jueves, 23 de mayo de 2013

Herbs and tings

Although I doubt that Sancho Panza would have cared much for the presentation of his food there is an undeniable truth in the saying: you eat with your eyes as well as your stomach. Cooks have always understood this and many of the same dishes have gone the merry-go-round of fashion. Think of the suckling-pig once presented in all its glory with a red apple in the mouth compared with today´s tiny cubed terrains with dainty accompaniments.

When I first started working in the kitchen I couldn´t care less for presentation. I saw plates leaving the kitchen with as much attention paid to appearances as to taste. My love of Sancho rebelled against such verbose extravagance. 

As time has gone on I have come to appreciate the fun of designing a dish and the impression a good looking plate can leave on a guest and their palate. 

One of the easiest ways to brighten up a meal is by adding herbs, seeds, nuts, salts or vegetable crisps. 

Every restaurant I have worked in uses parsley or chives to brighten up their dishes and each one has had a different take on how to do it. The most impressive I have seen is to turn the chives into streamers by cutting horizontally up the chives until you have six separate cords fanning out rather like a cartoon shoot gun after it has been fired (see photo). By pulling down quickly along the length of the chive you can create very pretty streamers which look great with small intricate dishes.
Alternatively there is the Joel Robuchon method of cutting parsley into razor thin slices or the classic thinly chopped chives. Though this may seem to be for decoration alone they help to bring out the flavour of the main ingredients much in the same way as salt. 

The crux to all this is forethought and imagination. Those half-used bags of dried fruits or nuts in the larder or that scraggly herb that has shoot up amongst the weeds in the garden – with a little creativity they can add a professional flourish. 


sábado, 13 de abril de 2013

The age of saus

The 3 things I look for in a fridge/larder are cured meats (embutidos y jamón), cheeses (quesos) and Greek yoghurt. If these holy three are in abundance I am a very happy man and will usually find some premise to spend most of the day in or around that hollowed place. 

Before Easter I was given a bag full of embutidos from La Cerdanya in the Pyrenees, from a very generous friend.  I mean really a whole bag of deliciously cured meats from the mountains famed for fine produce and excellent producers; it was truly a panzatic act. 

In this bag of goodies I unfolded the waxy white paper to find secallona, butifarra negra, bisbe blanc, pork paté and sobrasada. 

Cataluña makes some of the best cured sausages in Spain. Fuet and Secallona are both made from pork and similar to the Italian salami, though usually less spicey and smaller in circumference. The former is common all over Cataluña whereas Secallona is rarer I think due to its artisanal pedigree and the fact the pork is cured just that little bit less making it less appealing to the claims-conscious supermarkets. Both are morish little sausages which make for a wonderful aperitif. 

Butifarra negra comes from the renowned butifarra family and is a cured black pudding (butifarra is a beast I will come back to in more detail in a later post) and is delicious and hearty, as you would expect from the Pyrenees. Bisbe blanc is a sort of cured white pudding made from Ox tripe, salt and pepper with a special place in the heart of Catalans as a link to forefathers, or foremothers, who would make the sausage at home.

Pork paté needs no real explanation whereas sobrasada, on the other hand, could easily be passed over if not dealt with carefully. In this age where cholesterols, saturated fats, diets are so prevalent, sobrasada is the cigarette of embutidos. Made from pork, salt and pimentón, on paper it is much like its famous and well- travelled cousin the chorizo. However, sobrasada is so very deliciously creamy and buttery that you just know it is swimming in fat. Spread liberally on bread and toasted – panini style – and you have a sandwich rivaling the bacon-butty. I would go for the sobrasada any day of the week and have gained a few well earn pounds eating this most delicious of sausages which is the closest you will get in a Mediterranean country to that dreamy-buttery-mouth-filling-taste which we are used to in say France or Britain. A devilishly good treat. 

It would be wrong to dismiss all these edibles to the cold meats platter. One of the great recipes of the Catalan kitchen – alubias a la catalana – can use both butifarra negra and bisbe blanca as we did in the restaurant this week. This is a ridiculously simple recipe and as such everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. Cook the broad beans (or butter beans or any beans that take you fancy) to just under al dente. In another pot throw in a bay leaf, fry finely sliced pancetta and once they are crisp add some diced onions. When the onion is translucent add a little dry white wine (Cataluña has a plethora of dry white wines) and grated tomato and cook through. As soon as the tomato is looking at home amongst the other ingredients add the beans, with some of its own water, as well as the butifarra negra and bisbe blanc diced into cm cubes. This dish goes wonderfully with a little mint which can be added as a garnish at the end or with the beans. 

I often wonder why we don´t have more cured meats in Britain. It is an ancient and excellent way to conserve meat which most of Europe has embraced and mastered over the centuries. The arguments that the northern climate is too humid doesn´t really hold water when you see the sausages coming out of Galicia, with its Celtic weather. But as the Spanish say “hay gente para todo” – there are people for everything – and it is just as well that every larder has its own charms.

martes, 26 de marzo de 2013

La Fageda - milking the markets

“If we had had any idea about the world of business and starting a company we would never have tried because objectively the project was crazy. Yes, I am convinced: we did it because we didn´t know it was impossible.”  Christóbal Colón, President of La Fageda Corporation. 

Last week I went on a school outing. Tere´s class was studying the business model of La Fageda - a dairy company in the Garrotxa national park, northern Cataluña - and they were invited to take a tour of the set-up. I gladly tagged along. 

What makes La Fageda unique is that the business was started to create jobs for those suffering from mentally illnesses. Colón, a psychologist, realised how important work was to give his patients a sense of purpose, increase their self-esteem and achieve a level of independence.  After years of “labour-therapy” in which he simulated a working environment, he decided to start a real company to create real conditions. La Fageda was, therefore, born as a means of offering more authentic psychological treatment: It also happened to be a massive business success. 

La Fageda means wood of beech trees, in Catalan, and as we turned off the main road we crawled along a single-track road with the sun blinking through budding beeches. I could not quite believe that this was the entrance to a dairy production farm and factory with profits of 9 million Euros in 10 years. It all seemed far too simple and, most surprising of all, beautiful. 

On arrival we were given a tour of the farm which homes 500 Canadian Friesians. Fine ladies all, sitting together, chewing the cud and listening to Bach. From the rural ideal it is a few dozen yards to the factory where the milk, yoghurts and puddings are made. The milk passes directly to the factory throw a conditioned pipe-line and we saw the employees regulating the fermentation process and packaging the products. 

The company employs 86 workers with psychological disabilities and mental illnesses. All employees have psychiatric support whenever they should need it and they have created that utopia in business – happy workers and healthy profits. 

What really compounded the excellence of La Fageda, in my mind, is that there is no mention of the employees’ mental problems. In the world of business the aim is profit and without a doubt portraying a philanthropic angle would increase sales and the company´s value in the public´s eyes. However, our guide said it would be wrong to highlight “disabilities” for a job well done. It would be professionally hypocritical to reward someone´s labors with a wage and then profit from their supposed limitations on mental grounds. The focus is on finding and nurturing the employees´ abilities, as is true of any successful organization. 

In fact it is now me who is focusing too much on La Fageda´s workers and ignoring their present raison d’état. The aim of La Fageda today is to produce delicious dairy products of the highest quality and I can say, categorically, that their greek yoghurt definitely has a dollop of ambrosia and a sprinkle of Bach.

martes, 19 de marzo de 2013

Calçots & Romescu

We are already in March and it suddenly occurred to me that we haven´t eaten any calçots. Last year I flew up from Sevilla specifically to attend a Calçotade (Calçot binge) in the Catalan hills and was left smittened by the sweet, smokey flavour of the Calçot de Valls – a cousin of the onion unique to Catalaña.

There seems only to be one way to cook calçots – at least I haven´t seen another method – and that is over flames. Calçots looks like a cross between a leek and an onion and should come in contact with the wood-fire so that the skin burns to black. They are then wrapped in newspaper to keep warm and maintain their moisture until finally torn-open, the black skin removed and the juicey white “meat” eaten with that hanging-over-the-mouth method: an extremely messy and delicious business.
If you can´t get hold of calçots – and to be honest I´ve never seen them anywhere other than Cataluña – then make some Catalan friends and get invited to a calçotade. Last year was a joy, in the warm early spring sun, lazing in the beautiful Catalan countryside with beers and friends and the eager company who took care of everything. Failing that you could try leeks, though I have never done this and therefore can not vouch for its success. 

But I am digressing slightly as what I really want to share with you is the sauce that traditionally accompanies calçots – a wonder called Romescu. This sauce, again typically Catalan, contains all the great ingredients of the Mediterranean; tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, toasted almonds, garlic, onions, bread and specifically to this region, ñoras. Aside from the regality of this ensemble, the ñora really adds the punch and slightly piquant flavour which marks this out from other tomato based sauces. Again I am not sure how easy this dried pepper is to get hold of outside the Iberian peninsula, but having a look around I see there are some Spanish produce distributors that sell them under the name Spanish dried peppers.

Almost everything can be done in the same oven at 180 degrees. 5 tomatoes in the passata style (on a baking tray with olive oil and salt), 1 large onion in tin foil, half a head of garlic also in tin foil and 100g of almonds – if not toasted already – on another baking tray with oil and salt. 

Of these 4 ingredients the almonds only need to brown slightly which takes a few minutes. Next will be the tomatoes which should be cooked through, with blistered skins and soft to the touch. The onion will take from 30-45 minutes, again until soft to the touch and the garlic a little less. 

Meanwhile fry a few slices of bread in oil until it has golden well and is crispy. This will add a bit of body to the sauce.  

Once all these ingredients have drowned themselves in their own juices remove the skins and place in a blender with a good glug of olive oil, sherry wine vinegar, salt and pepper (a pinch of sugar too if the tomatoes need it). Blend all the ingredients together on a low rotation speed to create an emulsion. The sauce should become thick and the colour of the cliffs around the Costa Brava at sunset in July. The adjustment to seasoning is crucial here, especially the quantities of oil and vinegar so I would recommend a gradual adding, blending and tasting approach to get your preferred result. 

The ñoras, being the stars, are cooked separately in their own VIP section. Remove the seeds and place in salted boiling water until the skin is soft. What you want is the meat inside the skin which can be removed either with a spoon or by pushing the ñoras with a ladling spoon through a fine sieve. I should say that I have seen people add the entire ñora, skin and all and the results weren´t as bad as I would have thought, but I do not condone this fragrant laziness.

Add the dark burgundy meat of the ñoras – the Costa Brava at midday in January – to the rest of the ingredients and gently mix them together in the blender. 

This sauce can go with practically anything – sandwiches, pastas, potatoes, pretty much whatever you can think of - A delicious sauce and really one of the great gifts of the formidable Catalan kitchen. Be it with or without calçots, you can´t substitute on the ñoras.

martes, 5 de marzo de 2013

Making your mark

Spanish rice is la bomba. Nicely rounded and pearly white the grain is just dying to be given a drink. Like a middle-aged Englishman on his summer holidays in the Costa del Sol – almost supernaturally white, paunchy/rechoncho and desperate for a beer – the bomba grain comes alive and “inebriates” itself with the stock in which it is cooked. 

Having enjoyed the delicious virginal basmati rice most of my life, the bomba is something of a revelation and positively hobo in comparison. Instead of staying to herself, she mixes it with everything in the pot allowing her starch to intermingle with the stock. 

Thrifty in price and nature, bomba rice saturates flavour and helps the overall texture. With heat, the bomba begins to release starch which creates a creamy consistence with the stock whilst at the same time the grain starts absorbing the flavours into its hitherto parched shell. That is what is so exciting about this wonderful rice it is incredibly friendly, fluids are exchanged. 

One birthday I was sent the most marvelous present of langoustines from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The giver had hoped I´d eat them with gusto, panzatically, but my first thought was Arroz de langostinos. Making a small fumet with the heads and shells I made a sofrito  - which means to fry vegetables in oil usually onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes, and is the basis to most Spanish dishes  - of chalotes, peppers, garlic and tomatoes, added the bomba rice toasting and covering each grain in oil. After a minute or two I added a little white wine and once the alcohol had burnt off I started adding the fumet little by little and stirring constantly. I also threw in some broad beans and a few minutes before the end, the langostinos themselves. 

A great way to create delicious risottos or arroces in the Spanish style is to have a Marca. The idea is to reduce a group of ingredients into an intense fine paste over a long-cooking time and/or crushing. A classic Marca is with the leftovers from shellfish which are added to a sofrito and crushed into a paste. 
A Marca I am using at the moment for a delicious Arroz de Bogavante al Vermouth (rice with lobster and vermouth - in the photo above) consists of onions, red peppers, green peppers and garlic  - 2/1/1/1 ratios - all cut brunoise. Put all the ingredients into a pot with a little oil and caramilise the vegetables. Leave the vegetables to brown on the bottom of the pot as they release their sugars and then add a little vegetable stock to de-glace and deepen the colour. Continue doing this until you have a deep burgundy and the vegetables are very sweet. Then add a little vermouth and once the alcohol has evaporated add a little tomato (the canned tomato without lumps, or simply place in the blender for a minute) and let the tomato cook through. 

With this you have an instant kick start to any rice dish. Simply add one spoonful per person to the pan with a little oil and when it is warmed and beginning to caramlise all over again, add the rice, coating the grain for a minute or 2 followed by the liquid of your choice. 

The wise amongst you will make a big batch – 8 onions, 3 green peppers, 3 red peppers, half a head of garlic, can of tomatoes, glass of vermouth (or martini, or anything you fancy) – and then freeze it for when the occasion arises. Better still store the Marca in an ice tray, one cube per person.