Monday, March 26, 2007

Artichokes. Because I can't think of any more inspring a title.

Two ways to skin an artichoke, courtesy of Google video.

Catalan style and footage from the vegetable market in Venice. In the market, they leave the top on, apparently. Presumably the tops are cut off at home. Ditto the final trimming of the leaves, and scooping out the furry choke. Guv'nor. Sorry. Gorgeous knifework though.

Chuck them into acidulated water, with the lemon husks. And rub the artichokes with lemon while prepping to prevent discolouring.

The Seattle times have a worthwhile AV presentation, to initiate ingenues like me into the arcane mysteries of artichoke prep, with clear instructions on how to prepare one. As a rider to this, there are other ways. With especially good artichokes, about an inch and a half of the stem can be kept attatched, peeled back to the whitish core, and pared to a point, and this can be boiled, sauteed, or fried. But the artichokes have to be particularly good for this. Apparently.

Last time I cooked them, I prepped as above - but without the stems. I boiled them in salted water for 30 minutes, then drained, cooled and patted them dry. Sliced them up into fours, and dipped them in flour and then egg, deep fried them, and served with a generous squeeze of lemon and some black pepper, along with some similarly cooked fennel - boiled, quartered, fried, and lemoned. Gorgeous.

That said, I'm far from an expert.

Thanks to both RandomGrub and Bibliocook for the links.

Homecured bacon. Do or die. Do and die. Whatever.

Time to try some freshly cured bacon. Took the pork belly out from under the covers on day 4. I had to rub in some new cure (sea salt, light muscavado, and fresh bay leaves) on Saturday morning and on Sunday, and drained the runoff liquid every morning. Otherwise, I just left it covered in a ceramic dish untouched until this evening, washed the excess cure off under the tap, and patted dry.

This should keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge - the 10 day cure, though salty as hell, apparently, will keep for a couple of months.

I guess I could dry air curing it as well....

Still. Time will tell. If I suddenly stop posting, I guess I'm dead.

Served up four thick cut slices on some of that pasta dura bread, with butter 9click on the pic for a larger shot). Its quite salty - too salty to eat often, (apparently a quick soak would sort that out ) but as is, it would be excellent as a flavouring for sauces and soups. That said, the taste is excellent. The bay comes through just strongly enough to add an extra dimension to the taste. Looking forward to mixing in some junipers, or smoking some. The texture is fantastic - it just falls apart. On the pan, it cooks without the hissyfit spitting of commercial cures, and holds it shape very well.

The odd thing is that, without the saltpetre, the meats cooks to an odd grey colour. But a minute or so more on the pan sears some colour into it.

Well worth the effort. Damned easy to do. And cheaper than a packet of Dennys. Wonder how my cholesterol test next week will work out.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ranelagh market

Quick visit to Ranelagh Farmers market this morning, just before 11 am. There were fewer stalls than normal, but it was only about 40 minutes after opening, much earlier than I normally attend. Still, sun shining, the smell of fresh loaves, pastries, vinegared peppers. A fine way to start a Sunday morning.

The guys from the Soul Bakery were there. I picked up a Pasta Dura bread, a snip at €3, and barely resisted a Foccacia, another bargain at €4. The Dura will last the rest of the week, and their bread is, I think, far superior to any of the more standard, and more expensive (by weight) supermarket varieties - La Brea, Blazing Salads et al. The pasta dura is thickly coated with a layer of flour, and sometimes quite crusty to the touch. Internally light - perfect for smearing with oil and/or garlic, and excellent toasted with mozzarella, or goats cheese. A fine, every day, versatile bread. And the guy on the stall is always a pleasure to deal with.

The Foccacia is generally beautifully moist, and utterly impossible to resist in passing. The toppings fresh, generous, and lusciously delicious. I've been know to tear through one casually in the course of a day while supposedly doing other things, or eat one up as a portable lunch every day until finished. 3 or 4 of their Foccacias largely got me through the intensive TEFL course I did last year, and many a workday since.

Odd experience on leaving the market though. I stopped off at the organic butcher who sets up in his mobile stall out front of the school that holds the market, to check the price and availability of pork belly with him.

"He's a butcher" I thought. "Right up his alley" I thought. "Happy to get rid of it" I contentedly burbled to myself, like the enigmatically and incorrigably knaive kind of idiot I'm discovering myself to be. "Content to accept legal tender in return for goods or services" was the foolish and terminal end to this willfully fantastical train of self deception.

"Do you stock pork bellies at all?"

I'm fairly sure I didn't ask permission to bugger his son. I'd be surprised if I did. A churlishly slack jawed troll of a thing, whose astonishment at my request, for pork bellies, was only matched by his fathers bizarelly venomous and bucolically ginger bewilderment. Somewhere along the line, though, buggery must have been mentioned by someone. Possibly the batty old dear who was in the queue before me. Possibly by the son. Its the only possible explanation for the wildly rabid and cod eyed incomprehension I encountered. I think he actually spluttered when I asked how much, before, eventually, croaking out the price in a "what are you doing with my wife" kind of bark.

13 euros a kilo is a bit steep for either pork bellies or sons, I have to admit.

"Could I possibly order some, at some stage?"

"I suppose we might be able to get it for you if you ordered it." was the nail in the conversational coffin (till fairly sure we're talking about pork bellies here), tone redolent of banjo twanging, dungarees, and the more jealous strains of cousin love, a tone that said "I don't want you to ask for the thing you just asked for."

I think if I'd asked for ham hocks, he would've come across the counter at me.

Disclaimer: Any butchers mentioned do not necessarily love their cousins more than is customary.
No offence is intended to anyone red haired living or dead. Apart form the bucolically so.
Any similarity to butcher son buggerers, living or dead, is entirely unexpected.

Fallon & Byrne, cellar wine bar

On our first visit we drank a 2003 Waterford Shiraz, from Stellenbosch on the waitresses recommendation, to accompany a baked Mont D'or cheese. The wine was unfortunately perfect. A frustrating depth of finish, complexity, with enough body to complement the dish. The ideal accompaniment to a dish that took 25 minutes to never arrive.

Two thirds of the way through the bottle, the waitress told us that they were out of stock. 25 minutes after ordering. Precisely the time it takes to bake Mont D'or. According to the now suddenly shifty waitress, the kitchen had spent the intervening 25 minutes feverishly ransacking the store cupboards looking for a small round menu-mentioned Mont D'or cheese. And the foodhall. Everywhere. Feverishly. Ransacked they did. She was a tad nervous.
It seemed much more likely that the order was placed, and, 25 minutes later when she went to pick up, suddenly clocked that it was off the menu. And panicked.

The waitresses considerable and well expressed expertise, delivered with genuine love for her subject was utterly undermined by the oversight. And the fact that she thought we were idiots.

Much better to admit the screwup straight off, and treat us as plausibly intelligent entities - We're out of stock. We should have told you thirty minutes ago. Here's what we're going to do to make it up.

This has been symptomatic of my experience of the cellar in Fallon and Byrne. Occasionally peerless service and expertise utterly undermined by blinding instances of inexcusable incompetence.

Another example. Asking for the name of a particular cheese on the plate we had ordered - that tasted and looked like a hard, brine washed, mature sheep's cheese, the waiter quite happily informed us, with the sublime confidence of the unassumingly moronic, that it was brie. I felt like his look of studied insouciance was intended to insult me. We both knew he was lying. We both knew he didn't know the answer. And we both knew he desperately hoped that I didn't know any better than he did. He then shiftily sidled off, hoping to escape before the dairy rubes at the table somehow rumbled his cunning soft cheese ploy.

Different evening, similar experience. A good recommendation on the first wine, involving two wine waiters conferring, and giving an educational precis of the two wines we had chosen. One of them came off break. Amazing. Perfect. Astounding.

On the second wine, moving from Amarone Serego Alighieri to an Australian Syrah, our request for new glasses went unheard. We had given up on the water we had requested. Which then arrived instead of glasses. And our food, all cold dishes, arrived over the course of 15 minutes. I've worked in kitchens. You have to try to fuck up the timing on antipasti. It's like syncopated jazz and cubism. It looks like any idiot could actuallydo it, but you have to be a special kind of idiot, a natural and pugnacious savant of ineptitude, or a true and malicious genius to pull it off. And some malicious genius in the kitchhen was hunched malevolently over the salad counter cranking out plates full of hate.

Either that, or the starter chef upstairs is a peculiarly talented natural moron.

When the new glasses did arrive the waiter left everything else on the table - the finished food platters and plates, the old glasses, the empty bottle, and the cutlery. Leaving us fumbling through a crowded tablescape of dinnerware, a jungle of the damn stuff. I think we lost the new girl in there somewhere.

The bill was wrong.

On finally re-encountering our original waiter, the level of service we had initially encountered resurfaced - the cracks in the evening were effortlessly glossed over in the subtlest of fashions. A discount. And he had the professional good grace to not draw attention to it. Perfect. He even seemed embarrassed. We tipped him personally. He was that good.

And this is my main problem with Fallon and Byrne at present. The inconsistency. The early evening staff, circa 5 o'clock, seem to be excellent. And its this level of service that the wine prices, quality and range require. But the staff coming on later to deal with the extra clientele are absolutely terrible. I can handle inexperience, and I can accept lack of expertise. A conscientious waiter can find ways around these as part of the learning experience. But a really bad waiter has to exert effort to achieve the type of experience recently foisted upon me in the name of making a profit.

And its the cannon fodder they use to shore up the late evening rush with that ruin the experience.

Friday, March 23, 2007

La Zucca Restaurant, Venice

Tucked away in a corner of the Sestiere San Polo , by the small, Ponte del Megio is La Zucca (literally, "The Pumpkin") restaurant. The canal side location is off the beaten track, and, for Venice, pleasantly quieter than the more popular sections of the city (though our visit was in January). The closest vaporetto stop, about 5 minutes walk, is the San Stea stop.

On our walk there we passed through residential areas, with working boats tied up in small backwater canals, washing hung out to dry from windows, local people walking, talking, eating and drinking, dogs fighting, teams of effortlessly machismo council workers arguing contentedly about heavy machinery...the everyday stuff a world away from where we were staying. The walk alone is worth it to see another side of the city...

La Zucca touted in the guides as a vegetarian restaurant, but, in fact has a mixed menu with fish, meat, vegetarian and some vegan dishes, reasonably priced, with a modest but accomplished winelist. I was there with the gorgeous, and directionally capable, C, and we both cursed finding the restaurant so late in our stay.

The emphasis is on seasonal ingredients - which typically includes preserved vegetables, pickled artichokes and peppers - and innovative cuisine. The Italians patronising the restaurant - mixed in with Americans, British, French and the gorgeous C and I - seemed to find some of the menu odd, unexpected, unusual, but soon settled down to an enjoyable meal.

We had 2 antipasti, 2 primi piatti with side dishes, and two desserts, and the restaurant was fine with us ordering a la carte.

The tagliatelle con carciofi e pecorino was good, not excellent, but good. Perhaps a little too understated and subdued. However the sgombro affumicato con patate limone (smoked mackerel with lemon potatoes) was amazing. An eye opener. A genuine epicurean surprise. The lemon potatoes were soft, moist, and beautifuly flavoured, lacking the bitterness I expected (salt preserved lemons?), and the smoked mackerel was delicate, and dissolved deliciously on the palate. The best smoked mackerel I have ever tasted. Simple food, expertly prepared. The zucca flan, a sweet, light, and entirely unexpected delight was made by someone with a passion equal to their expertise. It was, for me, one of the most interesting food moments of the past several years.

Dessert was a chocolate mousse - light, rich, deep and delicious, that type of dessert that in its turn swallows you with itself, I felt entombed in taste and love and chocolate, and, I think, a hazlenut semifreddo, - again light, intelligent, and delicate which the gorgeous C enjoyed immensely.

With a half bottle of house red, a half bottle of mineral water and a cappucino, the bill, with service came to circa €50. Almost more surprising than the flan.

Service was good, though difficult to get when busy - perhaps due to the small staff. Actually, for €50 the service was excellent. Presentation was uninspired. Which, to be honest, in no sense marred the experience. Reservations (tel (041) 52 41 570) are recommended, one day in advance, and on both our trips, the waiters spoke english.

And it was, by far, the best food we had in our week in Venice. Go there. Talk to the cultured American aesthete in the corner if he's in situ, and listen to his recommendations. Dress well, eat well, and enjoy.

Homemade bacon

Largely because I had a fever, dizziness and some sort of viral infection. I came back from my shopping run with some belly of pork, some milk, a pot of jam and a loaf of bread.

And a quarter pound of beef.

As I said. I had a fever.

So, I googled an old recipe I'd read a couple of months ago in the Guardian, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. For home cured bacon. The picture to the right is of the prepared belly of pork, rubbed in coarse sea-salt, light muscavado sugar and fresh bay leaves (once again, thanks to the gorgeous C). I think I'll try a three day cure, and then adjust the measures as necessary. I've also used a coarse French sea salt, and, depending on how well it cures, I might try a fine salt next.

Still. I like the idea of home-curing bacon. I like the idea of home-curing an organic pork belly even more. So I guess this project will run and run.

I'll post a photo and taste test of the finished product. By taste test I mean bacon buttie. We'll see how the bugger tastes in some batch, swimming with butter. Or, more seriously, an amatriciana. Should be on Sunday night.

And to extend the activity, I've picked up a couple of American style cures, involving cold and hot smoking. So building a smoker is a definite summer project. Any ideas, oe links to dustbin smokers are welcome.

The Cook and The Gardener

Most of the rest of the Patricks day dinner comes from a book I bought recently - The Cook and The Gardener by Amanda Hesser (the link opens up a sample section from the book, with the
Creamy Leeks recipe).

The shallots (see right) - roasted for several hours in olive oil, rosemary and thyme, and finished off with some balsamic vinegar and garlic, the confit, and the salads - all come from the book.

The confit - red wine, onions, thyme and sugar - was a little too sweet, a little lacking in depth for my taste. I should have salted it more, and used more thyme, and less sugar, perhaps even none. Tricky stuff thyme.

I can unequivocally recommend the book to anyone interested in food, cooking or produce gardening. It's arranged by month, spanning a year from March to February, and the recipes are arranged seasonally. Hesser spends a year cooking almost exclusively from the garden attached to the chateau she is working in, and the recipes have the edge of functionality and creative necessity of a working chef.

At the beginning of each month is an introduction - to whats good this month, to why, to how and for how long. The recipes are interspersed with anecdotes from Hesser's sometimes fraught, or distant, or increasingly amicable relationship with the staunchly Burgundian Monsiuer Milbert, and as Hesser gradually becomes included in the secret life of the garden and Monsieur Milbert, so the book opens up and delivers of itself.

Hesser's knowledge of the garden becomes more profound, as Milbert begins to gruffly impart his entirely practical and seasoned expertise to her, of how and when to harvest food, of why the strength of herbs change, and how to recognise that, of how to judge the freshest, best food. Her descriptions, forged under the gruff tutelage of this septuagenarian cerberus of the walled garden, of what to look for in fresh fruit and vegetables are worth the asking price for any amateur chef. This movement becomes reflected in how she talks about the food, how she cooks, how she plans. The food is drenched in Southern French sun, in necessity, in brief, passing harvests, in the character of Monsieur Milbert.

Its a book made with love by someone honestly sharing their sense of initiation and surprise with the reader. And it is a book about a vanishing life, shared gratefully with the reader.

And Hesser can cook. The recipes are superb.

From simplicity, excellence.

So, to begin with...

Insalata Caprese. A classic, simple, typically Italian dish. And this is its essence, and the essence of good Italian cuisine. God, and the devil, are in the ingredients.

My recipe comes from Carluccio (Complete Italian Food), a flatmate, and experience. I buy my Mozzarella di Bufala from The Best of Italy in Dublin 6. They have several excellent varieties. I buy whichever authentic one they happen to have in stock at the time (it will have a D.O.C. or D.O.P. mark on the packaging. don't buy one without this.) This is essential. It must be Bufala, it must be from South Italy, and it must be properly made - when you slice it, the interior will be quite rough and textured, and it will tend to fall apart very easily. The cut interior should resemble an onion. Liquid should seep out from the cut cheese. Taste the cheese. If it your first time tasting real Mozzarella, it should be surprising. The exterior should have no signs of discolouring - no yellowing. (A yellow cheese is too old to eat. It will smell and taste slightly rancid. Bring it back to the shop and shout a lot. Call the owner a thief. Read the link below to bone up on useful facts to hurl at the swindler behind the counter.) This is the sign of a quality mozzarella. Handmade. With pure buffalo milk. And fresh. As fresh as you can get. A quick guide to what to look for in good mozzarella is here.

The taste is rich - almost too rich, creamy, milky. The other essential ingredients are ripe, large tomatoes. Coming from Ireland, I have to compromise on these - they should be juicy plump, heavy and grown outdoors - the skins sometimes scarred slightly from cold weather. I buy the best ones I can find from our cold climate. Which means I often buy Spanish or Italian.

A good quality extra virgin olive oil. My kitchen standard is De Cecco Extra Virgin . But buy the best you can afford. I had an olive oil habit. And DeCecco is my attempt to control it. Finally, fresh Basil leaves, torn roughly by hand, freshly milled black pepper, and good quality sea salt - I've used everything from Fleur De Sel from Camargue, to Maldon Sea Salt, to cheaper Schwarz Mediterranean sea salt. At the very least, do not use table salt here.

Slice the mozzarella - ideally straight from the fridge. It gets very difficult to handle if it warms up. Chunky is better - good quality cheese will be too difficult to handle if too thin. Again, slice the whole tomatoes - I tend to go chunky here too. On a clean plate, arrange the tomatoes and mozzarella according to your aesthetic. I tend to favour making an outer ring on the plate, layering one slice of tomato on top of one slice of mozzarella and continue all the way around, and putting the bread in the centre. Drizzle with olive oil, and then sprinkle the torn basil leaves over from a height. Lightly season with salt and black pepper. Serve with slices of Italian or French bread - a good, non Cuisine de France baguette, sliced ciabatta, or a rustic country style bread. Serve immediately.

An alternative preparation is to cut the tomatoes in advance and let them drain in a plastic colander or sieve, or just on a plate - a lot of juice drains off, meaning your caprese can be left standing for a while longer. A friend from Frosinone, instead of doing this, cuts up baguette and studs the plate with small rounds before serving, and leaves the plate for 20 minutes before serving, to allow the bread to soak up the juices. Then he redrizzles with oil and serves.

Simple. Uncomplicated. And emblematic of Italian cooking. It takes ten minutes to plate an authentic taste of the south of Italy. The effort here is more in sourcing the right ingredients than improving them in any sense. And thus, from simplicity, comes excellence.

Paddys Day dinner


Insalata Caprese

Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Butter and Sage sauce

Oven Roasted Shallots with Rosemary, Thyme, Red wine and Balsamico
Red wine and Onion Confit
Baby Potatoes, fried in Aromatic Spices
Radish and Green Apple Salad, with Natural Yoghurt
Mixed Greens and Rocket Salad with a mustard and Vinegar dressing
Creamed, oven roasted leeks with warmed goats cheese and Tarragon on garlic crostini.

Gorgeous C's gorgeous lemon tart with cream and mixed fruit.
It was gorgeous. Just like C.

There were only five of us. D, with lactose intolerance, made frankly heroic inroads to absolutely everything dairy tinged. Everything. I wonder if he's still actually alive. If not, I hope he died happy. We may well have to have dinner to commemorate him. With lots of dairy. We cracked open a beautiful Italian something or other to drink....just checked the bottle - a Salice Salentino , produced by Apollonio, from Puglia, 2001. We broke into the bellini bottle just before the second course. I picked it up in Wine Buff in Sligo for €13. An excellent wine for that price - deep, rich, comparatively complex, with a flavour that develops after the initial taste. And it was strong enough to complement the more robust dishes being served.

Prep started at around 2 ish, with a 5:30 or 6 serving time - extended to an 8 o'clock start - with the seconds and mains being started or finished off (drunkenly) upstairs while people were chatting between courses.
More later.