Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dinner with Nigel Slater

Toast, UK food writer Nigel Slater’s autobiography, is one of the finest food memoirs ever. My gardening friend Ali loves his books, his gardens and his food.  He's the complete opposite of shouty show-off Gordon Ramsay.
       A while ago she discovered that the BBC had turned Toast into a film. When it screened in Britain last year, it was watched by over 6 million people. Needless to say, it wasn’t picked up by free-to-air TV here. So when she found it on DVD in her local library, she came up with a brilliant plan: Ali, Lesley and I would put together a dinner using Nigel Slater’s recipes, and then we would watch Toast. So on Friday night, that’s what we did.
       First, Lesley served a superbly flavoured entrĂ©e with thin slices of aubergine, grilled and dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and mint, and served with feta cheese and olives (not a great photo, sorry), along with Ali’s homemade foccacia (she used a special organic flour this time, so it was wonderfully crisp, golden and chewy).

For the main course (recipes below), I made Nigel’s thyme and garlic sticky chicken wings, as well as bulghur wheat cooked with bacon, onions, garlic and mushrooms. Lesley contributed beautiful baked tomatoes.

Ali’s dessert came in two parts. First we had moist, gingery ginger cake (it has stem ginger in it) and her home-grown rhubarb roasted in orange juice and honey, with creamy Zany Zeus yoghurt. 

Then came the, er, climax: Walnut Whips.  Ali had tracked them down in a store selling English goodies. Toast is piled high with confectionery, but Walnut Whips reign supreme - they get two whole chapters named after them. The culmination comes in the scene where Nigel's father discovers the sea of Walnut Whip wrappers. Sadly this was left out of the BBC version, so you'll have to read the book to understand why they're so significant - a bit like the English equivalent of Proust's madeleines...

Thyme and garlic chicken wings
Nigel Slater in the Guardian – “Sweet and sticky, and as good cold as hot.”

Serves 3-4, depending on the size of your wings. You need to marinade the chicken at least four hours ahead of cooking it.

thyme about 12 bushy stems
garlic 2 cloves
thick honey 4 tbsp
dried chillies a couple of good pinches
lemon 1 large
chicken wings 1 kg (this mixture was enough to coat 10 full wings – it would do more of the small “chicken nibbles” size)
lemon 1, to serve

Pull the leaves and flowers from the thyme branches, measure 2 lightly heaped tablespoons, and put into the bowl of a food processor. (If you are making your marinade by hand, then put the thyme into a mortar.) Retain extra leaves and discard the stems.
Peel the garlic and drop the cloves into the thyme together with a generous grinding of black pepper, the honey and the pinches of chillies. Grate the zest of the lemon into the mixture, then squeeze in all of the juice. Blitz for a few seconds till the ingredients become a sloppy paste (by hand, pound with the pestle).
Transfer the paste to a nonstick roasting tin and add the chicken wings and reserved thyme, turning them over in the marinade so they are thoroughly coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or even overnight. Turn from time to time, so the wings stay in contact with the marinade.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Season the wings with salt, then roast them for 40 minutes, or until they are deep, golden brown and the marinade has turned dark golden brown. If there is a lot of liquid in the tin then cook for a further few minutes until dark and sticky. Cut the lemon in thick segments and squeeze over the chicken wings as you eat.

Bulghur wheat and bacon
“I sometimes spoon a little seasoned yoghurt – salt, pepper, paprika – over this at the table, stirring it into the grains. But mostly, I leave the pilaf as it is, enjoying the warm, homely grains and juicy nuggets of mushroom.”

smoked streaky bacon 200g
onions 2, medium
olive oil
garlic 2 cloves
small mushrooms 250g
bulghur wheat, medium fine 250g 

(I found this was an awful lot of wheat – unless you want to pad it out for a hungry horde. For a side dish I think it would be better with half as much, 125-130g, and half the boiling water, 200ml)
boiling water from the kettle 400ml
sprigs of parsley 3 or 4
dill 6 sprigs
butter 60g (with less wheat, 30g is enough)

Cut the bacon rashers into short thick pieces. Peel the onions and slice them thinly. Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large, shallow pan over a low heat, add the sliced bacon and stir occasionally till the fat has turned pale gold. Peel and finely chop the garlic.
Add the onions and garlic to the pan and leave till soft, golden and translucent, stirring from time to time. Quarter the mushrooms and add them to the softening onions. Leave them to cook for 5 minutes or so with the occasional stir.

 Add the bulgur with a pinch of salt (easy to forget this bit!). Pour in the boiling water, cover tightly, switch off the heat, and leave for 15 minutes. Roughly chop the parsley leaves and the dill. Lift the lid from the pan, stir in the butter, herbs and a little salt and pepper. Stir till the grains are glossy with butter, and serve.

The ginger cake recipe is from the Observer, here. If you don't already own at least one Nigel Slater food book - they do tend to be large and pricey - you can find a good selection of his Guardian columns and recipes online here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making it up

Reading my new Italian cookbook again (see previous post), I was struck with how useful these kinds of cookbooks are - the ones where you're given a range of methods, and then shown how to ring the changes so that you can create a huge variety of dishes from the same concept.
      As well as my new Italian, I have Richard Ehrlich's The Lazy Cook: Simple, Sophisticated Food and How to Make It, running through pan-grilling, flash-roasting, gratins, and more. I treasure it, partly because Harvey bought it, but mainly because it's so user-friendly.
      The other day I downloaded my first e-cookbook, Fast, Fresh and Green, by Susie Middleton. In a nutshell, it gives nine interesting ways to prepare vegetables - quick-roasting, quick-braising, hands-on sauteing, walk-away sauteing, two-stepping, no-cooking, stir-frying and grilling - with lots of appealing examples. I expect it will boost my vege consumption very nicely.
       So tonight I took a leaf out of all these books and concocted my own risotto. Earlier I had sorted out the vege bin and cooked up a broth made mainly of rather tired leeks and spring onions, a proper onion and woody bits of asparagus, with a few green peas thrown in. When I blitzed it, it became a delicious thin green stock. There were a few fresh sticks of asparagus left too, but they were too good to go into the common pot. I cooked them separately and kept them warm to have as part of my dinner. But if you had plenty of asparagus, you could make the stock entirely of that, plus an onion - then it becomes asparagus risotto instead.

Green risotto
I melted some butter, softened a chopped onion in it, and added half a cup of arborio rice, turning it well in the butter to coat the grains.
I added the end of a bottle of white wine - about 3/4 of a cup - and turned up the heat to make it bubble.
I stirred the rice slowly to absorb the liquid, and as it disappeared, I added the hot green vege stock a ladleful at a time.
It took about five ladlefuls to reach the right consistency - definitely cooked through, but not soft. (I don't think "al dente" gets it quite right for rice - it shouldn't take much pressure to bite a grain in half, and it definitely shouldn't be in the least gritty.)
To finish it and bump up the protein, I stirred in an egg and a few more little pieces of butter, turned off the gas, and left the pot on the warm hob while I fried some cut-up bacon rashers and grated some pecorino cheese.

So my dinner was an Italian variation on Dr Seuss's green eggs and ham - a nice little pile of creamy pale green risotto, with crispy bacon scattered around, flakes of pecorino on top and asparagus on the side. It took very little time, and as my son likes to say, it was "delishwahse".
       But - and this is a recurring problem for me, though usually with meat dishes - it didn't LOOK wonderful, and I knew it wouldn't make a good photo. So you'll just have to imagine eating it instead!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to be embarrassed

I've been visiting friends and gardens in Taranaki. This is one of the many enviable potager gardens I saw - it's in Maureen and Mervyn Saywell's Fringe Festival garden in Inglewood. They've managed to fit an extraordinary variety of different "rooms" into a medium-sized town section.

Yesterday morning I worked as a volunteer at the giant DCM Bookfair in Wellington's TSB Arena. This always used to be one of the red letter days on our calendar. I started volunteering last year, partly because DCM (Downtown Community Ministry) does such a great job, and partly because if I was helping, I'd have to spend less time hunting for books I really didn't need.
      But I did need to get some to take to my son in China, and of course I couldn't resist a few for myself as well - especially on food and cooking, always one of the most popular sections. And that led to one of my most embarrassing moments ever.

I'd been very restrained and confined myself to just two books. One was this quirky, enticing Italian number by Laura Santtini. I'll probably ignore the gold and silver flakes she likes to sprinkle on various dishes, but her "flavour bombs" sound sensational - variations on 10 basic preparations,
from pestos and salsas to wet rubs and pastes. Chili chocolate wine paste, anyone?
This book looked brand new, and had a little white sticker on it telling me it was double the usual price. Apart from the really valuable, special items, every book for adults is $2 unless it has a sticker on it. This one was $4 - a bargain!

It was my other food book that got me into trouble: Elizabeth David's Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. I'd pounced on it, because I knew that after Harvey had read David's biography, he'd spent hours trawling second-hand shops for this title, without success. It was a slim Penguin, and I put it happily aside with the seven other paperbacks I'd collected.
        At the end of my shift, I went to pay for everything. I was in a bit of a hurry by then, so I helpfully told the person dealing with me that I had exactly $20 worth - one at $4, and another eight at $2 each. She took them out of the bag, and then she looked at me. "This one", she said, holding up the David, "is $10." And she pointed to the sticker on the spine.

I was completely flustered. In my excitement at finding the book, I'd failed to notice the special price. (Once I got it home, I realised why - unlike the other stickered books I'd seen, it had no little white bits showing on the cover, and my hand must have covered the spine when I was looking at it.)  I did my stumbling best to assure her that I just hadn't seen it, but I don't think she believed me. "Do you still want it?" she said. I paused for a minute, but of course I did want it and it was all for a very good cause, so I paid the extra $8 and scuttled away, mortified.
          Fortunately we had a little food bloggers' get-together this afternoon, so I was able to show them the book, tell them the whole story, and then console myself with the delicious goodies they brought for afternoon tea, to go with my  taramasalata on crackers and cucumber sandwiches (as made at the Ritz)*: fingers of chocolate caramel crunch, and strawberry custard tarts with pistachio crumble on top. After all that, I felt much better.

*Ritz Hotel cucumber sandwiches: Peel the cucumber and slice it into very thin rounds, using a vege peeler. Sprinkle with vinegar and salt, leave for half an hour, drain and pat dry of any remaining juice, then layer the slices in thin brown buttered bread.