Season of Mists, Everywhere But Here

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

September has for as long as I can remember been my favourite month. And if it’s dorky to have a favourite month at all it’s even dorkier for it to be September, a time of back-to-school, new stationary, chunky damson-coloured tights and satchels (I’m channelling Velma here). Forget post-Christmas resolutions, my new year begins on 1st September and even though I’m long out of school you’ll still find me buying an academic diary, making overly ambitious lists, and stocking up on pencils right now.

Except…. anyone wearing tights in San Francisco over the past week would not be, well, entirely comfortable. The thermometer hit into the 30s/90s earlier this week: the fog has cleared and our “summer” begins. The heat feels at a mis-match with the autumnal hues gracing the stalls at the farmers’ market: the rusty palate of the beets, the soft greens of the early pears contrasting with their crisp curves, and the two-tone plums flickering blue as the morning light shifts across their crates, piled high. But what catches my eye are the figs, their plump, dimpled skins concealing the sweet, seedy flesh inside. I lust after them but lack inspiration sufficient to justify splashing out on a whole pile. Perhaps it’s the heat.

Enter stage-left another obsession I am harbouring: all things culinary from the American South. Grits, ribs, oysters, biscuits, mint juleps: the cravings trot through my head like a mantra. I’m still pretty ignorant about the subtleties of the cuisine of this region but have no qualms about putting in the legwork to get to know it better. In the meantime I feel in pretty good hands working through some of the delights of the Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook, a witty and gracious tome which I trust as much for an entertaining evening’s reading as for the recipes themselves. And on one such evening the magic words ‘fig preserves’ leaped off the page and 48 hours later I was in possession of a pile of purple beauties and a couple of mason jars and off I went.

This recipe turns out to be just what I was craving in a San Francisco September. Preserving is a reasonably new hobby for me and suits the kind of diligence I seem to have in excess come autumn. The colours, turning bruised bluish-purple fruit to a seed-flecked magenta compote, stand in for the tweeds and woolens I associate with the season. And, most of all, the warm, sticky figs with crisp notes of citrus and ginger are just as perfect with a dollop of cooling ice-cream as they are over pancakes or smeared on thick buttery toast. The Lee Brothers also offer a recipe where the syrup from the preserves is used in a black walnut cake. I see it in my future. Once it’s cool enough to turn the oven on again.

Fig Preserves
Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook

2 pint size wide-mouth Bell or Mason jars, with rims and lids

1 1/2 cups/9oz/255g sugar
1 cup/235ml water water
8 cups (approx 2lb) whole ripe purple figs*, stems trimmed
3 small lemons
One one-inch long piece of fresh ginger

*Figs do not ripen once they have been picked so make sure the ones you are buying are already soft.

Fill a pot large enough to take the two preserve jars with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Using tongs, carefully set the jars along with their lids a a long-handled metal spoon into the water and boil for at least 15 minutes to sterilize. Use the tongs to remove the jars, lids and spoon and set to the side for the time being.

Slice the lemons paper-thin using an extremely sharp knife or mandolin. Peel the ginger and cut into 1/8th-inch rounds.

In a large pot, combine the sugar and water and stir to dissolve. Add the figs along with the lemon and ginger, cover, and cook over medium heat, stirring gently from time to time, until the liquid comes to a simmer, about 8 minutes.

Turn the heat down to low and cook for 1 hour, then tilt the cover slightly into the pan to vent the preserves and cook for a further 30 minutes or so, until the mixture is thick and syrupy and the figs are very soft.

Transfer the preserves to the jars using the spoon you sterilized earlier. Place the lids on the jars, seal, and set aside until cool. Refrigerate for a couple of days to let the flavours combine and mature before using. The preserves will keep for about a month in the refrigerator.


Where It Began

September 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Once upon a time, I had scarcely a clue which end of a whisk to hold. Growing up, food mostly came in boxes, tins and wrappers, often from the freezer. And then, one day somewhere about halfway between then and now, not only could I cook, but was a little bit known for being able to bake up a fine cake. I’m still unravelling precisely how this happened and you will undoubtedly hear more in due course, but what I know for sure is that this Victoria sponge cake played a lead part.

It can be all too easy to be intimidated by the feeling that those who write elegantly and passionately about food were mixing up flour and water on the kitchen floor as a toddler; that any kind of culinary authenticity or authority comes from a dusty box of recipes in florid script handed down from great-aunts; that a delicate palate was cultivated around the Sunday dinner table where red wine was an early-teenage-year treat. It’s a fear that prickles up each time I sit down to write this blog. But when I recently made this old-favourite sponge I was reminded that traditions can be started at any time and that new passions can run just as deep as old ones. And I instantly knew what would be the first cake I would blog here.

I decided to learn how to cook not long after Ollie and I moved in together. It makes sense: we were nesting, setting up our own small version of family, and home-cooked food forms a central part in such pastorals. Since Ollie was always better at cooking savory in any case and since I have always had a chronically sweet tooth I set about learning to bake as my role in the story we were writing. A good choice as it happened: the precision and rubric of baking suited my type A neuroses perfectly. Starting out with the Victoria sponge made a lot of sense since it is, certainly to many Brits, pretty much the Platonic cake. I made it repeatedly, learning in the process about beating sugar and butter until creamy, adding eggs gradually and not panicking if the mixture turned a scary curdled mess, working quickly and firmly to fold in the flour and not lose all the hard work of the beating process (back then I did it all with nothing but a bowl and a wooden spoon so I felt every air bubble in that cake), and feeling the satisfaction of serving up slices of something created with own hands. Principles that remain with me with every cake I have baked since and every cake I will bake in the future. As a suitable high point to our story, the batter was the one and same we used for the fairy cakes for our wedding.

I whipped up a Victoria sponge most recently for the Labor Day weekend. It felt like a strange choice to begin with – after all, this is a most British of all cakes, taking its name from a 19th Century monarch who embodies history and nation. But it is also a cake that can set one on the path to starting traditions of one’s own, indeed, to starting over, and what could be more American than that?

Victoria Sponge Cake

For those in the US, the sponge will seem very similar to a pound cake: equal proportions of flour, butter and sugar. What makes it a Victoria sponge is that you make it as a circular two layer cake and sandwich jam, fruit and cream (or variations on this combination) in the middle. Depending on the pans you have, and the crowd you have to feed, I offer two size options:

For 2 7-inch circular pans:

4 oz/110g cake flour (or all purpose if you can’t get cake flour)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 oz/110g/1 stick butter, at room temperature
4 oz/110g sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tbsp milk

to finish: jam, cream and sifted confectioners’/icing sugar

For 2 8-inch* circular pans:

6 oz/175g cake flour
2 ¼ tsp baking powder
6oz/175g/1 ½ sticks butter, at room temperature
6oz/175g sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk

to finish: jam, cream and sifted confectioners’/icing sugar

* I know it’s more common to have 9-inch pans in the US. I’m pretty confident you could bake the 6oz version in 9-inch pans to good effect, keeping a close eye on the cooking time. I haven’t tried it so can’t say for sure: let me know if you experiment!

Heat the oven to 350F/180C.
Prepare the pans by rubbing them with butter and lining the bottoms with parchment paper, then greasing the parchment paper.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium sized bowl and set to one side.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Break the eggs into a separate small bowl and whisk lightly to combine. Gradually add the egg mix into the batter, beating well between each addition. The batter may curdle. If it does, add a tablespoon of flour but don’t worry: it will come together in due course. With all the eggs added pour in the vanilla extract and beat the mixture well, for about one minute.
Add the flour and use a large metal spoon or spatula to fold the flour gently but firmly into the batter. You want the batter to be at dropping consistency (i.e. it drops off the spoon easily): add milk, a tablespoon at a time if needed.
Divide between the two prepared pans and bake for around 20-28 minutes (on the lower end for the smaller cakes and higher for the larger version) in the middle of the oven or until the cakes are evenly golden, springy to the touch and a knife emerges clean from their centre.
Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes then unmold and cool on baking racks.
Sandwich the cakes together with jam, fruit and whipped cream, as per your preference.

Part 3, AKA How to Enjoy Your Own Cooking

September 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

I find it really quite difficult to enjoy food I spent the whole day cooking and I would wager that I’m not the only one. Isn’t that precisely why a chef is more likely to rustle up a plate of beans on toast after a shift than a beautifully complex guinea hen roulade? When you have tasted just about every component of a dish at multiple stages, it can be hard to get beyond those flavour memories and appreciate the same dish as part of a meal rather than kitchen experience. This ravioli recipe certainly runs these risks but fortunately there are two ways you can help yourself out.

First of all, ideally you should begin the stage of rolling out the pasta and putting the ravioli together on a fresh day. Not always practical I know, but coming to the fiddly assembly with a clear mind will definitely help both with the process and the enjoyment. But secondly, and here’s the real trick, these ravioli cook perfectly from frozen. You can make them well in advance and on the day itself all you will need to do is heat a pan of water, add the pasta, and melt sage leaves in butter for a sauce during the 5 minutes the pasta will take to cook. Not only can you enjoy the dish as though someone else had cooked it for you, you can do it wearing three inch heels if you so wish, and look unflappable while your guests are cooing over the effortful flavours and effortless delivery.

‘Rosalba’s Ravioli’ adapted from Antonio Carluccio’s Italian Feast

The quantities listed below, as I said earlier, are very much a guide. Don’t feel the need to stick to them exactly to the letter if you have slightly more meat or whatever. I would, however, recommend that you not skimp on the parmesan.

8oz/225g leftover pork
7oz/200g braised cabbage
3oz/75g parmesan, finely grated, plus more to garnish
1 egg
salt and black pepper

to finish:
unsalted butter
sage leaves
black pepper

In batches, coarsely grind pieces of the pork, along with the leftover onion mixture, in a food processor. Put into a large bowl as you go. With all the pork ground, put the braised cabbage in the food processor and again pulse until coarsely ground. You want the size of the pieces to resemble large breadcrumbs. Add the cabbage to the bowl containing the pork, stir in half the parmesan and season pretty generously with salt and pepper. Once you’ve tasted for seasoning, add the egg which will bind the mix. Cover and leave to one side for the time being. Prepare an egg wash by beating an egg in a small bowl and lay out a ravioli cutter if you have one and a pastry brush. It will also help to have a baking sheet to hand if you want to freeze the ravioli.

Roll out the first piece of the pasta dough as per the instructions in part 2. Dust a long counterspace with flour, split the rolled sheet of pasta in two and lay the pieces flat. Working quickly, take the first piece and brush with egg wash. Take small balls of the filling (be careful not to take too much – a teaspoon is about right) and place at 1 inch intervals along one side of the pasta sheet. Fold the sheet so that it lightly covers the filling and use your fingertips to seal the pasta around each ball, making sure you work any air bubbles out from around the filling as you go. Once the sheet is secured around the filling you can take a ravioli cutter of whatever kind you use, and stamp out the pieces, or use a sharp knife to cut around the filling. Having tried it both ways, a simple ravioli stamp comes out as a good investment.

Repeat with the remaining half of the sheet. If you want to freeze the ravioli, lay them out flat on a baking sheet at this point, not touching, and place in the freezer until they are solid enough to put in a tub or ziploc bag.

You will now repeat this entire procedure with the second half of the first ball, and finally with first one half, then the other, of the second ball. (I highly recommend queuing up some good music before you get going on this whole endeavour.) You will end up with over 100 ravioli (depending of course on the size of your cutter).

When you are ready to eat the ravioli, bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt it generously. Add the pasta. Whether you cook them from fresh or frozen, they are ready when the water has returned to a full boil and the ravioli float. This takes about 2-3 minutes from fresh and about 4-5 from frozen in my experience. When you add the pasta to the water, take a good lump of butter and melt in a saute pan along with a handful of sage leaves. Remove the cooked pasta from the water with a slotted spoon straight into the pan with the butter and sage. Toss gently and add the rest of the parmesan and a few good twists of black pepper. Serve immediately, adding extra parmesan and black pepper to the top of the pasta, and revel in your achievement!

Part 2: In Which We Talk PASTA

September 8, 2010 § 2 Comments

Still with us? Over the pork-sandwich-induced coma? Good: let’s proceed to the fun part and talk about pasta. For a girl who didn’t taste this food of the gods before the age of 18 (no joke) I’ve devoted enough time to catching up over the intervening years that I can say with degrees of confidence that this is some really good pasta. And although making your own definitely requires commitment in an age where penne has become the ultimate acceptable fast food, the play-doh-reminiscent stage of mixing and kneading is sufficiently therapeutic that you might just become addicted to the process as well as the amazing end result. For this recipe we’re back to Locatelli and judging from reports of friends who have eaten at his London restaurant, this is a man who knows his ravioli.

At this juncture, you need to indulge me a soapbox moment. The quality of your finished pasta is entirely dependent on the quality of the eggs you put in so please please please get the absolute best you can. Have your coffee at home that day, make your lunch, whatever you need to do to justify the extra $3 or so you will have to spend. My eggs came from Eatwell Farm on this particular occasion (via Rainbow Grocery) and were from pasture-raised, non-beak-clipped chickens who lay fertile eggs. Their yolks are firm, creamy and a sunny orange which lends its hue to the finished dough.

You will also need some way to roll out your pasta, unless you have, or want to acquire, forearms of formidable strength. I use a roller attachment for my beloved KitchenAid which frees up both hands to direct the sheets through the roller. But if you aren’t going to be making pasta regularly (which once you taste the results you might find impossible) you can often pick up barely-used, unwanted hand-cranked pasta machines at garage sales, thrift stores and the like for a song.

Fresh Egg Pasta: Adapted from Georgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy

Yields around 600g fresh pasta, which makes around 120 ravioli or serves 4-6 as fettuccine

500g 00 flour
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks (all at room temperature)
a pinch of salt

If you are nervous about the mixture escaping all over the counter, you can start the dough in a bowl, but nothing compares to the fun of going freestyle! You could also use a kneading attachment on a stand mixer but I’ve tried both ways and by hand gives better results and is in the long-term more convenient (less washing up, takes about the same amount of attended time etc).

Sift the flour into a bowl then turn out into a mound on the countertop. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add a good pinch of salt into it. Add the eggs and the egg yolks to the well.

Start off by gently mixing the eggs together using your index and middle fingers. Once the yolks are broken and the eggs mixed, start to draw a little of the flour from the walls of the well into the centre, very very gradually. The wet mixture will start to firm up: keep going until you have incorporated all the flour. You might find at this point that you still have some dry mix which isn’t incorporating fully. Hold off on the temptation to add water at this point as the humidity in the room should help the dough come together once you start kneading.

The kneading process is a little different from that you might be familiar with from bread-making. You want to use the heel of your hand to flatten and stretch the dough away from you, then fold it over on itself, rotate, and repeat. The dough is likely to feel pretty stiff for a while: do not worry. If you have been kneading for 3 or 4 minutes and the dough is not holding together, wet your hands in a bowl of water at your side and return to the kneading. You might have to do this 4 or 5 times – it depends on the size of the eggs you have used, the particular flour and even the atmospheric conditions in the kitchen on that particular day. Just keep resisting the temptation to add water, keep wetting your hands, and it will come together in due course.

The kneading is complete once the dough feels smooth and slightly springy to the touch, around 10-15 minutes in all. It will still feel tougher than you might like but again, don’t worry, it will loosen up when it rests. Divide the ball of dough in two, wrap each piece firmly in plastic wrap and put in the fridge for at least an hour to rest. I often leave it overnight to good effect.

If you are going the whole hog and making the ravioli, you will want to roll the dough immediately before the assembly stage, as detailed in part 3, so it doesn’t dry out. If you want to use this recipe to make fettuccine, tagliatelli or other pasta shapes, you can cook it there and then or dry it out for storage. Press the pasta as per the instructions below, run it through the cutter (or shape by hand) and dangle over the back of a kitchen chair or form into nests and lay out on clean towels until fully dried. At this point you can store it in an airtight container in the cupboard, as you would regular dried pasta. But be sure the pasta is fully dry before you put it away as it can go mouldy otherwise.

Whenever you are ready to roll out the dough, take one of the two balls of pasta from the fridge and divide in two again. Keep the half you are not using wrapped firmly in the plastic to prevent it drying. Take the piece you are going to work with and use a rolling pin to flatten it such that it will go through the widest setting of your pasta roller without over-straining the machine. (I can’t personally give advice for rolling by hand but Marcella Hazan has an excellent discussion of the process if you want or need to go down that route.) Feed this piece through the roller on its largest setting, three times. Take the machine down a notch and feed the pasta through again. Repeat 3 or 4 further times, on each occasion reducing the gauge by one notch. The pasta is likely to have some streaks remaining at this point but don’t worry as they will be worked out at the next stage.

Take the rolled piece and fold it along the longest edge (i.e. width-ways) so you have a piece that is about the width of the roller (the pasta will now be being rolled at right angles to the first round of rolling so that it stretches evenly). You will need to work it a bit with the rolling pin so that it will be thin enough to fit through the largest gauge of the machine once again. Feed the pasta through on the largest notch, again repeating three times before you start reducing the gauge. As before, take the pasta down to the 4th or 5th notch. You then want to repeat this entire process for one final time. Fold the pasta width-ways so it will be returning for the third roll along the same direction as the original and repeat the whole process, this time taking the pasta all the way down to the 6th notch or until it is smooth and almost translucent.

A Project, in 3 Parts

September 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Blog post 3 and still no cake. Sorry folks: I do have something up my sleeve that will deliver on the butter, flour and sugar promise but it’s going to have to wait. Well, it’s only fair that one of the best things I have ever cooked takes precedence, right? I’m talking about roast pork and braised cabbage ravioli, no less. A dish that fits very squarely into my patented formula for calculating likely food enjoyment, which is that said enjoyment goes up proportionally when a dish has taken longer to cook but is eaten quickly (ideally with nothing but a fork or hands). Given that the all the stages of this recipe add up to a couple of days of cooking and about 10 minutes of final prep and eating (15 if you’re particularly civilized), this recipe is off the scale.

I now feel the need to state loudly and up-front: this is not the way I usually cook on a weeknight. Hell, it’s hardly the way I cook on a weekend either. Accept that this is a project to be saved for a rainy day (or two) in the kitchen and you’re less likely to run screaming from the number of elements you will need to prepare. Also know that there are some valuable recipes in their own right buried in this dish which is why I am breaking the post into 3 installments.

There’s a teeny bit of personal context too. I’m on a few months’ leave from work at the moment, while I swap over from one kind of work permit to another. This nightmare-turned-dream situation has left me with plenty of opportunity to lavish time and attention on personal projects and my ubiquitous piles of cookbooks have been lazily picked over and are now bursting with post-it notes and bookmarks. When we got a date in the diary for a long-overdue dinner to say thank you to some friends, I decided to take the luxury of spending a week cooking and this ravioli dish came out, deservedly so, as the star of the show.

Part 1: The Pork and the Cabbage

You will need leftover roast meat to make these ravioli – ideally pork – although beef and veal are appropriate substitutions. The recipe I offer here is a fine choice as the herby, savory flavours that nestle around the meat as it roasts are later incorporated into the ravioli filling in perfect synergy with the cabbage. It also provides a knock-out supper of roast pork sandwiches in the interim.

The recipe comes from a cherished cookbook from my favourite food writer: Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries. British readers are undoubtedly familiar with Nigel (indeed, this very book came out at number 4 in the recent Observer newspaper list of their 50 top cookbooks) but I think he is a bit under-recognized here in the US. The Kitchen Diaries holds a special place in my heart: it was the book that inspired me to cook day in and day out, to get down to the farmer’s market and to pay attention to seasonality. This now feels so elemental sitting here in California but back in the depths of winter in Cambridge, with barely anything but carrots and turnips to hand for 3 months of the year, it was a much more revolutionary shift of mindset.

Find a piece of pork that has a decent amount of fat, such as a belly or butt cut. You’ll roast it with the fat (and skin for the belly cut) side down and it will simultaneously crisp up and yield fat to keep the onion moist as it caramelizes. The kitchen will fill with the heady aroma of the fennel seeds over the course of the roasting hour. Make sure you spread some of the blackened onion mix over your roll before loading it with the pork. You will blitz the rest later with the pork for the filling, although you will need to harness all self-restraint not just to load up a second sandwich.

Roasted Pork, adapted from The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater

You are going to need around 8oz/225g leftover meat for the ravioli. Use that as your starting point and cook as much additional meat as you want for sandwiches. You’ll need to adjust the cooking time accordingly of course: make sure you have cooked all the pink out of the meat before serving.

1 onion
4 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic
a couple of sprigs of rosemary
3 large, fresh bay leaves
a handful of black peppercorns (18 or so)
2 tsp fennel seeds
1 lemon
a piece of pork with plenty of fat, such as a belly or butt cut (for sandwiches for 2 plus sufficient leftover meat I used a piece weighing approximately 3lbs (including some bone) but you can scale up as needed)

Heat the oven to 350 F/180 C/Gas mark 4 and bring the meat out of the fridge so it begins to come to room temperature.
Thinly slice the onion and peel and finely chop the garlic. Soften the onion in the olive oil in a Dutch oven or oven-safe casserole over a reasonably high heat. Once the onion is translucent and soft, stir in the chopped garlic.
Finely chop the leaves from the rosemary and stir this into the onion and garlic mixture. Then chop and add the bay leaves. Crush the peppercorns in a pestle and mortar (or with the back of a knife) and stir them into the onion along with the fennel seeds and a good pinch of salt. Let this all cook until it turns golden in colour and becomes aromatic. Squeeze in the lemon juice, using it to dissolve any part of the mixture that has stuck to the pan.
Salt and pepper the pork and make a space in the middle of the onion mix in the Dutch oven where you can place the piece of meat. Put the meat into the pan skin or fat side down and nestle the onion mix close to the meat. My 3lbs piece of pork butt took around 1hr 15 mins to cook: you will need to monitor the size and cut of your own piece and adjust accordingly. If in doubt, use a meat thermometer. You may also need to poke at the onion from time to time during the cooking process to stop it from sticking.
Let the meat rest for 5-10 minutes before thinly slicing for the sandwiches, along with a smear of the now blackened onion and some bitter salad greens. The remainder can sit sliced or not well-covered in the fridge until you are ready to use it for the ravioli filling.

Braised Cabbage: Adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

If you are a person who plans ahead, you might well be able to organize your eating for the week such that you also end up with leftover cabbage. It’s an especially fine accompaniment to some grilled sausages. But the braising process here is fast and simple enough that making the cabbage just for the purpose of the ravioli doesn’t feel ridiculous. I did mine just after the pork went in the oven.

1 savoy cabbage
2 tbsp olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
½ cup white wine
½ cup water or broth

Chop the cabbage into halves, then quarters. Remove the core and any tough outer leaves and then cut into slices of around finger thickness.
Heat the oil in a large pan, add the cabbage slices and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or thereabouts, when it will be starting to soften.
Add the herbs along with a generous pinch of salt and a couple of twists of black pepper. Add the wine and cook for a further 5 minutes, until reduced.
Add the water, bring to a boil, then cover the pan and turn the heat to a simmer. Cook until the cabbage is tender and most of the liquid has disappeared: 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time. Taste and season. If you are serving the cabbage hot, you might want to add some butter for richness, but this isn’t
necessary if the cabbage is just for the filling. For the filling cabbage, cool to room temperature, cover and leave in the fridge until you are ready to use it (you need around 7oz/200g but there is scope for flexibility if you end up with a bit more or a bit less).

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