Friday, 23 April 2010

Strawberries in April. Dumb, or what?

Why do we buy strawberries in April? Even though we know they won't taste of anything?

Because... well, because the weather tells us to. The glorious, warm, it-can't-be-summer-already weather. The weather that causes us to go out in a sleeveless vest-top, and get sunburned. Twice. In three days.

There is also the fact that Greta seems to like strawberries quite extensively. And, as I'm still watching everything that goes into her mouth (despite days where she appears to be quite prepared to devour the entire planet- as they're usually followed by several where she quite obviously thinks that I'm trying to poison her with all this horrible evil nasty stuff like Petit Suisses- I liked those yesterday, Mama, aren't you keeping up?), I'm quite happy to buy anything that is remotely healthy, and stuff it down her.

It makes up for the saucissons-apéritifs. Really it does.

Strawberries, however, rarely taste of anything much this time of year.

Not without applying various techniques to them- the main one of course being the addition of a certain quantity of brown sugar, and then leaving them to macerate for a while. My other semi-secret addition at the moment is an extremely generous dusting of freshly-ground cinnamon. It seems to do the trick...

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Mayonnaise- not as hard as they said!

Making mayonnaise isn't actually that difficult. As long as you have the right tools, and you're not in a rush.

I haven't made mayonnaise in years- quite literally, as I can tell you that the last time I made it semi-regularly was in 2002, when we were living in New York, and, for the life of me, I couldn't find what we consider "real" mayonnaise.

Hellman's, yes, but that's not real. It's not the right colour, it's not the right texture, and it's not made with the right oil.

As far as I'm concerned, anyway. I didn't grow up with Hellman's, that means that it's just Not Right.

Therefore, rather like the year before, when we were living in the Caribbean and the only bread I could find was steam-baked and tasted sweet, I started to make my own.

With, in this case, a bottle of sunflower oil, tracked down at vast expense. Why it was so expensive, I wouldn't know, but I remember it being something insane like 10$ for a 220ml bottle. Or thereabouts. No doubt that my brain has preferred to wipe the memory from my wallet.

So I made mayonnaise, a few times, and I remember it taking a while, being a bit tricky the first time, but being generally OK. My Larousse Gastronomique told me that everything ought to be room temperature, and I seem to remember that I only read that after making it the first time!

However, having friends staying who were stuck due to Volcano Ejs-something-or-other, I was determined to feed them properly in order to cheer them up. French and Spanish asparagus having finally hit the market, I fed them twice in three days on asparagus for a first course. Once hot, and once cold.

Both times, I made the mayonnaise about an hour or so beforehand. The first time, having forgotten about the room-temperature rule, I had to stick my eggs in warm water for about ten minutes beforehand. It really didn't seem to make much difference.

Mayonnaise for four:
- 3 egg yolks
- olive oil
- sunflower oil
- mustard ("prepared" mustard is, I believe, the technical term)
- salt flakes
- ground pepper

Making mayonnaise easily depends, very much, I think, on being comfortable whilst you work. Therefore, I use a small bowl with a handle, which means that I can hold the bowl without getting cramp in my palm, and also hold the bowl at different heights in order to give my wrist a rest. Also, you really need a whisk with a thick handle. A small whisk, obviously, as you're only whisking three eggs, but you don't want one with a thin handle- it will just give you cramp in your palm and make the whole thing uncomfortable.

Whisk your egg yolks briefly, to mix them and break them up.

Now, all the books say to start with a teensy drop of oil, whisk like mad, and work your way up very slowly from there. I don't hugely agree with this. A drop, yes, whisk, then keep going, but you really don't have to put in the teensiest drop at the start. As long as you whisk hard and fast, you'll be OK.

Take your time. The first five, six times, a small drop, then you can go for a teaspoon at a time. Not that you need to measure it out! Just what looks about right.

The whole thing shouldn't take more than ten minutes. And that includes breaks to rest your shoulder- you don't have to keep going the whole time.

Now, I haven't given measurements for the oils. This is because I have no idea. I taste mine as I go along. Olive oil gives quite a strong flavour, and you may not want this. If you've got to a flavour that's too strong, stick to sunflower oil from then on in. I tend to swap my oils about after 4-5 additions. But my finished product is probably about 2/5 olive, 3/5 sunflower.

At the end, I add mustard, salt, pepper. This dilutes the mayonnaise, and you have to add more oil. I also add the mustard to taste- whatever seems right to me, which seems to end up being about 3 tsp.

That was my basic recipe- however, the last time I made it (I didn't really mean to, but I had four egg yolks from a recipe I was making, so I stopped half-way through and made mayonnaise), I made some changes.

English mayonnaise:
- 4 eggs
- 2 tsp English mustard powder (Colman's!)
- 4 tsp white wine vinegar
- olive oil
- sunflower oil
- salt, pepper

This time, I whisked the eggs, added the mustard powder and white wine vinegar, then added the oils. Salt and pepper at the end.

It then went in a labeled jam jar in the fridge, and Peter has been very happily smearing it on bread and eating it like bread-and-butter ever since! It's funny- the olive oil taste shows up first, and it's only after you've swallowed that the mustard sneaks up and whacks you across the back of the throat. Which, I think, makes it fine for sandwiches, fine for eating on bread, but not quite so fine for eating with asparagus.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cupboard Cake- Dried apricot and flaked almonds

Why are you torturing me with this cake, Mama? Why?

I have mentioned Betty Bossi before.

Betty Bossi is the Swiss Betty Crocker. I understand that the identical first names is coincidence, although it is rather amusing.

Betty Bossi does not produce cake mixes. It primarily produces a little magazine, sent to subscribers ten times a year, with seasonal recipes. Of course, over the years, it has expanded into cookbooks, and into an online shop selling cake tins (d'you see that one just above?), measuring spoons, Useful Household Items (that are pretty useless in some cases), cleaning items, all that sort of stuff. Some of which I own, such as the sunflowers for putting in between your non-stick casseroles/frying pans, so they don't scratch each other.

Absolutely vital for the harmony of your drawers, I assure you.

I probably have about 15 Betty Bossi cookbooks, as I am a good, Swiss-emulating semi-hausfrau.

Really, I am. Honest. Pay no attention to my tattoo, OK? It was a youthful aberration, now safely covered over by the dirndl.

Well, not quite.

To get back to my point, and the cookbooks. Over the years, although I've collected them, I've never really been inspired by any of the recipes enough to actually cook from them. I remember one, the only one I made, being Poulet au Paprika, from a "Betty's Greatest Hits" cookbook, which was given such a write-up that I couldn't not make it.

I ended up making it twice, just to be sure that it really was as disappointing as it seemed on the plate. Basically, it was a lot of melted butter, a couple of tablespoons of paprika, and you basted the chicken with it multiple times during cooking, in order to ensure that the flavours sank into the chicken. Except that they didn't. It looked very pretty, though.

And yet... oddly... the last few months, I've been tearing out recipes to make from my semi-monthly magazine. Instead of flipping through it and dropping it straight into the recycling, which is what I've been doing for years.

The April issue had a section on "cake" recipes. I use inverted commas, as this is "cake" in the French sense, not in the Anglo-Saxon sense- namely a loaf, or a bread. Banana bread would be called a "cake" in French.

This section is made up of one basic recipe, and various recipes for additions to that basic mix- starting with chocolate, moving on to nuts, rhubarb, lemon and strawberry, blueberries, and ending with one including apples and caramels (as in sweets), and another with chocolate truffles.

The basic recipe is as follows:
- 150g butter, softened, in cubes
- 200g sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 4 eggs
- 250g flour
- 1 coffee spoon baking powder

Cream the butter, sugar, and salt. Add one egg after the other, mix for about 5 mn, until it lightens in colour. Mix the flour and baking powder, add to the butter mix, stir. Pour into the mold, bake for about 50 mns in a pre-heated oven at 180C. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly, remove from mold, allow to cool on a wire rack.

The other recipes just add ingredients to this basic mix, sometimes with an extra egg, occasionally extending the cooking time.

It's a pretty good base, I think.

And thus, when I had some friends call up from Italy with a cry of "Help, the volcano has stranded us, please take us in until we can fly home!", one of my first thoughts for their sustenance (both emotional and gustatory) was to make "cake".

Not having any of the ingredients in the variations, however, other than the chocolate, I made up my own version, using ingredients left over from my marathon baking sessions before Christmas. And using them up, thank goodness!

My version had
- 2 packs (300g?) of dried apricots, chopped into rough cubes
- 1 pack (200g?) of flaked almonds

It was very, very nice.

My friends got here at about 11 p.m. one evening a few days later, and we sat down and ate about half of it. I left the rest of it out (covered) to be snacked on, and it was gone by the next evening.

I then made a version using a left-over apple, chopped, and some dried cranberries, but it just wasn't as good.

No matter- it's a good basic recipe to have! Even if Greta... wasn't too impressed.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Pork Paprikash (sort of)

I try to do a lot of cooking of the "What's on special offer at the supermarket" variety. As we all do these days.

The other day, ragout de porc being on cheap, that was obviously what we were going to be eating.

Last time I bought such packs, the meat was in reasonably large chunks- this time, each piece came with at least one long thin bone running right through it, and although I could have chopped them through with a cleaver and a call to Peter to come and use some muscle power, I didn't bother.

First I browned the pieces, then took them out of the casserole, and left them to sit whilst I tipped in onions in thick slices, softening them gently and slowly in the fat from the pork. I added a heap of spices: about 2 tbs of mild paprika (I find this has so little taste, I usually only use it for colouring!), 1 tbs of hot paprika, about a tsp and a half of cumin seeds, about 1/2 a tsp of cinnamon, black pepper, a couple of big pinches of marjoram, and a bit of herbed salt.

I let all the spices warm up with the onions, stirring, then added a whole bottle of white wine- a Petite Recolte from Nicolas, Cotes de Ceressou Moelleux from 2004. I really liked this wine back in 2004, so I had some crates of it, and this was the last bottle. I poured myself a glass before tipping the rest into the casserole- then tasted my glass, and poured that in too. It had no depth of flavour left at all- just a surface layer of "hello, this is a grape-based alcohol".

I have very little palate for wine, but I do know when there's nothing there.

I brought the stew up to the simmer, then added a bottle of passata- about 700 ml. Back up to simmer, put the meat back in, and simmered it gently, with the lid on, for three hours.

Very gently removed the meat, which was falling apart, and pulled out most of the big bits of bone. I then reduced the sauce like mad, boiling it fast with the lid off, and it thickened very satisfactorily. I had originally planned to add mushrooms, but once I'd put in the tomato, I changed my mind.

I really must use up those mushrooms.

Put the meat back in, warmed it all up, and served it over egg noodles. Yummy- it did Peter and I two meals, and a third one for him.

This week, there was a special offer of cote de boeuf (one bought for Peter, I will nibble around the edges and probably eat vegetables instead), and liver. I love liver. There are two lobes for each of us in the fridge... probably to be cooked dredged in seasoned flour, then fried quickly, and served in slices either with mushrooms and onions, or just onions, or maybe with egg noodles again.

We have some friends turning up on Monday night, rather unexpectedly, as they were on holiday in Italy and are now, due to the volcano, stuck there and can't get home. So they're coming here until they can get a flight out. So I'm going to have to do some food shopping and planning for the coming week, as I'll be feeding double the usual number! Besides having to plan it more than my usual "open the fridge, then decide what I'm cooking" method.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Palate me no palette!

I've been busy the last week, rocketing around, dealing with the spring weather (i.e. the horrendous rain and cold winds), all of which combined has gifted me with an atrocious cold.

Really, an atrocious cold.

The sort of cold where you make a lovely Easter Sunday lunch for family, making a recipe that you've looked forward to making for a while, having saved it up... and you have to ask other people to taste for seasoning, because you cannot taste a thing.

How unfair.

I think most of it was due to being generally over-tired, but I certainly didn't improve matters by spending an hour on the balcony in a bitter cold wind on the Saturday, oiling my butcher's block. I'd sanded it down on Friday, looked around for my paintbrush to oil it, and realised that the brush had managed to vanish at the last move. So I had to leave it, and oil it on Saturday afternoon, in said cold wind, with Greta hurtling around on the balcony as well, trying to eat my lavender plant (No, baby! Eat the mint! Or the chives! Leave the lavender alone!), and I think that just finished me off.

And I'm not wildly happy about the butcher's block either. Before, it was a lovely soft, drift-wood colour. Now, it's quite aggressively golden. I strongly suspect that I might have to sand it down again in a few months... And even if the water does now bead off, it's still not as pretty as it was.

On Sunday morning, however, I bravely strapped on a box of kleenex, opened the book to page 441, and headed into the kitchen, to attack the braised pork in milk from Marcella Hazan.

Now, I'd read that this recipe was trickier than it seemed. That it didn't necessarily work. But I'm usually an optimist about recipes, and I can usually make things come out right at the end, and I really liked the look of this recipe, and Peter didn't say No, which is a definite step in the right direction...

I first browned my long, thick chunk of "cou de porc", to which the very nice butcher (not in the slightest bit inspired by my batting eyelashes) had added a large, and free, chunk of bone, "to thicken the sauce". Ooo-er, Mister!

Having browned my pork, I took a look at my Staub casserole, looked at the space around the meat, re-read the instruction about using a dish that was just bigger than the meat, and took out the Le Creuset casserole instead. I put my browned meat in there, poured a cup of milk, poured it over the meat, looked at it, and added about the same again. And then a bit more.

I really fail to see how you can "braise" a piece of meat in a pan with more than 2/3 of the meat out of the liquid. And I was right on that, as it transpired later...

Enough to say that I then brought it to a simmer, put the lid on slightly askew as instructed, and went in the shower.

The meat cooked for three hours. In the meantime, I knocked up a small gratin de cotes de bettes (Swiss chard), followed by a boiled salad of Swiss chard. All of which are on this webpage, btw. I wouldn't normally follow a whole menu like this, but there were lots of yummy heads of bettes at the supermarket, and we like them. Well, Peter and I do- Greta refused to even try a mouthful of one. No biggie, I will try again some other time!

(Cotes de bettes in my fruit bowl, as it normally lives on the butcher's block and said block wasn't dry yet.)

Normally, I'd have made a gratin by slicing the ribs and then adding them to a dish with a load of cream, some onion and garlic, and baking that, or I'd have cooked the ribs in a deep deep frying pan/wok in olive oil with some garlic until soft, then right at the end have added the chopped leaves and cooked them until wilted, and served that up by itself... Or amalgamated the two, cooking the stalks, then cooking the leaves, mixing them together and putting them in a gratin dish with cream... Anyway, it's certainly never occurred to me to gratin them "naked", and I don't think I'll bother again, as it didn't really work.

It tasted fine, but it didn't really work. Which was pretty much the leitmotiv for the whole meal.

After three hours, I took the meat out and set it to rest. In the mean time, I boiled the hell out of the sauce, reducing it down, but after ten minutes I'd had enough, so we served up.

The top half of the pork, that hadn't been covered by the milk (despite me basting it frequently with the simmering milk), wasn't cooked through. It was very pink and squishy. We cut around the outside, then I put the meat back in the remaining sauce, turned the heat up, and left it to cook whilst we ate.

The family said it tasted good. Me, I wasn't so convinced.

The second helping, with the meat cooked through, and the sauce finally reduced down to the "nut-brown clusters" (why couldn't she just say "cook until the milk congeals and separates"?), was much better.

Still, I'm not wildly happy with it. I don't think I'll bother again.