Saturday, 18 September 2010

Wood ear, jellyfish and prosciutto salad

My wonderful Mum sent me a care package from Hong Kong last week of dried wood ear mushrooms. You can actually buy these in most Chinese supermarkets but the ones she found have been ingeniously ‘shrunk-dried’ into tiny packages the size of a matchbox. Add hot water and hey presto, enough lovely mushrooms for two portions of the salad pictured above explodes out of seemingly nowhere!

It reminds me of those magic towels I was given as a child, where a compressed capsule the size of a ping pong ball would unfurl into a generously proportioned beach towel with a little watery encouragement. It was the same principle, though the results were not quite as delicious.

This exciting gift dovetailed with my discovery of jellyfish that is packed in whole unsliced pieces and preserved in brine. Having found other pre-packaged varieties of jellyfish rather disappointing (the jellyfish strands lacked texture and were accompanied by the chemically taste of artificial preservatives) this was a real find. Once opened, the jellyfish requires a good soaking in clean water for 3-5 hours, but the results are the best I have found so far in London.
The salad below is a celebration of all things crunchy, bouncy, crisp and clean, with a little ham to add a savoury undertone. In Hong Kong I would use wafer thin slices of Yunnan ham, but Italian prosciutto works well too.

about 250g wood ear mushrooms, rehydrated in hot water, then strained
half this amount of jellyfish, sliced into strips about half a cm thick
a stick of celery from near the heart (not the tough outer bits) sliced as thinly as you can into strips the same size as the jellyfish
a tablespoon of light soy sauce
a teaspoon of sesame oil
two tablespoons of rice vinegar
two thin slices of prosciutto, sliced into the same small slivers
toasted white and black sesame seeds
sea salt

Give the wood ear mushrooms a good shake to remove any excess water, or dab lightly with kitchen roll. Slice the mushrooms roughly into easy to eat strips. Toss all the ingredients together except for sesame seeds, ham and salt, then cover and leave to chill in the fridge for a few hours at least.

When the salad is cool and crunchy, toss in the prosciutto and sesame seeds and check that the seasoning is to your liking. I usually add a sprinkling of salt to lift the flavours without overpowering them with too much soy sauce. The finished salad should be lightly sour, quietly nutty, and above all full of lively, tasty textures. Devour with forks, chopsticks or whatever comes to hand.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Steamed fish, Cantonese style

I adore this dish. The ritual of making it reminds me of being a little girl growing up in Hong Kong. Every night Mum and I would have a Cantonese dinner together. This was always of a bowl of clear soup, a bowl of steamed rice, and various little dishes of steamed or stir fried vegetables and meats. The dishes would vary according to season and whim, but there was always a steamed fish. I forget all of the names, but pomfret, butterfish and garoupa featured, to name a few. As a child I mostly recognised them as them as 'big bone fish' or 'small bone fish', a characteristic that was directly related to my enjoyment due to my underdeveloped skills at separating meat from bone with chopsticks, teeth and tongue.

To this day my ability with chopsticks is still outstripped by my enthusiasm when it comes to fish that has just been taken out of the steamer and dressed with a glistening combination of oil and soy sauce. Left to my own devices I resort to a knife and fork to separate the flakes from the bones, before using a spoon to scoop up mouthfuls of fish together with sauce and softened shards of chilli, spring onion and ginger.

You can use any fish at all for this recipe, I love sea bream, sea bass or red mullet. Ask the fishmonger to trim the tail and fins, and clean the fish but leave it whole.

You will need a plate large enough for the fish to lie on and a steamer big enough to fit the plate. If you have a big wok with a lid all you need is a plate stand, a metal ring with legs, and you should be able to accommodate most sizes.

any whole fish, cleaned and gutted
a couple of spring onions, cut crossways into 2 inch sections and then sliced lengthways into thin strips like matchsticks.
the same amount of ginger, peeled and cut into the same sized pieces as the spring onion
about half the amount of red chilli, again cut into the matchsticks

half a tablespoon of groundnut oil
a slice of ginger
a small shallot, peeled and lightly crushed
two teaspoons of shaoxing wine
a tablespoon of light soy sauce
two teaspoons of dark soy sauce
a teaspoon of sugar
a small pinch of pepper
a teaspoon of sesame oil

Give the fish a good rinse to remove any remaining scales and other less tasty bits like guts still clinging to the insides of the fish. Pat the fish dry with some kitchen paper and weigh it before placing it on a plate. If the fish has been in the fridge then give it some time to come to room temperature so it is not too cold when you steam it.

Combine the spring onion, ginger and chilli shreds and pile them on top of the fish, before gently lowering the plate into a steamer with boiling water. Steam the fish according to the following timings:

Round fish – one minute for every two ounces
Flat fish – one minute for every three ounces

While the fish steams make the sauce. Warm the oil in a small saucepan until the ginger begins to colour, then remove it and the shallot and discard. Take the saucepan off the heat and add the wine, soy sauces, sugar and pepper to the hot oil, stirring to dissolve. Taste the sauce; it should be salty and sweet. Add more soy sauce or sugar if you prefer. Add the sesame oil at the very end.

Be sure to time the steaming carefully and remove the fish at exactly the right time. When the fish is cooked take the plate out and tip it gently over the sink to get rid of the juices in the bottom. Heat the sauce on a high heat until it boils and then pour it all over the fish, which should sizzle deliciously.

Serve at once, either with chopsticks for authenticity or a fish knife and fork for greedy speed.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Cool cucumber soup

Serves 4

8 cucumbers, peeled
a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, or half a lemon, squeezed
a small clove of garlic, crushed
a small white onion, sliced into rings
2 teaspoons of olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Split each cucumber vertically and use a teaspoon to scrape out all the seeds. Chop the remaining flesh into chunks and process to a coarse purée. Pour the whole lot into a saucepan and set over a low heat to bubble and reduce. If you don't have a processor you can just chop the chunks up a bit more and heat them in the saucepan like that - it will just take a little longer to break down. Give the cucumber purée a stir every now and then and check it is not burning. Taste it too - if it tastes grainy and crunchy then it needs more cooking. The cucumber should soften, smooth out and thicken up, this takes about 20 minutes of gentle heat with little bubbles blip-blip-blipping away.

When you think the cucumber is cooked enough, pour it into a blender with the raw onion rings and crushed garlic in the bottom. Add a pinch of salt and pulse then blend into a smooth consistency. If you have one of those blenders where you can take the top off while its blending, then do that and slowly drizzle in first the vinegar or lemon juice and then the olive oil. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. It should be a tiny bit more salty than you like as this will lessen as the soup cools. When you are happy with the taste pour the soup into a serving bowl and chill until cold.

To serve, pop an ice cube into each bowl for extra chill (or you could put the soup in the freezer until its just starting to freeze) and ladle over the soup. Scatter torn mint and basil leaves over and serve.

You could eat this with crusty bread, or put some little dishes with chopped chillis, toasted seeds, fried bacon bits or anything else you fancy on the table for people to help themselves.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Trattoria Montalbino

Here's a few more photos of lunch...

Trattoria Montalbino

Via Trecento 72
50025 Montalbino

Cauliflower truffle cakes

Every time we go to Trattoria Montalbino there is a great debate on the way over what we
will eat. Bistecca with truffles, or just porcini? Carpaccio with truffles instead? Yes if its hot. Maybe coniglio (rabbit) with truffles instead for a change. The one dish that is always ordered is a starter of little round cakes made from cauliflower, topped with shaved truffles.

At first sight this is an unlikely favourite. It remains this way until you bite into the crisp, lightly browned shell, inhale the heavenly scent of truffles, white or black depending on the season, and savour a mouthful of the hot fluffy interior, with its slightly grainy texture and earthy aroma.

We have endlessly argued over what the ingredients are, and finally today the proprietors gave in; not only did they give us the recipe, they gave us a whole bowlful of batter to take home.

Measurements to come, once we have finished the bowl of batter and survived food coma...

1 egg, beaten
Cauliflower purée
Béchamel sauce, made with flour, butter and milk
Truffle oil
Parmesan, grated
Sea salt and pepper
Dry breadcrumbs
Truffles, if you have them

Preheat an oven to 200 degrees Celsuis.

Whisk the cauliflower purée into the beaten egg until smooth. Then add the Béchamel and do the same. Add truffle oil and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan to taste. The dry breadcrumbs should be added last as they will soak up all the juice and product a batter with a thickish consistency.

Spoon dollops of batter into a buttered muffin tin, then bake for 10 minutes or so. The tops should be firm and lightly browned, with a springy texture when poked with a finger.

Turn out the cakes and let them allow enough to handle. Shave over your truffles and serve - eat immediately while they are still warm.

Sibilla's chilli jam

We ate thin slippery slices of marzolino cheese - smooth, creamy but acidic enough to not taste heavy, with slices of marinated cucumber and a dab of chilli jam. Completely addictive.

Makes several jars

200g chilli peppers
100g peppers, any colour
600g sugar, half brown half white
600ml white wine vinegar

Split all of the peppers in half, remove the stalk, pith and seeds and then roughly chop the flesh. Coarsely purée the peppers, either in a processor or by hand. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar over a low heat, add the pepper purée and simmer until it reaches a syrupy but still pourable consistency. This can take about 45 minutes. Pour the jam into sterilised jars and seal while still hot. The jam will thicken further while it cools.

Use this as a condiment to add sweet heat to almost anything, as a dip, a spread, a garnish...you could even have it on vanilla ice-cream!

Bats in the bell tower

We are currently sharing our bedroom with two bats who look adorable in the day.

Apparently a single bat can eat up to 3000 mosquitos in one night.

Why am I still getting bitten??

Marinated cucumbers

I’m back in Tuscany, celebrating a glut of cucumbers and getting reacquainted with flavours that took a backseat during the winter months. Eating here feels like emerging from some kind of taste-hibernation, remembering forgotten pleasures and rediscovering dishes as though meeting old friends. None of the artisan tomatoes from farmers markets in the height of summer in London tasted as richly delicious as the sun drenched examples from Sibilla’s garden. We feast on them every morning, sprinkled with a little red wine vinegar, torn basil and a splash of fruity olive oil. Yesterday there was creamy sheep’s milk ricotta from the dairy to go with our tomatoes. Sitting in the sunshine listening to cicadas I wondered why anyone would ever want to eat anything else.

We used home-grown Italian cucumbers with quite a tough, thick skin and spiky nubbins, so peeling is essential, however if you might decide not to peel yours if their skin is thinner.

Serves four as part of a summer's lunch

3 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into rounds about as thick as a pound coin (roughly half a cm)
One medium sized white onion, peeled and sliced into rings as thick as the cucumber
A generous teaspoon of sea salt
Half a teaspoon of sugar
A small clove of garlic, crushed
Good quality white wine vinegar
Fresh basil and mint
Extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper

Combine the cucumbers and onion rings in a bowl large enough to let you toss and mix around your ingredients. Add the salt and sugar and mix everything up. Taste a piece of cucumber – it should taste a tiny bit too salty. If not add a bit more salt. Add the garlic, toss again, then pour over enough white wine vinegar to just about cover the cucumber. The salt will draw moisture out of the cucumbers and together with the vinegar this will be your marinade.

Cover the bowl with cling film and leave it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, just before you serve the dish, tear up a small handful of basil and mint leaves and scatter them over. Add a good splash of olive oil, grind over some black pepper and give the whole thing one last toss.

The cucumbers are lovely and refreshing eaten on their own, perhaps with a slice of cold roast pork and chilled glass of white wine. Or add them to chopped up tomatoes, and throw in some cubes of dry, stale bread for a more substantial panzanella-style salad.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Gentlemen Gourmets of London

My husband-to-be is in the newspaper today! This was written after an evening with Charles Campion, a photographer and lots of boys at our house a few Fridays ago.

Gentlemen, take your places for a domestic feast

Charles Campion

I first met the Gentlemen Gourmets of London when researching my latest book, Eat Up! Britons are unfairly pigeon-holed as bad cooks but actually good home cooking is alive and well. Over 18 months, I travelled the country, dining in the homes of strangers — civilians all, no professional chefs.

The Gentlemen Gourmets, or GGoL, are an excellent example of the breed: good amateur cooks who are fascinated by and passionate about cooking. Every two months, they hold dinners at each other's houses. The head chef, creator of the previous winning dish, chooses the theme for the next meal and nominates five members, who cook a course each. At the end everyone votes for their favourite course and, with due ceremony, the grubby chef's jacket passes to the victor.

TV programmes like Come Dine With Me may have established the concept of the dinner party as a competitive sport but the GGoL are much more to do with jollity than fancy presentation. On the evening I am their guest, previous winner James Montgomery has chosen a Six Nations-themed menu.

“The first GGoL evening was held a couple of years ago and we got it hopelessly wrong,” says Montgomery. “Everyone served large helpings of filling food and we were all stuffed long before pudding.” Ronan Cantwell adds: “More often than not the pudding course wins simply because everyone likes a good pud. That gives crowd-pleasers like a decent chocolate cake an unfair advantage.” So saying, Cantwell has chosen a classic crowd-pleaser — an Irish rack of lamb — for his winning bid.

Adam Smith kicks off with ribollita, cavolo nero, good stock, cannellini and borlotti beans, tomatoes, carrot, a whiff of chilli; a lot of thyme is poured into an earthenware dish lined with wholemeal bread. This is a hearty Italian dish with adroit seasoning and good flavours.

Slightly soggy puff pastry over an almost redeemable rich mixture of leeks and bacon was a suitably squelchy starter from Ed Elias. The topping on Montgomery's English fish pie was inspired — a potato and celeriac mash with Parmesan. Cantwell's Irish lamb is perfectly cooked — pink and tender with crisp golden skin.

The accompanying jus, however, was salty due to over-reduction. Jonas Andersen's meticulous interpretation of crêpes suzette involved a sauce of orange juice and Grand Marnier plus some nibbed roast almonds.

I voted for the ribollita but once again pudding won and Andersen accepted the winner's jacket.

All the GGoL are able to cook, but what lifts their dishes out of the dreary dinner-party category is that they season food properly, so even the less successful dishes were a delight to eat. As Cantwell puts it: “Dishes that look nice do better but there is never any prissy stuff here.”

Eat Up! Seeking out the Best of British Home Cooking is published today by Kyle Cathie (£16.99).

See the original article here.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Jin Kichi

mmmmm. Wow.

We just got back from Jin Kichi in Hampstead.

Tosaka, ogonori and wakame seaweed, in dainty piles, garnished with two thin slices of lemon.

The clean simple tasting dressing? White sesame seeds, ground to a paste, combined with rice vinegar, light soy sauce, salt, sugar, a little mirin, a bit of white miso and the all important - dashi.

Grilled skewers of ox tongue. Chewy, bouncy, succulently fat squares of beefy tongue, with edges charred just enough to give a crisp edge before biting into rich unctuousness. Food porn eat your heart out.

Fat, melting mini-slabs of toro (they feel like slabs on your tongue).

Chewy, even 'al dente' buckwheat noodles, served on a bamboo mat and eaten after being dunked in a savoury dashi and mirin based sauce, spiked with wasabi and spring onion if desired, and grated daikon radish available on request.

The owner hails from Hokkaido. All the staff were lovely.


Jin Kichi
020 7794 6158 - you need to book.