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Poached Eggs with Sautéed Mushrooms, Jalapeño and Olives drizzled with Truffle oil

Introduction:

I am going to show you how you can put together a stunning breakfast in 10 minutes; 15 minutes if you want to take your time. This was not planned but a breakfast borne from gut instinct and using the method of produce, technique and harmony.

Sometimes it is necessary to remove the shackles of conservatism in the kitchen and just open yourself up to a challenge. Let that gut instinct take over once in a while – and start by seeing what’s in the fridge. It is fair to say that if all that it contains is ‘one dried potato’ (Faithless fans will get this reference) then there will be little for the gut to react to. But a few edible items can lead to some great possibilities. Remember, select the produce, choose a technique and then find some harmony.

This breakfast dish is a result of just that. The produce that inspired it were the Swiss brown mushrooms, Kalamata olives and the jalapeño pepper that was sat there on its lonesome looking up at me for a bit of ‘arriba, andale, andale, yiihah’. The technique chosen was a simple sautéing in a little butter and oil. The harmony came from the adding of onion to the sautéed mushrooms, pepper and olives; serving it on poached eggs and a slice of toasted framer’s rye cob; and the drizzle of truffle oil to bring it all together. And all done in 10 minutes.

 

Serves: 1   |   Preparation: 2-3 minutes   | Cooking time: 6-7 minutes

 

Ingredients:

2 litres Hot tap water | For poaching the eggs.
2 tsp. White vinegar| For poaching the eggs.
2 large  Free range eggs | The fresher the better and the less stringiness they will produce in the hot water.
1 tbsp. Olive oil |
15g Butter |
6 Swiss brown mushrooms |
1 Jalapeño pepper |
6 Kalamata olives | Freshly pitted. If they have been pitted for some time they tend to go a little limp.
½ Red onion |
A slice or 2 Good bread | I used a locally made farmers rye cob.
10g Butter | To finish off the mushrooms.
A drizzle Truffle oil |

 

Method:

First thing; put the grill on for the toast (unless using a toaster), put a pan of hot tap water with the vinegar on high heat (cover it to bring it to the boil quicker) and put a small sautéing pan on medium heat.

Add the olive oil and butter to the small sautéing pan. Wipe the mushrooms with damp kitchen roll to remove any erroneous dirt (washing removes flavour and nutrients, so best avoided). Slice the mushrooms, jalapeño pepper and onion and when the butter starts to foam add them to the pan and sauté for about a minute, tossing the pan frequently.

The water should now be boiling. Turn down to a rolling simmer, stir the water gently so that it swirls. Add each egg gently to the water and set a timer for 3½ minutes.

Put the bread under the hot grill to toast, keeping an eye on it. When done cut it and place it on the serving plate.

Put a lid on the sauté pan and over low heat cook the mushrooms for a further 3 minutes. Remove the lid, turn the heat to medium, add the olives and a little more butter, and toss and cook for a minute.

After 3½ minutes individually remove the eggs from the pan using a slotted spoon. Allow each egg to drain and then carefully place kitchen towel under the spoon to soak up any excess water. Place the eggs on the toast.

Remove the mushroom and olives from the heat and drizzle over some truffle oil (or a little olive oil if you don’t have truffle oil) and season with black pepper (there should be enough salt from the olives).

Gently place the mushroom mix over the poached eggs and eat immediately.

 

Notes:

  • For 2 or more serves just increase the ingredients proportionally.

Bruschetta – Vibrancy of Italy

Introduction:

I have been inspired. In a food community on Google Plus somebody posted a wonderful antipasto plate; I commented on how stunning it looked and how incredible the flavours must have been. In summary it was a culinary opera with many parts that came together melding in to one dramatic plate of food. There was radish, asparagus, a sweet and tart aged balsamic vinegar, salty prosciutto and creamy mozzarella; and then some pickled onion for acidity and ripened tomato for an umami hit. A perfect Italian summer on a plate.

Suitably inspired I banged together a rather quick but unforgettable bruschetta – and it just felt like a real celebration of the vibrancy of fresh Italian food.

Traditionally bruschetta is bread, usually ciabatta because of its open light structure, grilled on both sides and eaten warm with olive oil; and often served with a savoury garnish. It is said that bruschetta, which of course is of Italian origin, was used to test the new season’s olive oil. Now, it has become more about the savoury garnish and can be found topped with anything from cannellini beans, onion and sage, as in the Tuscan version of beans on toast, to cabbage, garlic and chilli.

The version on this here blog celebrates the fresh flavours of Italy and one that I picture whilst dreaming about looking out on a summer morning over the rolling hills of Tuscany. In it there is a medley of sweet miniature tomatoes, peppery radish, great olive oil, sweet and acidic aged balsamic, parsley, fennel fronds, sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Essentially it is served on crunchy griddled ciabatta. Buon appetito.

 

Serves: 2   |   Preparation: 10 minutes   |   Cooking: 5 minutes

 

Ingredients:
200g   Medley of miniature tomatoes | Including cherry, black Russian, grape, yellow and red tomatoes.
4 small Radishes | Sliced.
A splash Olive oil | Good quality virgin here.
A splash Balsamic vinegar | A rich acidic and sweet aged version is tops.
10 Parsley leaves | Roughly chopped.
4 Fennel fronds | Roughly chopped. Adds a hint of aniseed to the bruschetta.
To season Sea salt |
To season Black pepper | Coarsely ground.
A few slices Old-fashioned ham | Or ham off the bone – just something that’s not mainly water if you know what I mean.
A few slices Ciabatta | A couple of days old ciabatta griddles to a lovely crunch.
A few drizzles Olive oil | To griddle the ciabatta.

 

How To:
Pre-heat a griddle pan on medium heat to get it hot.

On a wooden chopping board roughly chop up the tomatoes and then add the sliced radishes. Pour over a splash of olive oil and a splash of the balsamic vinegar. Now add the chopped parsley, fennel fronds, sea salt and black pepper. Mix it all up – I just use a knife in a toss and scrape motion. Put the tomato mix in a bowl, and you will be left with some lovely tomatoey, oily and vinegary juices on the chopping board. Very quickly dip each slice of the ciabatta bread in the juice – so it becomes acquainted but not over-friendly i.e. not soggy. Lightly drizzle olive oil over both sides of each ciabatta slice and then place them side-down in the hot griddle. Turn over when a lovely golden brown and do the same to the other side.

Once both sides have browned (being careful not to burn) remove the ciabatta from the griddle and on one side of each slice lay some of that lovely ham. Top the ham with a couple of spoons of the tomato mix and eat immediately.

 

Notes:

– If you don’t have a griddle then you can grill (broil) the ciabatta.

Jerusalem Artichokes aka Sunchokes

Opening this series of ingredients is the disfigured but delicious Jerusalem artichoke, a tuber that gives credence to the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The Jerusalem artichoke originated in North America where it is more commonly known as the sunchoke. It was introduced to France in the 17th century by Samuel de Champlain, and as such Europe became a major cultivator of it. Its appearance above terra firma is in the form of a sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus) whereas it’s subterranean form resembles gnarly ginger, with a plump look and non-fibrous texture.

 

Courtesy of http://wiseacre-gardens.com/wordpress/a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

Jerusalem Artichoke Flower

 

The Jerusalem artichoke itself is not related to the globe artichoke in any way, shape or form. The artichoke part of the name was adopted, some say, due to the similarity in flavour with the globe artichoke. For those of you that have never tried a Jerusalem artichoke it can be imagined, as does Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus, as a cross between a globe artichoke and a good quality potato.

I was given some artichoke bulbs (tubers) by a mate last summer – I often find it quite amusing thinking about two hefty blokes sat in the corner of a pub supping ale, hotly debating the latest goings on in the English Premier league whilst also finding time to share recipes, dried legumes, herbaceous growing tips and Jerusalem artichoke tubers.

Anyway, after being given strict growing instructions I planted the tubers and waited for winter. During summer we went away to Vietnam for 5 weeks, and on return the plants had gone from 2 inch high nippers to 2 foot toddlers. As autumn passed the plants passed through their teenage years; a little unwieldy, requiring a little bit of propping up and producing non-descriptive buds that I was just hoping would blossom into something worthy of their potential. By winter they had; in to stunning miniature sunflowers on 6 foot stalks. They sat tall and majestic in the garden, and watched on as all around were succumbing to the autumnal drop.

Alas, eventually the flowers began to wilt, and then they passed from this mortal coil, and although the garden had lost its vibrancy what was waiting beneath the earth would more than compensate – a cornucopia of Jerusalem artichokes. From the four tubers that I planted I yielded about 3 kg of artichoke. One great little tip I was given was when the flowers had died to cut the plant down to about 1 foot in height and leave the artichokes in the ground until I wanted to use them – this worked a treat as the earth preserved. We don’t have severe winters here in Melbourne so there was no risk of frost damage. Once the artichokes had been dug up they started to deteriorate after a couple of days.

 

Another little tip: save some of the tubers that you dig up as they can be planted the following summer and nature’s process can begin again.

Jerusalem artichokes can be prepared in a range of ways: steamed, boiled or braised with butter.They go really well in salads, for example grilled artichoke, red onion and olive is a belting combination, or they can be fried in batter, souffléed or puréed. In fact here’s an opportunity – check out this great Jerusalem artichoke purée that I made (coming soon).

Now something to be aware of:  these knobbly wonders do have a little, let’s say griping, side effect. There’s this little polymer know as inulin, which acts as an energy store and a brilliant antifreeze for these tubers. However, when inulin enters the human body it passes through the digestive system because it cannot be digested, and heads straight for the large intestine – and here it guffaws in the most satisfying of manners. You see it decides to feed the bacteria in our intestine, the same bacteria which then produces gas, and the rest they say is history. So, when serving these delicious treats at a dinner party – caveat emptor.

Here’s a quote from the 17th century botanist John Goodyer and his take on the Jerusalem artichoke,

which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.

Maybe Mr Goodyer was a little over zealous with his love for the Jerusalem artichoke. If one can see beyond the mere trifle of a little wind, then I would recommend these wonderfully tasty and versatile vegetables. And look, if the conversation becomes stagnant at the dinner party then there’s always the possibility of your guests degenerating in to a blustery parody of the Grimethorpe Colliery brass band.

The Amazing Mirepoix

How can three humble vegetables have such a profound effect on European cookery? They form a mirepoix in France, a soffrito in Italy or a sofregit in Spain and have chiselled their way onto the tablets of command when it comes to culinary flavour and versatility.

So what are they? Let’s focus on France and the mirepoix (\mir-ˈpwä\)(it is the title of the post so seems logical enough). Traditionally in France, and I say traditionally as it is claimed that this culinary preparation was used in the 18th century by the cook Duc de Levis-Mirepoix, a French field marshal and ambassador of Louis XV, it consists of celery, carrot and onion. That’s it the humble carrot, celery stick and onion; and all in all they contribute wonderful flavours to meat, game and fish, as well as form the aromatic flavours of many sauces. In some meat dishes it is traditional to add raw ham or lean bacon to the mirepoix.

 

Why do these three vegetables work together so well? Well first off I thought we should take a gander at them separately:

Carrot: Carrots are manifest in two major cultivated forms; the purplish eastern anthocyanin carrot developed in central Asia and the Western carotene carrot. Of the Western varieties, the most familiar is the orange one that was allegedly developed in Holland – but not the reason why the Dutch football team wear orange. The orange carrot contains the highest level of beta-carotene (provitamin A) of any other vegetable. Beta-carotene is a terpene and it is this component that provides carrots with their piny, woody and citrusy flavours; a commonality with celery.

Celery: Something I only learnt recently is that celery, the aromatic stalk vegetable, is derived from the carrot family, which explains the reason why there is an affinity between it and carrot. Celery was apparently cultivated in the 15th century and was deemed a delicacy well into the 19th century. It has a very distinct aroma due to components called phthalides, which are also resident in walnuts. If you have looked in to flavour pairing you will probably know of the affinity celery and walnuts have – Waldorf salad is a classic. Terpenes are also present in celery, giving it distinctly subtle notes of pine and citrus.

Onion: As we know onions, from the genus Allium of which there are about 500 varieties, are eye stingers (lachrymatory) and mouth burners. In the humble onion there are sulphur based compounds. As a defence mechanism, when the cells containing these compounds are damaged e.g. by cutting, enzymes are released that break down these sulphur compounds in to chemicals that are irritating and strong smelling. The flavours in onions, in particular the strength in raw onions, is dependent on how much of the cell structure is broken. For example, the mouth burning sensation and flavour will be greater in onions pounded in a mortar and pestle than those that have been roughly chopped.

 

So, what happens when these three aromatics are cooked together?

The method of cooking has a significant bearing on the final flavour. A mirepoix is meant to be cooked on a low heat and in oil. This method helps to sweat or sweeten the vegetables (according to Raymond Blanc there is no French equivalent for the word sweeten). Heating the onion in this way allows the sulphur compounds to break down gently, which produces a series of softer, sweeter flavours. When heating carrots the cell walls break down causing the release of sugars, giving that sweet flavour that slow-cooked carrots are renowned for. Heating celery this way seems to tone down the flavours in to something more delicate. The gentle heating also prevents any of the three vegetables from browning (also known as the Maillard reaction). This browning produces caramelised flavours which are not required for a mirepoix where the end product requires subtlety.

 

How to Prepare: When food is prepared, the finer the pieces are cut the greater the exposed surface area is and therefore the more flavour that can be imparted. With that said a mirepoix should comprise of finely chopped vegetables. Being small pieces also allows the heat to penetrate through the vegetables also causing them to release those wonderful flavours. If your mirepoix is to be eaten (as opposed to being a basis of a strained sauce) then it is necessary to have the vegetables finely chopped so that they break down sufficiently enough not to impart an unpleasant texture, for example in Bolognese. In terms of proportions it is common to use 1 onion to 1 large carrot to 1 stick of celery, but of course this can be varied.

 

What do I use mirepoix in? A cracking Bolognese has to start with this magical mix as well as a luscious lasagne (not quite sure if lasagne is luscious, but it sounded good). I also use it in my smoked Pea and Ham Soup, and in sauces, such as a red wine reduction (where the mirepoix is discarded), tomato based pasta sauces, and one-pot wonders. It’s a wonderful blend of chemistry, and flavour and aroma science, and one that should be part of any cook’s armoury.

Dinner for 8 Anyone?

My neighbour and good friend and I have been waxing on for the last few months on how it would be great to cook together. This Saturday all that hot air and ideas of grandeur will indeed become reality as we are going to prepare a feast for eight. The occasion is the departure of our good friends and other close neighbours that are flying the nest of our street and moving to another area…ok about ½ kilometre away but that’s still some distance.

Not one for diatribe and idle banter I will not burden you with comedy of errors that has enforced this move, suffice to say that we will be sad to see our friends leave the street, and therefore Saturday night is going to be some culinary send off.

I have never worked in a professional kitchen, or indeed had the perverse pleasure of being battered and bruised in one of those reality cooking shows; which for some is less about cooking and more about how to throw a hotchpotch of countercultural personalities in to a room in which they proceed to throw metaphorical custard pies at each other. So, to share a kitchen with another is new territory for me. I think it’s a great opportunity to learn as well as impart any knowledge I have. Of course the key is how well we work together and if compromises can be made.

It’s quite amazing what the power of the grape does to your creativity. After a couple of glasses of a cracking cabernet merlot the creative juices were flowing, and after four hours of umming and ahhing, cogitating and gesticulating, we finally came up with a menu. And whatsmore we were at one in who would do what and when and how etc.. This is going to be a superb night I can feel it in my bones.

Yesterday we went shopping for the comprehensive list of ingredients. It’s fantastic when two people that love food go shopping for food. You get caught up in the whole experience of it; there’s no rush because every tomato, pepper, micro-herb, leek, pea, bean, apple is carefully prodded and smelt and conversed over; often with “wouldn’t it be great to make this out of that”. And then, where possible, sampling is a necessity; from cheese such as the aged Comte reserve to cured meat such as double smoked pancetta. When the sampling has finished it’s of course then time for lunch!

The first port of call was the fruit and vegetable purveyors, a 60+ years establishment here in Melbourne. Their appeal is that the produce is always wonderfully fresh and eclectic, with a focus on local ingredients that are in season, rather than just imported produce (which is also great). As winter is upon this antipodean land the emphasis is on produce such as peas, broad beans, Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts, celery, cauliflower, spinach, turnips, apples, lemons, limes, and pears to name a few.

Next was the really fun bit; the ‘special’ ingredients. We are talking about ripe French and Italian cheese, apple-wood smoked meat, couverture chocolate, pasta made in the outhouse of a master pasta maker in the hills of Italy, wild dried mushrooms, cultured butter from the Charentes-Poitou family in France…I think you get the drift.

I am from England, and the one thing that really has saddened me over the years is the decline of the butcher, in favour of the behemoths that are supermarket chains (horsemeat definitely not on the menu). I am, therefore, immensely honoured and grateful to have three butchers in our local street, one of which will go to the ends of the Earth to get what you need. I needed a few kilos of lamb bones for lamb stock, and in no time at all the butcher had collated a variety of lamb bones from different carcasses, chopped them all up in to stock sized pieces and packaged them – not a service I am familiar with in Tesco’s (UK supermarket chain if you’re not from those parts). An early visit to the butcher usually means that I can get everything I need; which in this case I did.

So, with the shopping mission accomplished today will be the mis-en-place (posh way for saying preparation) and then the final cooking will take place tomorrow, the day of the dinner party. If there is one snippet of advice I can give you, whether you are working in tandem or on your own, it is to plan your cooking. Make a list of everything you need, even if you already have it.  And really importantly, create a time line (pencil and paper is the best) of when you need to prepare and cook different components. I guarantee that once you do this the whole process of creating and cooking really will be immensely pleasurable.

I will share the menu with you after the event, as we have shrouded it in secrecy, and of course there will some recipes. Stay tuned…

Brilliant Basil Pesto

Introduction:

It’s a beautiful late autumn day here in Melbourne, and whilst basking in the afternoon sun the waft of basil perfumed air drifts by, and I am taken to the rolling hills of Tuscany. This, however, is only my imagination as firstly I am in Melbourne and secondly I have never been to Tuscany. But the basil aroma is so evocative that momentarily the dreamland became my reality.

As I return to the reality of my front garden, the gentle warm sun is illuminating the aforementioned basil, and I ponder on just how wonderful an experience it is to be able to grow, pick and then cook with things that I have grown; just like the natives of Tuscany.  For example, the tomato season is coming to an end but for the last three months there has been a steady stream of sweet and ripened Roma tomatoes from my two tomato plants. I also have sorrel (and citrusy salad leaf), jalapeno chillies, Jerusalem artichokes, strawberries, bay leaves, sage, Vietnamese mint, rosemary, mint and of course basil.

I am looking forward to the winter months as this means the growing of ‘green’ vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, green beans and maybe peas. I will also try potatoes once the artichokes are all finished. Whatever is grown though, there is something immensely pleasurable in nurturing seeds or seedlings and seeing them grow in to produce. It is not only a mark of our human ability to grow our own food but it is food that is also packed with the fresh flavours that seem to be lacking in produce that has been transported and been sitting on store shelves for a few days or more.

So, back to the basil; the thought of Tuscany has created a desire for pasta and pesto. A truly match made in heaven combination which is delectable not only for its flavour and texture but its simplicity. Here is my recipe for pesto; I use an imported Pecorino instead of Parmesan as I feel it is less overpowering and imparts a smooth bite to the pesto. Of course the basil is just about to be picked from the Tuscan hills…garden.

 

Serves: Makes about 250g  |   Preparation:  20 minutes   |   Cooking: No cooking required

Ingredients:

1 clove Garlic | Peeled.
Pinch Sea salt |
30g Basil leaves | Pick, wash and dry the leaves.
60g Pine nuts | You can toast them to add intensity, but I use them untoasted.
55g Italian Pecorino | Finely grated. I state Italian as Pecorino is made locally here in Australia and it is just NOT the same.
95ml Olive oil | Extra virgin olive oil is great.

 

 

How To:

This can be made in a food processor, but I like to use the more traditional method of a mortar and pestle. The crushing and grinding seems to draw out more of the basil and pine nut oils than by cutting (as it would in a food processor).

In to a mortar and pestle add the garlic and sea salt. Crush and grind until a garlic paste is formed. The addition of salt to the garlic causes the garlic to break down aiding in making it a paste like consistency.

Now add the basil leaves and bash until a green paste has formed. The basil does break down wonderfully, and the desire to go and dive in to the Tuscan hills takes hold as the aroma dissipates through the kitchen.

Now add the pine nuts, and continue to bash until paste like. Add the Pecorino and again some bashing and grinding until a thick dry paste has formed.

Now for the transformation in to pesto; a tablespoon at a time add the olive oil whilst stirring and grinding with the pestle. Adjust the oil to get your desired consistency. I like a nice ‘wet’ pesto if it is to be used in pasta. You may want something a little less oily if to be used as a spread on water crackers, for example. And hey p(r)esto, it’s finished.

Notes:

  • A fantastic way to use this pesto is to cook Spaghetti (#4) and then add the pesto, some chopped semi-dried tomatoes and some wok fried diced chicken thigh fillets.

Is it Possible to Cook from Scratch?

I have always prided myself on the ability, desire and, more to the point, the patience to cook from scratch; to take raw ingredients and turn them in to something delightfully edible. I also have a real inclination to avoid processed foods where I can, or so I thought. If you think about it a little deeper than perception sometimes allows, as I did one sunny day (maybe that was the light of eureka being turned on), then you start to ask the questions what is cooking from scratch and what are processed foods? (Maybe amongst the million or so other things to think about these questions may not be top of your list, but hey after reading this blog you may have a momentary lapse of reasoning and these questions will surface to the top of the pile).

 

Creme Fraiche, Dill and Lime

Creme Fraiche, Dill and Lime

 

I have a great book called ‘the kitchen as a laboratory’, a real geek cook’s/ chef’s paradise containing a number of essays that reflect on the science of food and cooking. One of the essays approaches, and sets to discuss, the fallacy of cooking from scratch; and it was this essay that got me thinking about the whole idea of what cooking from scratch means and what processed food is – yes, on that sunny day.

Regarding cooking from scratch, I am going to take as an example a recipe that I have already posted on this blog – the SMashing Lemon Drizzle Cake. The ingredients in this cake are unsalted butter, caster sugar, eggs, almond meal, baking powder, mashed potato, lemon zest, lemon juice. It becomes apparent that when looking at these ingredients the eggs, mashed potato, lemon zest and lemon juice could be considered as ‘scratch’ ingredients – ones that have been transformed from their rawest state in my kitchen. However, the butter, sugar, almond meal and baking powder have been through complex transformations from their rawest state before arriving in my kitchen. It is fair to say that I could have bought raw almonds, blanched them and then made the almond meal myself, but I certainly don’t have the time or facility to attempt to refine my own sugar, culture my own French butter or synthesise the chemicals that comprise baking powder. It’s fair to say then that my lemon drizzle cake, the one I would have previously claimed as being cooked from scratch, does indeed contain processed foods. In fact nearly everything we prepare will contain an element of processed food; for olive oil olives have been pressed, the resulting oil filtered,  deodorised to eliminate any bad odours and packaged; sea salt has been processed through the evaporation of water; milk, unless you have Daisy on hand in your back garden, is pasteurised to remove bacteria, homogenised to prevent it splitting and is available as full-fat, semi-skimmed, high taste low fat, low taste high fat, double milk, triple milk, milk with this, milk with that – I think you get my point; and also water, probably the most common ingredient of all has certainly been processed to make it safe for human consumption.

 

Pectin Powder - A Setting Agent

Pectin Powder – A Setting Agent

 

So what’s the point of this post? Well it’s just to think about processed food and the role that it plays in cooking. From the top of my head I can think of a number of instances, or categories for arguments sake, of processed foods that we encounter on a regular basis (this is not an exhaustive list, just one that magically appeared in the abundant space that whirlwinds around in my head):

  • The essential ingredients that we use as the basis for our ‘from scratch’ cooking e.g. flour, butter, sugar, oil, cheese (we’re talking the real stuff here, not the processed ‘processed’ cheese by the way).
  • Fresh produce that has been preserved e.g. frozen vegetables, freeze dried fruit, dried figs, mango and apricots, salted nuts.
  • The delicatessen based processed foods e.g. prosciutto, dolmades, cured salmon, bacon, Kalamata olives.
  • The foods that have added ingredients to help those that have an essential nutritional deficiency e.g. milk with added calcium helps those people with calcium deficiency, white flour enriched with minerals and vitamins has helped stave off many disease in certain countries.
  • The foods that we have accepted as ‘OK’ and are part of the establishment as it were e.g. Ketchup, baked beans, hot pepper sauce.
  • The foods that are just plainly bad for you e.g. many ready-made frozen meals, mass produced pasta sauces, cheap ‘plastic’ bread, supermarket jars of preserves and spreads, carbonated sugar water and fast food, to name a few.

Processed foods can traverse the plane from essential and wonderful to downright ugly and harmful, and for many of us it can be a minefield as companies promote, for example, ‘healthy’ foods which at face value are nothing more than mere marketing tricks. A good example is the promotion of a high sugar content drink containing essential vitamins. The perception of the ‘health’ positives of such a drink can be marketed to effectuate a purchase. But the overall detrimental effect to health due to the high calorific value of the drink would far outweigh any positives.

Cooking can be, and certainly is for me, a pleasurable, rewarding and nutritionally sound way of ensuring that the food I eat is wholesome (ish…nothing like a sticky golden syrup steamed pudding and cream), is packed with flavour, and the non-essential chemicals and nutrients in my diet are limited. It is bordering on impossible, however, to cook something from scratch, and unless cooking from scratch is redefined it is a fallacy. A life without processed foods today is not possible, and our use of processed foods and the types we use are determined by our propensity to cook.

My personal take on it is that I love to prepare as close to scratch as possible. For example I will make mayonnaise rather than buy a jar of mayonnaise from a supermarket. Now, my mayonnaise contains Dijon mustard (processed), rice wine vinegar (processed) and grapeseed oil (processed), but without these ingredients it would not be possible to get the flavour and texture even close to what it should be. The difference is that my mayonnaise does not contain the extra ingredients such as modified corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, xanthan gum, added colours, lactic acid, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta, phosphoric acid, or added flavours (this list is apparently some of the additional ingredients in a certain well-known brand of mayonnaise). However, as a cook (and chef in the making – one hopes ) I appreciate the role that processed food and food science has to play in our everyday lives both for pleasure and for health. It’s just a matter of being selective, I guess.

 

The Thrill of the Chase

It’s 6am on Saturday morning, the alarm is playing, and guess what? bizarrely I am eager to get up. You see it is the fortnightly sojourn to the food markets here in Melbourne, and that means seafood, fish, meat and an infinite option of cheeses, charcuterie meats, breads, wines and anything else you can throw your hungry stick at. If someone had have told me in the past that I would be excited about getting up early and going food shopping, I would have said in my best cockney accent ‘you’rrrre ‘avin a larf me old china plate’, or something of that nature. But times have changed, mindsets have changed, and I am indeed chomping at the bit.

This last Saturday was a little special as we were having guests to dinner, which meant shopping early for fresh produce at the markets, cooking all day in the kitchen and then eating great food (one hopes on one’s ability) and downing a few glasses of the old  jumping grape. I had already planned an outline of the dinner, and this did include a magnificent charcuterie starter from my other half. I had always wanted to cook fish with vanilla butter, and a great way (according to H. Blumenthal) is with sea bass. However, sea bass is not available (well I’ve not found it yet) here in Melbourne, so that was going to be the first chase of the day – a great tasting fish that would be complemented by the butter. And it is for things like this that I am so excited to get to the markets so early in the morning – it’s the thrill of the chase, to find that thing that you have never had before, the thing that if you arrived too late you would not see again for some time. Usually at the markets you can tell exactly what has been caught in ample supply that morning, as all mongers are displaying the same fish or seafood – Atlantic salmon, Queensland banana prawns, barramundi, Coffin Bay oysters – magnificent produce, but usually in abundance every week. No, what I go for is to find out which fishmonger has managed to get that little gem, that something that everyone else didn’t get. And this Saturday I found it – Red Emperor. According to the wily old fishmonger “this is one of Australia’s greatest eating fish and is caught amongst the coral reefs”.

That sold me. Also, I had never eaten or filleted it before, so it looked and sounded ideal – and there were only 4 of them in the whole market. About 6 weeks ago I had a similar experience, but this time with sea urchins – they do not look like they are meant for human (or any other living thing) consumption – black spikes on the exterior and an orange coloured mushy mousse-like interior. They were for me the discovery of the year – I adore oysters, and this urchin was like a concentrated and intensely creamy oyster. Only one purveyor had them and they haven’t been seen since (the urchins not the purveyor).

So back to the dinner – I had the fish. I then procured some beautiful little quail and quail’s eggs, some lean and tender kangaroo, a bitey cheese from England –Gloucestershire Blue, some fantastic rhubarb, huge red Fuji apples, prosciutto, Spanish sopressa and a few other essential ingredients. A happy boy I was, indeed. As I said in the blog post Taking the PTH, the thrill of the chase is then accentuated with creatively working out what to do with this marvellous food. That’s what the next two weeks are for. But I highly recommend going and buying something that you’ve never eaten or bought before and go home and cook, eat and indulge yourself. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

 

The dinner by the way was a roaring success. I made chicken liver pate and nashi pear chutney to accompany the charcuterie plate of prosciutto, Spanish sopressa, the tenderest buffalo mozzarella, large caper berries and a selection of bread. This was then followed by the Red Emperor (I second the fishmongers astuteness in saying it was a great eating fish) with vanilla butter, duck fat chips (in disc shapes) and chilli broccoli. For desert I embarked on a Raymond Blanc classic, which was process heavy but truly wonderful, even if I say so myself; a vanilla soufflé presented in a carved out baked apple, caramelised apple balls and rhubarb sorbet, all on a calvados sabayon. Magic.

Taking the PTH

I would like to think of myself as a soufflé prince (I have yet to have a flat soufflé, but the king I feel must be reserved for the likes of Messieurs Roux, Ducasse, Bocuse et al) however I have certainly fallen in to the category of toast burner, although if I ever do it these days I claim it’s in the name of food science, which of course it isn’t. Following recipes is a great way to self-teach the art of cooking, and repeatedly making the classics of French cuisine I believe will give most cooks/ chefs the armoury to go and create their own special masterpieces. However, my eyes have been opened recently to the simplified philosophy of creating great food, and it is in Nick Nairn’s book that I discovered the three basic principles behind this philosophy. In fact it seemed so simple that I thought at the time of reading that I had completely overlooked it in pursuit of perfecting existing recipes.

The first of the elements is [P]roduce. Now how simple is that. But when you think about it, it’s so true. The problem with following recipes is that unless you use them as a guide and not as an absolute, you limit yourself to what’s in a recipe and often overlook that wonderful produce out there, no matter where in the world we’re from. For example, let’s say I have seen a wonderful recipe for grilled pickled mackerel on a crispy, fresh fennel salad – which I have..mmm.. – and then head out to a fantastic fish and seafood market. All that is in my head is mackerel, no matter how scraggy looking or old it is, and as long as I find the mackerel then the recipe will work. But as I search for that mackerel I miss out on the freshly caught Morton Bay Bugs, the slimy shimmering fresh trout, banana prawns, deep pink snapper etc.. The point that Nick Nairn makes is that we should go out and select the produce based on what great produce is available, rather than stay within the constraints of a recipe. For me this was a real epiphany.

 

Double Smoked Ham Hock

Double Smoked Ham Hock

 

The next one is [T]echnique – you’ve got the great produce, now do something fantastic with it. Again that something fantastic need only be simple. For example, you have just found the most perfectly marbled Wagyu beef fillet – what would you do with it? Me, I would probably set it on the kitchen bench and marvel and drool – which is not really a great technique. Ok, really I would be looking to get those outer proteins really broken down (Maillard reaction) into beautiful caramelised meaty flavours, seasoned with sea salt and cracked black pepper – I certainly wouldn’t be poaching or stewing it. This is the importance of technique, and the importance of knowing (or sometimes just feeling) what to do with the great produce. I also now look at the importance of technique in the mis en place (posh way of saying food preparation) – what is the best way to whisk egg whites, how to cut vegetables into pieces of the same size, how to get the right consistency in sauces, when to sweat or caramelise onions etc..

The last one is [H]armony, and for me this is the really creative one. Choosing what complimentary and mouth shattering flavours will combine with the produce to take it to the highest level. But it’s not just limited to flavours; there are also textures to consider. Again some of the simplest harmonies are the best: chilli and mint just love each other; apple and crunch tell me about freshness; and lime and coriander always remind me of Thailand. I like watching the UK Masterchef series, and one of the common things I see is when a nest of some greenery is plonked on top of a delicately cooked game, meat or fish dish, or there are billions of different elements on a plate. Neither speaks of harmony, but more of trying to impress which ultimately it fails to do. Harmony is so important; it should be the reason that something is on a plate. Harmony will always be master to presentation.

So with my tail firmly between my legs, wandering around in a sorry state because after all these years I hadn’t realised these simple principles, I suddenly remembered an experience a few days before, and with the joy and verve of an over excited Jack-in-a-box I realised that I had just followed these principles to a tee – whoohoo. I was in the local fishmongers here in Melbourne, and staring at me was some wonderful Barramundi that had only been caught a few hours previously – its eyes were colourful and vibrant, the skin was glistening with slime (a good thing indicating freshness) and its body was firm to the touch. I bought two whole fish and on the journey home conjured up some potential dishes. Barramundi, by the way, is probably one of Australia’s greatest eating fish – that’s from a human perspective, not the fish’s. It comes mainly from the North of Australia (Queensland) and has a really earthy taste, one of which tickles my fancy. So after cleaning and filleting the fish I decided to use two of the fillets to make a tartare – I wanted something that was going to show off the fish in all its glory, and being quite impartial to raw fish I thought a tartare was the way to go. The key would be the harmony, picking complimentary flavours that would enhance the fish, but not overpower. I chose a combination of red onion, ginger, tart green apple and lime juice. The tartare was moulded in a circular stack and then fennel fronds (the aniseed complemented the dish) were placed on top of the stack. And hey presto – PTH!

Check out the recipe for Citrus Fresh Barramundi Tartare  – a classic technique