Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Recipes from a New York Kitchen
by Deb Perelman

Just as I sat down to write this review I noticed The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook had emerged as the runner-up in Food52's 'Tournament of Cookbooks' for the coveted Piglet trophy.  As the tournament winner is a hot, young, New York based, chef I think Deb Perelman can feel pretty pleased with herself.  She's not a chef but a self-taught home cook and photographer, with a typically small New York kitchen, who "just likes to cook". The vast number of followers who have posted over 150,000 comments to her award-winning blog clearly like the way she does it. 

Of course, just liking to cook isn't all there is to Perelman.  She has an obsession to get things right.  The recipes in this book come out of much tweaking and testing and putting herself in the place of her readers.  This is something that professional chefs can't always achieve.  The Smitten Kitchen blog is archived seasonally but, disappointingly, seasonality is something which doesn't come across in the book.  What does shine out is the warm personality of the cook and her gratitude to her blog readers.  She is in no doubt that their constant questions made her a better cook and led to this book.    

Not everything about the The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook appealed to me.  Some of the recipe methods felt overlong in the attempt to make everything clear.  It would be easy to get superior about the odd listing of powdered garlic and onion, which was like a slap in the face to someone who grows their own.  But the author does express a desire to provide recipes which call for easy to find or "unfussy" ingredients.  There's no preaching about how to shop and what to buy, apart from telling us she buys good meat and shops at farmers markets where possible.  Deb knows from experience the pressures on time and budget most of us face and is good on suggesting substitutions.

Pancetta, white bean and swiss chard pie
cooked from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Recipes which caught my eye ranged from a healthy Roasted baby root vegetables with sherry-shallot vinaigrette to a far less so Chocolate hazelnut crêpe cake.  So, what did I try?  First off, a pie. Pancetta, white bean and swiss chard in a creamy velouté topped with a very good flaky pie crust worked a treat.  Being encouraged to prepare the stew and crust ahead influenced my choice.  By the time I needed to serve up it was quick, impressive and satisfying. Definitely one to cook again.

Grapefruit olive oil pound cake
cooked from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Perelman's enthusiasm for the idea of using grapefruit in an olive oil pound cake was infectious.  The recipe worked perfectly and produced an impressive cake, though the texture was a little drier than I was expecting.  I felt the grapefruit flavour pretty much disappeared and personally I missed the expected zesty freshness, so next time I will try it with lemon.

The book is structured simply, starting with 'Breakfast' and ending in 'Party Snacks and Drinks' - the perfect day for a food lover.   The photography is pretty and untricksy. Perelman's writing style is natural and confident and you will feel in safe hands cooking from this book.  It's a very good book for anyone who needs a bit of hand-holding but not patronising.

Book courtesy of Square Peg (a Random House Group Company)

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Poached spiced rhubarb

Poached spiced rhubarb
with yoghurt, honey and biscuit

We're well into the forced rhubarb season now so, if you haven't bought it yet, you'll need to get your skates on.  Very different from the later, unforced, crop which is better used in pies, crumbles and chutneys, it's well worth seeking out.  It is grown by candlelight, generating an atmospheric glow in the forcing shed.  You can force your own garden rhubarb by covering it with an upturned pot once it starts to bud - although don't try this two years in a row as you will stress the plant too much.  Once cut, the delicate pink stems will soften and droop in no time at all, so you can't hang about.  I've given you a couple of recipes in the past and, if you want to know more about rhubarb or to see the recipes, the links are below.  What you really need to know is the best way to poach it; then there are so many possibilities. Throughout January and February I make a weekly dish of poached rhubarb to pop in the fridge. It will happily  keep this way for up to a week and is perfect for creating a quick dessert when things get hectic.

Eating lunch in London tapas bar Barrafina this week, I was surprised, and frankly a little alarmed, to be offered a Spanish take on the English Rhubarb Crumble.  I very nearly skipped it but was glad I didn't. Layers of poached rhubarb and whipped cream were sandwiched elegantly, in a Martini glass, between crushed almond biscuit crumbs.  OK, so nothing radical there, but it was the spicing which sold me on the dish.  I sometimes poach my rhubarb with either vanilla sugar or pod.  Here they had used not only vanilla and cinnamon but there was a hint of clove too, and it really worked. So here's my way of poaching rhubarb with the addition of cloves.  Having recently learnt that cloves contain vanillin, it perhaps should have come as less of a surprise to me that cloves would be sympathetic.

I don't endorse products but, if you are using vanilla, I'd urge you to seek out the brand Ndali, especially as we are about to enter Fairtrade Fortnight (25 February-10 March).  The Ugandan Ndali cooperative produces exceptional quality vanilla and its principles deserve support.

Poached spiced rhubarb

1 kg pink forced rhubarb
175-200g caster sugar
Half a vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
1 whole clove
Juice of half an orange (optional)

Heat oven to 160C.  Wash and trim the rhubarb and cut into 1 inch/2cm lengths.  Place in an ovenproof dish.  Sprinkle over the sugar (and add orange juice if using).  Tuck the half vanilla pod and seeds and the whole clove in with the rhubarb.  Cover with greaseproof paper or foil and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring gently once.  Check after 40 minutes - the fruit should be soft, yet still holding its shape.  Remove from oven and, using a slotted spoon, gently place the rhubarb in a bowl.  Discard the clove. Wash the vanilla pod and leave to dry (once dry it can be added to a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar).  Pour the juice into a small heavy-based pan, bring it to the boil then simmer until the juice is reduced by half.  Cool and stir the thickened juice gently into the fruit.  The compote will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to a week.

Links which might interest you:
Rhubarb Triangle & Rhubarb Mess
Rhubarb & Ginger Polenta Cake

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

What on earth are you eating?

Butcher's Recipe book

In response to the current horsemeat scandal Carlo Petrini, Slow Food President, asks  "How have we, as humanity, become so despicable that we can betray our brothers and sisters, jeopardize their health and neglect their rights, all for the sake of money."

Food adulteration is nothing new.  It is a universal truth that if there's money to be made from messing with food, someone will do it.  These days, rather than the opportunistic entrepreneur, we've come to expect big business to be stirring the processed food pot.

In London, adulterations reached a peak in the 19th century.  The rich kept their fine teas under lock and key but what the poor drank was sometimes laced with poisonous black lead or iron filings; coffee was often bulked with acorn or chicory; milk was thickened with potato starch and passed off as cream; pickles were greened with copperas (iron sulphate); boiled sweets were coloured with arsenic and mercury.   In the 1820's, the chemist Friedrich Accum published a Treatise on Adulteration of Food, highlighting the use of chemicals in food.  He made himself so unpopular amongst London food manufacturers that a lawsuit caused him to flee the country.

Chalk, Plaster of Paris and, it was said, bone ashes were used to bulk out bread flour.  The compound alum was added to the mix for its whitening action and to produce a more silky crumb.  It was said that the consumers' delight in 'white' bread encouraged the practice.  W Mattieu Williams in The Chemistry of Cooking, published in 1885, pointed out there were two guilty parties to alum use - the buyer who demands unnatural appearances and the manufacturer who supplies the demand.  The medical journal, The Lancet, horrified the public when in the 1850's it published test results on 49 samples of bread and found all to be in some way adulterated.  The Food Adulteration Acts of 1872 and 1875 finally outlawed bulking out, poisonous additives and short weights.  However, chalk made a legal return in 1942 to bolster calcium deficiencies in the wartime diet.

Today's horsemeat food scandal owes much to price-squeezing by supermarkets and long supply chains  but W. Mattieu's observation on buyers and sellers still rings true.  If we demand cheaper and cheaper unrecognisable processed food, maybe we shouldn't be surprised when it turns out not to be quite what we thought.  One report on the horsemeat situation this week suggested worst of all was the possible use of wild Romanian horses.  Well, given that they will have eaten a natural diet, if I was going to eat horse, then I would prefer wild pony to racehorse stuffed with "bute".  Maybe now we should be looking at the other adulterations we currently take for granted in the form of 'additives', 'improvers' and 'nutrients'.  Let's get back to teaching our children how to shop wisely and cook from scratch because the less we know about food the more we risk being duped by the unscrupulous "all for the sake of money".

Friday, 15 February 2013

Anna Koska - Food illustration comes alive

by Anna Koska

I have a love-hate relationship with social media.  I hate it for robbing me of time, but love it for the chance meetings which enrich my life.  This post is about one of those serendipitous moments when you're glad you took the time to look.

A visit to my butcher led to a meeting with his supplier of top quality condiments and seasonings, which led to an illustration of a freshly pulled red onion.  Proof that one good thing leads to another.  Every part of the illustration was brilliantly observed, from the yellow/orange/pink/red/purple hues of the bulb to the papery skin and traces of soil clinging to its fine roots. This was the entrancing calling card, left a few minutes earlier, by Anna Koska.

I had to see more of this.  Back home I browsed the website and was blown away.  Illustrator Anna is entirely self-taught.  Her illustrations put life onto the canvas.  A luscious purple fig drips juice enticingly.  You imagine a shimmering Mackerel could, with one swish of its tail, swim out of the picture.

Arriving home yesterday I gathered up the usual handful of junk mail and bills from the doormat.  Snuggled amongst them was a surprise.  A small envelope addressed in an elegant hand.  The contents are reproduced above and I'm thrilled to have my very own, original, Anna Koska illustration.

I plan to bring you more of Anna, but in the meantime, I hope I've inspired you to look for yourself at
Anna Koska Illustration

Friday, 8 February 2013

Pancakes for the poor, Pancakes for the rich

Pancakes with sugar and lemon

I've never looked up a recipe for pancake batter before.  It's one of those things, once made, never forgotten.  Take four ingredients - flour, milk, egg, pinch of salt - mix briefly until you have a smooth batter, add a wrist-flick of melted butter and you have it.  With Shrove Tuesday almost upon us, I thought this year I might celebrate 'Pancake Day' a little differently.  I had no idea such a simple dish could have so many permutations and be fraught with so many class connotations.

Jane Grigson in her book English Food mentions some of these.  The 18th century recipe 'Harvest Pancakes for the Poor' is not too far from the one which resurfaces in my memory bank each February.  Using a minimal amount of egg in the mix, milk or mild ale (inter-changeable), and calling for lard to grease the pan all strike me as perfectly acceptable.  The addition of powdered ginger seems a little exotic but in the 1700's the English had a love affair with spices and a little pimping-up is understandable.  The resultant pancake needed to be heavy enough to act as an edible container for farm workers' meals as they had little time to stop when harvesting was under way.

Whilst there was clearly a practical aspect to the poor man's version of pancakes, Grigson felt the recipe 'Pancakes for the Rich' pointed up the different attitudes to food between the English and the French.  The working Frenchman, she felt, wouldn't see this version as "not for them" but would eat it on feast days rather than every day.  The English, she opined, "cling masochistically to the poor man's recipe", denying themselves the added delights of cream, butter and sherry.

Pancakes with England Preserves
Seville Orange Curd
Then, of course, there are Crêpes Suzette.  I'd personally be happy to see the 70's dining-out favourite resurrected from its unfair burial. This got me thinking. With half a jar of England Preserves Seville Orange Curd needing a suitable use, I tried it on a batch of pancakes.  It was a huge success.  The sharp, buttery curd was a revelation wrapped in the warm, crisply fried batter. The far richer buttermilk pancakes, capable of soaking up a topping, definitely have a place in my kitchen, too.  Somehow, though, they don't seem right for Pancake Day.

So, which pancake batter will I be mixing next Tuesday?  It will be the one I always mix, of course.  Somewhere between pancakes for the poor and pancakes for the rich with a simple sprinkling of sugar and squeeze of lemon. Then again I have to confess to a weakness for a spoonful of golden syrup along with the lemon.  Oh dear, I fear Jane Grigson would be disappointed in me.

My Shrove Tuesday Pancakes
(Makes: around 12 if you use sparingly, as you should)

125g plain flour
1 large egg
250ml milk
Pinch of salt
25g butter
A little butter or oil, such as groundnut, for frying

Add the flour to a bowl and form a well.  Break the egg into the well, add the pinch of salt and about 1/3 of the milk.  Mix, gradually incorporating the flour and adding the rest of the milk slowly as you do so.  When you have a smooth batter (don't mix too much - sieve it if stubbornly lumpy), melt the butter until it just starts to brown lightly then quickly mix it into the batter.  Pour the batter into a jug and refrigerate for about 45 minutes.

Add a tiny amount of butter or oil to the pan and heat until very hot before turning the heat down to between medium and high.  Stir the batter and pour a little into the hot pan to form a thin coating and cook until browned.  This is a sacrificial one as the first pancake is always poor, so, you'll probably want to discard it.  Pour about 2-3 tablespoons of batter into the pan and quickly swirl it around the pan to coat it thinly.  Brown lightly and turn the pancake (tossing it, of course, as that's half the fun) to lightly brown the other side.  Re-butter or oil the pan (it needs very little between each pancake).  Repeat the process and when each pancake is light browned on both sides add it to a plate and keep warm in a low oven until the job is done.

For more on the history of Pancakes, the author Kate Colquhoun covers a lot of historical ground in a short time with this 2007 Telegraph article.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Battling birds & corralling cabbages

Cabbage January King

January is a dispiriting time on the allotment in the best of years.  When the calendar flicks over to February it's a welcome sign of good things to come. That said, after the toughest growing year most people can remember, it takes a strong breed of gardener to take any pleasure in their plot right now.  It's not only amateur gardeners who are finding times hard.  Commercial growers have been hit badly over the past 12 months with record-breaking wet weather resulting in poor yields.  Worryingly, much UK arable land is still under water. This bodes ill for production in the coming year.

In my own plot a few parsnips hold on tight in the heavy clay soil.  Pulling one is akin to trying to extract a wellie-booted foot after a stomp across boggy ground.  I should be glad the parsnips have grown so well, but half an hour to release one from its sodden slumber is enough to make anyone question the sanity of growing winter crops.  Even the leeks are struggling to put on any girth this year.  Overwintering onions and garlic have rotted in the waterlogged ground so I'll need to plant afresh in early Spring.

It's the pigeons that have brought me here today.  Their appetite for brassicas at this time of year is insatiable.  Not only do I have to net the only green vegetables that will grow through winter but I feel obliged to check the birds haven't got themselves entangled in their attempts to rob me of my stash. Today all is well, both black cabbage and broccoli have recovered from the winged army's last gale-fueled raid.  They will, no doubt, mount a second front given half a chance.

Fortunately, however bad things seem, there's always something cheering. The 'Early' purple sprouting broccoli is living up to its name this year.  I harvest a few spears before ensuring the plants are safely tucked away from winged marauders.  The rhubarb crowns I moved in autumn from an overcrowded, weed-ridden spot are repaying my efforts.  Obscene pink protuberances push gamely skywards.  The blackcurrant bushes are already in bud.  I make a mental note to protect their fruit from blackbirds this year so that I can make that blackcurrant trifle they robbed me of last June.

However difficult growing your own food is, it's worth doing.  Sometimes knock-backs are good, if only to help us appreciate the fragility of our eco-system.  Let's hope, should we have another bad year on the allotment, our farmers fair better.  Back home, with a small but precious haul, I accentuate the positives and send off my seed order for the coming year.  That done, those precious stems of broccoli are boiled and dressed, still hot, with anchovies and olive oil.   It's a classic combination which hardly merits a recipe but here's what to do if you haven't come across it before.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Anchovies

750g purple sprouting broccoli
1 small tin of anchovies in oil, or 6-8 salted anchovy fillets
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add salt.  Wash and trim any tough stalks from the broccoli.  Add to the boiling water and boil for 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, until tender but still firm.
While the broccoli is cooking, mix or pound the anchovies together with the lemon juice, olive oil and pepper.
Drain the broccoli well and toss with the anchovy dressing.  

Good served with crusty bread.