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.

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…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?

I like to be seasonal when I cook, but in winter you don’t want to eat only turnips and sprouts so you just have to preserve a few things from the garden if you don’t want to buy supermarket stuff that’s been shipped halfway round the world. And, of course, what’s seasonal here in England is not necessarily seasonal in Cincinnati or Sidney or wherever you foodie fools live, so I’ll post these tips here and now and if it’s the wrong time of year for you then you’ll just have to write them down and stick them to an appropriate domestic appliance with a colourful and amusing fridge magnet.

Fresh green coriander (cilantro) seeds. This is a favourite ingredient of mine, so this year in your herb garden, patio or balcony sow coriander seeds. They are so easy to grow in most climates. Sow them in well drained soil in sunny position, and thin the seedlings to about 4-6 inches apart. After you’ve munched all the yummy broad leaves the plants begin to form the taller, more feathery leaves which will need some support with light canes to stop them collapsing.

As the seeds grow plump harvest them while still green, bag them up and freeze them (and, of course, use them fresh). They are super delicious. Use them as you would the leaves, adding them towards the end of cooking any Indian or Mexican meal, and in a salsa (finely chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, oil, lemon juice and green coriander seeds). You get a wonderful intense coriander hit bursting in your mouth.

They freeze well for a few months and you will wish you’d grown more. You will next year.

Garlic is at its best when fresh and juicy in June and July, but the stuff you buy later in the year has been stored for a long time and soon starts to shoot, giving it a bitter taste. So when it’s plentiful I like to roast the whole heads and freeze them. They last well, and give you lovely sweet, sticky cloves throughout winter which are easy to peel and require no pre-cooking. Keep them in the fridge after defrosting.

Sweet chestnuts. If you live near a sweet chestnut tree gather the delicious nuts as soon as they start falling in quantity. (If the prickly cases are cutting into your hands roll them with your foot and the nut will pop out.) When you get them home cut them in half, peel them and lay them in an ovenproof tray. Roll them in olive oil and salt them as liberally as the salt police allow, then roast them in a medium oven for 15 minutes or so. They make brilliant beer snacks. If you have lots of them you can pack the surplus into a sterilised preserving jar, pour over more oil to cover and seal. As you use them keep topping up the oil to cover them and they will last through to Christmas (if you haven’t already scoffed them all by then). Use them when cooking game, especially roast partridge, or add to any autumn/winter casserole.

Ginger. Here’s a cracker. When ginger is lovely and fat and juicy it’s so hard to resist buying a large lump of it, which you will use liberally in every meal for a few days and it will keep fresh in the fridge for a week or so before it starts to get all dried up and wrinkly (much like myself in many ways). Don’t throw it away or watch it shrivel to nothing. Peel it with a spoon (this leaves you no waste at all) and slice it to usable sized pieces, bung it into a preserving jar and cover with Chinese rice wine vinegar. It lasts for ages and is always there for those store cupboard meals, especially Chinese and Indian.

Broad bean tips. As your broad bean plants approach full size there is a danger that the tips will get attacked by blackfly which, if left, will decimate the whole plant. So just nip out the growing tips, but instead of throwing them away use them in a salad. If you don’t believe me eat them as you nip them out. Delicious.

Making bread

February 12, 2010

I love making bread, although I only got back to it relatively recently. I’ve tried in the past but always found that I’m turning out these very heavy bricks of inedible tooth breaking dough stuff. But this time I was just that bit more determined to get it right, so when my first loaf that I made a couple of months ago turned out a bit dense I decided to explore and experiment with the technique to find out what I was doing wrong.

I found two main things; I wasn’t letting the dough rise long enough in the final stage after it was shaped, and I was putting the bread into a preheated oven at 230º which had the effect of killing the yeast too soon.

So, now I make it like this and it really does work:

BILLY’S OWN BREAD RECIPE

This bread recipe is easy and is intended to start in the morning and be ready for lunch. Its light, its delicious and it works.

INGREDIENTS:

675g or 1 ½ lb strong bread flour

10ml or 2 tsp salt

15g fresh yeast or 1 level tablespoon dried yeast

430ml or 15 fl oz warm water

TECHNIQUE:

Mix the yeast in 150ml of warm water. Measure the flour into a large mixing bowl with the salt and make a well in the centre. When the yeast has fermented add the remaining water, pour into the flour and mix.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook in a mixer for 6 minutes and finish by hand). Lightly oil the inside of the bowl and return the dough, covering the bowl with oiled cling film, to prove for two hours or until double in size.

Knock back the dough, turn out onto floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. You can use dough hook but I find hand kneading gets the air into the dough much better and also gives you a feel for the moistness. The dough must not be too sticky as this tends to make it rise outwards instead of upwards, so slowly add more flour if necessary.

Prepare a greased baking sheet. For a bloomer type loaf roll the dough into a rectangle, then roll back into a swiss roll shape. Place it seam side down onto the baking sheet, cut a few deep diagonal slashes in the top using a sharp knife (or bread knife).

Leave to prove for 30 – 40 minutes covered in the oiled cling film.

Boil some water, pour into a shallow dish and place on the lower shelf of the oven to create a steamy atmosphere, which gives a lovely crust.

Put the bread into the middle of the cold oven then turn oven on to 220º (200º if using fan oven) and bake for about 40 minutes (or until golden brown). Check by knocking the base to feel if it sounds hollow. If you want an extra crusty loaf spray with water immediately after removing from the oven.

Transfer to wire rack to cool.

This is today’s loaf (not bad, huh):

I’ve found that putting the dough into a cold oven helps the dough to fully rise as the oven slowly warms up, therefore making a very light and crusty loaf. The baking times will vary according to how fast the oven warms up.