Sunday, June 24, 2007

Coq à la bière....

Taken from the Le Gavroche cookbook, courtesy of Michel Roux Jnr. A hearty, hale, robust, honourable way to present a chicken. Northern French style, peasant cooking at its robust best. If you time it right, and buy enough beer, you can also be quite drunk by the time you, and your guests, start eating.


Circa 200 g button mushrooms
1 chicken, preferably free range, organic, and yellow.
1 Bottle of beer (33cl).
1 1/2 tablespoons of brandy. Or so. ish.
200ml double Cream.
50g of chopped shallots.
1 teaspoon of brown sugar
Olive oil
1 ceramic/metal Dutch oven (I used a deep ovenproof frying pan)

Preheat your oven to Gas mark 7. Lay your chicken on one side, and drizzle with a little olive oil, and dot with butter. It's absolutely central to get the best bird you can buy. Unfortunately, I just work for a living, so I picked up a 9 quid free range chicken.

Put the chicken, on its side, uncovered, in the oven. It'll take about 40 minutes to roast. Every 10 or 15 minutes, remove the bird from the oven, baste with the juices, and change its orientation, first resting it on its other side, and finally resting on its back.
Remove from the oven, and let the chicken rest, on a plate, on its breast, so the juices percolate to the breast. Cover with some foil.

Drain off most of the fat from the chicken dish, and put it on the hob. Add some butter - the dish should be hot enough to melt the butter easily, turn on the gas, and sweat the shallots until translucent.

Add the mushrooms, and cook for about 6 minutes. Add the brandy, and deglaze the pan by scraping it thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Cook until the pan is almost dry, and then add the beer. Reduce by half. If you bough a 50 cl bottle, add quite a lot of the beer. Drink the rest while reducing. If you have had the foresight to buy more, crack them open. The complex part is done.

Add the double cream, and reduce until it is a thin, saucelike consistency.

At this stage, I normally joint the chicken roughly, place it in a serving dish, and pour over the mushrooms and sauce. If I am drunk, I get someone else to do this. Serve with...well, potatoes, mashed or roasted are fantastic. And a bottle of Erdinger.

Roux recommends a bitter beer. Personally, I've tried quite a couple. I'd avoid beers that are too hoppy, or cheap. They can leave a metallic tang aftertaste. A good quality German beer or French beer seems to work best.

Organic Food.....

Re working for a living. The price quoted at me for a good quality organic bird was €15. Shallots, organic shallots, clocked in at 7 times more expensive than from the Italian shop down the road. More and more, I'm hearing people, buyers, cooks, growers, and gardeners talk about the near impossibility of viable organic growing. Because of the difficulties inherent in certain crops, or with fertilising, or with the incredible expense at point of sale. Despite the market growing at a rapid rate, year on year, it seems likely to remain the preserve of those with a budget for what is, essentially, a luxury food.

That and the fact that there are some gougers about, and it'll be a while yet before it can impact he mainstream in any definitive way.

Pity that. When grown with care, it's amongst the best you can buy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Random mutterings of an unkempt mind....

A form of perfection. A curiously zen sense of food.

Linked from the blog of Michael Ruhlman. Must check out his book, Charcuterie. Any recommendations pro or con are entirely welcome. See edit. Below. I get to look like a complete moron, and kinda cool at the same time.

Still aspiring to be a simple craftsman here, I gotta admit. And it's a noble ambition.

Speaking of which, as my cooking continues, and I become more at ease with what I do, my food becomes increasingly characterised by simplicity. Reading recently about sushi chefs, and Japanese knives has inspired me to investigate another aspect of that simplicity.

It strikes me that simplicity is a function of excellence. The more unashamed one is of ones ingredients, and the deeper ones knowledge is of the marriage of suitable tastes and textures, the greater one revels in the simplicity of excellence. This is not, of course, the only way. I once read that French food, as inspired by the Escoffier school of cuisine, was so complex, ornate, and heavily flavoured out of fear of the base ingredient. French cuisine is in part inspired by a desire to camouflage the base tastes, and hide their essential inadequacy from the eater.

The flipside of this is, in part, that French food is almost unparalleled in its ability to render the often, in other traditions, assumedly unpalatable, quintessentially delicious. In part, a function of necessity. French peasant cuisine was predicated, for a few hundred years, on consuming the entire beast, entrails and all, from the necessity of poverty. Trust French style to make such a delicious virtue of such a necessary vice.

The soul of contemporary Italian cuisine is quite (though not universally) different. Predicated on ingredients, where, often, simplicity and knowledge, and care are the cardinal virtues. It's often a cuisine of enhancement, where the base ingredient is highlighted, its defining tastes enhanced, contrasted, and elevated to be the central tenet of each dish.

In Italian cuisine the ingredient is supreme. In French cooking, the ingredient is often the beginning, the tabula rasa, the chef is the thing. The ingredient the stage for their skill.

I need to deepen my experience and knowledge of both.

But Japanese cuisine is beginning to intrigue me. Its increasingly becoming apparent to me that I entirely do not understand it. Hearing, and watching, Rick Stein (Rick Stein and the Japanese Ambassador, BBC, to Guardian article) working with....well, watching really....a sushi chef work, it struck me how utterly ruthless high Japanese food is in its dedication to perfection. Stein was utterly awed by - and quite frank in his sense of inadequacy to replicate - the expertise so carefully displayed. We often speak of effortless expertise. But for this sushi chef, no such thing was possible. Concentration, precision, poise, balance, and an essential centredness were etched into the arch of his body, the swift soft cut, how he held himself, and remained utterly in the moment and of the place that he had to be.

Everything about him was utterly dedicated to one thing. Perfection. The design of the knives,with one cutting edge only, to minimise damage to the fish. The precision, the delicacy, the unbelievable quick and spectacularly detailed knife work. I saw him cross hatch a piece of tuna into diagonal centimetre cubes, and remake the fillet as one piece on a wooden board, intact.

Sushi simplicity seems to be of another order. Ruthless dedication to perfect ingredients. Effortful expertise. Concentration, thought, and precision. Simplicity achieved through force of will, through purposeful, consuming, concentration. Simplicity that it can take years to achieve.

Be here now.

Hell. These are the ramblings of an enthusiastic amateur, the rumbling sound of my slowing down mind thinking out loud.

PS. Link - Chef Masa assesing ten expensive knives.

Link - A brief rundown on single bevel knives, and knife types.

Edit: Being the complete moron that I occasionally am, and with a tendency to bash out late night screeds when I'm way past making any kind of sense, I got the name wrong. Michael Ruhlman. Michael. Not Mark. As pointed out to me in a recent mail. From one Michael Ruhlman. Who recommends buying the book.

And he's right.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I had a job in the great Northwest, working as a cook for a spell......

Pictured, left to right.....Mixed Green Salad, Panzanella, Ravioli with a wild mushroom crostini, Pepperonata. (am utterly hating bloggers inability to wysiwyg
pics at the mo...)

Pictured above, a quick sample of some of the food made for the recent
birthday celebrations of the Gorgeous C. With incredible luck, the weather broke
from torrential rain, to clear blue skies, and a gorgeous sun that lasted from
afternoon through to sunset. Beautiful, allowing us to dine al fresco in the
gorgeous valleys of the great northwest.

Not pictured - the gorgeous C. homemade pesto, homeade ovendried tomato pesto, potato and chilli salad...

A fantastic weekend, filled with chilled Bellinis, friends, and beuatiful weather.


Mixed Green salad.

There is a recipe for this in 12, by Tessa Kiros, but I went with what I had in the larder. 2 apples and one pear, cored and sliced, and reserved in acidulated water - water with a spot of lemon juice, to avoid discolouration.

Roast some pine nuts - until they just hint at turning brown. Normally I do this on a cast iron pan, and then spill them out into a cooled dish to halt their cooking. Chopped fresh walnuts, skinned. I dumped about half the walnuts as too bitter. Broad beans - podded, and then stripped of their bitter, outer waxy skins. Raw. Fresh (the pods should be shiny, flexible, and wet if you snap them open). Delicious. Roughly ripped/chopped lettuces - I think I went with Kos, Iceberg and.....sorry...can't quite remeber. These were all mixed together, and then doused with a balsamic vinigarette - 1 to 1, and served immediately.


A kind of Tuscan bread salad, quite simply made using two or three day old bread. My version screwed up somewhat badly - I used the wrong kind of bread, and overtoasted it, as it was fresh. Still, heres a rough and ready version...

Dice some 3 day old ciabatta, and roast quickly, drizzled with some olive oil and fresh thyme in a 180 C oven on a roasting tray. While thats roasting - for no more than 10 minutes - roughly chop some tomatoes - about halt a kilo - into quite small cubes, salt them lightly, and leave them to drain in a colander - 30 minutes or so is good.

Roughly chop a single small red onion.

Mix the bread, tomatoes, and red onion in a salad bowl. Make up the salad dressing - roughly 3 parts olive oil to 1 part red wine vinegar, and sprinkle over the salad. Serve immediately.

A little black pepper, and its ready.

Some recipes call for chopped, raw garlic, and chopped capers in addition, or roasted peppers.

Ravioli (recipe here), with just butter and lemon, and filled with spinach, nutmeg, black pepper, and the best of friends homemade goats cheese. Superb.

The crostini are simply made - some crusty white bread, rubbed with raw garlic and grilled over wood coals. Then drizzled with olive oil. Beforehand soak dried porcini in warm water for 20 minutes. Remove - reserving the water for stock, and sqeeze dry. Heat butter and oil in a cast iron pan, and flavour it with dried chilli and thyme, some salt and pepper - I use quite a bit of salt. Cook up for as long as necessary on a low heat - I cook for 12 to 15 minutes to really concentrate the flavour, and tip out onto the grilled bread. Drizzle with olive oil and then parmesan. I mixed in some standard field mushrooms to bulk it all out. I forgot my stock of dried.

Simple dish, requiring garlic, dried chilli, salt. black papper, roasted peppers (3), 1 large tomato, and diced onion. I also, occasionally, add white or red wine.

Roast your peppers - or singe over a roaring gas ring, or a grill/bar-b-q. Skin them. This is important, although its perfectly possible to make without skinning the peppers, but the intense sweetness is diluted if you don't(I didn't). Cook the peppers for longer if your are not going to skin them. Saute the finely chopped onions in some olive oil until the are just shy of lightly browning. Add some chopped garlic - 2 cloves is about right - finaly chopped, and heat sharply for 60 seconds, tossing in the oil. Add a little salt, and mix in your slice roasted peppers, cover, and put on a very low heat, stirring often for 20 minutes (30-35 if not skinned). Add a roughly chopped tomato, and stir it in, and leave, covered, on a low heat, for 20 minutes. Add a little red or white wine about 5 minutes into this is you like - a very small amoint will suffice. Uncover, mix once more, taste, and season with salt and pepper. Shred in some fresh basil. Serve.

A superb meal, sunwashed, and in the company of friends. The taste of food and heat and light and sun still linger with me, the memory of it sweeter than stewed peppers and sweet basil. Sweeter than the hyper chocolate madness we inflicted on the later cake, Sweeter than peach cocktails, and sparkling chilled prosecco.