Sunday, 26 February 2012

Moreish Meringues - use those left-over egg whites

Meringue with cream
and toasted hazelnuts

We've all seen those gigantic puffs of white meringue prettying-up the windows of trendy bakeries.  They've often had a scattering of cocoa powder, or a swirl of fruit puree if you're lucky - some sort of flavouring if you're not - added to thrill.  All too often they prove to be mere eye-candy; full of promise but lacking any substance.  I know it's only egg whites and sugar so lightness is a given, but meringues need to be tasty or what's the point?  My meringue is the antidote to the sweet, strangely powdery confections which are so often the reality of this window dressing.

For me a meringue should be a crisp shell with a slightly chewy centre where the sugar has gently caramelised.  The colour should be somewhere between pale coffee and caramel, depending on the sugar used.  I made the one in the photograph above with a lovely Costa Rican cane sugar bought from Monmouth Coffee.  It delivers a somewhat darker meringue and a lovely caramel flavour, but Billingtons also do a good range of unrefined sugars.  Toasted chopped hazelnuts can be added to the raw meringue mix with the last of the sugar, or can be sandwiched with the cream just before serving.

Mixing merinques

Some cooks add a pinch of salt to the recipe to improve the flavour.   If you do, add it towards the end of beating as it can decrease the stability of the egg whites and weaken the protein network that forms the structure of the meringue.  Though I wouldn't subject my lovely Costa Rican sugar to this, you could aso warm the sugar on a baking tray in an oven set at 140C for 10 minutes.  I'm told this results in a firmer meringue, though that's not something I'm looking for.  Another school of thought recommends warming the egg whites and all the sugar over a pan of simmering water until the sugar disolves, then beating the mixture for 15 minutes in an electric mixer for an airier result.  Both of these methods add to the workload for, to my mind, no discernible improvement in taste.

Meringues made with soft brown sugar

If, like me, you often have egg whites going spare, remember they freeze well.  Pop them in a container and top it up each time you're left with one or two.  Just remember to use them within a couple of months.  If you keep the containers to 2's or 4's then you'll have useable amounts  for making meringues, friands, amaretti biscuits...  or an egg-white omelette if you absolutely must!

Hazelnut Meringues
(makes 20-24 large, 10-12 pairs)

4 egg whites (140g) at room temperature
250g unrefined caster sugar (or soft brown sugar)
2tbsp toasted hazelnuts

Brush a baking sheet with a little oil and line it with parchment paper.  Pre-heat the oven to 120C (Fan oven 100C).  Whip the egg whites to soft peaks.  Gradually add half the sugar and mix to stiff peaks.  Using a metal spoon, fold in the rest of the sugar (and, if using,  2 tablespoons of toasted chopped hazelnuts or whatever you prefer).  Place rounded tablespoons of mixture onto the lined sheet and place in the oven for about 1hr 45 mins (a little less for smaller meringues) or until they are crisp to the touch.  Turn off the oven and leave the meringues in to cool down.  Serve with cream, whipped just until it holds, and those toasted hazelnuts if not already added to the meringue.

The meringues should keep well for about 10 days stored in a tin.  You can also use them to make a parfait - crush them, add to fruit and whipped cream, freeze for a couple of hours and serve in slices.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Maltby Street Traders - Food (photos) Find

This 'Food Find' is a bit of a tease as it is to alert you not to a specific food, producer or trader, but to a unique record by Bermondsey-based photogrpaher Tif Hunter.  My only excuse for labelling this a Food Find is that Tif's project captures a food community in the form of the Maltby Street Traders.  A regular at the Maltby Street arches on Saturdays, Tif has paused individual traders in the midst of their busy days at this wonderful food hub in Bermondsey.  These are far from ordinary portraits.  The strong, arresting, even beautiful, images are achieved using a 19th century camera allied with polaroid film, which produces both a positive and a negative image and a high level of focus.  The photos appear on the website Spitalfields Life.  It's an on-going project so if you like what you see, check back later in the year for more.  Spitalfields Life is updated daily by 'The Gentle Author', with 'goings-on' on the streets of the Spitalfields area of East London.  It's a great read and, truly, all human life is here.

Friday, 17 February 2012

February is the leanest month - so cook Sausage Ragu

Sausage Ragu
with gnocchi
There is no doubt that February is the leanest month in the culinary calendar, but by definition that makes it the most hopeful month (sometimes it pays to be a glass half-full type of person).  It will be another 6 weeks before I start planting in my allotment but my plan of action is ready and the seeds are ordered.  It will be late spring before I start harvesting my own crops so, as I eke out the remains of last year's garlic harvest, this is the time I rely heavily on my favourite shops and markets.  It's the one time of year when I'm happy to embrace some seasonal fruits from warmer climes.  I draw the line at imported blueberries, cherries and apricots - it's just so wrong in winter, and so tasteless - but sweet jewel-like pomegranite seeds and zingy bitter Seville orange are very welcome in my kitchen right now.

The sky may be grey but just think of all the uplifting foods which are just round the corner.  Blood oranges and forced rhubarb are already in the shops, and before we know it Alphonse mangoes will be appearing.  Artichokes, leeks, parsnips and, this year, some frankly disappointing winter cabbages (too mild?) will soon be eased out by broad beans, peas, and green garlic.  Wild garlic leaves and Jersey Royal potatoes will soon follow.  The fish and shellfish on offer is changing from oysters and sea bass to crabs, sardines, mackerel and scallops whilst venison and pork is joined by hoggett and, soon, tender spring lamb.  The best part is that, other than the oranges and mangoes, all of these will be British grown or raised.   Given the strange winter we have had this year, we may see some of these sooner than we expect.

We are on the cusp of of swapping the filling, warming foods of winter for the lighter, uplifting dishes of spring.  But we're not quite there yet, so here's an easy economical winter dish of pork sausages filled out with pillowy gnocchi, fragranced with fennel seeds and warmed by the heat of dried chilli.  It's inspired by a dish I've eaten more than once prepared by Dave Cook at Gergovie Wines/40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey and a version appears in Bocca the Cookbook

You can prepare the gnocchi a few hours ahead of time if you wish, then you don't want to have too much going on at once.  If you're short of time, I'm sure a short pasta such as penne would work well.  This is the perfect dish to keep the February blues at bay.

Sausage ragù with gnocchi
(serves 4)

4 best quality pork sausages
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1-2 small dried, deseeded, chillies (depending on strength)
Half a tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves
Half a tablespoon of fennel seeds, crushed
800g tin of plum tomatoes

Fry the sausages to brown lightly, then slice into rounds and keep warm.  Fry the garlic, chllies, fennel seed and rosemary for 1 minute then add the tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the sliced sausages and simmer very gently, uncovered, for at least 45 minutes until the sauce is quite thick and dark.

300g (12oz) of cooked floury potato, eg King Edward (about 400g raw)
50g (2oz) plain flour
1 small egg, lightly beaten
A little nutmeg to taste
Salt and pepper

Steam the potatoes in their skins (this keeps the mash dry).  Bring a pan of water to the boil and salt it.  When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, skin them and put through a ricer or mouli or mash well.  While still warm, mix in the flour, egg, nutmeg and seasoning lightly.  Take a small piece and drop it into the boiling water.  It should float to the suface without breaking up.  If it separates, add a little extra flour to your mix.  Take pieces and roll by hand into lengths, roughly the thickness of your middle finger (use a little extra flour if you need it only to stop it sticking to the work surface but handle gently).  Cut into 1cm lengths. Drop into the boiling water and once they float to the surface, cook for 2 minutes. 

Drain the gnocchi and add to the finished ragù (if you are preparing them ahead of time, spread them in a single layer on an oiled plate and chill and warm them through in the sauce for a couple of minutes when you're ready).  Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Fernandez & Wells at Somerset House

View from window seat in
Fernandez & Wells
at Somerset House

There's always something interesting going on in the gallery spaces of Somerset House.  A major  venue for contemporary art and design exhibitions and home to the wonderful Courtauld Institute for Art, it's located between the Thames and the Strand.  Finally, Somerset House has a café to fit this handsome location in the centre of London. 

Towards the end of last year Fernandez & Wells opened a simple food and wine bar in a corner location of the East Wing of this 18h century neo-classical building.  Looking out onto the central courtyard from what used to be offices for the Inland Revenue, it's a glorious spot. The wonder is that the civil servants managed to keep it to themselves for so long. 

Hidden well into January by the annual ice-rink, until now Fernandez & Wells was easy to miss.  Inside, high ceilings provide an elegant gallery-like three-room space for a stylish café which lives up to expectations.  Each of the rooms is hung with artworks by British artist David Tremlett.  This location is very different from the hole-in-the-wall spaces of the three Soho branches Fernandez & Wells have opened over the past four years.  In Soho your pulse quickens, and that's a good thing but sometimes you want a different kind of stimulation, a little peace and quiet, and some beauty.  Somerset House provides all of these, and the simple food at Fernandez & Wells doesn't disappoint.

Fernandez & Wells Interior
at Somerset House
Partners Jorge Fernandez, ex-Monmouth Coffee, and Rick Wells, formerly a BBC World Service reporter, created Fernandez & Wells in 2007.  The ethos is to offer a select range of foods from some of the best small producers and suppliers around in the kind of place you can pop into at any time of day.  Offering Spanish jamon from Juan Pedro Domecq and Tuscan cured meats from the wonderful Ham & Cheese Company, well-kept cheeses, beers from London's Kernel Brewery, excellent Pasteis de Nata and other good quality cakes.  Brunch dishes, a seasonal dish of the day, freshly made sandwiches, a focused range of wines and sherries, decent single estate coffees and teas makes it a good spot for any time of day.

The café is open every day from breakfast through to dinner.
Bag yourself a table and note the number before ordering your food at the counter and it will be brought over to you.  The staff are eager to please but the atmosphere is relaxed and relaxing.  It's not cheap but it is value for money and a great place to unwind - a world away from the traffic of the Strand.  In summer the courtyard is cooled by fountains and hosts an outdoor cinema season.  Oh, and did I mention the view? 

Fernandez & Wells
East Wing
Somerset House

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Moro - The Cookbook

Towards the end of 2011, when writing of my pick of cookbooks published over the previous year, I decided I would indulge myself with more reviews of the wonderful older books sitting on my bookshelves. Here is the first of them.  If you're interested in Spanish and Moorish cuisine, this is the best book I have come across.

Moro - The Cookbook
Sam & Sam Clark

How many times have you bought a cookbook and been disappointed to find a number of the recipes just don't work? It's happened to me too many times so these days I'm much more circumspect about the books I buy. With Moro - The Cookbook, I feel I'm in safe hands.  Despite the fact a lot of the dishes are unfamiliar, I have never had a failure cooking from this book.  Husband and wife team, Sam & Sam Clark, opened their restaurant Moro (from the Spanish for Moor) in 1997 after cooking together at Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers' River Cafe. This book is based on the cooking at Moro. Influenced by the River Cafe's emphasis on good ingredients simply cooked and their travels in Spain and the Muslim Mediterranean, they marry the robust style of Spanish food with the exotic lightness of the Muslim cooking they encountered.  As they put it, the book aims to "conjure up images of hairy-chested matadors and of hedonistic sultans".  There is romance and passion in this book - well, they were a newly married couple when they explored the regions - and their deep love affair with the food and the people shines out.  From the super-simple Spanish dish Sopa de guisantes and Saffron Rice, eaten at Muslim weddings, to the slightly more time-consuming Breast of Duck with pomegranate molasses or Yoghurt Cake with pistachios this is a fascinating meeting of cuisines. The Clarks' passion is expressed in prose which excites but is backed-up with well-researched recipes that work.

Moro - the Cookbook is published by Ebury Press

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Calcots with romesco sauce


Romesco sauce is a classic from Spain's Catalan region.  Made by pounding nuts, chillies, peppers, garlic and tomatoes, romesco is a versatile sauce which goes well with fish, chicken, lamb or vegetables such as asparagus or leeks.  Best of all is to serve it with calcots.  Somewhere between a spring onion and a leek, these alliums were orginally what harvesters missed in the autumn. The onions remained in the ground over winter and in January/February sprouted from the old bulb.  These days they are a delicacy and are planted to over-winter.  Their harvesting is often celebrated with a 'calcotada' festival.  There seems to be no definitive recipe for romesco sauce.  Some lean towards a high ratio of peppers, some to tomatoes.  The romesco recipe here is based on the one which appears in 'Moro the cookbook'.  It can be prepared ahead and keeps for at least a couple of days in the fridge.  You can perk it up by stirring in, or sprinkling on top, some feshly fried breadcrumbs before serving.

Having discovered the first Spanish calcots of the season gracing Tony Booth's arch in Bermondsey at the weekend, I just had to bring some home.  With thoughts of past enjoyment of calcots cooked over charcoal and served with romesco sauce on visits to Barcelona, I then had to decide how I was going to recreate my memories off this early spring traditional Catalan dish.  They need a high heat to obtain the desired charred quality so unless you have a barbecue, an open fire, or a robust cooking range you need to decide how you're going to achieve this in a domestic kitchen.  

I have an induction hob - not the gas range I would like.  I could have simply grilled them, but I opted to trim the roots of the calcots, strip off the outer "stocking", wash and pop them into boiling, salted water for just a couple of minutes before drying them on kitchen paper then charring them.  To achieve the charring, just heat a large frying pan on a fairly high heat and pour in a trace of olive oil.  Heat a second pan alongside.  Add the calcots to the first pan and cook them for 3-4 minutes on a medium-high heat until browned then turn each over, put the second hot pan on top and cook for a further 2-3 minutes.  Remove them to a few sheets of newspaper and wrap loosely.  Leave for 2 minutes then the calcots should emerge sweet, silky and slightly smokey.  

Calcots with
Romesco Sauce

Romesco Sauce
(For 4-6 people)

50g (2 oz) blanched almonds
25g (1 oz)  hazelnuts
1 dried ñoras or choriceros pepper
1 small dried red chilli, deseeded and crumbled
2 garlic cloves
25g (1 oz) stale white bread, torn into pieces
1 red Romano pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded or 75g piquillo peppers (the kind you see in jars in Spanish food shops)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 scant tablespoon sherry vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
½ teaspoon tomato purée
A pinch of saffron, infused in 4 tablespoons of boiling water
½ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
Salt and pepper

Break open the dried pepper, remove the seeds, crumble the pepper and pour enough boiling water over to cover.  Add the crumbled dried chilli to the bowl too.  Dry roast the nuts in a frying pan until golden brown then allow to cool.  Fry the whole garlic cloves in the olive oil until golden, then remove and keep aside.  In the same oil, fry the bread until golden and crisp.  Use a food processor or a pestle and mortar to pound the first seven ingredients to a coarse paste and keep the pepper water to one side (I like my sauce to be quite crunchy rather than smooth).  Transfer the paste to a mixing bowl and stir in the final five ingredients and any olive oil leftover from frying.  Add some of the pepper water to let down the sauce to the consistency you like.  You can also add more olive oil at this stage if you wish.

To eat the calcots, roll up the flesh and dip into the romesco sauce. Three or four per person makes a good lunch.  And if you can't get calmest, small-medium sized leeks are a good option.