Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Going Nanbananas

By: Mr Robot

We owe Tim Anderson a number of apologies, not least:

  1. Unexpectedly colliding with him at MiMi Aye's book launch and exclaiming, much as 007 might, "Erk - Famous Masterchef Man!" He wisely ran away
  2. A glitch in Mrs Robot's operating system that gave her a horrific plaguey cough throughout his recent event at Toppings Books
  3. Leaving said event early due to plaguey coughing (see 2) thereby missing the opportunity both to get his scribble on our copy of his new book, Nanban, and to apologise in person

We're very very sorry.

Notwithstanding Mrs R's death-rattle, we had a really good evening. We're both completely ignorant of Japanese food (beyond a waft of sushi - she's a fan, I'm a bit meh) so had no idea what to expect. Though the subtitle - Japanese Soul Food - sounded promising.

Well I'm very glad we went. Anderson is a very good speaker - perhaps a benefit of all that Masterchef screen time - and his delivery came with aplomb, wit and passion. His enthusiasm for Japanese food is immediately engaging and I'd defy anyone to sit through 10 minutes without itching to have a go.

Not only that, he served up a couple of real treats too, in the form of home-(or shop-)made Dashi, and Onsen eggs: both hours in the making so we owe both him and Toppings our thanks just for the time and bother involved.

You will never find a more precisely cooked egg in a bookshop
Onsen eggs in particular need such long and precise cooking that I'm never going to make them at home without investing in (at least) a more reliable oven. For a broth of dried kelp and tuna, the Dashi turned out to be surprisingly subtle and delicate (we both fear fishy fish) and combined with the unique texture of the eggs was a fascinating taster. I don't know how many more events he's doing but if you get the chance to go, I'd urge you to.

It made me keen to get home and start playing. So I did.

A couple of times Anderson mentioned tempura as a good starting point for beginners, so naturally I ruled that out - oh ego, what would I be without you? - and instead opted for a slightly more ambitious 2-day project of pork.

As an easy entry point, ramen probably isn't. But having already set my heart on it, I read the recipe in detail and discovered that if you're going to (try to) do it properly there's a lot of work involved. A lot.

A large part of that is boiling up pig bones for a day or two, which didn't faze me since I'll often have a stock pot on the go for a week or more. But that along with the eggs (also pickled for a day or two) and sundry other elements made it clear this wasn't a quick job.

So while all that was under way, I opted for some quick sticky snacks.

There are a few options in the book so I picked a piggy trinity of pork belly on sticks (marinaded in mirin), scallops wrapped in bacon (marinaded in sake - unknown out here in the boonies so used mirin again) and vegetables wrapped in bacon (I had courgettes), all griddled on the, er, griddle.

Pig! Onna stick!

Save for a little seasoning that's all there was to it, and very tasty they were too. The mirin seemed to bring out sweetness in everything it touched, so I imagine sake would've made an interesting balancing note. If we ever find some I'll let you know. That said the mirin, scallop and bacon combo was outstanding.

For a snacky supper on a sunny evening you can do a lot worse that this stuff on sticks.

12 hours in, still going strong
Of course that was just a quick toe-dabble before, next day, plunging into the deep end that is Hakata-style Ramen.

My pig bones boiled for roughly 12 hours before I was happy with the soupy porkness, and tossed in the fennel, mushrooms, onion, garlic and ginger to boil for a couple more hours. I found these fresh elements took the intensity down significantly - I think I overdid the veg and would tone it back (or measure!) in future.

Egg pickling in tea? Just try it
That said it's telling that neither the book nor the food puts me off experimenting, even with so little knowledge.

Anyway, that broth had been bubbling away for 10 hours before bedtime intervened, and was resumed the next day.

In that time I'd also set the eggs (slavishly boiled for 6 minutes 20 seconds as per instruction, and I've never had one more perfect) to pickling overnight, and made Chasu - pork belly braised in cola - also to chill and press overnight.

I'd also mixed up some black mayu: garlic blackened in oil and blitzed with black sesame seeds and sesame oil. A most necessary dressing, apparently.

So by day two it was a mere matter of 4 more hours boiling before seasoning the broth. Now, there are two whole pages of the book devoted to how to season your broth so this is no small matter.

Black Mayu
As Anderson says, it's what makes the difference between pretty good and "slurp-down-every-last-drop good". But of course this bit only comes down to your own judgment and in the end I played relatively safe with salt, Dashi and white pepper. Might have a play with Miso next time.

Finally, finally, you get to assemble cooked noodles, the broth itself, some cabbage blanched in the broth, the pork reheated in same, the black mayu, some pickled ginger from a jar (wrong sort but all I had), spring onion and sesame seeds.

It is, it has to be said, a lot of effort for a bowl of noodles. But what a bowl of noodles.

The result is something insanely rich and complex, and the broth - after all that boiling - coats your mouth with the best savoury goo. In fact the broth was about as rich and nearly as thick as soft-boiled egg yolk. So add to that actual soft-boiled egg yolk along with braised pork - rich doesn't begin to cover it. On the other hand you've the acidity of the pickled parts (ooer) and then there's fresh cabbage, and then there's sesame...

I'd made some clear mistakes. Not only had the veg weakened the broth, but I'd been heavy-handed with the dashi so too much fish for me, rather than background umami - a forgivable mistake for a first-timer I think. The mayu was a bit strong for me too (I seem very sensitive to sesame flavour for some reason) though Mrs Robot really liked it. But this is something to learn from, and I can already imagine the benefits.

Still a lot of work for a bowl of noodles? But surely the error is the implication that a bowl of noodles should be merely disposable, easy food, as if a 98p packet of Maggi or a tub of Golden Wonder's finest Chicken & Mushroom is all there is to it.

Is it much work for a meal that leaves you aching to the ribs? Desperate for more? Slurping dribbles off your chin? For a revelation?

No more than you'd expect.

All images (c) PP Gettins
(except the first one which Mrs Robot took)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Recipe Review: Lamb Kebabs with Fried Chickpeas, Butternut & Tahini

From Morito by Sam & Sam Clarke

Lamb Kebabs, roasted squash, fried chickpeas. Perfect sunshine snacking

by: Mr Robot

I deeply love our Riverford vegbox but being seasonal you do tend to get things in gluts. While that can be a burden it's also a great trigger to try something a bit different with the old familiar - always assuming one can be bothered.

Today I could be bothered so I used the third (or perhaps fourth) butternut on the bounce, along with some lamb rump found in the freezer, as an excuse to head in the direction of Southern Spain / North Africa and of course Morito came up with the goods.

Actually two separate recipes (turn to pages 110 and 222 in your copies, please class) I thought they'd go really well together, and how right I was.

It's also - unusually for me - extremely simple and pretty quick.

First up the lamb is marinaded in garlic, paprika, cumin and cinnamon, with a little olive oil and lemon juice to lubricate. 

Give it an hour or so and then just grill / griddle / barbecue / flash fry for a few minutes. 

Gratuitous griddle shot

The book suggests serving in flatbreads with a salad, but I had other fish - or rather pulses - to fry.

So the butternut is diced small and tossed in oil and cinnamon, then roasted for half an hour or so, until soft and slightly coloured.

The chickpeas are drained, dried and deep fried for a few minutes until puffy and golden then seasoned with ground coriander, cumin and (more) cinnamon. This is then tossed with the butternut, some sliced red onion and fresh coriander, with a mix of greek yoghurt and tahini poured on top.

I just piled it all in a nice dish with the kebabs on top and grabbed a bottle of very acceptable Verdejo, then headed for the sunshine.

To hell with elegant plating - this is a pile up and fight for it dish

Unforgivably we were out of fresh coriander (I've long-since learned there's no good substitute, though mint would have gone well here) so we missed that fresh, fragrant element. Even so it was real delight. 

The spicing on the lamb was quite subtle - a background tone to the meat rather than the main theme - and though there's a lot of cinnamon running through the dish it wasn't overpowering. Instead brought a lovely harmony to everything.

Fire up the fryer - it's chickpea o'clock
Fried chickpeas were a revelation and I can't believe I've never come across it before. Crunchy outside and soft in the middle they're like tiny chip-nuggets with the same affection for plenty of seasoning. They worked brilliantly alongside with the soft sweetness of the squash and tender lamb. It would make an outstanding bar snack.

Personally I had mixed feelings about the tahini yoghurt - it was little strong for me and while I can see the benefit of having something sharp and runny going on, I think it would have been fine without. 

Mrs Robot disagreed violently though, stuffing it down by the spoonful, so next time I'd be minded to serve it separately on the side. 

Specifically, her side.

This would (will) make a splendid after-work dinner. The most time consuming element is marinading the lamb but of course you can always do that the day before, or more likely, up the quantities for about 15 minutes. 

Otherwise all the work is done while the squash is roasting and flung together at the last minute. It's a delicious, light meal, very different to what we've been eating lately, and one I'm already looking forward to having again.

"Finished" is the saddest work in cookery

As ever, we're not in the business of giving away other people's recipes so if you want the full details I urge you to buy the book either direct from Morito or the retailer of your choice.

All images (c) PP GETTINS

Monday, 6 April 2015

A Culinary Memorial: Joan Gettins 1946-2015

by: Mr Robot

It's been quite a while since I last posted - at first just laziness and then, awfully, my Mother died suddenly in February. Not really conducive to light-hearted blithering, as you can probably imagine.

As I'm sure is the case for most people, Mum was my primary influence in all things foody, and with no father around I spent a lot of time hanging around the kitchen with her. So I was determined that my next post - whenever it came - should be a little tribute to her.

As it's turned out, there's a heavy Christmas influence here. Partly because that's when many of the family rituals got established but also, living 200 miles away, it was the time I saw her most consistently over the last 20 years or so.

So here we go, and forgive me if the keyboard gets a little soggy.

The Prawn Cocktail
Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s it's no surprise some of my fondest foods now fall into the naff-to-retro-chic category.

I'm never sure where on that spectrum prawn cocktail sits at any given point and, frankly, I couldn't care less.

This was Mum's go-to starter for any occasion  and never lost its appeal.

It very specifically requires frozen prawns (she couldn't abide handling fresh seafood) and iceberg lettuce, and must be served in these glass dishes - which I'm pretty sure have been around longer than I have - and the unwritten rule was that no matter how many were served, there must always be enough left over in the fridge for me to have two more helpings later on.

Beyond that, though, I couldn't tell you much about the making of it, and this is the first time I've ever made it. I never needed to before - it was always something Mum did. A Marie-Rose sauce is such a staple that everyone has their own tweaks to make it personal, but I'd never even asked about her recipe (I've riffed on a Delia here).

I guess it's testament to my childlike assumption that she'd always be there - despite her many health issues - that I never really expected to have to make things like this myself. And now I'll never know the true, home recipe. The best I can do is start working towards my own.

Eggs Benedict

Quite the opposite to a childhood tradition (in fact I have a feeling I introduced it to her), but eggs benedict became a little ritual over the last 10 years or so.

It is always to be had on Christmas morning while listening to Ed Stewart's Junior Choice on Radio 2 (I can't imagine how I'll cope with Puff the Magic Dragon this year) and just before opening presents.

The ham always comes from Walter Rose and the eggs are organic, but the muffins are supermarket standard, and I'm afraid the hollandaise is from a jar.

While I can and do make my own hollandaise at other times, Xmas Eggs need to be an easy, convivial start to the day, when there's enough kitchen nonsense going on already, and presents must never be delayed.

Eggs Benedict - a Christmas necessity

So our eggs benedict, like so many of these things, isn't the best in the world but it's the right one.

Gammon with pineapple, and peas and sweetcorn

Another much maligned dish and to be honest I veer towards egg and chips with my gammon but this was her standby.

A special occasion would pretty much always demand Duck a L'Orange (a significant project, as I remember it) but gammon with pineapple was more commonplace but always felt like a treat.

As often as not, it was what greeted us when we came to stay and was always served with new potatoes, and a massive dish of peas and sweetcorn - mixed together and well doused in butter.

Generally a bottle of three of chilled chardonnay or sauvingon blanc came alongside.

This is something we only ever had at Mum's. Actually when I was thinking about this post it was Mrs Robot who demanded I include it, just for the peas and sweetcorn which stand out as a uniquely Mum thing.

Peas and sweetcorn - so simple but distinctively her
Dated perhaps, but surely that's the point of nostalgia.

Christmas Pudding
Mum always made her own Christmas Pudding and I've shared it with many, many people over the years - it's always declared the best ever tried.

Mum's last Christmas pudding, getting a brandy wash
In this case I'm pleased to say I did pin the recipe down because Christmas without her pudding would be hard to bear.

It comes from an old Good Cooking magazine (a series she collected in its entirety), the page now well spattered with 30-odd years of goop and brandy drips. She typically made them a good year or so in advance, with regular doses of booze to keep them going. When she died it was horribly poignant to find two small puddings already prepared for this year.

April is obviously the wrong time to indulge in that kind of thing, so here I've taken one of the puddings and incorporated it into Tom Kerridge's Orange Cake with plum sauce and Christmas Pudding ice-cream. It's fantastic dessert and I think Mum would have loved it.

Tom Kerridge's Orange Cake, with Mum's Xmas pudding ice-cream

Chocolate Truffles
Another Christmas thing, but this going right back to my earliest memories. We lived in rural Norfolk but most of the extended family was in Lancashire so every year we would make the lengthy trek up north and west (this before the M62 was invented) with presents for my cousins and, for her siblings, home-made rum and brandy truffles.

They're from a loved and battered copy of Sonia Allison's A Pleasure to Cook and are incredibly rich, consisting purely of dark chocolate, butter, egg yolk and sugar. And alcohol of course, which, now I've made them myself, is severely understated in the book. I'd guess Mum was using 3 to 4 times as much booze, to the benefit of all.

I have distinct, unbearably warm memories of Truffle Day. Mum spends pretty much the whole day making them and I - maybe six years old - am hugely excited because a) this means Christmas is definitely on the way and b) there will probably be some treats coming my way later. It's grey and cold outside, warm and golden in the kitchen. She's wearing blue, and it's a day of laughter.

Nonsense of course, as I know she often found it hugely time consuming and I must've been a right pain in the arse, getting under her feet and demanding to lick the spoon every five minutes. But still, that's the picture in my mind and one I've had for a long time.

Just last Christmas, in fact, I'd talked to her about resurrecting the truffle tradition with the plan of making them for her this year. Appalling, then, that it can't happen - and how much more important they are to me now.

Rum and Brandy Chocolate Truffles. Need more rum. And brandy.

There are so many other things I could go on about: the wonderful seafood lasagne she made each Good Friday, the baked alaska and "chocolate mountain" (a pile of profiteroles a good 2ft high) that remain legendary within the family; pea and ham soup in the depths of winter; the travesty that was cold baked beans in a salad; her devotion to Ken Hom; the day Old El Paso reached East Anglia...

I'll finish with one of our best food memories, when the Icelandic volcano scuppered our planned flights and we ended up doing a last minute trip to Padstow instead. The weather was kind and we had a lovely week but the highlight for her was eating a Rick Stein's. The best food she'd ever had, she said, with possibly the biggest smile I'd ever seen on her face. For someone so reserved-to-cynical, the purity of her enjoyment was a treat to see, and I'm so glad we were able to give her that.

Food is a joy to me, and playing in the kitchen is one of my greatest pleasures. I owe all that happiness to Mum.