Make Mine Marinara

As I’ve stated many times before, I’m a big believer in “Big Batch Cooking”. Few things in life comfort me as much as the knowledge that-come what may, I have a big batch of my ragu, or my mother’s Poor Man’s Stroganoff, or just chicken stock, filling up my freezer, just waiting to be either heated and eaten, or turned into something else to be heated and eaten.

But as the days lengthen and the temperature warms up I generally turn away from slightly heavier fare. I don’t necessarily want a creamy stew, or even a meaty spag bol. I start to crave lighter meals. But I do still want to be prepared; to have something other than that trusty chicken stock on standby for either a quick pasta supper, or maybe just a flavoursome sauce for fish.

And that’s when I feel the urge to make a big batch of marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, and herbs,” is one of the best possible standbys to have in your fridge or freezer. It is of course your almost basic tomato sauce. Marinara sauces are much lighter and fresher than you might think – at least when made at home and not laden with extra sugar and preservatives etc (no, I don’t believe in a store-bought pasta sauce).

pizza_sauce As such, it’s the perfect sauce for summer. It’s not only brilliant on pasta, but is also the perfect base for topping homemade pizzas, a delicious accompaniment to a grilled piece of chicken, fish, pork, or even steak.  What’s more, since it’s more of a staple of Italian-American rather than Italian cuisine (trust me, there’s a difference), it leaves you a lot more room to experiment since you won’t be hindered by the strictures of tradition.

Marinara is incredibly easy to make, and all from easily obtainable kitchen staples. I don’t use fresh basil in my marinara, for one very simple reason: I like my marinara to be a base, a starting point. From that base sauce, when I’m reheating a portion of it for whatever purpose, I can add that basil (which only works when fresh, and is assertive when used in any sauce), capers, dried chilies or black olives (though I almost never use black olives as I loathe them- no Putta in the kitchen, I), vodka, or cream!

sauce_makingOnce you have this basic sauce as that starting point it will save you loads of time –in the future. A good marinara does take a bit of time to make. Tomatoes, whether you use canned or fresh, take a good couple of hours to cook down properly and lose that potentially sour raw edge.

But a lot of time does not equal a lot of effort and there’s not much actual effort here. Just the odd bit of pot-watching, stirring, and some deeply pleasurable squishing. The squishing may in fact be my favorite stage. If you’ve got kids (with clean hands) this is actually a great sauce to get them to help you with.

So here’s my recipe for a good all-round Marinara (Italian culinary purists, look away now):

Marinara Sauce
(makes 6-8 servings)

You will need:

  • A couple of good glugs of olive oil
  • 1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes (optional. I like my Marinara to have a little bit of a kick, but then the older I get, the more I get my kicks where I can)
  • 1 20 cl mini bottle (or a big glass) of good dry white wine- you can use red,and in winter that’s what I use- but I like the lightness of white in the summer months
  • 6 400g cans of peeled Italian plum tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • Salt and pepper

What to do:

  • In a large deep, lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium low flame until it’s fragrant. Then throw in the chopped onions and a good sprinkle of salt (the salt will stop the onions from catching). Let the onions saute until they soften and turn translucent. This will take a good ten minutes.
  • Once the onions are like mushy window panes, toss in the garlic, the oregano, and the chili flakes (if using), stir, and let them cook for just a minute or two. Then raise the heat just slightly, and pour in the white wine. Let the wine simmer until it’s reduced by at least half.
  • While the wine is reducing, it’s time for the fun part! Place a colander (ideally plastic or enamel) over a large bowl, then tip in the six cans of plum tomatoes. Then with absolutely clean hands, start squishing the tomatoes between your hands until they are a messy pulp in the colander. Give them a stir with a wooden spoon to send any juice they’re holding down into the bowl.
  • Once that wine is reduced by half (the onion/garlic/oregano mixture should look like a distinctly wet slurry), tip in the tomatoes from the colander. Give them a stir in the saucepan, then add the juice from the bowl and the tomato puree. Stir vigorously for a minute to mix in the puree then let  it come to a steady low simmer.
  • Season with one more sprinkling of salt and a good grind of pepper then just put the lid almost but not quite entirely over the pot, and let it simmer away for about 2 1/2 hours, giving it the occasional stir and taste.
  • After 2 1/2 hours, the sauce should have reduced by about a third, and have a good, thickish and slightly chunky consistency, as well as a deep cooked tomato flavor spiked with just that note of onions, garlic, wine and herbs.
  • At this point I personally let the sauce cool down a bit, then puree it with an immersion blender. That’s because I find the sauce is more versatile if it’s smooth and velvety (which it so deliciously is). If you like the more “artisan” nature of a slightly chunky sauce, buon gusto!

And as I mentioned above, don’t just think of a Marinara as being a sauce for pasta or pizza; remember that grilled fish! Or that steak Pizziaola! Or go fabulously 80s retro and use it as a dipping sauce for deep-fried mozzarella!

mozz_sticks


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Raisins D’Etre

I remember the day well.

oat_raisinI was nine years old, we were living in Lagos Nigeria, and my mother was baking oatmeal raisin cookies for a school bake sale or somesuch. I imagine she’d chosen those cookies because snickerdoodles or chocolate chip cookies wouldn’t be safe around us kids, and these cookies were certainly not for us. But nine-year olds can be greedy, and I was hanging around the kitchen hoping I’d be able to snaffle at least one cookie as they cooled. My mother, however, was vigilant. Even the slightly scorched cookies were going to a better cause. At last, as my mother was pulling the final baking sheet out of the oven, I spotted my chance. There, in the corner of the sheet was a stray raisin.

Surely I could at least have that? As my mother’s head was turned, I plucked it off the baking sheet and into my mouth.

Something was instantly very wrong. As I pulled little crispy legs out of my mouth I realized that this was no raisin. This was a bug that had somehow flown into the oven and met a hellish end. So my little nine-year old self promptly spat the rest out and screamed the house down.

I have been deeply suspicious of raisins ever since.

I don’t think I’d really felt one way or the other about raisins before that. I hadn’t grown up with those little boxes of Sun Maid raisins that little kids take to school for snacks, and I was certainly too young to appreciate the joys of a mince pie, though I do recall having been briefly fond of Raisin Bran cereal. But the Insect Immolation Incident  of 1976 put paid to that.

In certain contexts, I don’t feel one way or the other about raisins now. They’re certainly an integral ingredient

  • in mince pies, which I adore;
  • in rugelach, which I quite like;
  • and in that traditionally Southern US carrot and raisin salad, which I traditionally avoid. (Raisins in mayonnaise? I ask you…)

The point is that in those dishes and delicacies I’ve just mentioned, the raisin is front and center. There’s a reason for the raisin. You expect to find raisins in a mince pie just as you would in an oatmeal-raisin cookie (assuming that it is a raisin), or in a bowl of Raisin Bran. In fact, against the tree-bark dryness of the bran flakes, the squishy sweetness of the raisin is something of a blessed relief. If you didn’t find raisins in your rum-raisin ice cream, you might be disappointed. Well, you might. I’d be more likely to pass on the raisins and the ice cream and head straight for the rum. But with all of these comestibles, you know in advance that the raisin is there. The clue is in the title, so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to go there, raisin-wise.

black-raisins-13024817Because raisins are not for everyone. In a recent survey held on a statistically sophisticated internet site (otherwise known as Facebook), I found that people are fairly evenly split on the subject of raisins. Although roughly half the surveyed respondents (aka my friends and relatives) professed great enthusiasm for those diddy dessicated grapes, pretty much an equal number shared an equal level of loathing. And it’s not difficult to see why.

Raisins are intensely sweet (up to 72% sugar by weight, just fyi), have an odd chewy-yet-squishy texture, (spend 45 minutes in a mindfulness meditation class contemplating a raisin and you’ll be intimately familiar with both) and can frequently be mistaken (not just by me) for something else. Show me a man who will eat a raisin off the floor and I’ll show you a man who has never kept a rabbit as an indoor pet.

The problem is that raisins – like winged tropical insects- turn up in the most unlikely places. In salads, in stuffings, in Jewish-Italian pasta dishes and in Moroccan tagines. Okay, I’ll give the Venetian Jews and the Moroccans a pass. Tradition is tradition, and these are hot countries. High summer, ya forget to put ya grapes in the shade, and ten minutes later ya got raisins. So needs must. But when people add raisins to stuffings and salads and the like, I get confused. I don’t see the point. The raisin always feels to me like that extra and unnecessary ingredient that’s been thrown in to fancy the dish up a little. Sort of like that Dorothy Parker quote: “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

Now I’m all for a note of sweetness amongst the savory. In fact as I’ve matured as a cook (and eater) I’ve realized its absolute necessity. But it’s more of a textural issue for me. That uniquely peculiar texture of a raisin can come as quite an unpleasant shock if you’re not expecting it. And there’s the rub. As a dear friend of mine put it, raisins lurk.

No foodstuff should ever lurk. But raisins do. They have an odd ability to remain indiscernible until they’re already on your fork-or worse- in your mouth. And raisins lurk in two principle ways:

1. They lurk under different names. You think that currant is a variant of those little red or black berries of which the British are so peculiarly fond? Nope. It’s a raisin. Did you think that a sultana was perhaps an exotic fruit from the spice-scented subcontinent? Nope. It’s a raisin. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a raisin by any other name is still as shriveled.

2.  They bring out a streak of dishonesty in those who put them in strange culinary places. It’s true. In this age where chefs and foodies alike list an entree by naming every possible ingredient, up to and including the stretch of coast from whence they sourced the sea salt (I’m as guilty of this particular bout of gastronomic pretension as, well, the next gastronome), somehow the inclusion of raisins is all too often left un-mentioned. Perhaps to avoid the following putative burst of conversation:

“I’m serving poached Whitstable oysters in a Provencal tarragon butter with smoked Orkney sea salt and raisins.”

“It has raisins in it?”

“Why, yes!”

“Why?”

It’s as though those who like to use raisins in their food have a niggling feeling that just maybe there are people out there who don’t. So they just don’t tell you. They sneak (yes SNEAK) them into the aforementioned stuffings and salads without giving you a word of warning. Even worse, there are those of a sufficiently psychotic bent to sneak them into a brownie, which is an affront to all that is good and proper in a brownie. So the diner is left to manfully struggle through eating that raisin-redolent dish while attempting manfully to mask their repeated shock at encountering what to them is an unpleasant and unexpected additional texture (if not possibly a winged tropical insect). I personally believe that raisins, like gluten and nuts, should be vociferously announced before consumption of same shall occur.

So please, people. Let’s be reasonable about raisins. Whether by tradition or taste and texture, let there be a rational reason for the raisin.  If there are raisins in a dish you’re serving to anyone other than yourself, let your diners know. The raisin should be respected. Raisins are delicious in the right culinary context, and raisins are a great way to preserve grapes. (Although there’s a far greater way to preserve grapes. It’s called wine.) So we should be kind to raisins. After all, as that great line from the movie “Benny And Joon” puts it: “Raisins… they’re just humiliated grapes.

Lessons Learned From Holiday Cooking

It’s a funny thing: while I’ve cooked the Thanksgiving meal more times than I can actually remember, it’s actually been a long while since I last cooked a proper Christmas dinner.

For years my sister and I had a tradeoff whereby I’d cook Thanksgiving dinner and she’d cook the Christmas lunch. After that, Christmas Day usually found me volunteering, or a guest at another meal, or just relaxing with a mince pie or twelve on my own, which can sometimes be all you want to do on Christmas Day if you’re working either side of it. The cumulative result of all those years; the tradeoffs, the working, and a heck of a lot of turkeys, has been that Christmas has been a holiday that- at least as a foodie- I generally let pass by.

But this year was different. This year I had a dear friend visiting from New York (expecting a full-on traditional British Crimbo feast), as well as a flatmate and a stray workmate who needed a Christmas Dinner to make up for the one that work was keeping them from. So for the first time in perhaps a decade, I would have to don my elf (not ready for chef) hat and make like the Spirit Of Christmas Dinner. Now lest you think that I write this in the spirit of self pity, let me assure you  that instead I found the challenge (for the most part) completely exciting. Not least because I could finally cook a goose, and also help make bread!

bread_and_goose

But cooking for Christmas isn’t just for the day itself; if you’ve got guests and such, it’s also cooking for Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve, and dealing with the leftovers that result. Also, as I learned, it’s about baking. Because if ever there’s a time of year to get out the rolling pin and the cookie cutters, this was it.

So I learned a great deal cooking, baking, and watching others bake over this past Holiday season. While I apologise for the length of time it’s taken for all I learned to settle in, I’d like to share what I learned with you. After all, with February upon us, who doesn’t want to be reminded of why we are currently fasting and not feasting? And rather than apologise for the length of a single post, I have broken it up into a multi-part series

  • flourymessLesson 1. Fear Not The Flour: I have an aversion to flour that borders on the phobic … ask me to open a bag of flour and I begin to twitch. (Read the whole post)
  • Lesson 2. Gird Fast Against Goose Fat: For lo these many years I had wanted desperately to cook a goose for Christmas dinner. I had read up on it, and had even assisted in the cooking of a goose previously. But however excited I was to prepare and cook this truly traditional British Christmas bird … (Read the whole post)
  • Lesson 3. Salad Not The Salmon: Really, it was a salad but as long as I didn’t call it a salad it went down a treat. (Read the whole post – with recipe!)
  • Lesson 4. Observe The Oven: It’s as traditional for the British to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve as it is for them to smoke foodstuffs the rest of the year. This New Year’s I dang near managed both. (Read the whole post – with recipe!)

Holiday Cooking Lesson 4: Observe The Oven

It’s as traditional for the British to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve as it is for them to smoke foodstuffs the rest of the year. This New Year’s I dang near managed both.

That wretched goose fat, you see, had managed to drip all over my oven during one of the many lypo-removal processes during Christmas Day. Although I had momentarily thought “Gee Patrick, best clean that up soonish or there’ll be a conflagration later”, the ongoing festivities during the Holiday week and sent the state of my oven spinning from my mind.

I was feeling a tad smug on New Year’s Eve. There were only three of us for dinner (myself, Pamela, and that non-leaf eater Natalie) so I had planned a simple roast chicken Othello for dinner, alongside some glazed carrots and and another rather special side instead of stuffing. All very simple, easy to prepare, and ready to just chuck in the oven.

Unless, that is, you’re having a glass of wine or two in the lounge as the oven heats up, and all three of you begin to question why your eyes are watering.

ovenfireAs I got up from my seat to investigate, my mind immediately returned to Irwin Allen. There was a definite haze in the air; a haze that smelled rather distinctly of goose fat. A trip to the kitchen instantly confirmed my fears. I had forgotten to clean the oven and now it had turned into the kind of high-performance smoker that would very shortly kipper anyone within a two mile radius.

Most people have long since finished dinner by midnight on New Year’s Eve. We were barely scraping our plates by the time the chimed tolled. This was entirely because I had to turn the oven off, wait for it to cool down entirely, and then give it a thorough cleaning and rinsing before I could get the New Year’s dinner back on track. Never in my life have I been so relieved to, instead of hosting a formal dinner for 10, be hosting a dinner for three so informal that the dress code was onesies.

And at least I started the New year with a clean oven.

Now the goose fat in the oven was not the only potential source of conflagrations that night. There remained the second loaf of Challah bread that Pamela had baked so beautifully on Christmas Eve. We had eaten the majority of the first loaf on Christmas Day, and the remaining stub had proved to go very nicely with my beloved Marmite for breakfast on Boxing Day. But that second loaf had remained, and been a bit of a sore topic. On more than one occasion Pamela had pointed out, with a meaningful glint in her eye, how well Challah serves as French toast. But glint though she might, she had happened upon a somewhat immovable object.

I happen to dislike French toast.

It’s true. I’m also not a huge fan of bread pudding, particularly if it has raisins in it. I’m not entirely sure why this is, other I’ve come to believe that a sweet custard should be poured over, rather than soaked into, desserts. And anyway the French name, Pain Perdu, always seemed to indicate precisely my feelings when faced with this particular breakfast entree.

Besides, I had something far more savoury in mind for that second loaf of Challah. I’ve always been intrigued by strata. I’m not speaking here of matters geological, but rather those savoury bread puddings that are becoming very popular brunch dishes. One thing I dislike about a sweet bread pudding is the lack of textural contrast, and another is the singular flavor not. With a strata, however, you get bacon, or mushrooms, or whatever you fancy in a one dish meal that will round out flavors and add extra texture and variety. So why not apply that idea to a side dish to accompany a roast chicken? It could take the place of stuffing, and by adding veg to it, could also replace the need for a starch and a third veg! (I must add here that although I was in possession of enough goose fat to give Gertrude Ederle a swim for her money, it was going to be a fair while before I was in any mood to contemplate the future use of same.)

So I came up with a recipe that would use up that Challah, alongside leftover bacon lardons, thyme, parsley and scallions, and also allow me to introduce portobello mushrooms into my New Year’s Eve dinner.

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CHALLAH STRATA WITH BACON AND PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS (serves 10)

You will need:

  • 3/4 of a loaf of stale Challah bread, cut into big fork-sized chunks
  • 8 portobello mushrooms, cut into fork-sized chunks
  • 200g (1small packet) smoked bacon lardons, such as panchetta
  • 8 scallions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional. The garlic is perfect if you’re serving this as an evening side, but brunch can be a little early in the day for that adorable allium.)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon paprika dulce.
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a large frying pan, saute the mushrooms in oil and butter until black and meaty. Remove the mushrooms and reserve. Then add the smoked back lardons to the pan, and once they’ve rendered their fat and are crisping up, add the scallions and garlic. Saute for a couple of minutes, then add the bacon, scallions and garlic to the mushrooms and mix in the thyme. Leave to cool.

Beat the eggs, milk, and paprika together in a bowl and season with black pepper and just a touch of salt. Place the Challah chunks in a large bowl and pour over the egg and milk mixture. Gently push the chunks of bread down into the mixture to help it soak in. This will seem irretrievably sloppy at first, but fear not. Then stir in the mushrooms and bacon mixture, and add the parsley.

Pour all this into a buttered baking dish (a big one- this makes a big strata), cover in clingfilm, and leave in the fridge to set for at least 2 hours. Overnight is fine, so you can make this a day in advance if that helps!

When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4/350f/180c

Bring the strata out of the fridge a half hour before you’re going to cook it, to bring it up to room temperature. Then remove the clingfilm and put it in the oven to bake for 40minutes to 1 hour.

I used the remaining 1/4 of the Challah loaf to make breadcrumbs, which is no more difficult than whizzing it up in a food processor. I then took about 3 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, mixed them with a teaspoon each of the thyme and parsley, seasoned, and then sprinkled them over the strata before it went into the oven to make a crunchy top, but that’s purely optional. This would also work well with a brioche loaf, or indeed any round or braided loaf!

Serve as a side dish with a roast chicken, or as a brunch main course with poached eggs and a green salad!

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The recipe was rather a success (even amongst the fungi-phobic at the table), and also proved to be the sort of side that you can cook alongside a roast chicken, with no changes in oven temperatures or any of that bother. I would also- with a tweak that I’ll list below- happily serve it if ever I am called upon to host a brunch. It’s hearty,flavorsome, and just stodgy enough to provide the ballast you need if you’re going to see the New Year in with a drink or three. It also makes for a big dish, so would be most suitable for a larger gathering.

So as the clock ticked down to midnight, and we toasted a new year (and no more big meals to cook in the foreseeable), I briefly pondered what my culinary New Year resolutions would be. And I’ve been pondering ever since, so here they are:

  • Learn to bake your own bread. It’ll fulfill your new found need to knead.
  • Find new uses for fat. (Seriously, I have so much goose fat in the freezer I keep mistaking it for ice cream)
  • Embrace the starter. You won’t be a true grown up dinner party cook until you do.
  • Never be afraid to put a twist on “breakfast for dinner”. I don’t have to go the eggs, bacon and pancakes route, but if living in a country where the breakfast/dinner lines are blurred anyway, why not embrace that? (Anyone finding me consuming a bowl of Apple Jacks for supper should, however, immediately report me to the relevant authorities. Who those authorities are is your problem.)

Holiday Cooking Lesson 3: Salad Not The Salmon

As I’ve stated previously, I was going for a rather traditionally British Christmas Dinner, and so had to make a starter. Because here in the UK, a first course for the Crimbo lunch is rather de-rigeur. As young Natalie said, “We have to have a first course, a fishy first course!”

Now I would normally have put my foot down on that score, not being a great fish fan, but fortunately for me, smoked salmon is as prevalent during the holiday season here as sausage rolls are the other twelve months of the year. And I happen to adore smoked salmon.

The trick lay in coming up with a smoked salmon starter that was light. There was going to be that rich, heavy main course to follow, and I didn’t want to add to any actual cooking on the day (or even before, what with all that baking). So I thought I’d make a smoked salmon salad, which would have been just fine if certain people with whom I share accommodation didn’t flatly refuse to eat anything with the word “salad” in it, let alone anything resembling a leaf.

So a classic salad was out.

smokedsalmon_dillNow there was no way in Christendom I was going to go to the bother of a mousse (I refer you to the previous evening’s oven usage), but how to maybe sort of emulate one? And what flavors to go with? The British (or rather the Scotch), it must be said, produce possibly the best smoked salmon in the world. But then they rather leave it at that, preferring to serve it on buttered brown bread with a wedge of lemon and perhaps a parsley garnish. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in general, but it ain’t what you’d call “festive”. So I had to cast my culinary cultural net in a distinctly Scandinavian direction to give my first course not only crunch and texture, but also some bold fresh flavors to contrast that silkily rich salmon.

The solution, when it came to me in the wee small hours of December 23rd, was deliciously simple: something between a mousse and a salad! A melange! So on Christmas morning I mixed softened cream cheese with creme fraiche, added some chopped dill and wholegrain mustard, and then used that mix to swathe some diced green apple and cucumber, and left the lot to set in the fridge. Then all I had to do was grill slices of rye bread to get that lightly toasted effect, let them cool a bit, then dollop my melange onto the bread and surround it with generous slices of smoked salmon.

Let me tell you, it was an utter and palpable hit with all concerned. Really, it was a salad, in a thick dressing, but as long as I didn’t call it a salad it went down a treat.

In fact, so pleased was I with the results that the recipe (see below) is a keeper, and one I’ll adapt for future parties, dinner or otherwise. It was easy to prepare, did not require the use of the oven when other courses were being cooked, and could even be made a day or two in advance, and is really adaptable. I’m thinking I’d chop the salmon into the melange, and then serve as canapes on little toasted rounds of rye bread.

And, a couple of bowls aside, I didn’t even need to clean anything up afterwards.

SMOKED SALMON MELANGE (serves 6)

You will need:

  • 1 small cucumber, peeled, de-seeded, and diced
  • 2 tart green apples, peeled, cored and diced
  •  juice of half a lemon
  • 1 small 200g tub of cream cheese, left overnight to soften ( Iuse low-fat, but as ever that’s up to you!)
  • 2 heaped tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream ( as above, fat-wise)
  • 2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
  • 6 slices rye bread
  • 200g- 12 generous slices of smoked salmon

First, place the diced cucumber in a colander or sieve over a bowl, sprinkled with 1 teaspoon sea salt, and toss to mix. Then place a small plate over the cucumber and weigh the plate down. Leave for 1/2 hour. This will help the salt draw the excess water out of the cucumber, which brings out more of the cucumber flavor, firms up the texture, and stops the cucumber from making the melange go all watery as it sits in the fridge..

While the cucumber is draining, toss the diced green apples in a small bowl with the lemon juice. the lemon juice stops the apple from turning brown while it’s waiting.

In a larger bowl, beat the cream cheese and creme fraiche together until smooth and thickened. Stir in the mustard and fresh dill, and season with a little black pepper. (You shouldn’t need salt. The salmon is salty, and remember those cukes!) Stir in the apple and cucumber, and put in the fridge to set until you need it (This will sit in the fridge quite happily for a couple of days). It won’t go as firmly set as a mousse, but will hold together nicely.

Toast your rye bread slices on a griddle pan only enough to give them those grill marks. You still want the bread to be toothsome rather than totally crunchy. Let the toasted slices cool.

When you’re ready to serve, simply dollop a generous portion of the apple/cucumber melange onto each slice of the rye bread and surround, as artistically as you are able, with 2 slices of the smoked salmon!

You could, if you so wished, chop up the salmon and add it to the melange. This would turn your first course into something of a Scandinavian bruschetta, but I see nothing wrong with that. You could also cut the rye bread into small rounds, toast them and serve the melange in little dollops on them as canapes.

Holiday Cooking Lesson 2: Gird Fast Against Goose Fat

For lo these many years I had wanted desperately to cook a goose for Christmas dinner.

roastgoose I had read up on it, and had even assisted in the cooking of a goose previously. But however excited I was to prepare and cook this truly traditional British Christmas bird, with all its delightfully Dickensian connotations, I was a tad unprepared for all the distinctly Dickensian imprecations that would follow. Roasting a goose, you see, is not at all as simple as roasting a chicken or a turkey. There may not be any brining involved- and there’s certainly no basting- and nor do you have to turn the bird over, or adjust temperatures, or slap a butter-soaked muslin cloth over it. But boy is there preparation, not to mention much more frequent trips to the oven than basting would incur.

To begin with, once you’ve got your goose home you have to remove any excess fat from the body cavity. Now I was lucky, in as much as I’d ordered my goose from an excellent supplier and so the goose arrived with that fat pre-bagged for me. Can I just say it was a real big bag? A much larger bag than the one that held the giblets, in fact. And the thing with a goose is, that big bag of mushy white stuff is- as far as fat goes- merely the icing on the cake.

When you remove the goose from its wrapping, the first thing you notice is just how much fat there is larding pretty much the entire body. Well they’re water fowl, so of course that’s necessary for them, poor dears. But all that fat has to render out as you cook the goose, and that’s what creates the yuletide yuckies, as well as the previous eve’s prep.

So in the midst of all the stirring and the rolling and the kneading and the baking (and the flour), I had to spend a bit of time repeatedly stabbing the goose all over with a skewer. This creates holes in the skin that allow all that fat to seep out as it roasts. Then, with the goose placed on a rack over a tin, I had to douse it in boiling water. This shrinks the skin, opening up those holes, and also dehydrates the skin a tad, so that once you’ve finished the final pre-roasting process, you should have the perfect makings of deliciously crispy goose skin. And that final bit of the process? Well various sources indicated that I should leave the goose “somewhere draughty”, or “by an open window for several hours” to ensure the skin was fully dried. Now while you might well believe that all homes in the UK are “draughty” or that winter here is the optimum time to leave windows open, you’d be quite wrong. The windows in my flat all seal quite nicely, thank you, and when they’re open a Force 4 gale sweeps through the joint.

So round about one am I found myself blow-drying a goose. It was quite a nostalgic experience, given that it’s been at least a decade since I’ve had enough hairs on my head to require anything more than a quick muss with a towel. But there I stood, gently wafting the blow dryer back and forth across the goose until I was sure there was no residual dampness on that skin. I was momentarily tempted to ask the poor bird if it had any plans for the weekend.

Come Christmas Day, it was time to stuff and roast. I must add at this point that one of the great advantages of cooking a goose is that, relative to the bird’s size, the body cavity is enormous. This means two things:

  1. that you can fit enough stuffing into the cavity to feed everyone without resorting to a secondary tray in the oven, and
  2. that it doesn’t in fact affect the bird’s roasting time. You don’t have to keep the bird in the oven just to cook the stuffing through, which has always been one of the great disadvantages with a large turkey or chicken. You just keep that bird cooking at a nice steady temperature until your goose is cooked.

But then, instead of visiting the oven occasionally to give the bird a quick baste, you have to visit the oven every 15 minutes or so to perform a far more tricky procedure.

You have to remove the fat that has rendered off the bird and into the tray before it spills out of the tray and turns your oven into the kind of inferno that would set Irwin Allen’s heart tingling. And let me tell you, that is a process. You take the tray out of the oven. Your remove the goose and rack to a safe location. You tip that hot liquid fat into a second equally safe repository. You then return the rack with the goose on it to the tray and return the tray to the oven. It’s not a complicated process; just one that, if you’re like me (and I refer you once again to my borderline dyspraxic state), can become rather fraught. There can be the odd spillage which, if gone unnoticed, can cause future problems.

So while some of you may recall the worrying amounts of liquid my frozen “self-basting” turkey produced at Thanksgiving, it was nothing compared to this. Truthfully, the only comparison I can come up with is that early video game where babies were being tossed from a burning building and you had to catch them before they broke. And Christmas Day is just not the day to let a baby break.

But you know, I got through it, and having that pre-rendered goose fat to hand when it came to roasting the potatoes was heavenly. The frequent trips to empty the roasting tray did cause me to par-boil the first batch of potatoes to the point of near enough mush, so a second batch had to be par-boiled on the fly, but all came good in the end (I have since learned to par-steam, not boil the potatoes. Makes for a more malleable spud) and Christmas Dinner was complete. I’d happily roast a goose again, though perhaps next time I’d be wearing a full-on fire retardant outfit whilst doing so.

I just wish I had thought to clean the oven afterwards.

Holiday Cooking Lesson 1: Fear Not The Flour

This Christmas, I finally worked through one of the main reasons why I’m a cook and not a baker. It’s not really because I prefer the instinctive nature of cooking as opposed to the scientific nature of baking (although I do), or that I prefer to taste and adjust as I go, rather than give up control and just wait for the results (although, again, I do). It is really because I have an aversion to flour that borders on the phobic. It’s true. Ask me to disembowel a small bird or animal and I wouldn’t bat an eye even if the kitchen wound up looking like an abattoir. But ask me to open a bag of flour and I begin to twitch.

I’m not gluten intolerant. I’m just intolerant when it comes to glue. I hate, loathe and despise cleaning the inevitable mess that flour makes, and I become anxious when I have gluey, pasty hands. This is largely because I am so preternaturally clumsy as to be unable to transport a quarter cup of flour from a bag into a bowl without producing the kind of dust cloud that made the Joad family take to the road.

I have usually cooked or baked in very small kitchens (such is often the lot of a single foodie), so any mess as I cook rapidly prevents the next step of cooking from happening. That’s taught me to be a real “clean-as-I-go” kind of cook- which really is no bad thing- and really it’s easy to scoop up the onion peel or give the counter a quick wipe as I proceed to the next stage. But throw a floury surface into the equation and I rapidly become a tad overwhelmed.

flourymessI try wiping with a dry paper towel first, but that just creates a floury miasma in the kitchen.

Then I go in with that damp sponge, and suddenly it’s like I’m in competition with the Elmer’s Glue Factory (no horses were harmed in the writing of this post).

There’s just a mass of gluey sticky mess all over the counter. And the time it takes to scour through all that, and then go out and buy a new sponge (if not a new counter) puts me right off the idea of baking for a good long while.

I feel much the same way about any recipe that calls for dipping something in flour, then egg, and then breadcrumbs, or even just a batter. I must refer you once again to my naturally kack-handed state when I say that I am completely incapable of adhering to the “keep one hand clean” rule. Instead, I wind up adhering to everything else and the whole “breaded” cooking experiment comes to a grim close with me desperately attempting to turn on a kitchen faucet with my elbows.

So I had some serious misgivings about the baking onslaught that I knew this Christmas would bring. My flatmate Natalie had already been talking for weeks about making her own mince pies, and more nervous-making yet, my friend Pamela was en route from New York determined to bring some Challah cheer to this year’s festivities. I was beginning to have visions of this being truly a white Christmas, and not in a Bing Crosby sort of way.

But I must say that stepping back (never easy for me in a kitchen- you think your mother backseat drives?) and letting Natalie and my other lovely flatmate Robin get on with rolling out the pastry and cutting out pretty and personal pie lids for each of us, was really rather soothing. In fact, more than soothing. Mince pies are one of the most wonderful British Crimbo culinary traditions, especially if working food retail during the holiday season tends to make you feel more Helter Skelter than Holly Jolly. Just that warm, fruity, brandied smell, and then the warm crunch of the pastry followed by the melting tart sweetness of the soused fruit (it helps if you’re a little soused too) is guaranteed to get you into more of a festive spirit.

Plus, they cleaned it all up afterwards.

challahAnd then my dear friend Pamela blew into town with recipes for Challah bread and gingerbread cookies, and on Christmas Eve I just had to give in to the blizzard of flour that was to come. Because oy, was there flour. Flour for the bread, flour for the cookies, flour for the work surface for the kneading of the bread, flour on the work surface and on the rolling pin for the rolling out of the dough for the cookies. I am fairly certain that at one point there was flour on the ceiling.

But somehow it was all right. Now at points in my childhood I had participated in the making of gingerbread cookies before, but my hand to God, this past Christmas Eve was the very first time I had participated in making actual bread. Of course I’ve made banana bread (and even gingerbread loaf) countless times, but in truth neither of those is really bread. They’re just delicious cakes masquerading as bread because they’re baked in a loaf tin.

This time, taking part in the many, many stages of making Challah, I was actually party to the damping of the yeast, the working together of all the ingredients so you get that dough, and then the proving (where you put it in a bowl and hope that somewhere in a chilly London apartment will actually allow it to rise), and knocking back and kneading (where you make like Simon Cowell and knock all hope and air out of it) and then the proving again and the knocking back and kneading again. So I learned that while I might dislike pasty hands, I love the feeling of kneading dough. And I really loved the part of the Challah process where the dough is rolled into sausages and braided, giving the bread its traditional shape during its last prove before going into the oven. Yes all that kneading and rolling and braiding meant more flour was being sprinkled onto the work surface, but any anxiety I might have otherwise simply floated away at the surprising joy of actually sharing a kitchen, as well as learning a new- and very exciting- skill.

Plus Pamela cleaned it all up afterwards.

Just as well, because while we were making Challah, we were also making gingerbread cookies. After an early blip at the supermarket where we couldn’t find the molasses for which the recipe called, we rejected treacle and decided to substitute maple syrup instead (Incidentally, this is yet another example of the US/UK language divide. I’ve since discovered that molasses and treacle-and golden syrup too- are all the same thing, just with different names). Now the gingerbread also meant a dough that had to rest (this time in the fridge) and then be rolled out on a floury surface, but as we were doing this between stages of kneading the Challah dough, it all just seemed to blur rather pleasantly together. Or perhaps I just could no longer see through the flour. Anyway there’s just something so elementally, childishly joyous about decorating little gingerbread men, even if your aesthetics have become a tad more adult. It turns out you can give a gingerbread man a sparkly speedo if you’re careful.

So by the time the gingerbread men had been decorated, and baked, and iced, and two beautifully golden braids of Challah bread had also emerged from the oven, I was on the way to becoming a baking convert. I’d finally come to enjoy the interaction with a dough the same way I enjoy the interaction with a sauce. That same personal, intimate attention is there, just in a different form. So if I have a New year’s resolution for this year, it’s to bake more, especially bread.

Though it’ll be a plus if someone else cleans it all up afterwards.

Lessons Learned From This Thanksgiving (With A Recipe For The REALLY Pesky Leftovers!)

Even though I’ve cooked the Thanksgiving meal more times than I can count, every year I learn new things.

These lessons can involve anything from seating plans (always keep the two most politically extreme guests at extreme ends of the table – after all, Thanksgiving is about creamy onions, not crummy opinions) to planning your ingredient storage (buying four big bags of perishables a week in advance is not a good plan if you share a small fridge with two other people – you may find that it’s relations and not radishes that perish) and – of course, dealing with leftovers (see recipe below).

Most of these are practical, but some of them are more emotional. After all, that particular day is about giving thanks for something.

So here’s what I’ve learned this year:

LESSON 1. IF IT’S FROZEN, LET IT GO.

As God is my witness, I am never cooking a frozen turkey again. Budgetary constraints and the fact that frozen turkeys are generally all you can find in UK supermarkets until Thanksgiving morning  (I remain convinced that the British do this on purpose) have always meant I’ve resorted to the frozen bird in the past. But no more. I will sell my body or soul to order a fresh turkey from a good butcher if I have to. I’m done with the two days of waiting for it to defrost while it takes up all the room in either your fridge or bathtub and all the room in your head because you’re worrying it’s going to slay your guests with salmonella due to incorrect defrosting.

Also, all frozen birds here all “self-basting”, which means they’ve been injected with unpredictable amounts of saline solution- the purpose of which is to keep them moist while they’re frozen, not while they cook.  This means that, aside from even just starting from fresh,  I can’t even try out brining the bird, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years.

This year was the final straw. Sure, the turkey defrosted just fine and nobody contracted food poisoning – or so I presume. I have yet to receive any notifications of impending lawsuits or a visit from the Centre For Disease Control –  but as the turkey roasted, it began to produce frankly worrying amounts of liquid in the pan. So much so that as I removed the bird to rest, the roasting pan was full to brimming. Now I had covered the bird in bacon, and had rubbed herb butter between the breast and skin, and I had poured a half a cup of cider into the pan as the bird roasted, but this was just thin watery liquid, not melted fat and apple-y reduced juices. One early-arriving guest went so far as to ask whether I was “Doing something really advanced, like braising the bird.”

Nope. What I had on my hands was not Advanced Turkey, but Absolute Terror. Yes, the turkey itself was fine, but I make my gravy from- and in- the roasting pan. No way was this flavorless flood going to become a deep rich thick gravy. This bird had so much water injected into it that it had washed all the meat juices and even the cider away. At almost the last minute, I was going to have to make gravy from scratch. Which leads me to:

LESSON 2. THAT INVESTMENT IN HOMEMADE STOCK REALLY PAYS OFF.

Thank goodness I had recently made a big batch of chicken stock, and thank GOODNESS I had a rare moment of prescience and defrosted more than I thought I would need. With pan gravy now down the pan, I was going to need it after all. So cue the frantic whisking together of butter and flour in a saucepan to make a roux, followed by the addition of the remaining cider (which I had equally presciently not imbibed) and then that prescient supply of stock. It wasn’t the fabulously flavorsome pan gravy I’d been planning on, but it was at least a sauce of sorts.

However, it did throw my schedule out of whack. I’d been planning to have the gravy made and left to simmer for an hour or so, while I calmly and coolly laid the table and greeted guests in a relaxed if not soigne manner before gathering them at the table and carving the bird like a suave swordsman. The plan was to have everything bar one dish done and keeping warm well in advance. That one dish? Well, I always like to serve one lightly cooked vegetable side dish to counter all that starch. This was clearly no longer to be, as the potatoes were still simmering and not yet ready to be mashed, and I had barely toasted the almonds for my sautéed Boston fine beans. Which brings me nicely to Lessons 3 and 4.

LESSON 3. EARLY ARRIVAL MEANS EARLY ASSISTANCE.

When it comes to cooking a feast for six or more, no man is an island. Especially when the gravy situation is, well, grave. Fortunately for me, my dear friend Steven had arrived early from points North and is no mean cook himself. So following his polite offer of assistance, he was immediately pressed into service with the mashing of potatoes (of which more in a moment) as well as the supervision of the sauteeing of beans. They had only to be tossed into a wok with a knob of butter and given the occasional shake while he got on the the more manly task of mashing and then whipping, and I had a stiff drink while I laid the table. The next arrival was then pressed into carving the bird while I had another stiff drink. The alternative would have been me hacking at the turkey or committing Hara Kiri. But the point was that what with my schedule having run adrift, I was going to need some towing from friends to steer it back on course.

LESSON 4. MILK IT.

mashed-potatoesBy this I do not mean that I gave in to histrionics. Rather, I mean that when making whipped potatoes (or just mashed, but giving them a good beating with a whisk makes them lighter and airier), never again will I boil them in water first. In another moment of prescience (perhaps I should give up this foodie lark and take to reading palms- or at least never attempt T-Day dinner again) I had already decided try something I had seen US tv chef  Tyler Florence do, which is to boil the potatoes in milk.

FOLKS, TRY THIS AT HOME.

The difference in flavor is exponential, as you’re using the liquid in which you cooked the potatoes to mash them as well, so all that potato-ey taste gets right back into them. Plus, your milk is already hot so you don’t have to heat the milk up separately – cold milk going into mashed potatoes being a huge no-no unless you want potato glue. And you don’t even need to drain the potatoes!

Just use about a third as much milk as you would have water, and let them simmer steadily with the lid half off the pan instead of boiling them like the clappers. The milk will reduce down to just enough to ensure a creamy but by no means soggy mash. You do have to be a tad vigilant to ensure then pan doesn’t boil over, as milk is wont to do, and to shake the saucepan from time to time so the potatoes don’t stick, but you’ve eliminated an entire labor intensive step! You may even find, as I did, that I didn’t need anywhere near as much butter as I usually do. Really, the mash you get has such a full-on flavor that it requires no sour cream, no chives, no fancy adornment at all. In fact so pleased was I with the results that I got quite emotional.  Which segues neatly to lessons 5 and 6.

LESSON 5. DON’T GET CORNY.

At Thanksgiving it’s far too easy for me to over-egg the corn pudding, so to speak. It is after all a bit of a blockbuster of a feast, and since I have always cooked this feast on the wrong side of the pond I do tend to over-stress the American-ness of the meal. I have even, in years past,  gone so far as to make it about “American Ingredients And Immigrant Influences” to such an extent that the meal came with a side order of historical lecture. Not only must the centerpiece have been turkey, but there must have been potatoes, there must have been pumpkin, there must have been pecans, and there absolutely must have been corn. And everything must have been intricately flavored.

This year, as the rest of the guests had gathered and we all finally sat down to eat, I learned that I had finally hit a balance between what was fulfilling for my pretensions and was  just pleasantly filling for my guests. Yes, all the above were present and accounted for (although the pumpkin was in fact butternut squash as I’ve yet to meet a person this side of the Atlantic who can bear pumpkin pie so I had to go with a roasted savory alternative), but I had taken a far more balanced approach to flavorings and was more circumspect with my number of sides.

My stuffing was complex in taste and texture, with Italian sausage and wild rice and apples and dried cranberries, but the potatoes were as simple in flavor as can be. I had roasted the squash with garlic and sage and chili, but had just sautéed the Boston fine beans and tossed in toasted almonds. Neither the potatoes nor the beans were bland, but rather straightforward, so that the more complex sides and the turkey itself stood out. I had finally hit that balance on the plate.

And as for the corn, in previous years I have not only served cornbread, but also served a corn, bean and pepper hash, or made my guests suffer through the indignities of eating the corn on the cob – which may be delicious, but does lead to rather a lot of gnawing amongst company. This year, just cornbread. Cornbread with herbs and scallions (I’m not a monk), but just cornbread and no further kernel-related sides.

sidedishes

LESSON 6. DO GET CORNY.

Thanksgiving, as it should be, is an emotional day. And while this particular cook may go through a variety of emotions throughout the day- most of which are best experienced alone or at least unwitnessed- the best of them are that bittersweet mix when you sit down at the table and think about who is there and who isn’t. You start to think about the passage of time and what that passage brings and what it takes away. And as we were taking turns around the table expressing gratitude for one thing in our lives, I was thinking about the stuffing I had made.

I have always made a rice-based stuffing (except for one disastrously experimental year when I learned that no, you cannot replace cornbread with wholemeal bread and expect pleasant results), and that rice stuffing has always been based on my mother’s. Now over the years I’ve adapted it, replaced her bacon with chorizo, added chestnuts and sherry, and tweaked it in other ways, but the premise has always been the same. It has always been at least distantly related to my mother’s stuffing.

And I have always had Thanksgiving with at least some of my family. In fact, the years I’ve skipped Thanksgiving have been the years I couldn’t share it with family. So this year has been the first time I’ve ever made this meal with no member of my family at the table. My sister has just emigrated to the US, leaving me just one nephew here in Britain, and he couldn’t come. So as I looked around the table at my guests, all dear or new friends, I realized that the stuffing I had made this year was kind of representational; it was the first stuffing of the rest of my life.

I had finally branched away from the stuffing I had been tinkering with all these years. Yes, it had rice in it, but wild rice instead of plain, and it was only an ingredient. This was not even a distant cousin of my mother’s stuffing. I was making something new, at least to me.
I  had been making my mother’s stuffing all these years because I was cooking for the family of my childhood; my mother’s family. All that tinkering was just my way of expressing and asserting myself, of making that stuffing mine too. And I’d held on to it, variations and all, over these last few years because she was gone and never going to make it again. So who else would?

Well the beautiful thing, the thing that really freed me to let that dish go, was this: shortly before she left, my sister asked me for my mother’s stuffing recipe. She has moved to live near my brother in the US, and he had asked for the recipe. To serve at Thanksgiving. They (really we) hadn’t been able to share the Thanksgiving meal for well over a decade, but this year they have. And my mother’s stuffing, in it’s original form, is being served. I may not have been at their table and they may not have been at mine, but I felt very close to them both as I ate my Thanksgiving meal, and grateful. Grateful (though I’ll miss her) that my sister is starting a new life, grateful that my brother gets to share a Thanksgiving with this family of his alongside his new family, and grateful that my mother’s stuffing will live on in our family. Which may well be corny, but a certain amount of corn is not only right, but downright necessary for Thanksgiving.

LESSON 7. THAT RECIPE FOR LEFTOVER TURKEY AND PESKY BITS

The Thanksgiving meal went down splendidly. We all stuffed ourselves, drank too much, and had a thoroughly good time. And as they were cleaning up (Lesson 8. At Thanksgiving, Whomsoever Cooketh, Cleaneth not) and I was putting away the leftovers, I was pleased to note that for once I’d gotten my proportions just about right. Sure there was loads of turkey left over, but there was really just a couple of portions of stuffing left, and maybe one portion of whipped potatoes. Just enough of the sides, really, to be hoovered up over the next day or so. It’s rare that I manage that feat.

What I did have lots of, however, were bits and pieces of ingredients for the meal; a half a bag of pecans that weren’t needed for the pie, a few scallions left over from the cornbread, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, a green apple that was surplus to the stuffing requirements, the other half of that lemon I used stop the apple I did use from turning brown.

These are the leftovers that I find really pesky. They’re not the ones that will get hoovered up over the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend. They won’t get popped in the microwave for a quick midnight stack, or turned into a sandwich (or not yet) or one of those legendarily odd but delicious American leftover turkey recipes, like Turkey Tetrazzini, which to the uninitiated is best described as a curried turkey lasagne. They’re the ones that will grow stale in the cupboard or wilt in the fridge as they lie there unnoticed by me until it’s too late for me to put them to use.

But not this year.

Because this year – the year that Fabulous Foodie tackles all leftovers possible – I have decided that no ingredient will be left over, and no slices of turkey breast will be left to get more and more dry as they await being loaded into sandwiches, while those leftover bits of dark meat will cling to a frozen carcass in my freezer. This year, I give you:

PESKY LEFTOVER TURKEY SALAD

Think a Waldorf salad, except as a sandwich filler; from perhaps a more reasonably priced hotel. And without that beyond pesky celery.  Although should you be a raw celery fan, it might actually be chopped and serve this salad/sandwich filler very well. Provided you are so culinarily insane as to contemplate such a thing.

You will need:

  • 3 cups turkey meat, white and dark, chopped or shredded into roughly equal bite-sized pieces.*
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 tart green apple, peeled, cored, and chopped into small chunks then tossed in the juice of half a lemon (see what I did there?)
  • 1 heaped teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1/2- 1 cup toasted and chopped pecans (I had 1/2  cup. If you’ve got more, start another pie!)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon and pepper seasoning (or the rind of 1/2 a lemon and a dang good grind of pepper if you absolutely will not buy pre-mixed stuff)
  • 1 1/2 cups low fat mayonnaise (2 if you like a more “loose” salad)
  • A good pinch of salt.

Mix all the ingredients up to the mayonnaise in a large bowl, mixing and tossing with your hands to distribute evenly. Then fold in the mayo with a large spoon to make sure everything is evenly coated. Wait five minutes then taste for salt. if you’re using lemon and pepper seasoning you may not need it.

You could, if you are mayo-phobic, dress the salad with a good thick plain yogurt instead. I think of this as a sandwich filler for the week ahead though, which may call for the preservatives in a commercially produced mayo. And I listed low-fat mayo, but that is only because that’s what I generally use. Absolutely no reason why you should.

*please do not segregate white meat from dark, especially when it comes to leftover turkey recipes like this. The dark meat holds all the hope you have left of retaining any actual turkey flavour as the leftover sandwich week goes on.

So I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, with family, or friends, or both. And I look forward to next year’s feast, with lessons learned, and more lessons still to come. And I’ll be thankful for them too.

Investing In Home Made Stocks

Making a good stock may be all about reduction,
but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

Every few months I invest in a day of contemplation in the kitchen. And that day usually starts with opening the freezer door and contemplating the fact that I’ve got enough carcasses in there to give the Donner Party a run for their money.

Now before you go thinking that this blog is getting too dark for your tastes, let me assure you that I speak of chicken carcasses. Whenever I roast a chicken, I wrap the remnants in clingfilm and stuff them in my freezer, ready for when I need to make chicken stock. So every few months, when my current supply is about to run out, I invest a day in making a fresh batch.

I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a few years now, and of all the foodie habits I’ve picked up, it’s possibly the most useful and rewarding. Useful, because not only has it taught me about the patience necessary in learning to respect the processes of cooking well, but it’s also taught me to make use of the bits I might otherwise throw away. It’s also useful because it gives me that time, when I can’t stray too far from the kitchen or for too long, to indulge myself in fabulously foodie contemplations. As for the rewards, they’re perhaps like dividends; not so obviously immediate, but all the more rewarding when they do come home to roost.

Investing the Time

Now I use the term “invest” advisedly, because making a good chicken stock (or any stock, really) does take about a full day from start to finish. It’s not that making stock is difficult, or even that you have to pay it close attention throughout, but it does take a very long time to cook- about seven hours- and you do have to be around to skim from time to time, and then to sieve, and then to skim again, and finally to pour into suitable containers and freeze. Making stock is a bit like a day spent doing laundry; most of the time you’re not actually needed, but you do occasionally need to fluff and fold.

So why do I do it? Why do I give over a whole day to cooking something I’m not even going to eat that night, or the next night, or might not even use for weeks to come?

Well like I said, it’s an investment. That day will probably yield about 12 cups worth of chicken stock, which may not seem much. But those 12 cups will more than cover gravies for Thanksgiving and Christmas (not to mention any other roast chicken dinners in between), perhaps a risotto or even two, or , maybe an emergency chicken soup for a sick flatmate or friend,and most certainly a fabulous poaching liquid for chicken breasts. A poaching liquid that is not only recycle-able, but that even improves with every use. Excellent dividends indeed.

Which leads me to an excellent example of investing in stock. When I was but a college junior, before I could even call myself a foodie, I spent a summer working at an upmarket deli in Washington DC named Food & Co. One of my allotted tasks there was to poach chicken breasts. That process involved taking huge amounts of amber jelly from a tub in the fridge, bringing it up to heat,and then poaching the chicken breasts for about 10 minutes. The first time I completed the task I was about to pour the liquid down the drain when the owner (a wonderful woman named Elisabeth Siber) shrieked in horror and threw herself between me and the sink.

“I’ve been working on that stock for YEARS!”, she cried. “Do you have ANY idea what that stock is WORTH?”

It turned out she had been nurturing that stock, and using it time and again to poach more and more chicken breasts, which not only gave that bland avian white meat incredible flavor, but also served to deepen the flavor of the stock itself. Which would, in turn, yield yet more flavorsome breasts. Talk about protecting your capital. And it’s worth noting that she was by no means the only culinary professional to follow this practice. In fact the opposite is true. Probably the single most highly valued foodstuff in any decent restaurant kitchen is the stock. It ain’t there on sale or return, nor is it a high-end seasonal ingredient. But it’s the base of any good sauce, or soup, or risotto. It’s in fact the flavor backbone of such a wide variety of dishes that it is  a good stock on which most chefs depend. And so they husband their stocks with extreme care. After all, a professional stock can take five days to prepare.

Creating Culinary Value

So compared to five, what is one day? Especially when just that one day turns your culinary liabilities- that leftover chicken carcass, that last onion, those straggly bits of parsley, and that aging carrot that have been cluttering up your fridge- into fabulous liquid assets.  The only real financial outlay I ever encounter when making stock is having to buy celery, which although unpleasant, is certainly not expensive. If, unlike me, you can actually abide celery in any other context, then you probably already have some anyway! And the process of making the stock- simmering that huge pot gently for five hours or so, and then sieving it and simmering it again for another hour at a higher heat to reduce it- may leave you with less than you started out with, but if the quantity of your stock has diminished, it has actually intensified greatly in flavor. It has far greater value than when you started. We’re talking going from culinary penny to epicurean blue chip here.

veggiestockAnd you can diversify. I usually only make chicken stock because it’s it’s such a great all-rounder. But you can make vegetable stock with any leftover legumes you’ve got hanging around. Try mushroom stock! You can make beef, lamb, pork, or even ham stock from any meat you cook that still  has bones. All you need is water, heat,  those veg and herbs and seasoning and patience, and you can make culinary capital out of almost any gastronomic investment you’ve already ( made.

Yes, you can buy pre-made chicken stock (although that famous canned low sodium chicken broth that American tv cooks sing praises to is not readily available here in the UK, where the Oxo cube still reigns supreme). But why spend instead of investing? Your freezer may be small (mine is, and I share it with two others), but isn’t it better to stuff it with what you’ve made rather than what you’ve bought? After all, as a frozen asset home made stock thaws beautifully. So you can share.

Because that stock in which I’ve invested a day is all about shares. Yes, I cook for myself, and yes, I make stock for myself because I love that I can . But I know full well that when I’m glorifying in my little pots of gold at the end of the stock-making process, I will be sharing them with people I love. They will become the gravies at Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as sauces at dinners in between. Or it may become soup to share or give away. Making a good stock may be all about reduction,but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

So I am more than happy to invest a day, every few months, in making stock. And that day – when I have to be nearby to skim from time to time, to watch the vociferousness of the bubble and maybe turn the burner up or down a tad under the pot – that day gives me that day of contemplation I first mentioned. That day we all need from time to time, when you contemplate what you’ve got, and what you’ll make of it.

And shouldn’t we all invest a day, now and then, in taking-if not making- stock?

 

Maybe Ghanoush: A Dip For The Unpredictable Eggplant

You know how when you try a dish and you love it so much you can’t wait to try it again? Then you do try it again but you loathe it the second time so you don’t have it again for ages. THEN you happen upon it again years later and this time you love it again? Only the next time you try it you’re back to hating it? no? Okay, maybe you don’t.

Ghanoush As it happens, I do. Because that has been my specific experience with Baba Ghanoush. I have it, I love it. I have it again, it’s way too bitter and smoky for me. And it’s not necessarily that it’s been well made at one establishment and then poorly made at another. I’ve gone back somewhere that has served delicious Baba Ghanouosh before and found it really unpleasant on the return trip. So what was the problem? Surely it had to be me.

I’d resigned myself to having a wildly erratic sensory relationship with this Eastern Mediterranean “salad” of roasted eggplants, tahini and garlic ( I say “salad” in quotes because although it is indeed a salad in that it’s a mix of vegetables, I struggle with the notion of calling anything a salad when its primary texture is an occasionally delicious mush), and made a sort of vow never to order it again but instead sample it when somebody else did. I definitely thought it’s was too unpredictable for me to even attempt to make it myself.

Except that sometimes you’re putting together the menu for an eastern Mediterranean dinner, and instead of a formal first course you want to go with a drinks/dip/chips starter. And that old standby of tzatziki is frankly depressing to you now, houmous is so prevalent these days as to be obnoxious, you ALWAYS loathe taramasalata, but you still need a dip that is tune with the rest of your planned dinner.

And that’s when I came back to Baba Ghanoush. Give it a go, I thought. After all, it’s not difficult or strenuous to prepare, and your guests may like it more than you do. I looked at various recipes, and decided to go with garlic and chili flakes and omit the semi-traditional tomatoes. Why the omission? Because here in London we’re at that point in the year when it’s just that bit too late to find a decent fresh tomato. And it was while pondering the seasonality of the tomato that it  hit me.

 

eggplant_smMy erratic relationship with Baba Ghanoush was most probably not down to some epicurean psychosis on my part, but rather the sheer unpredictability of its main ingredient.

Eggplants are terribly unpredictable. You never quite know how bitter an eggplant will be once cooked (they are incredibly bitter raw), or how much oil they will soak up in any given cooking process, thus rendering them either greasy and flavorless or greasy and bitter.

That’s why there are so many hints and tips and processes and traditions and downright superstitions out there about eggplants, and how to cook them.

  • Do you salt and  press and drain and rinse?
  • Do you no longer need to salt and press and drain and rinse?
  • Even if you’re a sodium-phile like me, can you bear to go through the process of salting and pressing and and draining and rinsing every time you want to cook with eggplant?
  • Can you always remember the order of the salting and pressing and draining and rinsing?
  • One source will authoritatively inform you that eggplants are bred differently now, so the above process is no longer necessary.
  • A second source will authoritatively inform you that could not possibly be true of all eggplants, and you should still go through the above processes just to be safe.
  • A third source will authoritatively inform you that only are both your first and second sources incorrect, but that you are in fact dealing not with eggplants but with aubergines. That third source is likely to be British or French.

At any rate, I realized that all of the above are contributory factors to why I haven’t cooked with eggplants for well over a decade. All that “do you-don’t you” fuss and effort is enough to put me off, even in my more adventurous moments.

But the great thing about cooking eggplants for Baba Ghanoush is that you roast them whole. This is, in fact, the only bit of actual cooking required. So that’s what I did. I oiled them, seasoned them well – even remembered to prick them several times with a fork first. If you don’t prick them and just set them to roast in a medium high oven for about 40 minutes, they do tend to explode,. This leaves your oven looking like some intergalactic being died a horrible death in there. Pricking them allows the steam building up inside them to escape, so after that roasting time they look not unlike a deflated dirigible.

So I let them cool while I mashed two cloves of garlic into a paste with thyme and chili flakes, then scraped the insides of the eggplants into a bowl and mashed them together with the garlic paste and some tahini, and stirred in some olive oil and lemon juice. And you know what?

WAY TOO BITTER AND SMOKY!

But I’d bought some Greek yogurt to serve alongside my main course and had some left over. So before I could panic and dash out to get the ingredients to throw together a last-minute houmous, it did just occur to me to add a tablespoon or two of the yogurt to my currently bitter bowl. And baba my ghanoush if the yogurt didn’t solve the problem. That yogurty creamy tang not only took that bitter edge away and brought out the sweetness in the smoke, but it also softened the chili bite and underscored the lemony freshness, and gave the dip a lighter, whipped texture.

SAVED!

My only concern now was whether my “on the fly” approach to Baba Ghanoush was going to mar an otherwise culturally accurate menu of Mussakhan (that’s chicken roasted with onions and sumac on a bed of Arab flat bread), and Jordanian carrot salad served alongside rice with fried pine nuts and almonds. But the more I looked into it, the more I discovered that Baba Ghanoush is but one name and version of a veritable buffet of eggplant mushy “salads” that hail from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean,from the Greek Melanzanasalata to the Egyptian Muttabal. So I comforted myself with the thought that somewhere in the Levantine, at some point in time, somebody bust have tempered a bitter eggplant dish with a spot of yogurt long before it ever occurred to me. My guests, of course, didn’t bat a culturally specific eye and just dove right in.

I have now made this dish a few times, with varying levels of yogurt to match the varying levels of bitterness from the eggplant. It has been a massive crowd-pleaser each time I’ve served it so I now feel confident enough to offer my recipe to please your crowds. I can’t, in all good faith, call it Baba Ghanoush, because it does have the yogurt, and not the tomatoes or the onions. But I’m happy to settle for Maybe Ghanoush.

MAYBE GHANOUSH

You will need:

  • 2 medium-sized eggplants (or aubergines, if you must)
  • 3 tablespoons tahini (I use light tahini, but the fat content is up to you)
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme ( 1 chopped and the other just picked)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of two lemons
  • 2-3 tablespoons Greek yogurt (again, I use non-fat, but as with the tahini…)

What to do:

  • Preheat your oven to 400f/200c/Gas mark 6
  • Using a paper towel, give your eggplants a light coating of olive oil and season well. Do remember to prick them all over with a fork, or you will get that “ET in a blender” effect all over your oven walls. Place them on a baking tray and roast for about 35-40 minutes.
  • After 35 minutes, press them lightly with a wooden spoon and they should immediately collapse in a satisfyingly Hindenburg-esque manner. Leave them in the oven for a further 5 minutes then take them out of the oven and let them cool for 30 minutes.
  • While the eggplants are cooling, crush the cloves of garlic (preferably in a mortar and pestle with a healthy pinch of sea salt flakes) into a smooth paste, then grind in the chili flakes and the chopped thyme until you have achieved amalgamation.
  • Cut the cooled eggplants in half lengthways, and scrape out the seeds and flesh onto a cutting board. Eggplants can be a bit stringy when roasted, so give the flesh a good rough chop. Then decant the eggplant flesh (it will still have a touch of the HR Gigers about it at this point) into a large bowl, and mash it into mush with a fork or a potato masher.
  • Stir in the tahini and keep stirring as you add the crushed garlic, chili and thyme paste, making sure that both the tahini and paste are completely dispersed. Then stir in the olive oil and the lemon juice. Season well, and give it a taste.
  • You may find that you got lucky with the eggplants and don’t need the yogurt at all, but I do believe the yogurt gives it that little extra tang and creaminess even if the eggplant isn’t too bitter. So start with 2 tablespoons of the yogurt, stirring well in, and give it a minute before you taste and decide if you need that third tablespoon.
  • If you’re happy, then it’s ready to decant into your serving bowl, where you should then sprinkle the surface with the remaining thyme leaves for a hit of herbal color. Serve with pitta bread, or toasted pitta bread, or even crudite.

Maybe Ghanoush keeps very well in the fridge for a couple of days, and in fact tastes even better the day after you make it, so feel free to make it in advance. Just bring it up to room temperature before serving.