Life is sweet.

October 18, 2014

photoFor Mo and I Saturdays are usually a bit foodie. Nothing posey, you understand. No pithiviers or mille-feuille, no foams, nothing of that sort. Just well sourced, chasing-round-the-county, deliciousness. Nothing is ever planned. We might start in Framlingham market to buy bread, although not today as I’d bought wood fired beer bread from The Station pub yesterday. And as this was looking like the last warm and sunny weekend of the year we decided to take a drive through a leafy lane or two.

Our first stop was nearby Friday Street farm shop to get some vegetables, and next door we bought a couple of sparkly-eyed mackerel and some skate wings at Maximus sustainable fishing. A cold bag was packed with some ice as we knew we were not going home too soon.

Orford is a beautiful fishing village about a half hour’s drive from homeIMG_0158 and we’ve been going there for over forty years. And in the town square is a favourite old restaurant, The Butley Orford Oysterage, that has really not changed in any significant way since we first went there in the early seventies. The place is, and always has been, simply decorated (perhaps decorated is too strong a word) with a sort of cream paint and green dado rails. Tables are marble topped on iron legs, and chairs are basic; the kind that scrape on the quarry tiled floor and give up a noise that makes your fillings drop out.

But the food, oh yes, the simple fare of half a dozen Butley oysters, some griddled squid and prawns, with chunks of fresh bread. That’s it. No girlie vegetables here. No concessions to your five-a-day health Nazis. A bottle of light, Italian red wine. Perfect. Then a gentle walk along the coast path with a warm south-easterly breeze on our backs going out, but a much brisker wind in our faces on the return.

Dog-sitting does, of course, restrict the time we might normally be out and about, but so what. Home to take them for a walk, and then a leisurely couple of hours in the garden before a magnificent but light supper of griddled mackerel on griddled beer bread with tomato, mozzarella, avocado and spring onion salad. It’s been a griddlely kind of day.

Good night and sleep well.

homemade pasta

September 29, 2011

“Everything you see I owe to pasta.” Sophia Loren.

There is something very satisfying about making pasta. I’m not going to bang on about it being good for the soul, apart from the fact that it is, or that it will save you money, because I’m not so sure it does. And I’ve no idea whether it’s a healthy option, although the little bit of physical involved can’t do you any harm. It’s simply delicious, which in my book is the right reason for making any food.

Like most things, the quality of the ingredients you use is most important. Do use good quality, unbleached strong bread flour or Italian double O. And do use good, fresh free-range eggs. That’s it. And having a pasta making machine like the ‘Imperia’ will save you a great deal of laborious rolling pin work. They are about £40.00 or so and are built to last.

So, to get started, the required ingredients are:

500 grams of strong bread flour or Italian double ‘O’

3 medium free-range eggs

8 medium free-range egg yolks

Salt (about a teaspoon)

Weigh out the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into the flour. (The reserved egg whites can go on to make meringues.) Now blend the eggs and flour together with a fork until stiff enough to work with your hands, kneading the dough into a firm ball. You can adjust the firmness with either flour or a little egg white until you feel it’s right. Now wrap it in some cling film and place in the fridge for a couple of hours or so. This will allow the dough to rest and ensure that the flour has absorbed the eggs.

Okay, you can now divide the dough into four, shape each piece into a rectangle about a centimetre or so thick, and start putting it through the pasta machine at its widest setting. Don’t worry if it crumbles a bit, as you keep working it will come together. Now double it over and run it through again. Do this several times, lightly flouring as you go, until the dough is quite springy, smooth and elastic. Then begin to narrow the roller settings, rolling and doubling a couple of times as you go until you get down to the required thickness, and I’d say as a general rule you’d want the thinnest setting for pasta like ravioli and tortellini that are doubled over, and maybe one notch thicker for tagliatelle or lasagne. But you might disagree, which is fine.

Lay the first sheet of pasta onto a floured surface, and start the next one. Pile them up making sure you sprinkle flour or fine semolina between the layers, or they’ll stick together. Now you can start thinking about what type of pasta you’ll be making: lasagne, tagliatelle, pappardelle, tortellini or ravioli.

STORAGE

Another consideration is storage, because, unless you’re expecting the village cricket team round for lunch, you’ve probably made more than you need. There are basically two approaches to the storage issue: drying and freezing. And in truth I think that most pasta benefits from a certain amount of drying (or call it resting). Cooking straight from fresh means a fast cook, and therefore very little salt is taken up from the water, and also it can sometimes have a slightly slimy feel caused by excess flour left on the pasta. Drying helps the flour to be taken into the pasta, and it also needs a few minutes more cooking, thereby allowing extra salt in to help bring out the flavour.

One type that I personally think benefits from cooking fresh is lasagne, and this is simply because I find that dried sheets suck out the moisture from the sauce leaving you with a solid slab of pie. The fresh sheets won’t do this so your lasagne al forno remains good and sloppy. Lasagne sheets freeze well. Cut the sheets to size and pack in small quantities with a little flour rubbed between each sheet, and place in plastic bags in the freezer.

MAKING AND STORING TAGLIATELLE AND PAPPARDELLE

Pasta in strips like tagliatelle and pappardelle dry really well. To cut them, take your sheets at about 50cm long, (What’s that in old money? About 20 inches) fold them over at about 7½ cm (3 inch) intervals, then cut through them to between ½ and 1 cm wide (about ¼ inch) for tagliatelle and about 2 cm (¾ inch) for pappardelle. You can use the pasta machine’s cutters to make the tagliatelle, but you may find that they are a bit uniform. Again, make sure they are still floured or they will stick and drive you bonkers. Now hang them over something like a clotheshorse, or coat hanger for 24 to 36 hours in a dry place. Check their dryness by crunching them. If they’re brittle and crumbly they’re dry. You can also buy pasta drying racks from a number of outlets. When they are thoroughly dry pack them in airtight containers and they’ll keep for up to three months.

Ravioli and tortellini can be stored, covered, for a few hours in the fridge before use, being careful to dust with some fine semolina or flour to avoid sticking. This will have the effect of partially drying them and also allowing them to rest. These pasta varieties will freeze well if there is no cheese in the filling. But you can, of course, cut the shapes, freeze them and make up with the filling at a later date.

MAKING RAVIOLI.

Use sheets rolled to the thinnest setting on the pasta machine, as you will be doubling their thickness when you make them up. Cut discs from the sheet with a pastry cutter (you can get them with nice wiggly edges) about 7½ cm (3 inches) in diameter. Run the remaining pasta back through the pasta machine and cut more discs until it’s more or less finished.

Okay, now place a teaspoonful or so of your filling (I like to use spinach and ricotta) in the centre of one disc and with a pastry brush wet around the rim. Place a second disc over this and carefully press together, working round from one side making sure to exclude any air before the final seal.

When you’ve made the ravioli place them on a clean tea towel to rest. As I said earlier, I like to put them in the fridge for a few hours before cooking. When you’re ready to cook them drop them into a large pan with plenty of boiling, salted water for just a few minutes until al dente. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Three or four at a time is enough. They will swell up with cooking and you’ll probably find that half a dozen or so per serving is plenty, but don’t let me stop you from pigging out. Drain well and serve with melted butter and perhaps a fried sage leaf or three and a good grating of fresh Parmesan.

MAKING TORTELLINI.

Cut squares from the sheet rolled to the thinnest setting, and to 10 cm (4 inches) square. Place a teaspoonful of your filling in the centre, moisten around the edges with water, and fold corner to corner, forming a triangle and press the sides down until they stick. Taking the two acute angles of the triangle fold over the filled part once, and turn the points back, moisten with a little water and stick them together. There. How easy was that? Cook these as with Ravioli.

Variations: Try adding a good dollop of tomato puree to your pasta mix before running it through the machine. Or alternatively a fresh clove of garlic crushed with some sea salt. Then again, maybe add some finely chopped, cooked spinach. I also like to finely chop some fresh herbs in a food processor and add those to the dough. Some people like to add squid ink, but I’ve never tried this, mainly, I guess, because I wouldn’t know where to buy the squid ink in the first place.

Fresh pasta responds very well to being tossed in some light summer accompaniments like a few vegetables and herbs and some prawns fried in garlic butter or oil. Or a delicious pesto sauce.

“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child

The regular baking of bread can, I’m afraid, bring out a certain irritating smugness in me, but that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with because I’m not going back to shop bought now. Once you’ve been making your own bread for a little while you will bring your own techniques to the process without even noticing and the bread will reward you with a character that is a reflection of yourself. It happens. My wife Maureen and I started with basically the same recipe for our regular loaf, but the tastes are quite different.

We began when she discovered this YouTube film by Mark Bittman from The New York Times visiting the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU

Watching this film will give you a taste for just how easy great bread making can be. Maureen and I have since departed from this recipe each in our own way, so now I’ll let you have my version. As well as the following ingredients you will need a cast iron casserole dish of the Le Creuset type. Ours is 20cm (8”) in diameter by 10cm (4”) deep, which suits this quantity quite nicely, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use one larger than that. The crust and crumb should be the same. And once again with flour as your only main ingredient, it stands to reason that you should use the best you can find.

INGREDIENTS AND METHOD:

500 grams of unbleached strong bread flour.

2 tsp salt

¼ tsp dried yeast

325 ml lukewarm water

I like to plan things so that my bread will be ready for tomorrow’s lunch so I’ll run you through my timetable beginning at about 8.00 am:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, and in the meantime weigh out the flour and mix in the salt. Make a well in the flour, pour in the water/yeast mixture and stir together with a spoon until all the flour is taken up. Incidentally, If you’d prefer wholemeal bread I’d suggest 200 grams of wholemeal to 300 grams of white flour. Cover with clingfilm and place out of the way at room temperature for 24 hours. So far, so easy. Five minutes work and no mess.

First thing next morning flour a work surface (and your hands) and gently ease your dough out of the bowl. It should be quite wet. Stretch and fold one side two-thirds the way over and then take the other side across. Turn through 90º and repeat. You will notice at this stage that the dough becomes springy and elastic. This is the gluten doing its job. (This process is clearly demonstrated in the YouTube film). Tip: If you are re-using the same bowl it will need a quick clean to prevent the dough from sticking. Throw in a small handful of flour and rub around with your fingers to remove any dough that has stuck to the sides. A thin smear of olive oil around the bowl at this stage will help to slide it out later.

Lift back into the bowl and leave to rise for a further two hours or so. Pre-heat oven to 230ºC/Gas mark 8 and put your cast iron casserole dish in for ½ hour to get piping hot.

Now tip the dough onto a floured surface, and using oven gloves carefully lift the casserole dish from the oven, and drop the dough into the dish. With a sharp knife, you can cut a deep cross in the top to allow for expansion, replace the lid and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. After that time remove the lid and continue baking for another 10–12 minutes. Carefully roll the loaf from the dish, tap the bottom to listen for the hollow sound that tells you it’s ready, then onto a cooling grid for twenty minutes before tearing into it.

You see, no kneading, no effort, just a bit of patience required, and by 11.00 am you have hot fresh bread for lunch. Magnificent.

UPDATE, 6 MAY 2017: I have been making bread using this method for several years, and I’m now much more relaxed about the method, but that comes with practice. I am more flexible with the starting time for the first mix, and can sometimes leave it until mid-afternoon. (You might also find that different flour types, such as granary, needs slightly greater quantities of water, but only by 10-15ml or so.) The later start still gives you up to eighteen hours for the first proving, which is plenty. But I still start the second process early morning if I want to eat bread for my lunch.

Yesterday afternoon our old friend Sam Choo, who we met in the early nineteen eighties when he was manager at The Rasa Sayang Malaysian restaurant in Frith Street, Soho, came out to Suffolk to see us for what may be the last time, as he and his family are going home to Singapore. When I had a commercial art studio in Frith Street during the eighties, The Rasa was on the ground floor of our building and became, effectively, our staff canteen, and as a consequence we became good friends with all the restaurant staff. On two or three occasions we held company parties for clients at The Rasa, and many staff birthday events were held there.

This place also served the finest Singapore laksa known to humanity and this was always my favourite dish. Well, apart from chicken or prawn satay, or deep fried prawns in batter with sweet chilli sauce, or hokkien mee, or mee hoon goreng, and occasionally they had the most delicious soft shelled crab. Oh, somebody stop me! Maureen knew when I’d been to the Rasa because my tee shirt would be spattered with what was know as laksa flack, splashes of turmeric stains flipped up by the noodles. Oh, dear. Perhaps the thing that kept the Rasa so particularly close to my heart was the fact that I could eat alone there, something I generally feel uncomfortable about, but if I was working late (which was often) I could go downstairs and have a bowl of laksa and a Tiger beer, and if they were not too busy Sam or Yong or Simon or Tong Tong would come and sit with me for a while. Brilliant.

But sadly the restaurant closed sometime in the nineties and the staff dispersed around London, and we lost touch. But Sam kept in contact with us and when he emailed me a month or two ago suggesting we get together before he left we immediately agreed. He and his family had been out to Suffolk before about fifteen years ago and cooked for us and some friends on that occasion. So yesterday we invited a few friends to join us in the orchard here at the house and, in the best of summer sunshine, we had a great BBQ lunch. This is the life.

…and another thing

June 21, 2010

I sometimes weep to think of the perfectly acceptable, and frequently expensive, cook pots and pans that have been thrown in the bin simply because the very fragile non-stick surface has broken down or worn out. So last week I decided to have a go at salvaging one of them, and would you believe, the process worked like a dream.

I’ve frequently seen professional cooks on TV working in their sweaty kitchens with blackened heavy aluminium pans that they have prepared themselves through a process known as ‘sealing’. This is achieved by spreading a thin layer of cooking oil over the surface of the pan and to place on a medium to high heat until the oil blackens and becomes baked on. Now you have a perfectly good and shiny non-stick pan.

So there’s no reason at all that the same cannot be done to a battered, but well loved old non-stick pan. they are usually made from an aluminium base, so the first job is to remove the surface. OK, a little muscle is required here but its not too much. With some dry course wire wool or scouring pad scrub the pan until the battered old non-stick surface is gone and replaced by a shiny metallic base. You might want to finish off with a finer wire wool to produce a perfectly smooth surface.

Next pour in a spoonful of cooking oil and smear around the whole of the pan with some paper kitchen towel, and place pan on a hot flame until it smokes. (An open window or smoke extractor fan would be useful here if you don’t want your smoke alarm driving you nuts). As the oil burns off and begins to brown add another layer, and repeat until you have a shiny black, good-as-new cook pan.

It is recommended, by people who know better than I about these things, that you only wipe the pan clean (as opposed to a full dish-wash) to maintain the surface, but you can always renew it with a quick repeat of the above technique. This should only be necessary every three to four months depending on your use of the pan, but I’m sure that you will very soon grow to love it and use it all the time.

Elderflower: I’ve really got mixed feelings towards the Elder which is flowering in abundance right now in the UK. I tend to regard the plant as little more than a giant weed that tenaciously establishes itself in some of the most unlikely places, although I’ll admit that it is only a problem when you have a small garden, where it can take you by surprise and spring up so suddenly that before you know it you can be looking at a sizeable tree that’s almost impossible to remove. On the other hand it is supposed to ward off witches and evil influences so we mustn’t be too hasty in our condemnation.

As a kid I used to love making whistles and pea shooters from the hollowed stem, and gardeners boil the leaves and spray the resulting liquor on plants to keep them free from caterpillars. I think I’ll try that on my cabbages this year. The leaves have also been regarded as an efficient fly repellent, and were at one time placed in the harnesses of horses for this very purpose.

But the creamy blossom of the elderflower with the rich fragrance of summer is one of nature’s triumphs. And its in the kitchen that this wonderful flower comes into its own. This week I’ve been making cordial and sorbet for family guests who arrived yesterday. The cordial in particular makes a great gift when presented in some kind of fancy bottle, and made up with sparkling mineral water, frozen lemon segments as ice cubes and a good slug of chilled vodka makes a wonderful summer drink. And let me tell you that a scoop of sorbet served with a measure of frozen vodka will give you a lovely instant dessert. Also, how about elderflower fritters? I’ll spell out a few recipes for you here:

Elderflower cordial

20-25 heads of elderflowers

3 1/2 lbs of granulated sugar

2 oz tartaric or citric acid (available from chemists)

2 lemons

Place 3 pints of water into a large saucepan with the sugar over a medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring more or less continuously. When the sugar is dissolved turn up the flame and bring to the boil, then simmer for about four minutes to create a syrup. While this is happening peel the zest from the lemons and slice the flesh. When the water boils remove from the heat and throw in the flower heads, lemon zest and sliced flesh plus the citric acid. Stir and leave to infuse for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Then strain through a sieve, maybe with muslin to remove all unwanted bits, and pour into clean bottles. Store in a fridge, or if you want long term storage freeze in smaller quantities. Easy. Drink with one part cordial to five parts sparkling or still cold water for a delicious and very refreshing summer drink. Not forgetting the vodka (or gin, or white rum) for an even more refreshing drink. Tip: I like to keep any surplus lemons cut into wedges and frozen in bags to use as ice cubes.

Elderflower sorbet

350 grams of sugar

20-25 heads of elderflowers

juice of 2 lemons

white of 1 egg

Gently heat sugar in 900 ml of water until dissolved, then bring to the boil and simmer for about four minutes to create syrup. Remove from heat and add the flower heads and leave to infuse for about an hour, then stir in the lemon juice. Allow the infusion to cool then place in fridge to chill. From here strain the mix and use an ice cream maker according to makers instructions to freeze, or if making by hand strain mix into plastic container and place in freezer for about an hour. Take out every hour or so to stir with a fork until set. Whip egg white to soft peaks and fold into mix just before final freeze.

Elderflower fritters

In a large bowl place 200 grams of plain flour, a heaped dessert spoonful of caster sugar, the juice of half a lemon and make up to a thin batter with chilled sparkling mineral water. Dip the elderflower heads into the batter and deep fry until crisp and golden. Dust with a little icing sugar to serve, and maybe throw in a few lemon wedges. Magnificent.

This is such a big day for me. I’ve taken the first steps on the sourdough road and made my first loaf of sourdough bread. There’s no turning back now. It is a kind of commitment as the ‘starter’ needs feeding at least every other day. I’m following the technique in Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday book and I began preparing the starter (Italians call it a biga) a couple of weeks ago. Starting with 100 grams of strong flour mixed with enough warm water to form a thick batter which is whisked to introduce air and therefore admit the wild natural yeasts present in the air which is the essence of sourdough baking.

The whole process is fairly effortless but does require a little patience. Every day you pour away half the mix, add another 100g of flour and enough water to maintain the sloppy batter consistency. You will see it begin to bubble in a  day or two but don’t be tempted to use it for at least a week. When the starter is ready to go and smelling very yummy you take 100ml of the mix and combine with 250g of strong flour (white, brown or a mix) and 275ml of warm water. Mix well, cover and leave for about 12 hours. This is your ‘sponge’.

To make the dough you add 300g flour and a couple of teaspoons of salt to the sponge and knead for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook on your mixer). This is really about as near as this comes to hard work. Leave it again to rise slowly, maybe another 8 hours or overnight as I do, in a fairly cool place. The slow rising adds so much taste to the bread.

Knock it back and then prove the dough in a warm place for another couple of hours until double in size. Then tip out onto a generously floured baking sheet, leave covered for half an hour or so then put it into the middle of a cold oven. Place a dish of boiling water on a low shelf and turn oven on to maximum, at least 230ºC, for about twenty minutes, then lower to around 200ºC for a further twenty-five minutes.

Remove the loaf and leave to cool on a wire rack for twenty minutes, then enjoy.

From now on you need to keep the starter ‘alive’ in a warmish place and continue feeding the beast every day or two as before. But with this little bit of effort you will always have the loveliest bread known to humanity. How bad’s that?