Monday, 28 November 2011

Simple Pleasures

I'm in Paris for a few days. I haven't come to admire the Mona Lisa, I probably won't see the Eiffel tower while I'm here. I'm here to absorb, to learn, to take in and to take stock. Weight gain will be an inevitable and happy souvenir.When I asked chef for some tips on places to eat (despite already having a bursting list to amble through - there will be no ticking and minimal itinerising) he told me he couldn't be bothered with all the top restaurants and this struck a harmonious chord. Not to detract from the wonder that is a meal crafted from indescribable genius but don't we all rather crave for our every day lives the simplest of pleasures? Good bread becomes the stuff of legend, four-ingredient plates earn knowing smiles and satisfied nods. Right now, at least, life is simply too complicated on its own for food to also need deciphering and hefty accompanying explanation.

The night of my arrival I enjoyed cheeses and bread with my lovely friends C&F and it was a perfect start. As it happens we had been guided towards our selection - a St Marcellin, a Mourbier, a Bleu de Causse and a liquid-centred goats cheese with 'un goût un peu animale' (never a truer word spoken!) by a lovely man in Fromagerie Quatr'hommes, which happens to be one of the best cheese shops around. I expect nothing less from my friend C.

My first full day was spent ambling from Les Halles to Temple, Le Marais and then Opéra, admiring shops, noting which establishments earned queues and gaining my bearings, with a lovely stopover in a Jewish deli on the way, before cooking a rustic dinner of split pea and smoked sausage. I wish the 'bourgeois' notion apparent in the UK about the wonder of independent food shops was just the norm, as it is here; I would love every street facade to look like this, with butcher, baker, fishmonger and cheese shop living harmoniously side by side, like they used to:

Fishmonger, Butcher, Deli, Cheesemonger, Wine shop and Baker, living in harmony.

A purchase of the newly-published magazine 'Fooding' has been very useful in directing me towards the type of food I'm after: honest, classic, unadulterated. So lunch on day two at Le Coude à Coude was a warm goat's cheese salad followed by duck legs with sautéed potatoes. I was surrounded by regulars pausing for a bite halfway through their work day - a good sign in my book, and this with a good glass of white and an espresso came to €16. The potatoes were delicately scented with garlic, the goats cheese warmed just to a delicate ooze and the coffee had a beautiful crema. What else does one need?

Well, to be honest, the food may have become somewhat more complicated after this point, to a certain extent. Several circles later (orienteering skills having failed me abysmally) and after a few retail distractions, I decided that the likes of Fauchon, Hédiard and Printemps might feed my eyes but little more and I headed for St Gérmain. After making use of a very wise tip to visit Gérard Mulot for after-dinner desserts, I headed to Da Rosa for a snack. Taking a seat outside ('non, je n'attend personne'), I treated myself to a plate of lardo do Colonnata, some sweet garlic and a hot chocolate. The lardo, cured bacon fat with sea salt and herbs, came like thinly slices sheets of silk, ready to melt imperceptibly on warm toast before their inevitable disappearance, and the garlic was so beautifully delicate that I remain easy prey for vampires. Good hot chocolate but after all I will be treating myself to Angelina tomorrow so little can compare.

Returning to chez C&F I was greeted with the wonderful scent of pumpkin, chestnut and bacon soup which we ate with salad and the rest of the animalistic cheese before a veritable dessert-fest: Portuguese tarts from 'Comme à Lisbonne' and my little treat from Mulot: a Troubadour with sablé biscuit base, salted caramel, coffee mousse and chocolate glaze, and two macarons: passion fruit and basil, and salted caramel.

A perfect end to the day. I just hope I can sleep after all the sugar as an early rise awaits so that I can cram in as many markets as possible before a dinner I'm very excited about in the evening. Check back on Wednesday to find out why!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

You have been warmed!

One of my fantastic co-hosts, sparkling.
There's something about Bonfire Night that makes me want to celebrate. I'm a fan of fireworks at the best of times but the 5th November is just beginning to be about when you can no longer resist the chunky knit jumpers calling from their drawer or box in the loft, scarves begin to appear on coat hooks and fingers twitch impatiently on the thermostat as you justify a quick blast of central heating. For me, it's a great excuse to gather my friends around me for warmth of the soul and feed them heartily for warmth of the belly. I always feel fireworks bring optimism, perhaps because we watch them explode in colour and realise that life is short but can be spectacular or perhaps it's just that we take a moment with friends and family to stop and look, and appreciate being outdoors and yet still somehow warm. 

Gatherings at my house always involve exciting food, and always lots of it. This usually means a wealth of different dishes, something for everyone, and lots of washing up the next day. I'm learning these days that it's the simplest things that are the most precious, however, and applied the same strategy to my bonfire night feast. This didn't mean skimping on quality however, and I made sure to go to the experts for each dish. There would be chilli for everyone, jacket potatoes, chocolate brownies and popcorn. And in the process, more time for me to enjoy their company!

My chilli recipe came from Thomasina Miers' 'Mexican Food Made Easy' as I love her passion for depth of flavour and feel that her recipes stretch conventional thinking about typical Mexican ingredients. I started the day before, soaking red kidney beans overnight. Although my recipe stated borlotti beans (I would have thought pinto more authentic), I felt that as I would already be blowing everyone's mind by not using minced beef! I would need to keep some tradition in there somehow. Red kidney beans can be somewhat toxic if not prepared properly and although there are many ways to prepare them from dried, I soaked overnight, rinsed and boiled for an hour. You may choose to bring the dried beans to the boil and then soak overnight, or you may want to add aromatics to the cooking water such as bay leaves, peppercorns or cloves. 

A vegan chilli was also made the night before, or, rather, a mixed vegetable and bean hotpot, with bell peppers, courgette, a tin of mixed beans, mushrooms, onions, garlic and chilli, and a stock of tinned tomatoes, molasses, tomato purée, thyme, paprika, bay leaves and pepper. This came from my recently acquired copy of 'A vegan taste of Mexico' by Linda Majzlik, which I shall be further investigating in future. 

For my beef chilli, which needed to feed about 15, I used 3kg of braising steak as it was going to be cooked slowly. Minced beef simply cannot impart as much flavour, would have risked being dried out in the process and would probably have actually been less economical by weight considering the higher water content of mince. The steak was cut into large chunks and browned in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot before being put aside. Then I fried off two rings of chorizo picante in the oil before setting this aside and adding 9 finely chopped onions, followed by 10 or so finely chopped cloves of garlic and 8 chillis. I used the serrano chillis I had successfully grown from a packet of Wahaca seeds - I take a handful whenever I eat there and should never need to buy chillis again at this rate! I felt that the resulting chilli had the right level of heat for everyone but as the recipe asks for a combination of ancho chillis (dried and so imparting a sweetly smoky flavour) and arbol chillis (9/10 on the heat scale, meaning that scotch bonnets would be a close comparison, although you would need fewer), following the recipe exactly would have resulted in a hotter chilli. Once these had softened I seasoned and added 3tsp cloves, 9 bay leaves, 2 large cinnamon sticks, 6tsp ground cumin, 6tsp ground allspice and 6tsp dried oregano. I mixed up a spice stock with 9tbsps cider vinegar, 6tbsps tomato ketchup (everyone's favourite not-so-secret secret ingredient!) and although the recipe asked for 6tbsps dark brown soft sugar I used molasses to add a depth of flavour perhaps missing through lack of ancho chillies. I added this to the pot along with 6 tins of plum tomatoes and a litre of water before returning the meat to the mix. The pot went, covered, into the oven at 120℃ for about 4 hours before the cooked kidney beans were added. About two hours to go, a shipment of baking potatoes were washed, pricked, rubbed with olive oil and salted before being placed in the bottom of the oven. After its' time in the oven, the chilli still needed to be reduced so I left it bubbling merrily on the hob and filling the air with a hunger-inducing fug while I made brownies until the guests arrived.

Generally speaking, when I am on the lookout for a recipe I hungrily grab a variety of books from the shelf and pore over several recipes at a time. I'm looking for the most convincing selection of ingredients, hopefully with a curve ball or two for good measure, things I wouldn't necessarily have pictured in the list, along with a method that promotes time carefully taken rather than saved, and bonus points are given for impassioned prose about the recipe being passed down generations / a closely guarded secret / the end product never lasting until the next day. 

For these brownies I was won over by Pam 'the jam' Corbin. Her recipe involved whipping 3 eggs and 275g sugar for about 8 minutes until they have quadrupled in volume so I knew it was going to be worth the time investment. 185g melted and cooled good quality dark chocolate and 185g unsalted butter, with 1tsp instant coffee is folded into the beaten egg before folding in 85g sifted plain flour and 40g cocoa powder. 50g each of chopped milk and white chocolate is gently mixed in before the mixture is poured into greased and base-lined tins and baked for about 35 minutes at 180℃. The top should be shiny and solid and there should be no 'wobble' to the mixture. The brownies will continue to cook in their tins whilst they cool and this should result in a beautifully dense and yet gooey texture. 

For nibbles, I made Nigella's Party Popcorn. I'm such a fan of this that the spice mix is always on standby in my cupboard in a used spice jar. Pop 200g popcorn kernels in wok oil (sunflower oil works fine) and melt 50g butter in a separate pan with 2tsp ground cinnamon, 2tsp ground cumin, 2tsp ground paprika, 4tsp table salt and 4tsp caster sugar. Pour the spiced butter over the popcorn and shake in a large paper bag, or, like me, employ a friend to hold the lid on your stockpot and make like the Muppet's Animal. It's incredibly moreish.

By now my house was full of friends ancient and new, merrily catching up and happily helping me add the finishing touches to the food, such as gently shredding the tender meat. The best friends are those who treat your home as their own, and as such, fairy lights appeared all over my garden just in time for an impromptu bonfire and firework display, I never had an empty glass in my hand, bowls of chilli atop perfectly cooked jacket potatoes magically started appearing in everyone's hands and delighted groans could be heard describing the brownies, the apple streusel cake and toffee apple cakes a lovely friend had brought along, and to this day I have no idea who to thank for which part of the hosting was taken off my hands. Letting off some sky lanterns was the icing on the cake, even if it was windy. Apologies to anyone whose garden, or indeed house suffered at our hands, but at least we had fun!

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of any of this food. Whilst I had made ten litres of chilli, which all proclaimed was sure to be far too much, none survived the night. The brownies lasted a day or so, but I couldn't look at them long enough to photograph them without having one. The vegetarian chilli, although a success, was recycled into a piccante pasta sauce of sorts the next night, and what was left of  the popcorn went all over the floor when I got too excited by Dance Star on the Wii. You'll just have to try cooking it all for yourselves, or pop in next bonfire night!