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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!

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…

Chicken Stock

Introduction:

This is one of the staple basics of cooking, especially for sauces and soups. I have played around with a number of variations of chicken stock, ranging from the lightly fragrant to the deeply intense. What I have personally settled on is a stock that meets somewhere in the middle. I will use this unreduced when I want to take advantage of the delicate flavours within the stock, for example in light soups and when used for poaching. Reduced, this stock has a richly deep flavour and ideal for rich sauces. One of the great flavour enhancers in this stock is to roast the chicken wings sprinkled with milk powder (this idea was inspired by Heston Blumenthal). The protein in milk powder (casein) seems to promote the browning, or Maillard reaction, of the chicken during the roasting process – the more browning the more intense the flavour.

 

Serves: About 3 litres  |   Preparation: 30 minutes   |   Cooking: 2.5 hours

 

Ingredients:

For the Chicken Wings
1kg  Free range chicken wings |
Sprinkling Dried Milk Powder | This should be a light sprinkling.
100ml Hot water | Used for deglazing.
For the Stock
2 Free range chicken carcasses | Cut into 10cm pieces.
4 Cold Water | About 1 litre is lost during simmering.
1 Carrot | Peeled and roughly chopped.
1 Onion | Halved.
2 Cloves | 1 clove studded in each onion half.
1 Celery stalk | Ensure the stalk is green – roughly chopped.
100g Swiss brown mushrooms | Thinly sliced – do not rinse as this tends to wash away some of the flavour.
1 Leek | White part only – roughly chopped.
1 Bouquet Garni | Click here for Bouquet Garni.

 

How To:

Put the chicken wings in a roasting tin so that they fit snugly. Sprinkle with milk powder and put in an oven which has been preheated to 200 deg C. Roast for approximately 45 minutes, or until they are a deep sticky brown. Remove from the roasting tin, drain the fat from the roasting tin and then deglaze the tin with the hot water. The deglaze has an intense flavour.

In a stock pot add the roasted chicken wings, deglaze, chicken carcass pieces and cold water. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, skimming the foamy scum that forms on top. I use a small ladle and create a swirling motion from the centre of the pot which forces the foam to the edge. This foam is then skimmed from the surface. The foam is a result of proteins breaking down and aggregating on the surface. By clearing the foam you have a much better chance of having a clear stock.

After about 4-5 minutes add the rest of the ingredients, and then simmer the stock gently and uncovered for 1.5 hours. Filter the stock through a fine meshed sieve, and allow to cool. Once cool store in the fridge overnight so that the fat hardens and is easy to skim from the surface. Once most of the fat has been removed use within a week or freeze for later.

 

Notes:

  • I personally don’t add salt to a stock, as I will season the dish that the stock goes in to.
  • I pour the stock in to 250ml disposable cups covered with lids made from foil, and then freeze.