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Vegging Out

imagesJust like the ghost of Christmas past, brussel sprouts are guaranteed to make an appearance in a couple of weeks time whether they are welcome at the feast or not. Never has such an innocuous little vegetable divided the nation the way this one does. Some of us love ’em and some people are left clutching their pearls in horror at the mere mention of the name.

Nowadays, I rank them amongst my favourite vegetables but thats only since I learnt how to cook them without filling the kitchen with the unmistakeable smell of damp tramp. Most sprout doubters can trace back their phobia to the school canteen where all vegetables were routinely boiled from the crack of dawn until they were served 4 hours later. The difference between badly cooked sprouts and all the other badly cooked vegetables most of us had to endure at school is purely chemical. ‘Glucosinolate Singrin’ to be precise. This is the chemical released by all vegetables from the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage and turnips to name just three members) when over cooked. Cook the brussel sprouts briefly by what ever method you choose and there will be no smelly reminders of the school canteen.

Contrary to popular belief you do not need to cut a cross into your sprouts. In fact, if you do they are more likely to  live up to their reputation and be soggy and over cooked. To prepare sprouts allow a small handful per person and trim off any discoloured outer leaves and then cut in half from top to bottom. Bring a large pan of water to a rapid boil with a tablespoon of salt. Add the sprouts and cook for 4 minutes. While they are cooking take something like a large mixing bowl or clean washing up bowl and put about a third of a bag of party ice in it and then top up with cold water. Drain the sprouts and immediately tip the whole lot into the iced water. Allow to cool fully and drain. The sprouts can be cooked to this stage 24 hours before they are needed which is great for taking the heat off on Christmas day. To re-heat you can either simply microwave them with a knob of butter and plenty of salt and pepper or take a large sautee pan or wok place on a medium high heat and put a walnut sized knob of butter in it. Add some chopped bacon or pancetta and some pre-cooked chestnuts (available vacuum packed from most supermarkets) when both begin to crisp add the sprouts and stir fry until fully heated through.

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A Bit Thai’d Up

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It’s freezing outside and as usual the whole country seems to be grinding to a halt. And even though it’s knee deep in snow outside the kitchen window I’m not in the mood to eat anything that is going to send me into a post dinner stupor. I’ve got things to do and people to see so being curled up in front of Cash In The Attic with the dog is not going to be helpful. More often than not I use the cold weather as an excuse to indulge my love of stews, casseroles and cockle warming curries but today I want something that will give me the energy to get my act together and brave the elements. A Thai salad is the perfect solution.

A salad may not be the first thing you think of to satisfy your hunger in a cold snap but then Thai cooking can always be relied upon to wake up the senses whatever the weather. Like all Thai dishes a good salad depends on the perfect balance of hot, salty, sour and sweet and when applied to a dish of rare grilled beef and crunchy vegetables you have a dish that is both satisfying and invigorating in equal measure. In Thailand, the definition of the word salad is stretched to it’s limits by dishes sometimes involving nothing more than grilled fish, seafood or meat tossed with a generous quantity of coriander, mint and basil leaves and a punchy dressing. Ah, yes the dressing – thats where the real magic happens. No oily or creamy dressings could ever give your taste buds the wake up call that a shot of lime juice and fish sauce can.

There is one ingredient in the recipe below that is often omited by many Westernized versions of this classic and that’s the toasted ground rice. It may seem strange but it really is a delicious addition adding both a toasty flavour and added crunch. The other thing to remember with all Thai salads including the one below is that they need to be made and eaten straight away. Leave them to stand for too long and the lime juice in the dressing will turn the whole thing into a disgusting mess. And yes, I learned that the hard way.

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Thai Beef Salad – Serves 4 as a side dish or light starter

  • 2 tablespoons Thai jasmine rice
  • 2 x 250 gram sirloin steaks
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 75m kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
  • 2 tsp palm sugar
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 3 tbsp Thai fish sauce
  • 1 medium cucumber peeled, de-seeded, halved lengthways and sliced diagonally
  • 2 red onions, finely sliced
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 red chillies, finely sliced
  • 1 handful fresh mint leaves
  • 1 handful fresh corriander leaves
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil leaves leaves, ripped
  • 4 spring onions, finely sliced

First of all mix the kekap manis and sesame oil together and pour into a non metalic shallow tray. Grill the steaks on a ridged grill pan until medium rare. Whilst still hot from the pan place the steaks into the tray and marinate for a couple of hours or until completely cooled. Heat a dry frying pan and add the rice. Stir constantly being careful not to burn. When the rice is golden brown add to a pestle and mortar and grind to a fine powder although a few small pieces are fine.

Mix the fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar until the sugar has dissolved and set aside.

Just before you are ready to serve slice the steak thinly and toss with half the ground rice, the dressing and all other ingredients. Pile onto a serving dish and sprinkle over the remaining ground rice.

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Gobble, Gobble, Gobble

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As it’s Thanksgiving for our friends Stateside today I thought I would post my turkey recipe in plenty of time for Christmas. We Brits generally cook turkey but once a year and as we do so  with such infrequently tend not really to know what to do with it. Horror stories abound of Christmas day being ruined by a still frozen bird and indeed a friend of mine’s most enduring memory of the festive season is of finding his weeping mother cradling a 20 pound turkey fully clothed in the shower in a vain attempt to defrost it in time for lunch.

Thankfully these days we don’t automatically head for the frozen section when buying the festive bird and sales of organic, free range and rare breed turkeys have never higher. So, it goes without saying that before you start worrying about how to cook it you need to think about where to buy it. Speak to your local butcher and order it plenty in plenty of time.

Many years ago I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner in the States where I was served turkey so juicy and so flavoursome that I instantly knew I had been missing a trick somewhere along the lines. The dry turkey of my childhood Christmases (sorry mum) which were something to be endured rather than savored seemed a world away from what I was eating at that dinner. Being the shameless recipe pilferer that I am I cornered the cook for her secret to such delicious turkey and the recipe and method that follows is almost word for word what she told me. These days, brining is not such a new concept here in the UK thanks to Nigella and the like but if anyone thinks it might not be worth the bother they are sorely mistaken. Once you taste the difference this nifty bit of kitchen alchemy creates I guarantee you will not look back. One thing I would say though, is that what makes the brining process work is the chemical reaction created by salt and sugar. Adding endless spices and bits and bobs will lend little to the final outcome and is a bit too much fannying around for my liking. Keep the brining mixture simple and it works a treat. It also works on other meats such as pork chops and chickens but more of that another, less festive, time.

A 4 to 5-kg Top quality turkey such as Kelly Bronze

For the brine –

6 liters water

125 grams Maldon salt

3 tablespoons black peppercorns

200 grams caster sugar

2 onions, quartered

Handful fresh rosemary bashed about a bit

1 bulb of garlic split in half, skin and all

1 orange, cut into quarters

1 lemon, cut into  quarters

Method – Bring one liter of water to the boil and add the salt and sugar to dissolve. Add this to a large bucket, cooler or any other sort of large clean plastic container. Add the remaining 5 liters of cold water and when the whole mix is completely cool (it is important that the brine is cold before the next step) add the oranges, lemons, herbs and finally the turkey ( don’t forget to check for and remove any giblets that may be hiding inside the cavity). If the brine does not cover the turkey add more cold water until it does.

The turkey can sit in this mixture for up to 2 days but 24 hours is sufficient to work it’s magic. The bird needs to be kept somewhere cool for the duration of it’s brining and ideally this would be a fridge. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll have enough room in your fridge particularly at this time of year so I have been known to keep it outside the back door with a heavy chopping board and some bricks on top to keep out the foxes.

Remove the bird from it’s brine at least an hour before you want to cook it. Pat it dry with kitchen paper  and season inside and out with a generous grinding of salt and pepper. Place some roughly chopped carrot, onion and celery in the bottom of a roasting tin and sit the turkey on top. Brush with melted butter.

Pre Heat the oven to 220°C

Cook the turkey for 30 minutes and then lower the temperature to 180°C. Raise the temperature back up to 220°C for the last 15 minutes. A turkey of this size will take 3 hours in total. Baste every half hour throughout the cooking time. Remove from the oven when the time is up and rest covered in foil somewhere warm for 30 minutes before carving. If you want to double check that the turkey is fully cooked ( all ovens vary wildly) stick the tip of a knife between the thigh and breast. If the juices run clear it’s fully cooked.

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As easy as Ichi ni san

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When I was growing up in 1970’s Lancashire the most exotic thing I ever ate was a freeze dried Vesta curry. But far from scarring my taste buds forever it has given me a lifelong taste for all things guaranteed to freak out the less adventurous. A sort of self awarded badge of honour if you will. But just as my sister wrinkled up her nose at the sight of me wolfing down a plate of beige watery curry  I’ve seen people have the same kind of reaction to sushi and sashimi. It may well have been this that first spurred me on to try Japan’s most famous foodie export but since then I haven’t looked back. I love it all, the taste of the sea from the vermillion tuna, the clean delicate flavour of spankingly fresh sea scallops and the umami tang of the nori seaweed . I have my favourites and I have my dislikes but as a point of principle I have tried as many different kinds as I can over the years.
yellowtailI’ve dabbled with making sushi many times and it didn’t take long to master the simple art of maki rolls – the thin seaweed covered rolls that you see on all sushi menus filled with a single strip of tuna, salmon or cucumber. But the other day I learnt some of the more complex techniques involved in high end sushi from someone who really knows his stuff. Ex Nobu and Sushi Samba (NYC & Miami) chef Dan Shahar came to teach me some of his signature dishes. What a day! We sliced, we chopped , we grated. Hell, we even pan fried!

img_9646After a shopping trip that involved criss crossing central London in search of the very best fish, Kobe beef and a myriad of sauces, marinades and pickles we set about creating a rolling buffet of dishes to rival anything I have ever seen in a restaurant.

img_9686I watched agog as his experienced fingers stuffed and rolled the perfectly cooked rice around fillings that included tempura prawns, yellowtail tuna and pickled daikon radish.

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Under his watchful gaze I cut and arranged the rolls on platters trying to keep up with his lightening hands. The result was a thing of true beauty and something I can only take a very small part of the credit for. I am hoping, though, that some of Dan’s sushi superpowers have rubbed off onto me so watch this space.

crab-rolls
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Back to black

The voodoo priest and all his powders were as nothing compared to espresso, cappuccino, and mocha, which are stronger than all the religions of the world combined, and perhaps stronger than the human soul itself.  ~Mark Helprin, Memoir from Antproof Case, 1995

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Oooh! Strong words but you have to admit he has a point. I love my coffee and not much happens in the morning before I’ve had at least 2. And by that I mean two perfect cups of coffee made just the way I like them right down to which cup they are served in. At the risk of sounding like the subject of a documentary on OCD I like the first one with hot milk served in a tea cup. The second one I like as a straight up espresso served in the same cup so that it gets a whiff of the milk from the first. If I get this all is well in the world, if not, lets just say you take the rough with the smooth.

Until recently I’ve never thought of myself as a coffee snob. I am addicted yes, but my addiction is nothing if not all inclusive. I’ll drink just about anything thats on offer if my preferred ritual cannot be observed. I would even go so far as to say I like the frappes you get in every Greek taverna that are nothing more than Nescafe whipped to within an inch of it’s freeze dried life with ice cubes, sugar and milk. The association is not with how horrid the coffee is but with the fact that it’s being served to you with the hot Greek sun on your back by a swarthy extra from Shirley Valentine. Come to think of it I have been introduced to quite a few Greek traditions over the years after a wee bit too much sun. Retsina being just one of them.

There’s no doubt about it we have become a nation of coffee converts. You only have see the proliferation of high street coffee shops to see that with your own eyes. Words like “Tall, Grande and Vente’ have become common parlance to a whole generation who, unlike me, cannot remember L.B.C ( Life Before Cuppuccino) But, if like me you are lucky enough to be surrounded by decent independent coffee shops you can taste for yourself the difference between mass produced coffee beans and the kind rosted and blended in small quantities with love, care and just a smattering of obsession.

One company doing just that is The Small Batch Coffee Company in Brighton who import beans in small quantities from all over the world changing the selection to suit the growing seasons of the producing countries. The house espresso blend is currently made up of three coffees from Nicaragua, India and Ethiopia and like all the other blends they create are ethically sourced from sustainable estates. I bought some the other day for no better reason than I like to support small local businesses and it wasn’t my money I was spending. And I am so, so glad I did. We go through a lot of coffee in my place of work and I had been buying whole beans from Lavazza. A good work horse of a brand if ever there was one but after trying out my new beans Lavazza is, not to put too finer point on it, dead to me. Even the colour of the Small Batch beans spoke of richness and quality and as I poured them into the grinder I swear I could feel the beginnings of a coffee buzz. The difference between the end product made from commercial beans and freshly roasted ones is crystal clear and has left me worrying what I’m going to do if I get caught short without a supply of my new favourite beans. Maybe I’ll have another espresso and think about it.

If you want to experience the difference for yourself you can visit the Small Batch Coffee Company’s roastery at 68 Goldstone Villas, Hove, east Sussex BN3 3RU ( 01273 220 246) or visit them at www.smallbatchcoffee.co.uk to buy beans on line.

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