Gastronomic Ruminations of the Wandering Chef

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Gastronomic Ruminations of the Wandering Chef

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Prawn Risotto with Peppers, Olives and Zucchini

Simple rustic foods is often the most satisfying both to cook and to eat. Among the best of such dishes is risotto in one of its various culinary combinations. Regardless of the final flavor profile good risotto always starts with a good risotto base.

In a heavy, wide bottomed pan heat some oil, add garlic and finely diced onion to sweat before adding the abario rice and stirring it thoroughly to coat the grains with oil. Season the rice before deglazing with dry white wine and then stirring in hot, clear chicken stock to cover the rice. Only stir the rice enough so that it doesn’t stick and then reduce to the minimum possible heat and let the risotto base simmer. As it takes up the stock add more until the rice grains are tender then remove it from the heat and allow it to rest.

Meanwhile, heat some oil in a pan and add some garlic and chilli followed by a generous amount of prawns. Allow the prawns to sear quickly over a high heat before adding the thinly chopped oloives then the diced peppers and zucchini. Toss this in the pan to brown it evenly, seasoning with plenty of salt and cracked black pepper. Deglaze the pan with more wine, add the cooked risotto, a splash of tomato passata and some shredded fresh basil. Allow this to cook until it stiffens up before serving with freshly grated Grana Padano Parmesan, crusty Ciabatta bread and a large glass of Chianti.

Paring Knife

A previous post on this site on the subject of knives is so popular that it has inspired me to go into greater detail on this topic which is so close to my heart. As I said in that previous post, there are three knives that will do the bulk of the work in most kitchens. The real workhorse knife will be the broad bladed cook’s knife, a serrated edge knife is essential for sawing bread, cutting sandwiches and so on. But the first knife that most cooks will need is a paring knife.

A good paring knife will, like all good knives, have a riveted handle that fits comfortably into the palm of the hand. The blade should be a little longer than the width of the palm- too short and the edge will not be long enough to give a good clean cut and the knife will be difficult to handle, too long and the knife will be awkward. A good paring knife will have a thin, flexible blade of forged steel hard enough to sustain an enduring edge and a very sharp point.

Skill with the paring knife, turning vegetables and other decorative cuts, can really add a dimension to a dish or to the garnish of a plate and by mastering the use of the paring knife for peeling vegetables the uniform shapes and sizes required to successfully carry off many formal or complicated techniques will become habit. Many people skimp when spending money on the paring knife but purchasing a good quality blade is not really that expensive and will be a serviceable tool that the cook will use every day for the rest of their cooking lives.

Chicken Soup

I don’t think that there is a cuisine on earth that doesn’t make some sort of chicken soup. Even a half good cook can produce a chicken soup that is edible but in the hands of a talented chef this simple dish can be a satisfying symphony of flavor. This potage is the foundation of the chef’s soup making repertoire and requires all of his skills to make a good one. Good chicken soup begins with a good stock and too often not enough care is taken when it is made. Rather than just popping an old boiler in a pot of water and boiling it up for a couple of hours which produces a bitter and greasy stock, it is better to break the whole chicken into pieces and to simmer them gently with some onion, carrot, celery, parsley, garlic, peppercorns, whole cloves, bay leaves and sprigs of fresh thyme. Patiently simmer the chicken until it falls away from the bones then lift it out of the broth and set it aside to cool while you strain the stock, reserving only the liquid.

I prefer a simple recipe of vegetables and herbs with my chicken soup. I start with a small dice of onion and carrot, add a slightly larger dice of celery, turnip and potato, and finally I add sweet corn kernels and peas. Strip the meat off of the chicken bones but don’t break it up too finely. Heat some oil in a heavy bottomed soup pot and quickly sweat off the vegetables with some salt and pepper, oregano and chopped parsley. Add the chicken meat and mix through the vegetables thoroughly before covering with the reserved stock and topping up the pot with water. Simmer this for at least an hour, until the chicken begins to look shredded. Serve in deep bowls garnish with fresh julienne of spring onions.

Apple Sauce

I love apples. They are easily my favorite fruit. In the kitchen they are extremely versatile in everything from salads, sweets and savory dishes. The classic dish I suppose would be Apple Pie or perhaps Apple Crumble. Either way the success of the dish relies on the floral flavor of apples even if the spices do try to steal the show. I like to bake apples after removing the core and stuffing the fruit with brown sugar, spices and dried fruit like currants or prunes that has been reconstituted in brandy or rum. Served with custard or ice cream they make an attractive and popular sweet course.

Whenever there is roast pork on a menu the punters will invariably want their apple sauce with it and unfortunately it is often just a commercial condiment with no flavor and less character. It is so easy to make a good apple sauce that it would seem silly to buy it in and the finish that a homemade apple sauce give to a simple plate of roast pork makes it worth going to that little bit of extra effort. I like to use good sweet eating apples, my latest favorites are Pink Lady apples which are almost like a sweet Granny Smith.

Core and peel the apples and cut into quarters before putting them over a low heat with some brown sugar, a few quills of good cinnamon, a few cloves and a couple of star anise. Splash in some fresh lemon juice and a pinch of salt and allow the apples to cook covered for fifteen minutes or so. Pass the cooked apples through a fine sieve to catch the spices and any seeds and to give the sauce a fine finish. Cool the apple sauce in the fridge and if a large batch is made keep the excess in small containers in the freezer.

Watermelon, Cucumber & Wild Rocket Salad

As a chef I am called upon to create interesting new dishes but often restricted to using the same base produce to do it. One area where this is so is the cold larder, the salad corner of the kitchen. The real challenge for the salad chef is to produce fresh crisp salads that are inviting and which steer away from the suburban tomato and lettuce combinations. Often it is the unexpected combination of familiar flavors that makes the difference to a plate, lifting it to a memorable gastronomic experience. The other consideration for the cold larder chef is that the salads must be bright and colorful enough to tempt the more carnivorous diners.

I recently stumbled across a salad recipe that surprised me with the complexity of its flavor profile but which was a combination of the simplest ingredients. Dice a firm fleshed watermelon, seedless would be best, and very finely slice some red onion. To this add thin slices of continental cucumber and a handful of the freshest wild rocket. Grind a tiny amount of black pepper into the salad to support the peppery nuttiness of the rocket and carefully toss the salad until it is well mixed without breaking the delicate watermelon flesh up too much. Leave this to sit for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Watermelon Cucumber & Rocket Salad

Perfect Mashed Potato

Often the recipes that people have the least understanding of are the simple dishes that we eat every day. It is common for keen cooks to spend a lot of effort on perfecting the focus of a plate, getting a sauce exactly right, grilling the steaks correctly and then the final product is let down by something as basic as over cooked vegetables. One dish that we all cook that suffers from this inattention is mashed potato and yet it is the simplest thing to get it right every time.

When mash fails in its perfect creaminess of texture it is always either overcooked or worse, undercooked. In a pinch undercooked mashed potato can be microwaved and, with luck and a balloon whisk it might be brought back from the brink but overcooked potato will never mash well and will always end up as a sloppy unpalatable mess on the plate. It would be better to add some sautéed bacon and onions, a generous amount of chicken stock and then to blitz the potato slurry into soup- in the kitchen there are never really disasters only menu changes.

So how do we avoid these culinary traps without increasing the attention that we pay to the staple base on the evening dinner plate? Chefs rarely have time to stand over a pot of potatoes and watch them cook and neither does the domestic chef but by following a few simple principals an excellent result can be guaranteed every time. Choose large potatoes, preferably brushed rather than washed and if possible white potatoes rather than red ones. The starch content of these larger white potatoes will ensure that even if they are a bit overcooked that the resultant mash will still be reasonably stiff.

Do not cut the potatoes up too small, halves or quarters, if they are really large, is usually small enough. Too small and they will break down in the cooking water and the soup option will be the only solution. Even whole is better than small dice. The potato should be cooked in plenty of water and I like to start in very hot water with a generous amount of salt dissolved into it. Most importantly is not to cook the spuds to fast. Once they begin to boil reduce the heat and let them simmer more gently, this will cook the potatoes evenly through and make the mash more consistent in texture. Cook the spuds until a small knife penetrates right into them. Once the potatoes are cooked let them drain really well so that the surface of the potato is almost dry and a bit sticky- water only dilutes the flavor of the mash.

Finally, microwave the milk or cream to warm it up before adding it to the potatoes when mashing as it will keep the heat in the spuds, also add plenty of salt and white pepper (so you can’t see the specks). I like to use a whisk to whip my mash but a ricer or a masher is just as good. Either way really work the potato, make sure there are no unpleasant lumps and then mont the potato with knobs of soft butter to give the mash a velvety richness. If you follow this technique you potato will always be mashed to perfection.

Harissa

The photo from this weeks postaweek 2011 photo challenge inspired me to post my favorite chili recipe. Chili is one of those ingredients in cookery that is always sure to cause disputes between chefs. Some love chili some are more cautious, some chefs don’t show it the respect that such a potent flavor deserves. The active elements in chilies that make them hot are substances called capsaicinoids. Predominantly found in the small whitish seeds they are mostly flavorless and react with the pain receptors in the mouth causing perspiration and the release of endorphins and so chili eating is a stimulant to the pleasure centers in the brain. In fact capsaicinoids make the things that they are combined with taste more like themselves, lifting the entire flavor profile of any dish.

In most commercial kitchens it is most common to use chili in the form of a sambal or paste. The Indonesian dark red-umber colored Sambal Olek is the finest chili paste available in the world but it is very easy to make a chili paste from fresh Birdseye chilies that is almost as robust. But my favorite way to use these hot little chilies is to make Harissa. This traditional North African ingredient is a staple part of the diet in many places and there are as many recipes for it as there are cooks but for my own I like to develop a complex profile that will go well with a wide variety of meats or give a pasta or cous cous a real kick. I start by trimming the stalks from about half a kilo of chilies and putting them into a food processor with a dozen cloves of garlic, some salt, white pepper and ground cumin. When this is an even paste I add a large bunch of fresh coriander leaves and stems, juice from 3 or 4 lemons and enough olive oil to bring the paste together to a fairly fine consistency.

This Harissa paste will keep in jars in the refrigerator for several months (at least) and can be used to marinate chicken, fish, lamb or beef as well as added to tagines to give them the necessary heat and depth of flavor. I like to blend a tablespoon of Harissa into a dressing of olive oil and red wine vinegar to give salads a sharp finish on the palate. However you use it you just have to remember to use it carefully and don’t ever rub your eyes.

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