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Garlicky Tomato and Fennel Gratin

Introduction:

Did you know that the term gratin originally referred to the crust that adhered to the cooking receptacle and was scraped off? Its derivation is from the French word gratté which means scraped or scratched.

Now a gratin is more commonly referred to when describing the  golden crust that forms on the surface of a dish when it is browned in the oven or put under a grill. A gratin is also associated with toppings of cheese, breadcrumbs or egg and breadcrumbs. As a method it’s a great way to protect the food underneath the crust from overcooking or drying out, whilst creating an intense flavour, and sometimes crunchy texture, on top.

This gratin is a French classic (although it wouldn’t look out of place in Italy) using the combination of ripened tomatoes, the wonderfully aniseed-like fennel and of course being of Gallic origin, garlic. It is topped off with a crunchy and cheesy topping which wowed my other half and two ankle biters.

 

Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main.   |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: 35 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the filling:    
1kg Fennel bulbs | Note that the total yield of fennel will be less once the core, stems and outer layer have been removed.
1 Large Red onion | Thinly sliced.
½kg Ripened tomatoes | Use nice ripe tomatoes such as a Roma or a  beefsteak tomato. No need to use heirloom or anything similarly luxuriant.
2 cloves Garlic | Crushed.
4 tbsp.  Olive oil |

For the topping:    
60g Coarse bread crumbs | I make my own. For this recipe I used multigrain bread blitzed in a food processor until the breadcrumbs were coarse. White bread can be used.
70g Grana Padano cheese | This cheese is not as strong as Reggiano Parmesan, but still adds a strong bitey edge to the topping. Ensure that it is made in Italy if you want great flavour.
1 small lemon Lemon zest | Grated.
1 clove Garlic | Crushed.

 

 

How To:

Preheat your oven to 200 deg. C (400 deg. F). Put the kettle on to boil. Take a 21 cm square gratin dish and grease it with butter or olive oil.

To prepare the fennel remove the stems, fronds and any tired looking outer layers. Remove any tough core at the bottom of the fennel bulb. Cut the fennel length ways and then thinly slice.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a low to medium heat. Add the onion and soften for about 4 or 5 minutes. It’s important not to brown the onion as browning will impart a deep caramelised flavour that doesn’t work with this dish. Now add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the fennel and cook this until it has softened and has taken on a golden hue. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes.

The kettle should have boiled by now. Take the tomatoes and carefully score the bases with a cross. I do this with a small sharp paring knife. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over the hot water from the kettle. Leave for about 25 seconds and then remove the tomatoes carefully and plunge them into a bowl of cold water (with ice). If the tomatoes were ripe the skins will be gagging to be removed. Peel the tomatoes, roughly chop them and add them to the fennel and onion. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Season and taste; as French chefs will tell you “taste, taste, taste!”

For the topping add the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, lemon zest and crushed garlic to a bowl. Mix with that fine tool they call the hand.

Line the gratin dish with the cooked vegetables and evenly sprinkle the gratin topping over them. Put the gratin in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the topping looks golden brown (easier to see with white breadcrumbs) and has a crispy texture. Serve immediately. Bon appétit!

 

Notes:

–        I served this with a pan fried pork loin chops (these have the characteristic T-bone shape).

Seared Asparagus and Fennel with Black Olives, Balsamic and Ashed Goat’s Cheese

Introduction:

This dish is influenced from one of my all-time favourite and inspirational chefs, Alain Ducasse.

Why inspirational? Alain Ducasse is a master of French cuisine (apparently he holds 21 Michelin stars which is pas mal in anybody’s book) and I believe that if you can master the techniques of French cuisine and patisserie you are armed with the skills to be able to cook and create anything you want. I am a great admirer of French cooking (and hopefully one day  be a great exponent of) and for me Alain Ducasse is one of the chefs that I get inspiration from, not only to create new dishes, but to actually cook.

There is much leaning these days towards local produce; that is making the most of the ingredients about you. I agree that are times that certain ingredients need to be brought in from another country. For example Jerez sherry vinegar from Spain, the cacao bean from South America say, a true Reggiano from Italy, or a scrumptious black pudding from the north of England (I am a little bias with this one being a Yorkshireman). However, on the whole, I think it’s a great idea to try and source as much ‘fresh’ produce from as near to your locale as possible. Take René Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen (voted the world’s best restaurant for three consecutive years in 2010, 2011 and 2012), his complete philosophy of cooking is about using what he can find locally.

Alain Ducasse has a great book out called ‘Nature’ which aims to get cooks and chefs to think about cooking amazing but simple dishes which are healthy and taste great.  The emphasis is on sourcing local vegetables, cereals and fruit. And with some simple techniques under your belt and a keen eye for some terrific produce, simple yet outstanding dishes can be a stone throw away.

If you want to read more about techniques I wrote this article about Produce, Technique and Harmony.

With locally sourced vegetables in mind here in Melbourne we currently have some great asparagus on offer, and I have taken the basis of one of Monsieur Ducasse’s dishes and give it a Yorkshireman’s twist – not that the twist has anything to do with Yorkshire, mind you.

This dish is the amalgamation of rich nutty asparagus, mild aniseed from fennel, saltiness from local Kalamata olives, sweetness from an aged balsamic vinegar, and the tart and salty creaminess from an ash coated goat’s cheese; all of which harmonises to make this an all-round taste sensation in the mouth. It can be eaten as a side dish, or if you are feeling particularly non-carnivorous pile it high and eat it as your main.

 

Serves: 4 as a side or 2 as a main   |   Preparation: 15 minutes   |   Cooking: 10 minutes

 

Ingredients:

About 12 | Green Asparagus Remove the woody ends – these should snap off easily. Cut each stalk into 3 (angle the cuts for aesthetic pleasure).
1 bulb Fennel | Remove the outer layer, the green stems and the woody bottom, and then thinly slice.
2 tbsp.  Extra virgin olive oil |
1 good pinch Sea salt | Maldon anyone?
5 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar | Aged is ideal for this dish.
2 tbsp. Kalamata olives | Pitted (stones removed).
150g Ash coated goats cheese | I use a mild and creamy cheese. The ash is mainly tasteless but is said to help mellow the acidity to promote the ‘affinage’ (refining of the cheese).
Seasoning Black pepper | Freshly cracked.

 

 

How To:

To a bowl add the cut asparagus, the sliced fennel, the olive oil and the good pinch of sea salt. Mix gently until the asparagus and fennel are coated with oil – a hand is a great tool to do this.

Heat a large heavy based frying or sauté pan. Add the oiled asparagus and fennel to the pan and cook until slightly browned and tender. You can check the asparagus with the tip of a sharp knife to see if it is done. The aim is to still have a little ‘crunch’ but not so much that it isn’t cooked.

Set aside the asparagus and fennel, and then add the balsamic vinegar to the hot pan. When the vinegar sizzles add the olives and stir for about 30 seconds, enough just to warm the olives. Put the asparagus and fennel on a serving plate, pour over the warm balsamic vinegar and olives and then season with black pepper. Finally, crumble the goat’s cheese over and serve immediately. Bon appétit!

Spaghetti Bolognese

Introduction:

Hovering over a cauldron of hot meat, somewhere in a poky flat in London, two students of chemistry fervently debate what they honestly believe to be the finer points of an Italian classic. No, no, one must dissolve the stock cube in 40 degree water before-hand…ah but my learned friend, one can just simply sprinkle it straight in to the meat, and considering the energy coefficient of solubility it will be fine. We beg to differ, but surely anyone worth their salt would cook the meat first and then add onions. Oh my fellow collegiate, it is all but obvious that one cooks the onions first and then adds the meat. But why Balsamic? I mean why are you throwing a carboxylic acid in to a meat sauce, you’re mad…..Ahh yes but this acid will be offset by the coefficient of not really knowing what we are doing.

Through all of this intense, and what we thought was intellectual, debate not once was the true understanding of what we were doing discussed. In particular thinking about flavour, texture and the science of what really happens.

I remember a two day residential course during my A-level years (16-18 year old) at a university in the North of England and being bedazzled by the professor of organic chemistry who could synthesise the most incredible molecules from basic reagents. But this is not the reason why the experience has stuck with my all these years later. It was the sheer brilliance of the man when it came to making coffee. And it was brilliance because it was so bad. A lumpy (undissolved powdered milk), weak and tepid mess that was more Damien Hirst than Delia Smith.

Luckily for me, I managed to overcome the handicap of being a chemist to be able to cook with a degree of flair and efficiency, I hope. Years on from that meat cauldron I  have been able to understand more about what happens when cooking – and do now consider flavour- and feel confident enough now to share with you my latest, and proudest, version of the Italian classic, spaghetti Bolognese.

Fortunately I discovered two things: the first is the wonderful mirepoix, and the second is that I can cook the meat and onions at the same time, in different pans. Now try telling that to a professor of chemistry. Enjoy.

 

Serves: 8   |   Preparation:  30 minutes  |   Cooking: 2 ½ hours

 

Ingredients:

1 kg Pork and veal mince | Of course lean beef can be used, but I love this combination.
2 Pork sausages | If you can, purvey good English style pork sausage from a good butcher – or the equivalent weight in sausage meat.
5 tbsp. Olive oil |  
100ml Red wine | Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz – not too expensive though unless you are going to drink the rest.
1 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar | A good aged one works well. There is something about the balsamic that seems to ‘lift’ the flavour of the sauce.
2 Carrots | Finely diced.
1 Brown onion | Finely diced.
2 Celery sticks | Finely diced.
1 Baby fennel | Finely chopped – this is optional but does add a super subtle aniseed note.
1 Leek | Finely chopped – white part only.
2 pinches Sea salt |
250ml Vegetable stock | Chicken or beef can be used. See here for chicken or beef stock.
2 tsp. Tomato purée |
2 x 440g cans Diced tomatoes | This can be made with fresh tomatoes, but quality tinned tomatoes are just as good.
To season Salt and black Pepper |
Your call Spaghetti | Dried or fresh. If I have time I will make fresh, otherwise dried is perfect.
A glug Olive oil | Used to loosen the spaghetti when cooked.

 

 

How To:

Pre-heat your oven to 150 deg. C (300 deg. F).

In a large heavy based frying pan over medium to high heat add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When hot add the mince and work with a wooden spoon to break it down as it cooks. Cook until brown.

In the meantime add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large casserole dish or heavy based pan that can be put in the oven, and put over a low heat on the hob. When the oil is hot add the carrots, onion, celery, leek, fennel and 2 pinches of sea salt. Mix well so the vegetables are coated with oil and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the vegetables to brown (caramelise).

Back to the mince: once browned add the sausage meat. If using sausages squeeze tiny balls of meat from the skin and add to the mince. Once it’s all added, stir and cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. The mince will start sticking which is good, as this will add lots of flavour to the Bolognese.

Once the vegetables are soft and translucent add the tomato purée and stir. Once the meat has cooked add it to the vegetables and put the frying pan on high heat. Add the red wine and balsamic, and scrape the stuck on bits from the pan’s surface. Once the wine and balsamic have been reduced by half, add to the vegetables and meat, ensuring that the loosened sticky bits go in as well.

To the meat and vegetables add the stock and tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in the oven for about 1hr 45 minutes. After an hour check the sauce. If it is looking a bit dry add a little hot stock or water to moisten.

Meanwhile for the spaghetti, cook according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked, drain and reserve about a tablespoon of the cooking water. Put the spaghetti back in the pan, add the reserved cooking water and a glug of olive oil, stir and the cover the pan. This should keep your spaghetti fresh for 10 minutes or so.

Remove the Bolognese from the oven, season according to taste with sea salt and black pepper, and serve on the spaghetti. Buon appetito.

Pickled Sea Trout with Soy and Lime Dressing, and Rocket, Fennel and Asparagus Salad

Introduction:

I think medical science has a lot answer for. Before the proliferation of ‘advice’ such as you should not eat this or that, and if you are to drink coffee then it must be decaffeinated, skinny, soy, de-leaded, de-flavoured and de-coffeed or else you will only live for the next 12 seconds, people had no guilt about eating things like butter, cheese, lard, dripping, eggs etc.. Now we have diets of flaxseed infused quinoa with water reduction, and have been convinced that aspartame (that sweet stuff) is ‘better’ for us than natural sugar. Balderdash, I say. In moderation we should enjoy the food that nature has supplied and not live in guilt. But you know what? You can still eat healthily and have food that packs bags and bags of flavour.

So, today at the fishmongers two beautiful looking sea trout were conversing about the pros and cons of quantum marine physics when one caught my eye, winked and said “come over here me old china plate (mate) – we’re healthy and tasty me and Fred (sic) and we fancy being bedazzled with some crazily great ingredients and then consumed by your lovely wife and yourself”.  Not one to look a gift fish in the mouth, I quickly snapped them up and tootled off home, seriously disturbed at the notion of talking fish. It is only when I go them home did I realise that they had been divulging too much in the old seaweed wine and were pickled before I had even reached for the cider vinegar.

Uttering not another word it was time to see what Fred and his mate (never did catch his name) were all about, and thus came in to existence pickled sea trout with soy, lime and ginger dressing, served with rocket, fennel and asparagus salad – with a bit of a bang.

 

Serves: 2 as a main meal  |   Preparation:  1 hour marinade + 30 minutes preparation   |   Cooking: 10 minutes

 

Ingredients:

2 medium Trout/ sea trout | When filleted gives about 300g each of flesh. Rainbow Trout or Mackerel are excellent substitutes.

For the Pickle Marinade    
250ml Cider vinegar |  
250ml Water |
1 medium Red onion | Sliced.
4 slices Lemon |
6 stalks Coriander | A nice intense flavour in the stalks makes them great for marinating.
40g Caster sugar |
1 tsp. Juniper berries | Fragrant berries that are a distant relative of pine.
½ tsp. Szechuan peppercorns | These impart a magical tingling sensation on the tongue.
1 tbsp. Olive oil |

For the dressing  
1 tbsp. Soy sauce | I use a medium soy sauce – e.g. Kikkoman.
1 tbsp. Water |
1 lime Lime juice |
1 tsp. Fresh ginger | Finely julienned (matchsticks).
½ tsp. Dark Muscovado sugar | A soft brown sugar is good as a substitute.

For the salad
A bunch Rocket | A bunch is a good handful.
2 Baby fennel | Finely sliced.
About 9 or 10 Asparagus tips | Blanched for 1 minute in boiling water and then immediately immersed in iced water to stop them cooking further.
½ lime Lime juice |  
1 tsp. Sea salt |
1 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns |
1 tbsp. Olive oil | Extra virgin for its light and fruity flavour.

 

 

How To:

Start by filleting the trout if you have bought them whole. Ensure that you pin bone the fillets by running your finger along the flesh a few times to feel for them.

To prepare the pickle, add to a pan the cider vinegar, water, sliced red onion, lemon slices, coriander stalks, Szechuan peppercorns, juniper berries and olive oil. Over heat, bring the temperature of the pickle to about 60 deg C (140 deg F) and then pour in to wide rectangular dish, such as a lasagne dish. Place the trout fillets in the pickle flesh side down, and leave to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, for the dressing add to a small bowl the soy sauce, water, lime juice, ginger and sugar and then mix well until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

For the salad, place the finely sliced baby fennel in a bowl of iced water for 20 minutes and then drain and pat dry. This will ensure the fennel is beautifully crunchy. To a mortar add the sea salt and Szechuan peppercorns and grind with the pestle until powdered. This is a variation on what is known as Chinese gunpowder – a salty spicy tingle.

To a large bowl add the blanched asparagus tips, rocket, baby fennel, lime juice, Chinese gunpowder and olive oil. Mix well by hand – it’s the best way.

After an hour is up carefully remove the trout fillets from the pickle, pat dry with paper towel and then score the skin diagonally – about 3 or 4 scores per fillet. Place the fish on a well-oiled baking sheet, skin side up. Under a medium to hot grill, grill the fish for 5-7 minutes until the skin is crispy and the fish is cooked.  Personally, I have the grill on high and then place the baking sheet about 5 inches (12.5cm) from the grill. This ensures that I don’t burn the skin and that the balance of cooking the fish and crisping the skin is just about perfect.

To serve, place the salad on a plate and then carefully place a fillet on top of the salad. Spoon some of the soy, lime and ginger dressing over the fish. Just to be ‘chefy’ I only serve one fillet to start with, and then tuck into the second one once the niceties of plating are over.

 

Notes

  • Want something fantastic to add to sandwiches? Once you have removed the trout from the pickle, leave the pickle for another 12 hours, drain and discard the lemon, coriander stalks, peppercorns and juniper berries. You’ll be left with an amazing pickled red onion that still has a little bite. Absolutely fantastic with roast beef sandwiches.

Citrus Fresh Barramundi Tartare

Introduction:

Originally the term tartare described dishes that were covered in breadcrumbs, grilled and then served with a rich and seasoned sauce. More recently tartare has lended itself to describe a sauce or a raw meat dish, such as beef tartare. I have used the term to describe this raw fish dish.

This dish was inspired by the produce first, and the harmony and technique second. The lure of the glistening barramundi at the fish market was too much to resist. Barramundi has a very earthy taste and therefore I wanted an opposing yet harmonious flavour with it. The bite of the citrus counteracts the earthiness of the fish, but also has the freshness that compliments it.

Ultimately, by creating a tartare I have kept the wonderful flavour of the fish whilst (hopefully!) bringing through the other flavours without overpowering the fish itself.

I love to buy the fish whole and clean it at home. For Barramundi I go in at the top by slicing down either side of the backbone, snip out the backbone and then gut it, remove the gills and eyes, and then pin-bone. Then I can stuff the fish and cook it whole, or cut out the individual fillets, as for this recipe.

 

Serves: 2 as a starter   |   Preparation:  30-45 minutes   |   Cooking: None

 

Ingredients:

About 800g 1 baby Barramundi | Fillet and skin the fillets. This yields about 200g of white flesh.
½ peeled Granny Smith apple | Finely diced.
½ tsp. Dijon mustard | A quality French Dijon required here.
3 tsp. White onion | Very finely diced – white onion is sweet and less intrusive than red or brown.
1 tsp. Ginger | Fresh ginger minced to a paste.
1 Lime | Squeezed juice from fresh lime.
A pinch Smoked sea salt | I love the smoky subtlety – I use Maldon.
2 tsp. Fresh dill | Finely chopped.
1 tbsp. Olive oil | Light virgin olive oil that’s not too overpowering.
To taste Black pepper | Freshly cracked.
6 Sorrel leaves | A beautiful intense citrus burst when chewed – more than just a garnish.
A few Baby fennel fronds | Separate in to smaller fronds – use as a garnish.
Pinch Smoked paprika | A nice finish to the dish.

 

 

How To:

Ensure that there is no bone or cartilage in the Barramundi fillet. As we are using raw fish any cartilage will have a chewy texture which will not bode well – and as for bones… Cut the Barramundi fillet in to small cubes making sure that they are not too fine such as to end up as fish paste.

Add to the fish the apple, mustard, white onion, ginger, smoked sea salt and dill. Mix well, but with care, until the mixture is homogenous. Then add the olive oil and black pepper, and stir till mixed in. The ingredients should stick together, but also break away easily. This is really important for the textural feel in the mouth and the look on the plate.

Put the tartare in a food stacker, and compress lightly. Turn out on to a plate and garnish with the sorrel, fennel fronds and smoked paprika.

Notes:

  • The technique in this dish is all about the preparation – I find it’s so important to treat every dice or cut with care and precision, as it will have a profound influence on the texture and overall enjoyment.