not to press too hard.

Pour the sieved mash into the siphon while still hot. Charge the siphon with nitrous oxide gas. Upturn once or twice after charging. We actually used 3 charges of gas, but, depending on the age, you should get away with 2.

Place the siphon in a bain marie at a similar temperature until ready to use.

Ingredients for Onion and Sabayon
2 medium onions
2 egg yolks
1 black truffle
Olive oil

Cut the onions as fine as possible. I used a mandolin for the first time; definitely worthwhile.

Put into an olive oil pan over a low heat and cook until well golden. Note: you can add water / salt in order to prolong the cooking without drying out the onions too much.

Create an emulsion of egg yolk by adding 2 tbsp of warm water and beating until it holds small channels for a short period of time.

To serve
Cocktail glasses are best, but I discovered that all of ours are broken. Wine glasses are best. Put a little of the onion at the bottom of the glass. Put the sabayon on top. Gently apply the foam. This was tricky; it relies on the sabayon being firm enough and the foam being light enough. It is best to hold the nozzle vertical and release the foam until it is at an appropriate level. Top with finely sliced truffle.

The verdict… I’ve had a yoghurt foam before and that was incredible. I wasn’t astounded by the tortilla, but it definitely was different. It lacked a little flavour and I probably used an olive oil that was too cheap (the taste was quite strong). Either way, definitely worthwhile and something that I will try and do a variation on in the future.

I’m thinking deconstructed Irish Stew…

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Unusual Food Photos: Name the Fruit

I'll be blogging the recipe later.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Logistically Challenged and Misunderstood: Our Modern Day Tomato Soup

Tomato and Ginger Soup

tomato and ginger soup
I came into some flak recently for suggesting that I didn’t like one of the soups that we had cooked. How could I have been so naïve as to criticise a dish while Blanca still had a knife in her hand? In order to avoid A&E we decided to, as with all great workmen, blame our tools. We looked at the pale, tough tomatoes that had just gone into our soup with and found our scapegoat.

Ripeness… what’s a guy gotta do these days? Short of growing and picking your own tomatoes, how can you get good fruit?

Ever since reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s “The man who ate everything”. I have been more aware (and more disappointed) by the ripeness of fruit in our supermarkets. The trend that we are all familiar with is that the ever successful supermarkets claim that the consumers are driving more diverse product ranges. As a result, the wholesaler to retailer distribution channel has to cope with greater distances. Greater centralisation and consolidation of stores results in greater quantity being pushed through these already tired channels. All of this has driven the requirement to pick more robust, durable fruit in order to survive the trip to the store. Unfortunately, durability is seldom analogous with fruit flavour.

Fruits live to ripen, this is what guarantees future generations. If fruits had their own reality show, all they would do is sit in the sun and wait for reproduction (eh, they may have their own show already). The process generally takes place during maturity and decline. Typical changes include colour, taste, aroma, size, weight, texture and nutritional content. Change in taste is what we're interested in here. The process entails the conversion of starch into sugar (sweeter and more desirable). Unfortunately, many fruits convert the starch from the plant (i.e. they don't have starch stores) and therefore will not get any sweeter once they are picked.[I]

The tricky part is that not all fruits are affected in the same way by this cutoff of sugar. As long as you shop in large supermarkets (we avoid them for fruit) you need to be aware of the risks that you are taking. That being said, being “forewarned is forearmed”, Steingarten categorises fruit according to their likelihood to ripen and improve off the vine:

Never ripen after pickingsoft berries, cherries, citrus, grapes, litchis, olives, pineapple, watermelon
Ripen only after pickingavocados
Ripen in colour, texture, but not sweetnessapricots, blueberries, figs, melons, nectarines, passionfruit, peaches
Get sweeter after pickingapples, kiwi, mangos, papayas, pears
Ripen in everyway after pickingbananas


Category One receive all of their sugar from the parent plant. They may decrease in acidity, but will never get sweeter once off the vine. Category Two plants send a chemical that actually inhibit ripening, the fruit must be removed in order to stimulate the process. Category Three contain no starch, once off the vine, they will not create sweetness. These must be bought physically mature. Category Four have large supplies of starch, they improve in sweetness even off the plant. Category Five converts nearly all of its ample starch to sugar.


The tomatoes; snipers snipe that they try a little too hard when dressing for comic relief

Depressingly for us, no one actually classifies tomatoes in the above matrix. From reading McGee, they seem to be a cross of Categories Three and Four. They do store starch in their wall tissue, but not as much as, say, apples. The rule of thumb should be to allow them ripen fully on the vine in order to have the fullest flavour[III]. This is sadly at odds with commercial reality. One tip that may help us; store tomatoes at about 10 C in order to maintain their flavour (due to a critical flavour compound, (Z)-3-dexenal, which disappears when chilled).

northcote food market
Northcote Rd. food stall; the future of fruit shopping?

Our story ends well. We took at trip to Northcote Food Market and got some great plum tomatoes; red, meaty and perfect for cooking. Our second attempt at the soup was far more successful. It is taken from Celia Brooks Brown’s “Vegetarian Foodscape”.

Ingredients (for 4)
1.25 kg fresh, ripe tomatoes
1 pint (600 ml) Vegetable stock
30 g Ginger, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 tbsp muscovado sugar (depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley to garnish

The sweet, meaty plum walls balance the more acidic (citric and malic) flavours and aromas of the jelly and skin. You don't need to peel. Additionally, don't worry about the loss of nutrients; almost 0% of minerals and about 5% of vitamins are lost during cooking tomatoes. Bring the tomatoes to the boil in the vegetable stock. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. Puree the soup. Pass the whole thing through a sieve and serve.

Second time around, this was a fantastic soup. Really luxurious and smooth. I recommend plenty of pepper.

[I] Shirley O. Corriher "Cookwise"
[II] Jeffrey Steingarten "The Man Who Ate Everything"
[III] Harold McGee "Food & Cooking"

Note: This blog comes partly inspired by the UK's best food programme; “Full on Food”. Anyone who hasn't had the chance of seeing should watch it.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

End of Term 1: Crispy Pork with Fennel and Mustard Lentils

Crispy Pork Belly with Fennel and Mustard Lentils

OK, the whole “learning to cook by being married to a cook and loitering” thing has always been a serious objective for me. Nevertheless I always thought that the teaching staff (Blanca) lacked a certain amount of dedication and conviction… there was never much structure. This weekend that all changed, I’m fearful of the consequences...

Blanca returned from a week in Spain full of fascist fervour. She directly set to assessing how I had coped in the kitchen during her week away. The “Home Alone” series of blogs was used as documented proof of how I had fared. After all these months of love and care, the blog was turned against me.

So, it seems that there was an invisible hand directing most of my efforts over the past few months. The logic was revealed to me yesterday over a morning coffee…

Term 1 (basic), as this period will forever be known, with some of the following "highlights":
- chopping
- pastry
- creaming method
- fish work
- risotto and plant starch

In the end things were ok; I got a B+ for the whole term. I got special praise for my unashamed geekiness and knife skills. My seasoning, lack of comments and annoying questions require improvement. There was no report card or end of term party (apparently Blanca’s school is working on a bit of a shoestring budget)…

We are now entering Term 2 (intermediate), it will be challenging, with the following highlights:
- soufflé
- paella
- French onion soup
- Genoise
- Pasta making
- Choux pastry
- Sauté cut chicken
- French stew

The Term 3 (advanced) syllabus seems to be a little up in the air, but will contain:
- puffed pastry
- beef Wellington

To celebrate the end of term (and relieve a week old pork belly from its misery), we cooked pork belly and mustard lentils today. Fittingly, this earthy recipe comes from the Books for Cooks vol. 6.

For the pork:
1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 kg pork belly in one piece, skin on and scored
1 tbsp salt

For the lentils:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
350 g puy lentils
4 tbsp Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

For the salsa:
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil
salt and pepper

Press the fennel and garlic on the flesh side of the pork. Place in a baking tray, skin side up. Dry the scored side and sprinkle salt evenly over the surface. Leave to stand for half an hour.

Heat the oven to 220 C. Roast the pork for half an hour, turn down to 180 C and bake a further hour and a half. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before carving.

Cook the lentil while the pork is in the oven. Warm the oil, add the onion and garlic and stir until the onion has softened (approx 5 mins). Add lentils and cover with boiling water. Put the lid and simmer steadily. Cook for about 50 minutes when the lentils are soft and thick. Add water as it dries out. Stir in mustard and season to taste.

Grind the parsley and garlic in a pestle and mortar. Add the olive oil until it reaches a salsa constituency. Season according to taste.

Plate the lentils and lay over strips of pork, topped by parsley salsa.

See you next term…

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Home Alone 4: Tuna, Sesame and Soba Noodle Salad

Sesame Marinated Tuna and Soba Noodle Salad

A mixed bag yesterday; signed a rental agreement for a flat in Granada, Spain… as pen was going to paper we heard that the sale of our flat in London had fallen through. Cool… that makes us something close to property tycoons. Firstly, because we have a nice weekend retreat from the city and secondly, because it will most likely wipe out all of our savings (maybe property typhoon is more appropriate).

To celebrate our new found lack of fortune, I cooked from Books for Cooks Vol. 4. This is the “glamorous” volume that we haven’t used too much. The recipe is originally from Kimiko Barber.

I took a trip to fishmongers on Northcote road to pick up the tuna for the recipe. The recipe calls for seared tuna, but I was in two minds given that I think tuna is best eaten raw. I am always intrigued as to whether there is a distinction between sashimi “worthy” tuna and the stuff that should only be cooked. The discussion with the fishmonger was of dubious merit:

steve: “do you reckon the tuna would be ok to have as sashimi?”
fishmonger: “eh?”
steve: “can I use it in sushi?”
fishmonger: “huh?”
steve: “like, uh, can I eat it raw?”
fishmonger: “yeah, sure… whatever”
steve: “how can you tell whether you can have the fish raw or not?”
fishmonger: [seemingly offended] “I’d never sell you bad fish”
steve: “yeah, yeah, I know you wouldn’t. Is there ever a time that you can’t eat tuna raw though?”
fishmonger: “eh, like when it ‘as gone off. It would ‘ave a ‘orrible smell and be all bluey black…”
steve: “ok, thanks”

We both left each other relieved to be out of the conversation.

Ingredients (serves 4)
4 tuna steaks (not the ‘orrible, smelly kind)

For the noodles
250 g buckwheat soba noodles
3 spring onions (scallions)*
½ cucumber
2 tbsp blackened sesame seeds
½ tsp toasted sesame seed oil
1 lime

For the marinade
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp wasabi
1 tsp sake or dry sherry
2 tsp sugar

"pick up sticks" was my favourite game as a child. you can imagine how relieved I was to find out you could play it with dry soba noodles.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Put the noodles into the water. Bring back to the boil. Refresh with a glass of water. Books for Cooks explains that this cools the outside of the noodles and ensures that it doesn’t cook faster than the inside. Bring back to the boil and check the noodles are cooked through. If not, repeat the process. I was using some pretty old noodles (they were grey, so I assume they were soba), they had dried out a bit and required two cookings. Remove the noodles to a colander, rinse thoroughly with cold water. This will prevent further cooking. Put into a bowl with ½ tsp of the sesame oil. Cover and refrigerate.

Whisk the marinade ingredients together.

The fishmonger had left me in some doubt so I decided to err on the side of caution and sear the tuna. Heat a non-stick frying pan very hot. Sear on both sides (only 7-8 seconds per side). Remove to a shallow dish and pour the marinade over. Leave to cool.

You can use blackened sesame seeds or roast them yourself. I recommend that you roast them yourself. Heat the seeds in a frying pan. As they heat, their oils will come to the surface and they will start to clump together. Keep moving them, they give off an amazing smell. Wait until toasted and remove.

Peel the cucumber. Chop the peeled cucumber into matchsticks. Mix with the chopped scallions. Mix with majority of the sesame seeds. Add to the noodles.

For serving, pile the noodle salad up high. Use tongs. If you twist the tongs vertically into the bowl you’ll achieve good height of the salad. Chop the tuna into equal sizes and place on top of the salad. Spoon over the marinade. Garnish with remaining tsp of sesame seeds. The recipe suggested placing the cucumber peelings around the noodles, but this didn’t look great to me (I punished them by eating them). Put some lime wedges on the side.

It’s the perfect salad to calm the nerves and let you have a thought about innovative ways to take the burden of a London flat from you. Comments and financial recommendations welcome!

* For all those from overseas, spring onion is the UK name for green onions, which is the US name for scallions. Who is it hiding from???

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Home Alone 3: Real Men Don't Eat this simply delightful Smoked Salmon and Shallot Quiche

Smoked Salmon and Shallot Quiche

Day 4 of Blanca’s trip to Spain. I’m a changed man, I must have cycled 100 miles since she left, blogged & cooked regularly and eaten all my fruit. The only signs left of my manhood are the fact that I’m leaving the bed unmade in the morning and refusing to clean the kitchen floor. Even when I try and assert my masculinity, I end up co-opting Simon into going to what, to all intents and purposes, appears to be a lesbian gig on Thursday (does anyone know “the organ” from Vancouver? Please don’t comment about the name, apparently the music is good).

God, I hope that Blanca doesn’t read this. She’ll be pissed that I haven’t cleaned the kitchen floor.

Some people say that real men don’t eat quiche. Well to prove them correct, here is a great recipe for Smoked Salmon and Shallot Quiche that I cooked last night. It is from my book of the moment; “fish”. I think this is the third blog in recent weeks from “fish”. I need to stop, I’m in danger of infringing their copyright. I think a spell of cold turkey would be appropriately horrifying to fish lovers.

Ingredients for shortcrust pastry (thanks to Books for Cooks cookbook)
175 g plain flour sifted
A pinch of salt
90 g of very cold butter, cubed
3 tbsp very cold water

I “scienced” myself out yesterday on my rice blog. Luckily I have already discussed the science behind shortcrust pastry. Check it out, interesting stuff, it puts all of the instructions into context beautifully.

I’m scared of hot hands so I use a food processor for the pastry mixing. Aerate the flour and salt with a few pulses. Add the cubed butter and pulse until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Add the water (some people add egg, but I think it produces overly hard pastry) and process until the pastry just draws together. Turn this onto a lightly floured worksurface (marble best for the temperature) and knead into a ball.

Satisfaction delivered by a rolling pin.

Butter and refrigerate the baking tin. Be careful not to over handle the pastry (it gets emotional). Roll it out into a thin flat about 5cm larger than your tin. Wrap the pastry over the rolling pin and unroll over the top of the tin. Work the pastry into the tin. Then, the most satisfying action in cookery; roll the pin over the top of the tin in order to remove the excess pastry. I don’t know why I like this so much, but it is really very satisfying.

Refrigerate the pastry for at least half an hour. Keep any excess pastry in case you need it later to fill in imperfections (just misunderstood perfections).

Baking blind and showing your wealth... can two things say more about a person?

Bake the pastry blind. Heat the oven to 190 C. Line the chilled pastry case with baking parchment and fill with backing beans. Blancs showed me a very retro method for this. Rather than using the conventional baking beans, demonstrate your wealth and sophistication by using the pennies from your piggy bank.

Cook for about 10 minutes. Remove the coins and use to pay at your local large, impersonal supermarket while still hot… I bet they still take the cash. Cook for another 10 minutes or so, until a light biscuit brown.

Ingredients for the filling
110 g shallots, sliced
60 g butter
3 egg yolks
225 ml crème fraîche
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
110 g smoked salmon, in thin strips
salt and pepper

Cook the shallots in the butter until translucent, without browning (this is sauté… no?). Beat the remaining ingredients together. Once the pastry case is cool, distribute the salmon and shallots. Pour the cream. Cook for about 30 minutes, until just set. This can be served warm or cold, in my case, warm and reheated.

I’m off now to start a fight in a bar and wake up tomorrow without my clothes.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Home Alone 2: Risotto & Rice 101

Courgette and Carrot Risotto

This blog comes inspired by The Sunday Times “Style” supplement from last... Sunday, which had a recipe for Courgette-Flower Risotto. It was sufficiently inspirational to make me want to eat risotto, but not enough to get courgette flowers… ah well; you can’t have everything all the time.

I have cooked risotto many times before with Blanca and have a basic understanding; sauté the onion, cook the rice until translucent, add the stock one ladle at a time until it is all absorbed. I didn’t know the answers to some basic questions, such as: what's the difference between “risotto rice” and others, why the convoluted cooking process etc. Sounded like a good idea for a blog… Below you'll find my Rice 101

Ingredients (serves 2 as a main)
1 courgette, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 litre chicken stock
1 pinch saffron threads
Olive oil
½ onion, finely diced
200 g Arborio rice
75 ml dry white wine
15 parmesan cheese, grated

Melt the butter with olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over a low heat. Add and cook the carrots, onions and courgette until soft. It is obviously best to cook the carrots slightly longer. Increase the heat and stir in the rice. Stir the rice (about 3 mins.) until a white dot remains in the centre of each grain. Add the wine and continue stirring until all is absorbed.

During this time, keep the stock (with crushed saffron) simmering. Start adding to the rice, ladle at a time, waiting for absorption to complete before adding the next. Continuous stirring is required, this unique method abrades the rice and removes the starch from the plant into the liquid to produce a creamy consistency. The evaporation of the stock means that more is required, thus producing a more concentrated flavour in the dish. All recipe books are in agreement of the “magic 20 minutes” required to cook risotto. The clock starts from the point of adding the first ladle of stock.

When ready, the rice should be tender, but still firm to the bite. Take the risotto off the heat. Fold in the parmesan and season according to taste. As you will see below, risotto is suitable for reheating. In fact, many restaurants prepare the labour intensive dish upfront and reheat. This is not necessarily “best practice”, but is a useful cheat.

The science…

Brief History of Rice[i]

Rice has been cultivated in Asia as early as 3500 BC, Alexander the Great is credited with having introduced it to the Western world about 335 BC. The Moors planted rice in Andalucia (in gratitude the Spanish kicked them out), Spain in the eight century AD and by 10 AD it was being cultivated in Italy.

Types of Starch[ii]

I thought this section would be called “types of rice”, but it turns out that we need to know about starch before we can know anything about rice. McGee explains how grains and legumes contain a heap of starch and this plays a large role in the texture of the cooked end product and their products.

Plants store glucose as starch in two different forms: amylose and amylopectin. Amylose molecules are structured and ordered; they’re made from about 1,000 glucose sugars and are mainly one extended chain. Amylopectin is an unruly molecule; it is made from 5,000 to 20,000 sugars and has hundreds of short branches. Cooking starch is all about the application of steam or boiling water in order to break down the cell walls and free the starch. This process converts solid starch into starch-water gel (hence it’s called gelation). The ordered clusters of amylose require more heat and water in order to break them apart.

Other amylose traits (amylopectin tend to exhibit the opposite)[iii]
- it is a more effective thickener,
- the gel tends to be opaque,
- sauces made from amylose tend to not freeze well,
- amylose based sauces tend to thicken at a higher temperature

Types of Rice

The rice lineup (from left to right): long-grain basmati rice, medium-grain arborio and short-grain sushi rice.

There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice, but we can break these down. All rice contains at least 70% amylopectin (making them sticky), but some contain more. The different types of rice are judged on their relative amounts of amylose and amylopectin. There are two sub-species of Oryza sativa. Indica rice are grown in the lowland tropics, they produce a long, firm grain that is rich in amylose starch. Japonica is the other rice, it is found in the upland tropics and temperate climates (Japan, Italy and California). It contains less starch and produces a shorter, stickier grain. There are 3 broad types of rice; long, medium and short grain.

Long-grain rice (aromatic rices such as basmati, patna, Thai fragrant and Jasmine) are 4-5 times long as wide and high in amylose. They cook separate and fluffy (due to less amylopectin) and cool hard due to the setting of the amylose. It is predominantly used in savoury dishes; pilaffs, curries etc. The fact that long-grain cools hard means that it is generally unsuitable for salads and sweets, this can be countered if mixed with a dressing while still warm.

Medium-grain rice is predominantly grown in the temperate zones mentioned above. It is higher in amylopectin and does not harden when cooked and cooled. This is a favourite for the Italian risotto and Spanish paella. As noted above, the quantity of amylopectin in medium-grain rice makes it quite amenable to reheating.

Special mention to the Mr. Risotto. This is a fat variety of medium-grain rice. It typically has an small area of underdeveloped starch in the center which, combined with the cooking method keeps the center hard whilst the rest is creamy. This produces the famous "risotto bite".

Short-grain rice (aka sushi rice) is only a little longer than it is wide; it is high in amylopectin and cooks soft and sticky. Due to the fact that compact moist grains stick together, they are a preferred when eating with chopsticks. There is an extreme version of short-grain rice called sticky rice (glutinous rice); this is used in East Asian dishes and desserts.

Cooking Rice

There are two methods of cooking rice[iv]; the boiling method and the absorption method. From what I can tell, risotto is neither of these (I guess that means there are 3 methods of cooking?) I’ll do practical examples of the other two later.

All this talk of rice has made me miss Japan, I always wanted to go to a paddy field in Japan. I never made it, but Taro gave me some informal classes. The kanji for paddy field is , pronounced “ta”. This is a kind of ideographical word as it looks somewhat like fields from the air… It also forms one of the most common names in Japan (words taken from nature form 30 of the top 100 names in Japan).

Endnotes & acknowledgements:

[i] Stephanie Alexander “the cook’s companion”
[ii] Harold McGee “McGee on Food & Cooking: an encyclopaedia of kitchen science, history and culture”
[iii] Shirley O. Corriher “Cookwise”
[iv] Leiths Techniques Bible

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Home Alone 1: Snapper

Red Snapper with Warm Tomato Vinaigrette and Green Pea Purée

Blanca, the resident zarzamora teacher, has gone off to Spain to try and find us somewhere to live. Tragically, I’m left in London for the next week to fend for myself. I did the obvious thing; look for a friend whose husband was away for the weekend. As a result, by lunchtime I had met with Claire and we’d decided to have a dinner party in the evening.

The kick of a morning coffee gave us some unwarranted confidence. We decided to crossbreed two menus from “fish” and make the red snapper with green pea purée. An unnecessarily complicated trip to Northcote Road gave us most of the ingredients. The fish mongers supplied 5 nice snappers. Somerfield gave us the rest of dry ingredients with the mint, thyme and chives coming from the food stalls on the road. “Northcote Merchants: proud sponsors of all your culinary exploits”.

Prior to actually cooking Blanca managed to ignore three phone calls from me; I recall her parting words; “… you need to get more confidence in the kitchen. Stop bugging me”…

Early evening, with the Lydons (John, Anthea, Charlie and Muireann) due in 45 minutes, we somewhat shabbily started cooking. Now, Claire is pregnant so has a reason for forgetfulness, but there really is no good excuse for me forgetting; a blender, blanched almonds, soy sauce and spring onions. A quick return trip to Northcote meant that we managed to recommence cooking at 6.45 with only 15 minutes left before they are due. Luckily, being culinarily humble, Claire had told them that we were having… er, logistical issues and to delay until 7.30. The Lydons were polite enough to realise that we were under pressure. They arrived at 8.10 and we were finished in the kitchen by half past (8).

In the plating rush we didn't get a chance to take a photo of the purée, you can see it above, the center of attention... pea purée, you old charmer.

Pea Purée
1 onion, chopped
60 g butter
250 g peas
200 g potato (chopped)
200 ml chicken stock
1 sprig of mint
1 sprig of thyme
3 tbsp single cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the onion in half the butter. Add the peas, potato, stock, mint, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until the potato is cooked. Purée. Add the cream and remaining butter. The finished mash should be liquidy, but not overly so. You can reheat this when required.

Given that we’re Irish and we knew that Charlie would appreciate dining on pea and potato for the week, we trebled the ingredients. It isn't that Charlie is a big pea and potato fan, he is 9 months old and doesn't have a choice.

Claire models the snapper with tomato vinaigrette. Ever the consumate host, she doesn't even seem surprised that we managed to pull-off the meal.

Ingredients for warm tomato vinaigrette
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tsp chopped chives
1 shallot very finely chopped
85 ml olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients into a pan and cook until warm. In fact we cooked until the life was boiling out of it, but we can blame this on the fact that we were having our starters. There was no discernable loss of taste or flavour, but that could be due to the wine.

5 snappers
Juice of ½ lemon
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Lemon chopped

The snappers are straightforward to cook; snip the fins and make diagonal slashes across the thickest parts of both sides of the fish. Season inside and out. It is recommended to leave for at least half an hour before cooking.

Claire and Simon’s grill doesn’t work and frying seemed like too much effort so we cooked in the oven; 250 degrees for 12 minutes. To be honest, their oven doesn’t really work either (even if they had no grill, it would in fact work better than the oven). In oven time, we were cooking for 30 minutes. In fact, the only people that can advise on how long the snappers took to cook are John and his sister Muireann. Thek cook some good snappers. John got his boning badge tonight (ahem) by showing Claire how to remove the bones from the snapper. He also lost his boning badge tonight by making me eat a fish eye (tough and kind of indigestible).

A quick dig into Alan Davidson’s “North Atlantic Seafood” revealed very little information on the snapper. It was odd that the only reference seemed to be as a pseudonym for Bluefish (family Pomatomidae). Not only does the Bluefish bear no resemblance, but it seems more similar to the oily mackerel. “Fish” gave a more meaningful description of an exotic fish originally being imported into the UK from The Seychelles, now readily available. It goes on to explain some of the difficulties with snapper. There are over 200 species to choose from. Red and Yellowtail are amongst the favourites. It is a good fish to bake whole, they can be grilled, baked, poached, steamed, fried and eaten raw.

Furthering my misgivings, “Fish” references a similar fish called “Jobfish”. “North Atlantic Seafood” does not even reference this. Could it be that Mr. Davidson does not like snapper?

p.s. OK, before anyone comments, the clue was pretty much in the title. The "North Atlantic Seafood” doesn’t reference snapper, because it pretty much only deals with, eh, north atlantic seafood. Snapper is found in the tropical and subtropical regions of all the oceans.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

A Horse with Some Pain - a blogger's tale of tears

Horseradish Sauce – best not to make this your entire meal.

I’ve been waiting for about 2 years, but last Friday I got the opportunity to make some horseradish sauce. We were cooking traditional british fare; beef, potatoes, leek, spring greens and Yorkshire pudding for Greg and Taro for an impromptu tokyo (obviously) reunion.

What’s a name? The flavourguy at montrealfood explains how the horse was originally ‘hoarse’ – due to the effect on your throat. It’s a member of the mustard family (see below).

The recipe is simple:
- 30g horseradish
- ½ Lemon squeezed
- 150ml crème fraiche
- Salt and pepper to season

Peel the horseradish and grate finely. This may seem like an easy thing to do, but it really isn’t. The peeling was a simple enough affair, the outside is fairly tough, but most regular peelers are well able to get through fresh horseradish. The grating was traumatic. Horseradish is fairly tough on the grating so it takes quite a bit of effort to wear down. Unfortunately, it also seems to be WAY more pungent than onion. After a couple of minutes grating (I was doing 50g) my eyes were watering. At 4 minutes my throat was dry and hurting. Finally, my eyes were closed and I couldn’t talk. I was blindly grating, resigned to the fact that I would stop when I felt the grater on my fingertips. I was left with a bowl of gratings and a trip to the sink to cool my eyes.

Add the lemon juice to prevent the horseradish from discolouring. Add to crème fraiche. As you know, I’ve been struggling for some time with the role of salt and general flavouring in food. Surprisingly, tasting the sauce revealed very little pungency. There was a lemon flavour and crème fraiche, but nothing else to talk of. The addition of a few pinches of salt had the most remarkable ability to bring out the mustard taste of the horseradish. This was quite a revelation for me, it was also the first time blanca accepted my seasoning without any modifications (although later she reckoned that it was a little weak – this may be due to too much lemon juice (see below)).

I'm going to do some flavour / taste blogs in the future - this will be an example of where salt has a dramatic effect. I've been told that salt has a similar result in making tomato sauce...

We sautéed some leek in butter and mixed with spring greens. The leek is a member of the lily family (allium), like the asparagus, onion, garlic etc. It is a leaf, much like the scallion. It contains many of the healthy properties of other members of its family:
- reduce total cholesterol (LDL) and raise HDL
- lower blood pressure
- associated with reduced risk of prostrate and colon cancer

Its flavour is more delicate and sweeter than onion, but while chopping you can still feel the pungent aroma from the vegetable.

I roll-sliced two large leeks and was surprised to see how much they stung. Almost to the same level as an onion. This was not a meal to ingratiate me with my eyes. Hopefully they’re not spiteful or I’ll be soon susceptible to sudden periods of blindness e.g. when I’m crossing roads.

Why do these vegetables cause our eyes to water?

Thanks to open topia for the following graphic depiction of the process. Leek, like onions, has two sections within their cells; one with enzymes (allinases) and the other with sulfides (amino acids). The enzymes break down the sulfides and generate sulfenic acid. This is unstable and decomposes into a volatile gas called (syn-propanethial-S-oxide). The gas dissipates into the air and comes into contact with your eyes. Water in your eyes mix with the gas to form a mild sulfuric acid. This irritates the nerve endings on your eyes and causes the tear gland to excrete tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.

There is a good deal of information about the horseradish. You can go to the interesting horseradish homesite (interesting because it seems to be able to combine horseradish into any recipe you choose). Like many vegetable reactions (horseradish is a member of the mustard family), it is only in grating that the horseradish becomes volatile. During the process, the cells of the root are crushed, releasing isothiocyanate (EYE-so-THIGH-oh-SIGH-uh-NATE) oils. During grating, cells breakdown and form, yeah you’ve guessed it, a volatile gas. This enters your eye, throat and you know the rest. Interestingly vinegar stops and stabilises this reaction. I’m not certain, but lemon juice may produce the same effect.

p.s. Taya mentioned that I should investigate the difference between red and white horseradish. The red turns out to be a beet and horseradish relish. It is a traditional Ukrainian dish called Tsvikli. Sounds good – must have it sometime.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

the sea devil (with salsa verde)

Monkfish with Salsa Verde

...david attenborough voice over: "...from the distance this jungle archipelago looks like slices of monkfish grilled with a great salsa verde"

Last night, cooking from “Fish”, we made a variation of their salsa verde recipe. From the one meal I've cooked, I can see this is a cool book. Blanca recommends it on the basis that it is co-authored by a cook (Sophie Grigson) and her husband fishmonger (William Black)... thus having taste and authority. I recommend it for the best cover of any food book I've seen so far; a mackerel on a red background (check the amazon link).

Ingredients for Salsa Verde (for 4):
Bunch of fresh parsley
Handful of basil
40 g olives
Few anchovies
2 tbsp capers
2 garlic cloves
100 ml olive oil
Salt and Pepper to season

This is the Italian version of the salsa verde, the Mexicans, enthused by the Spanish name have obviously come up with their own variant that looks fantastic. It is spicier and I’ll do it at some point in the future.

The recipe calls for a “bunch” of the fresh herbs. This is a quantity that I always struggle with. defines bunch as “group of things grown together”, “group of like items”, “group of people with a common interest” or “a considerable number”. Whilst parsley does no doubt share a common interest, these descriptions are not all that appropriate. Some sites go as far as quantifying “bunch” depending on the ingredient. For example, a bunch of parsley is in fact 1 ½ cups chopped or 2 oz. To Blanca, a bunch seems to mean half of whatever you have.

Instead of anchovies, we used olives from Spain stuffed with anchovies. Capers are a Mediterranean flower bud. They are not a favourite of mine, but I’m going to try living with them for a while to see if we share common interests. All recipes call for the cook to rinse the capers from their preservative (generally salt or vinegar). Their piquant flavour comes from mustard oils (methyl isothiocyanate) released when crushed (similar to our friend the horseradish).

As we all know, parsley is a regular acquaintance of garlic. The reason for this is that it is thought to freshen the mouth (more importantly the breath) from the effects of garlic or onion. Given that garlic actually infuses your blood and lungs, the effectiveness of parsley may be relatively short lived.

Similar to pesto, you could use a pestle and mortar in order to make this sauce. I used a food processor which was... less effort. Mix all excluding the oil and seasoning. When finely diced, add enough olive oil to make a moist, but not wet sauce. The recipe recommends bread, but we preferred to just use less oil.

Olive oil

Cut the meat into large rough pieces, season and brush on olive oil. These require a relatively short grilling or frying over a high heat. Serve as islands or otherwise.
The monkfish has many aliases; it is called angler-fish, frogfish, goosefish and, best of all, sea devil. All reference sources paint a picture somewhat like the wolf from little red riding hood, they agree that it is:
- ugly
- has a big head
- has large teeth
I'm feeling quite sorry for monkfish, even Alan Davidson turns his back on it, placing amongst "miscellaneous uncouth fish".

It grows up to 2 metres in length and is found predominantly in the waters of the Mediterranean to Iceland. The only edible portion of the monkfish is its muscular tail and its liver. The tail meat is dense and sweet. We had a large monkfish fillet still on the bone. The tail is amazingly large and strong.

I’m off to the fishmonger now to discuss whether the sea devil can be caught in bunches or whether it is just too damn ugly…

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Spicy Pita with "Steve's Garbanzo and Tahini Paste"

Spicy Pita Bread with Hummus

A little confession here; I do love hummus, but have always struggled with its kind of dull pita friend. Everyone knows that men are shallow and that we only hang out with dips that have cool and interesting friends. Fate stepped in with a nice solution this weekend. I found myself in a “pita moment” (hah hah, I’m hoping this takes off); watching morning TV on Saturday morning. Worse still, I found myself watching a food program. Rachel Allen was presenting her creatively titled “Rachel’s favourite foods” on the BBC. One recipe that appealed to me was for spicy pita bread, intrigued we decided to see if she had recommended a good solution for boring pita bread...

Pita Bread
Olive oil

Bit of trivia here; cumin (I still pronounce this in the feisty “come-in” style rather than “queue-min”) is the second most popular spice in the world (to black pepper). Sumac is a berry from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it is sour (similar to lemon).

Cut the pita bread into small triangles. Mix with moderate amount of olive oil in a bowl (warning; I probably added too much olive oil, but that’s ok as I’m supporting Spanish industry). Add a teaspoon full of each of the spices according to taste. Bake in an oven until golden brown. This is really good, nice mellow spices and a toasted crunch that really improves on the regular pita bread.

In the course of writing this blog, I have come across 7 different spellings of hummus, hummos, hummous, humus, homos, hoummous and hoummos. I’m thinking of calling it “Steve’s Garbanzo and Tahini Paste”, it is simple and I’m sure many of you have made it before, however I’ll quickly describe:

1 can of chickpeas
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons tahini
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Water (may be required according to mixture)
Cumin or chilli (optional & to taste)

By the way, I was surprised (and saddened) to find that chickpeas didn’t feature on until I realised that they are under their Latin American name; garbanzo beans. As with most beans, they are a good source of cholesterol-lowering fibre. They process blood sugars and are therefore good for those with diabetes. Interestingly, they are full of molybdenum which detoxifies sulfites from many prepared foods. I know that many people are allergic to sulfites (e.g. wines); perhaps chickpeas can help?

Rinse the chickpeas to remove excess salt. Put in a processor and blend until smooth. You will most likely need to add water in order to get a sufficient texture. Add the garlic, lemon, tahini (a sesame-seed sauce; it is like peanut butter. Blanca just got a present of a big heavy pestle and mortar, in the future we’ll make our own tahini), salt and pepper to taste.

For some less homemade, but possibly easier food; we’ve been having a Middle Easter theme to our dining out lately. One great restaurant that we’ve recently been to; Noura on Regent Street. The mezze (hors d’oeuvres) here is fantastic and, alone, is worth the visit, ranging from hummus, baba ghanoosh to tabbouleh.

For anyone that is interested; we couldn’t work out who Rachel Allen was, she had a kind of posh Irish accent. A phonecall home to Ireland didn’t give any relief. Later on Saturday we were out with Risteard and Jeanann, they confirmed that she’s the daughter-in-law of Ireland’s favourite home cook; Darina Allen.