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Friday, July 21, 2006

Chicken noodle soup

[Note: this was supposed to be an apology for my refusal to back down and admit that I was wrong, but on mature reflection I have decided I was right, so it's a plea for forgiveness for being obnoxious instead.]

I am Jewish enough to think of chicken soup as a panacea for all ills, so when my Taste-tester had toothache, I rushed around armed with my pharmacopeia of chicken stock, noodles, chilli and coriander (I’m only Jewish through my paternal grandmother, which gives me leeway to make Thai-based chicken soup).
Despite pressure from the Taster to use reginette (wavy-edged, half-inch wide strips of pasta) I went with Sharwoods Egg Noodles, which I cooked according to instructions without salt. First mistake. Unsalted noodles are as uninteresting as any other unsalted pasta.
Then I assumed that the red chilli I had bought from Sainsburys would be very mild, so I chopped it all up and threw it into the stock at the very beginning. Second mistake. It was so spicy that I had to fish out most of it and add lots of lemon juice and fish sauce to tone down its fieriness.
The end result was not disastrous, but oddly unbalanced. It wasn’t too hot, but the lemon juice overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the stock, while the noodles were too bland to add any bite to the soup, which was also a bit salty in itself.
Because this was in the privacy of the Tester’s home (I am normally able to restrain myself from issuing searching critiques of my cooking when other people are eating it), I launched into an analysis of the problems and pondered the solutions.
I was enjoying myself, pontificating away as I considered the flavours in my mouth and imagined how they could be re-balanced, when the Taster jumped up and produced a book of noodle recipes for consultation.
For some reason, this eminently sensible action infuriated me, so I said scornful and illogical things about how pointless recipes were for such a simple dish, preached lofty ideals of allowing due weight to the sensory experience and ended up with almost a serious row on our hands.
His contention was that looking at other recipes would help me think about how I could improve my soup. I countered that it was futile to look at other people’s idea of what you should do with these simple ingredients in order to produce my own ideal. (Among other arguments against recipes that I won’t bore you with, and which anyway I would rather forget.)
In the calm light of day (and stuck in an oven-like office with only mind-numbingly dull work to do for the next couple of hours), I decided to be mature, climb down and look at alternative recipes for inspiration on how to improve my own technique.
And whaddayou know? The many recipes all aimed to achieve entirely different things with their chicken noodle soup, and were no help to me at all in thinking about my own recipe.

So here for the record is how I think I should have done it last night:

Chicken noodle broth for two

2 servings thin egg noodles
750ml chicken stock (I buy Joubere Organic stock when I don’t have enough of my own in the freezer)
a couple of scallions, chopped (reserve some of the green tips for garnish)
a stick of lemongrass, chopped into four cm lengths and bruised with the back of your knife
1 chicken breast, finely sliced
1 red chilli, sliced (and deseeded if necessary – the only way I know to find out if it is is to taste it, a risky strategy)
a squeeze of lemon juice
coriander, chopped

Boil some water, salt it generously and cook the noodles according to instructions. Meanwhile, put the stock, scallions and lemongrass into your soup pan and bring to a gentle boil. Add the chicken and cook till done, which should be only a few minutes. Just before it is done, add the chilli and the lemon juice, tasting to make sure you don’t overdo the lemon.
By this time the noodles are probably done. Strain them, refresh them in cold water and divide them between two soup bowls. Pour the broth over them, making sure the chicken gets shared out fairly. Add the chopped coriander and scallion tips as garnish.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monaco - third circle of hell

I get no sympathy when I complain that I have to spend a week in Monaco for work, but believe me when I say it's horrible. Do you like crowds of loud rich people flaunting their yachts and their diamanté sunglasses, unbelievably high prices, a dearth of taxis and temperatures in the thirties? Then you would like Monaco.
I cordially dislike all of these things (and don't start me on the investment managers I was there to interview), so I don't care for the Principality. (And I am on principal opposed to royalty, so I don't like being in a place where there are photos of a singularly unappealing prince all over the place).
The positive side is the yearly press dinner held by a company that wisely chooses good restaurants and eschews talk about work in favour of jolly conversation. Last year it was held in the Chateau du Chevre d'Or, in a delightful village half an hour from Monaco. This year the venue was more convenient (being just on top of the conference centre) but still had fabulous views.
After a week of bright sunshine, the thunder was rumbling and the heavens had opened, so we couldn’t sit outside at Zebra Square, perched atop the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco. Luckily the excellent mojitos mixed up by the bar staff consoled us while the wait staff rushed around bringing in cushions from the terrace and preparing an indoor table for our party of 12.
I love restaurants that offer an amuse-bouche, a little something that the chef has come up with to keep you going (and amused!) while you decide on your meal, so I thought I was onto a winner when the waiter at Zebra Square produced and flourished a tray in front of us.
But we all did a massive double-take when we realised that the tray held two enormous fish (one dourade and one sea-bass), as well as a large lobster. One of my companions shrieked as the lobster waved a claw at us – this was the specials list.
Once we had been introduced to our food, we sat back and waited for the antipasto misto to appear. Bresaola and parmesan was excellent, although the chiffonade of parma ham was less than exciting (am I the only one who thinks Spanish jamon iberico is more than its equal?), as was the mozzarella and tomato salad. Making up for this was the pungent octupus salad and the fried calamari with a soy-based dip with an entirely unexpected chilli kick. All of these were served together on luxuriant beds of rocket, which got nibbled up as we awaited our main course.
None of us had been quite brave enough to demand the sacrifice of the friendly lobster, but my giant prawns were large enough to terrify a small child. With prawns, the rule is usually the smaller the sweeter, the larger the meatier. These were no exception, being very butch in flavour, but the rice and vegetables they came with did not live up to their company, being quiet and possibly subtle – next to the prawn monsters it was hard to tell.
Three of my companions had asked for the dourade to be served up between them, and it was reported to be delicious – it certainly smelt excellent – while no complaint was heard about the steak served variously rare and medium.
A couple of months ago, my low expectations of Italian cheese had been confounded by an excellent cheeseboard in a London restaurant, so Zebra Square’s ebullient waiter found it easy to persuade me that it was worth another try. Alas, my original opinion of Italian cheese – that it is soft and smooth and bland – was reinforced by the Taleggio, Dolcelatte and other unidentifiable smooth cheese that came in place of the promised Parmesan and Asiago.
Other diners claimed that their desserts (spiced pear compote, crème brulée, something chocolatey) were excellent. The final civilised touch came when the waiters cleared away the table cloth with the debris so we could sit over our coffee and liqueurs in comfort.
(Supporters of Italian cheese will be happy to hear that back in London, La Fromagerie supplied me with an excellent wine-washed Ubriaco that proves that Italy can produce something interesting other than Parmesan.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Coronation Chicken

I thought it might be interesting for some people to see the recipes from the menu at my mother’s birthday lunch:

In some circles, (middle English Daily Telegraph-reading classes, I believe) , Coronation Chicken is no longer acceptable because it is such a cliché for the buffet lunch, but it is my mother’s favourite party food, so the birthday girl had her way. It is also entirely possible that it has been resurrected in the way that prawn cocktails and melon balls have recently been. “Ironically” - you have to say it like that, making little quote marks with your fingers to emphasise how ironic it is. I assume it was invented in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the UK, but would be delighted to be put right.

This is the recipe my mother uses, as copied from her hand-written cookbook:

Coronation Chicken, (Rita Cassels)

Rice salad:
1 lb rice, cooked and dressed with olive oil and wine vinegar dressing while hot. I add frozen peas at this point, then sweetcorn, celery, peppers etc.

Coronation chicken:
1 cooked, chopped chicken.

2 onions
2 apples
3 tsp curry powder
2 tbsp apricot jam
1 glass red wine
bay leaf
150ml chicken stock
3 tbsp tomato purée

To add when cold:
1/2 pt cream, whipped
5 tablespoons mayonnaise

Fry onions, add other sauce ingredients and simmer 20 mins.
Cool and then stir in cream and mayonnaise and chicken.
Decorate with grapes and toasted almonds and serve on ring of rice salad.

For silent vegetarians

The vegetarian dish was an old standby of mine from years ago when I was less ambitious in the kitchen and had more vegetarian friends. It is from a Madhur Jaffreyy cookbook originally, but I was introduced to it by a very silent tutorial partner at university, who had devised several shortcuts. Years of experiment led me to the realisation that the times given were based on rather tougher versions of chickpeas and bulghur wheat than I usually use, so I have further tweaked the timings and added a couple of extra twiddles of my own.

Charlotte Smith’s bulghur wheat with chickpeas and tomatoes:

4 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tin tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, drained
1/2 tsp + 3/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 cup bulghur wheat
lemon slices
more parsley to garnish

Heat the oil in a large pan with a tight-fitting lid. Fry the onions until soft, then add tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add chickpeas, 1/2tsp salt and minced parsley, and cook for ten minutes on a low heat, stirring gently. Add bulghur wheat, 1 cup of water and 3/4 tsp salt. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn heat down very low and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the flame, remove lid and cover pan wth a clean tea-towel. Replace lid and let sit for ten minutes. Stir in generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper and serve garnished with parsley and slices of lemon to squeeze over it.

Granny Grene Chocolate Cake

I have mentioned the inevitability of the Granny Grene Chocolate Cake as a birthday cake elsewhere, so here is the recipe, adapted for cupcakes. If you want to make a layer cake, use two 8 inch sandwich pans, bake for 35 minutes and use 4 ounces of butter as a base for the icing, which goes in the middle, on top and ROUND THE SIDES.
In any case, decorate with Smarties!

Please bear in mind that the recipe is American - measurements are given by volume and the cups are a bit smaller than European cups. I recommend investing a small amount in a Tala measure - I use mine all the time.

Granny Grene Chocolate Cake
Cupcake version

1/4 lb butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/3 cup plain flour
1/3 cup cocoa
1 2/3 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla essence (optional)

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4, 350° C.
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add dry ingredients, alternately with milk.
Put in bun cases - about one tablespoon of batter in each. Makes about 30 cupcakes.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes - or less, depending on your oven!

Chocolate butter icing:
Cream butter and caster sugar and add cocoa. Adjust amounts of cocoa and sugar to taste. You can add a liquid such as milk, cream, whiskey or whatever flavour you like.
I think about two and half or three ounces of butter is sufficient, then the amount of sugar and cocoa is entirely a matter of your own taste. You can substitute icing sugar for caster if you prefer smooth to crunchy icing.

Some people would recommend icing half the cupcakes with chocolate butter icing and the other half with orange butter icing, which is very simply butter and sugar creamed and flavoured with orange juice and a little orange zest.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A big birthday lunch

A couple of weeks ago, my mother turned sixty. Although she has always been vague about her age, this has never been due to vanity (she is even more vague about her children’s ages), so she decided to hold a party for the occasion.
Naturally I saw this mostly as an opportunity to gain experience in catering for large numbers. The main problem was trying to find out how large those numbers were, and then to work out what the appropriate scale of catering would be.
My mother invited everyone she knew, or at least everyone whose contact details she had, but was very vague about how many that was and even more so about how many were likely to turn up. It turned out that our original guess of something between 100 and 120, based on a number of rules of thumb and a wild stab in the dark, was not bad - 128 plates were used for the main course.
What is the biggest number of people you have ever cooked for? Up to about 12 seems to work by regular maths, where the recipe gives a good enough guideline. After that, the law of large numbers apparently takes hold and people eat different amounts and expect different choices to be offered.
Amounts for the canapés to go with the champagne were easy enough to estimate, as most recipe books give guidelines (we went with three per person, which was not inadequate), but once you’re into the main course, guidance is hard to find.
We went the cold buffet route, laying food out on trestle tables in the barn (my parents still live on the farm where I grew up). There were three main course options: coronation chicken, which my mother made, mixing it up in a huge black bin purchased for the occasion, smoked trout fillets, and a vegetarian option. My parents, who are abstemious types themselves, assumed that everyone would choose one of these and take a reasonably small portion. Just half the hundred available trout fillets available were put out and I was instructed to keep the vegetarian option small. Since to my knowledge just one non-meat eater was expected, I merely made enough for twenty.
The four salads I made in slightly larger proportions - enough for perhaps thirty each - and my mother at the last minute decided that, as a special treat for herself, she would make egg mayonnaise. In the couple of days running up to the party, everyone kept trying to lighten her load by offering to make the mayonnaise, until she pointed out huffily that she enjoyed this particular task. Adventurously, she decided to trust Julia Child’s unlikely instruction that eggs may be hard-boiled in large quantities in a pressure cooker. This worked extremely well, with just one cracking in a dozen of dozens, although the egg yolks did discolour, despite Child’s assurances that they wouldn’t.
I’m sure any experienced caterer reading this will have worked out already that we were cutting the amounts very fine, especially given most people’s propensity, when faced with three main course options, to take some of each. Luckily I saw the one vegetarian standing in line just before the last portion of chickpeas was taken, so I jumped her to the head of the queue.
The next course of raspberries and cream was simplicity itself to serve, although again the amounts were not particularly generous. Cream does not get whipped up in a trice, so latecomers had to put up with pouring cream, while the extra meringues that we afterwards found hiding in a tin would probably also have been welcomed. Twenty pounds of raspberries disappeared in approximately 15 minutes, which implies that our guests were not only appreciative but also very efficient in serving themselves in the not particularly spacious room where we had set out dessert.
Cheese went down very well with those who found it, although this was the one area in which we over-catered (it is no coincidence that it was also the only area for which I was solely responsible). I have written in more detail about the cheese in a separate post!
Finally, there was birthday cake. In my family, birthday cake is practically by definition a chocolate cake made to my grandmother’s recipe and decorated with Smarties. The only concession I have made to advancing age is to make the cake into cupcakes, which I think are more elegant to serve and eat, as well as providing smaller portions for those of us who no longer want to stuff our faces to the point of nausea.
So for my mother’s sixtieth, it seemed appropriate to make sixty cupcakes, especially as she had rejected the idea of candles. Then of course I had to double that to ensure that every guest could have one if they so wished. One of my sisters arranged exactly sixty of them to form the digits 60, although as we are not a family that are good at ceremony or co-ordination, greedy guests were allowed to start eating them before we had a chance to have a proper embarassing communal singing of Happy Birthday and appreciating all my hard work!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Food you don't want to eat

Dinner invitations (particularly business ones) are often accompanied by the query: "Is there anything you don't eat?" My answer to this has always been "Liver", on the assumption that no host would be so cruel as to serve kidneys or heart without warning. It's the combination of the almost bitter flavour and the grainy smoothness of the texture that is so unappetising; grainy smoothness is not an oxymoron in this case, because what is objectionable is the way that it melts in your mouth, coating it entirely with the tiny nodules of ultra-meaty dark flavour. Yeuch.
Recently (and partly inspired by Jeffrey Steingarten's 'The Man who Ate Everything'), I decided that I had to learn to love liver. Mostly I've been doing this by thinking how much I admire and respect Fergus Henderson of St John, whose motto "Nose to Tail Eating" does so much to amuse and disgust the fainthearted and weakstomached.
Last weekend I got to my local butcher's and realised that I didn't have any meals coming up that could legitimately involve delicious roasts or huge stews. Pondering the best cut for a single eater, I realised that a truly dedicated foodie would use this opportunity to experiment with liver. (And the advantage of doing this on my own would be that I could always throw it out and order pizza if it was too disgusting).
So I bought a small amount of lamb's liver, on the assumption that it would be less strong and liver-like than calves' liver, and took it home. An afternoon with my cookbooks produced mostly recipes for liver and onions or liver and bacon, most of which seemed to be predicated on the assumption that one likes liver (bizarre). I did find one recipe for sweet and sour liver, which sounded like it might be less offal than the others, so that was what I went with.
I managed to quell the nausea induced by handling the liver - just don't think about your own liver inside you, is my tip - and served up something that was definitely edible. Let's not get carried away here, the mushroooms that I experimentally fried with fenugreek, cumin and chilli were much nicer, but I didn't gag once while eating the liver. In fact, I might even consider trying again with a less cowardly recipe, but just don't expect me to salivate!

[This post is specially for my cousin Ed, who's not able to eat much at the moment. I thought it might be nice for him to read about disgusting food.]