I was tempted to title this post “F***ing fantastic garlic bread”, because when people taste it, they tend to say something along the lines of: “Cripes. This is f***ing fantastic garlic bread.” But my Mum reads this blog and has a habit of looking horrified and exclaiming: “Elizabeth!” if I so much as say “Damn” in her presence, so plain old “Garlic bread” it’ll have to be. Sorry, Mum.
I wooed a boyfriend with this stuff once (and swiftly thereafter wished I hadn’t, but that’s by the bye). It’s powerfully good; you won’t go back to shop-bought garlic bread once you’ve tried it. The trick here is to simmer the garlic in the butter to sweeten it up and release its aroma before you let it anywhere near the bread, alongside the judicious application of some herbs. Use whatever loaf you fancy here. Something reasonably open-textured to soak up all that butter is a good move. This recipe will make sufficient garlic butter to anoint a whole baguette, but you can make a smaller loaf and keep any leftover butter in the fridge for up to a week. There were just two of us eating when I made this, so I used a ciabatta and steeled myself for leftovers – if you put the remains back together into something that resembles a cut-down loaf, rewrap it in the tin foil and refrigerate, you can take the recipe from the point where you put it in the oven again the next day.
2 large, juicy heads garlic
15g fresh chives
15g fresh flat-leaf parsley
15g fresh oregano
½ teaspoon salt
Several turns of the peppermill
Peel the garlic, and use a knife to mince it until you have a heap of garlicky rubble in the middle of your chopping board.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a very low heat, and spoon the garlic into it. Allow the garlic to cook very gently in the butter for about ten minutes, until it is soft and fragrant. While the garlic is cooking, chop the herbs and put them with the salt and pepper in a bowl.
Pour the hot butter and garlic mixture over the herbs in the bowl, and stir well to combine everything. Leave at room temperature for ten minutes, then cover with cling film and move to the fridge. Refrigerate until solid. (The butter doesn’t need to be rock-hard – a couple of hours should be sufficient.)
When the butter is stiff enough to spread, warm the oven to 150ºC (300ºF).
Slice the bread and spread each side of each slice generously with the garlic butter. Reassemble the loaf, and wrap it tightly in tin foil. Bake on a metal tray for 20 minutes, and remove from the oven. Unwrap and serve piping hot. You will be unable to avoid getting garlic butter all over your chin as you eat, and possibly on your elbows, so have napkins standing by.
Pancake day is coming up on March 8. I’m all for a lovely dessert crepe, but this year, I feel like ringing the changes a bit and making pancakes a savoury course.
I’ve been obsessing a bit about Vietnamese food ever since tasting the best pho I’ve ever had in California last month. Conversations have been had on Twitter (which revealed that your best bet for a Vietnamese meal in London is probably Viet Grill in Shoreditch – I’ve not had a chance to go yet, but I’m assured by a huge number of London diners that it’s as good as you’ll find in the UK), and while mulling over just how well the Vietnamese work soup, sandwiches and other staples, it struck me that they also make a pretty damn fine savoury crepe, just right for Shrove Tuesday.
Banh xeo are a spectacularly tasty plateful, with a scattering of sweet prawns, tender onions and savoury pork – this is another use for any leftover roast belly pork you might not have got through in Monday’s stir fry – and a shatteringly crisp batter flavoured with coconut and turmeric. Rice flour is what glues the whole thing together and gives it its light crispness; despite the visual similarity to an omelette, there are no eggs in this particular pancake, which makes it a good choice if you’ve got someone who can’t eat them visiting at this time of year.
Chunks of banh xeo are traditionally eaten wrapped up in a lettuce leaf with some herbs, then dipped in a bowl of nuoc cham – a spicy, piquant, salty sauce made from fish sauce, limes, garlic and chillies. I’ve included a recipe for the sauce below. This is one of the few occasions on which an iceberg lettuce is a variety I’ll actually recommend – its texture is great here. Take the stem out with the tip of a knife and chop the lettuce in half . You can now separate the large leaves of the lettuce into cups just the right size and shape for wrapping things up in. I’ve suggested you use mint and coriander because they’re easily available in the UK, but if you can get your hands on any other Vietnamese culinary herbs, they’re wonderful here. Try Vietnamese Herbs for pictures and more information on herbs for growing and eating.
I used a 20cm non-stick frying pan to make these, and served two to each person. You’ll be working a bit of a production line, so you’re best off eating in the kitchen – serve each pancake as it comes ready, and be prepared to jump up and down a bit from the table to get the next one ready as you eat. To make eight pancakes, you’ll need:
375g rice flour
1 heaped teaspoon turmeric powder
400ml coconut milk (1 can)
400ml cold water
1 teaspoon salt
350g roast pork belly
350g raw peeled prawns
2 medium onions
Flavourless oil or (preferably) lard, especially if you can save some from roasting the pork, to fry.
1 iceberg lettuce
1 large handful fresh coriander
1 large handful fresh mint
2 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar or palm sugar
75ml fish sauce
Juice of 4 limes
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 fresh birds eye chillies
4 cloves garlic
The pancake batter needs half an hour to rest, which gives you plenty of time to get all the pancake ingredients ready to go. Everything should be chopped and positioned to cook immediately; things move quite fast once your ingredients are in the pan.
Sieve the rice flour and turmeric into a large mixing bowl with the salt. Combine the coconut milk and water in a jug and beat it into the rice flour mixture bit by bit with a hand whisk until you have a smooth batter about the texture of double cream. Set aside at room temperature to rest.
While the batter is resting, slice the pork belly into about 32 thin slices, and halve and slice the onions. To make the nuoc cham dipping sauce, pour the water, straight from the kettle, over the sugar and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Leave to one side to cook a bit while you chop the chillies and garlic, then pound them in a mortar and pestle. Add the chillies and garlic to the sugar and water with all the other liquid ingredients and put to one side until you are ready to eat. Put the lettuce leaves and herbs in a serving dish in the middle of the table.
When the batter has rested for half an hour (you can leave it for up to four hours if you want), get your frying pan as hot as you can on top of the stove, and melt a tablespoon of lard in it. Throw in four slices of pork, four prawns and a small handful of onion pieces (about a quarter of an onion), and stir-fry for a minute or two until the prawns are pink and the onion is starting to soften off. Use a ladle to pour a thin layer of the batter over the ingredients in the bottom of the pan, and scatter a small handful of beansprouts over the surface of the pancake.
Allow the pancake to sizzle away for 5-7 minutes, until the bottom is golden-brown and very crisp, and the softer top cooked through. Fold in half around the beansprouts and slide onto a plate to serve immediately, to be wrapped in pieces in the lettuce with some herbs, and dipped in the nuoc cham.
Chinese crispy belly pork, or siew yoke, is fabulous stuff, but it only stays crispy for a day or so. The day-two-wangy-crackling is, of course, also a problem with belly pork you’ve cooked in a western style, and this stir fry works really well with any leftover roast belly. You don’t need to strip the crackling off, but sadly, it will not be resurrected by any cooking method; it still tastes good, but if you’ve plenty of leftovers you might choose to remove it as I did here. Save any fat that renders out of the pork as you roast it to push the flavour of the pork in the stir fry up a notch.
Don’t keep your pot of tom yum paste (my favourite brand is Mae Ploy, which comes in a 400g tub you can keep for months in the fridge) just for tom yum soup. It makes a fantastic quick marinade for seafood, and works really well as a sauce ingredient. In this dish, it provides the spice and piquancy to make a great base for a sweet/sour style sauce, rather nicer than the mouth-puckering sort you’ll get at the local takeout because the sourness in the paste comes from lime and tamarind rather than white vinegar.
Rich pork and sweet peas work really well together. I’ve cooked this pork with sugary mange touts and sweet sugarsnap peas. If you can only get one kind of pea, substitute the other with frozen petits pois.
To serve 2-3 people, you’ll need:
500g leftover roast pork belly
200g mange tout peas
200g sugar snap peas
3 cloves garlic
10 spring onions, chopped
1 or 2 red chillies, to taste
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons tom yum paste
100ml Chinese rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
Juice of a lime
1 tablespoon rendered fat from the pork or flavourless oil to fry
Chop the pork into bite-sized pieces, and set aside. Chop the garlic finely and slice the spring onions and chillies.
Bring the pork fat or oil up to a high temperature in your wok, and throw in the garlic, chillies and spring onion with the sugar. Stir fry for about ten seconds, then add the pork to the pan with the tom yum paste, rice wine and soy sauce. Continue to stir fry for two minutes, then add the peas, pop a lid on the wok and leave to steam in the sauce for a couple of minutes while you put some rice out, until the peas are bright green and barely cooked.
Remove the stir fry to a warm serving dish, and add lime juice to taste. Serve immediately.
So now you’ve got your hands on some really fine mayonnaise, you’ll be wanting to use it to make a really fine potato salad. The ingredients list here is a simple one. Use the best waxy little potatoes you can; I used Roseval, which have a sweet, yellow flesh sometimes tinged with red rings. Pink Fir Apple, all knobbly and smooth-skinned, are another favourite, but Jersey Royals are best of all, and this is a great way to showcase their delicate flavour during their short season (around May and June). Don’t peel your potatoes or scrub off their delicate skins when you clean them; much of the potato’s flavour is held just below the skin, and the tasty skins themselves are a good source of vitamin C.
You can boil or steam your potatoes. Many varieties of new potato are perfectly happy being boiled, but if you’re not familiar with the variety you’ve chosen, steam them – they’re less likely to crack or collapse this way.
The sweet red onions in this salad should be sliced as fine as you possibly can. They’re less harsh this way, and their flavour gently infuses the whole salad. If you have a mandoline (mine, which I love and fear in equal measure, was a present from my lovely in-laws – I am pretty sure they are not trying to kill me, but that rather, they imagine I’m actually competent around razor-sharp blades), set it to slice paper-thin. If you’re using a knife, sharpen it before you start on the onion to help you slice thinly.
To make enough potato salad for a side-dish for four, you’ll need:
500g new potatoes
3 spring onions
½ red onion
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1 teaspoon nonpareil capers, drained of their vinegar
1 heaping teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped finely
Steam or boil the potatoes for 20 minutes, and allow to cool to a point where you can handle them. While the potatoes are cooling, slice the red onion into paper-thin half-moons, and chop the spring onions on the diagonal into 1cm pieces. Mix together the mayonnaise, crème fraîche, capers, mustard and parsley in a bowl.
Cut the warm potatoes into slices and toss them well with the onions in a serving bowl. Pour over the dressing, toss again and serve. You shouldn’t need any additional salt, but taste to check and season if you want to.
This is the second post in an occasional series on fundamental recipes which form the basis of a number of other dishes. The first recipe I posted was for Béchamel sauce, and I’ve gone with sauce again today. I know that making mayonnaise at home is one of those things that scares people stiff: you’ll have heard stories about it splitting and curdling from almost everyone who has made it, and most seem to avoid making it at home, relying instead on a jar of Hellman’s. It’s true that splitting can happen to the best of us (mine actually split when I was preparing this post – my own fault for taking a short-cut with the food processor), but what most people don’t seem to realise is that a split mayonnaise is the easiest thing in the world to rescue.
Mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of oil stabilised with egg yolks (raw, so the usual health warnings apply for those in at-risk groups – you know who you are), with a little lemon juice or wine vinegar. The sort of oil you use will affect the flavour; mayonnaise made with a strong-tasting olive oil, as with most European mayonnaises, will be fragrant and piquant. Sunflower oil is traditional in Russia, and gives a very different flavour. Many commercial mayonnaise manufacturers use flavourless vegetable oils and spike the finished product with sugar and other flavourings. Experiment, if you’re that way inclined – I rather enjoy a grapeseed oil mayonnaise, which has a delicate flavour and a lovely green tinge.
You’ll find yourself using mayonnaise as the basis for a huge number of other classical sauces. There’s garlicky aïoli, which becomes rouille when saffron is added. Sauce rémoulade, which you’ll find in cuisines from Denmark to Louisiana, has flavourings which vary from country to country, but which almost always include anchovy, herbs and mustard. Thick American salad dressings – ranch, Thousand Island, blue cheese – all have their beginnings in mayonnaise. Argentinian salsa golf is based around mayonnaise (and ketchup, unfortunately). One of my favourite mayonnaise-based sauces is tartare sauce (sometimes called tartar sauce); you’ll find a recipe for it below. Mayonnaise is essential in a number of sandwiches – and there are plenty of recipes from devilled eggs to potato salad which employ hearty dollops of the stuff.
I think Hellman’s mayonnaise is pretty good stuff, and if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, it’ll serve in all the recipes I mentioned above. But a home-made mayonnaise is a different thing altogether, and you may find that family members who think they don’t like mayonnaise at all will be brought round if you make your own.
Home-made mayonnaise will keep in the fridge for a week. The recipe below will make about half a pint (enough for the tartare sauce and a potato salad, for which I’ll post the recipe on Friday), but if you need more or less, reckon on using another 200ml oil per every extra egg yolk.
2 egg yolks
400ml olive oil (choose one you’d be happy to dip bread in and eat straight)
1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 large pinch salt
To whip up a bowl by hand, use a hand-whisk or electric whisk to blend the yolks, mustard, salt and vinegar in a large bowl. Whisking all the time, add the olive oil at first drip by drip, and as the mixture thickens, in a thin stream. You’ll end up with a glossy, wobbly bowlful of golden mayonnaise. Taste it – you may want to use more vinegar or salt.
You can make mayonnaise in the food processor, whizzing the yolks, mustard, salt and vinegar together, then drizzling the oil in while the blade turns. I find it’s actually less reliable this way, perhaps because unless you’re making gallons of the stuff, the machine can have trouble liaising all the ingredients right at the start, so the mixture is more likely to curdle. You’ll be able to tell – it won’t thicken, and the oil and eggs will separate. If your mayonnaise does curdle, it’s easy to rescue: just remove the curdled mixture to a jug, give it a stir and start again in a clean bowl with one new yolk and a teaspoon of mustard. Continue as you would as if you were starting from scratch, but use the curdled mixture with an additional 100ml oil instead of fresh oil.
To turn the mayonnaise into a piquant tartare sauce, you’ll need:
This is as easy as anything. Dice the cornichons as small as you can, chop the shallots into tiny pieces and dice the shallot into pieces as small as the cornichon bits. Stir all the ingredients together and chill for an hour or so before serving to allow the flavours to come together. You’re probably used to tartare sauce with fish, but it’s also very good with breaded chicken and in sandwiches.
Thanks for the emails and messages on Twitter – my Mum and Dad have finally managed to get out of Cairo, and are flying to the UK as I type. I feel as if I haven’t exhaled in a week. It’ll be good to have them home.
I met up with my most excellent Auntie L in San Jose for a couple of meals last week. Apparently she rang my Dad before seeing me to check whether it’d be OK to eat in what she terms “hole-in-the-wall joints” (like many people who read this blog, she’d somehow conceived the opinion that I don’t go to restaurants that don’t have Michelin stars). Dad, of course, said that holes in the wall were just the thing, so Auntie L and I found ourselves at Da Lat (408 E William St, 95112 San Jose. Tel (408) 294-6989) for Vietnamese noodle soup.
The Vietnamese, not content with having invented the world’s best sandwich in the banh mi, also make a contender for the world’s best soup. Pho, like so many of my favourite dishes, has a mixed heritage, with some of its roots in French (the beef, not eaten in Vietnam until the colonial era) and Chinese (the rice noodles) cuisine. The name of the dish is pronounced “fuh”, a little like the French “feu”, possibly deriving from the pot au feu that the colonial French were eating. Surprisingly, for something that tastes as if it’s been developed over centuries, it’s only been around for about a hundred years.
A good pho is all about the stock, a broth made with beef bones, browned onions and a mixture of spices, cooked over many hours. The dish succeeds or fails based on its broth, and the broth that my aunt found in a tiny, dark restaurant opposite a garage in the middle of nowhere in suburban San Jose was about as good as you’ll find anywhere. (So good, in fact, that I dropped in very quickly for another bowl on my way out of town the next day.) Get there early; the local police and fire service are based nearby, and Da Lat fills up very quickly after 12 o clock with lunching men in uniform and a huge number of local Vietnamese people.
Auntie L says that Da Lat reminds her of the restaurants we used to visit together when she lived in Malaysia, all the emphasis on the food rather than the interior. It’s clean, but the decor is ancient, and in places a bit peely in that way that formica gets after a couple of decades. It all goes to give the restaurant bundles of character, to go with the bundles of beansprouts you’ll be scattering in your pho. My aunt and I weren’t the only people doing intergenerational lunch – tucked in among all the policemen and firemen there were Vietamese grandparents spooning soup into their grandchildren, a group of old gentlemen saying something instructive in Vietnamese to two young men over a table straining to bear the weight of all the food they’d ordered, and a few mother/daughter (or possibly aunt/niece) tables.
It’s worth opening proceedings with the banh xeo, a crisp savoury crepe made with rice flour, filled with pork and prawns and studded with beansprouts and herbs. Wrap a mouthful in a piece of lettuce leaf with some of the fresh coriander and mint that has been put on the table, and dip it all in the nuoc cham, a strong, piquant sauce made from fish sauce, garlic, chillies and palm sugar. We also tried the fat, fresh battered prawns, and some spring rolls or cha gio (there’s a recipe for cha gio here on Gastronomy Domine if you fancy making your own). It’s not all soups and starters – Dr W ordered a platter of pork dishes so good that he overate quite spectacularly.
Auntie L recommends you try the Mi Da Lat Dac Biet (no 59 on the menu), a house special noodle soup that comes with a crab claw sticking out of it and plenty of pork and seafood lurking in the bottom of the bowl; she ordered it “dry”, with the soup broth on one side and the noodles in a separate bowl, which seems to be a popular way of doing things. I kept it traditional by ordering Pho Dac Biet: beef pho.
What can I say? Glorious stuff, with a broth simultaneously rich and light – it’s unusual for me to finish off a whole bowl of noodle soup, especially when it’s this big, but with the juice of a lime squirted into it, a handful of herbs stirred through and a big fist of beansprouts dolloped on top, this stuff is as good as it gets.
It’s cheap, too. That bowl of pho was only $7.95 – less than you’d spend on a meal at McDonald’s. Bring the family and eat yourself silly.
Mostly pictures today; I have a triple-whammy of jet-lag, a dose of the plague or something caught from an unsanitary bloke on the plane, and a complementary dose of blind panic about my Mum and Dad, who are stuck in Cairo. The odd text message from them is escaping Egypt, along the lines of: “Tanks outside window. Your father is having a snooze”.
I don’t usually post about restaurants more than once here, but Samurai, a little place up in South Lake Tahoe which remains one of my favourite sushi restaurants anywhere for its freshness and consistency, deserves a new post. I’ve been back to the restaurant a few times for post-skiing sushi every year since 2006, and standards at the restaurant remain as high as ever. Thanks to Geoff and Helen for being such brilliant hosts, and for making me and Dr W feel like regulars on the strength of a handful of visits separated by 12 months each year. So without further ado, some pictures. I am off to cough my lungs out and try to make a phone call to my besieged parents.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have noticed that I’m in America for a few weeks. I’ve been spending part of the time here skiing up in Lake Tahoe, an alpine lake on the border between Californa and Nevada which Mark Twain called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords”. The clear air and the long blue views up here are good for the soul, but they seem to have a curiously retarding effect on the cooking. Many of the restaurants around the lake have menus which haven’t changed in the six or so years I’ve been coming here, but that’s nothing; there are a good few menus here which don’t look to have changed since the 1960s, when many of the properties here were founded, and Frank Sinatra (who owned the Cal Neva Lodge, a hotel and casino on the north shore) and his pals Marilyn and JFK used to drop in for a steak.
Lew Mar Nel’s, at the Station House Inn in South Lake Tahoe (a note to Best Western, the owners: “The world’s largest hotel chain” is probably one of the worst tag lines you could have chosen), is one of these joints that’s been around since before they filmed the Godfather Part II a few miles up the road. Detective work centred around the drinks menu and the art on the walls (a Vesper and Dirty Martini are called Lewis and Nelson Martinis here, and splodgy oil paintings of vases of flowers on every wall have MARGIT signed assertively at the bottom right) suggest where the name might have come from back in the day, although there’s no trace of Lewis, Margit and Nelson left now besides the cocktails and pictures. The restaurant is built in a log-cabin style, with bare wood walls, a rustic log bar, and benches in the booths covered with a very slightly sticky burgundy velour. It’s all lit with wobbly orangey dimness, so any stains are well hidden. The menu is a historical record of steakhouses long vanished – all Wienerschniztel, peppercorn steaks, trout amandine and escargots – and Glenn Miller’s band warbles softly over the PA system.
This might sound charming, and I’ll admit that I was coerced in by the retro menu, but it is not an unalloyed good thing. You’re paying heftily for the privilege of taking a trip in Tahoe’s equivalent of the Mr Fusion-ised DeLorean, and while a couple of hours channeling your youthful grandmother on a slightly pissed night’s jolly might be a giggle, it’s not necessarily worth the $100+ we paid for a meal and a couple of glasses of wine, especially given the food, which was of a quality that any self-respecting 1960s chef would have drowned himself over in the lake next door.
In keeping with the retro nature of what’s on the menu is a retro method of ordering: although there are plenty of appetisers on the menu, you are presented on arrival with a cheese fondue with a hunk of bread – “fresh-baked sourdough”, they say, but it’s actually just a lump of commercial baguette par-baked in a factory somewhere else, and finished off in the kitchen – and a salad with your choice of dressing, whatever your main course choice happens to be, so those appetisers remain unexplored for all but the hungriest. The fondue is made with something the Americans seem to call cheese (at least, our waiter did), but which European visitors, or Americans who are familiar with the output of an actual cow, may balk at. It’s curious stuff; silky in the mouth with a low melting point (lower than that of, say, cheese), very salty, very umami and very rubbery when dripped on something cold and left to congeal. It is the yellow of motorway maintenance men’s jackets, and tastes almost nothing like cheese.
The compulsory salad was a high point; it’s hard to get a salad particularly wrong, and I am a fan of blue cheese dressing, which actually managed to taste cheesier than the nominally cheesy fondue. Garlic croutons appeared to have been made in the kitchen, and there was a certain charm to the moulded pyrex plate it all arrived on (I am a sucker for things which remind me of my Grandma, whose salads were lousy – getting them wrong might be hard, but she made it look effortless thanks to an addiction to Heinz salad cream – and always involved a pyrex plate).
I ordered the veal cordon bleu. When do you ever see a veal cordon bleu on a menu these days? It was overcooked and dry (the cheese and ham sandwiched inside it went some way to mitigate the dryness), and came with a little gravy boat full of what might just be the world’s worst mushroom sauce. Echoing the restaurant’s decor, this stuff was a glossy brown. And full of woody chunks of mushroom. Like the banquettes, which every now and then revealed a coin-sized spot of mystery goo to the palm you forgetfully rested on them, it was further enhanced by the occasional discovery of a slithery something on your tongue. And the flavour is hard to communicate in words, but reminded of that day when you were a kid and you confused chunks of leftover OXO cube in the kitchen for chocolate cake crumbs, surreptitiously swiped them, then honked everywhere.
I will not mention the vegetables.
Apple pie was a soggy affair, but at least it tasted of apples. I ordered an Amaretto coffee to try to drown out the memory of the mushroom sauce, and was presented with a glass full of bitter black coffee into which the waiter poured a shot. I must have looked confused, because it was only on seeing my face that he said “Would you like cream?” I said cream would be lovely. Mistake. He went to the kitchen, came back with a can of squirty cream, and depressed the nozzle over my coffee for a generous count of a whole two seconds. Then ran off.
The really weird thing about Lew Mar Nel’s is the more stratospheric bits of the wine list. They claim to have Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon for purchase in every year from 1966, the vineyard’s first year of operation; and Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve in every year from 1957 ($1500 a bottle). Someone here, pyrex plates and all, is either taking the piss, or is a giant chancer; after all, who would order a wine like that in a place like this? Apparently, the Wine Spectator has given them a nod for their list six times (although it’s unclear whether or not that happened in this century).
I’d actually suggest you pop in just to sit at the bar and soak up some of the old-time atmosphere and the bronze cowboy statues. Avoid the food, though – and let me know if you order any of those dizzying wines from the cellar. I’d be interested to hear whether or not they really exist.
I don’t know whether it’s an effect of culture or genetics, but I’ve noticed that my taste for things which are simultaneously sweet and salty is one not shared by many of my European friends. At the same time, most of my Chinese relations and friends go a bundle for the combination. So over the holidays, hanging out with my Dad and brother (who like their popcorn at the cinema to be a mixture of the salty stuff and the sweet stuff, enjoy peanut brittle, sprinkle salt on guavas and will fight over Mexican candied mango seasoned with a chilli salt), it was inevitable that the snacks which repel my Mum and husband would come out to be nibbled over the sherry.
Chinese candied olives are not something you’re likely to pick up at random while browsing the aisles if you’ve not tried them before, but they’re a great treat; if you like the salty/sweet flavour combination, I think you’ll enjoy them. “Olive” is a bit of a misnomer; they’re not the same species as European olive (Olea europaea). These fruits are Canarium alba, and raw they’re a little like an avocado in texture and flavour, but their similarity in size, shape and their slight oiliness to a European olive is so marked that they’re often mistaken for the European version, especially once processed. That processing is done by soaking the fruit in a dense sugar and salt solution, then part-drying the result. You can buy these olives cracked, so the sugary brine really permeates the flesh, or uncracked for a less intense flavour. The resulting preserve is sweet, with a bit of a salty edge, and a lovely resinous, aromatic flavour. They’re great with a strong drink.
Unfortunately, the caramel crabs I’d bought for drinky nibbles really required a very strong drink indeed before you might be able to manage to choke one down. I usually really rate candied dried fish (there’s a long Malaysian tradition of sweet, dried satay-spiced fish, tiny shrimp and cuttlefish), but this packet of Japanese baby crabs was a long way from being enjoyable. Sawagani are a tiny Japanese river crab, no bigger across the body than the tip of your finger. Some really good Japanese restaurants will drop them live into a deep fryer, and their carapace is so thin that when prepared in this way they turn out a bit like an eight-legged crisp.
Was my packet past its sell-by date? Were my crabs elderly? It’s hard to say – I don’t read any Japanese (and stupidly, I threw the packet out before I had a chance to photograph it, so I can’t ask any Japanese-speakers here to help out), but these were a horrendously fishy little morsel, the shell beneath the layer of mustardy caramel a bit like eating the glaze from your Grandma’s best porcelain. Just say no to caramel crabs. It might be worth buying a packet, though, just to serve with a beer next time you have some friends round as a practical joke.
I’ve held off for couple of weeks post-Christmas on this, because I am assuming that today is approximately the day when most of you will be getting sick of your New Year’s resolution to avoid crispy skin, potatoes softened beautifully with goose drippings, and tender forkfuls of breast meat. Everybody else should herewith bookmark this page for Christmas 2011, by which time things festive will no longer cause your gorge to rise.
A goose this large will feed six or more, although you won’t have the great buckets of leftovers that turkeys generate. (All the better, to my mind.) And it turned out superbly; I’m not sure whether this goose or the obscenely juicy brined turkey from Christmas 2008 would win in a fight. Our goose was tender and moist, filled near unto bursting (you can see the straining of the gap where it was sewed shut in the picture) with one of the best stuffings I’ve ever made, all wrapped up in a golden, crispy skin. If you do end up cooking this for a family occasion, you’ll also find yourself the proud possessor of a massive tub of goose fat to pop in the fridge. My Mum suggested turning it into a fatball for the poor starving robins in the snow. I said pshaw, and chilled it in jam jars for future potatoes.
Geese were, of course, the upper-class Christmas comestible of choice in England until being supplanted by the filthy heathen turkey from America, which Dickens did a lot to popularise by putting one on the Cratchit’s table. Medieval swanks would spend a day’s wages on a fat goose (and they are fat, even if not raised for foie – be sure to remove the lumps of poultry fat from the body cavity before you begin cooking, and render them down in a pan over a low heat for the lovely drippings), which they would roast on a spit over a fire, the skin coloured with saffron in butter for a chi-chi golden tone. The goose tradition carried on until Dickens all but killed it with A Christmas Carol. These days, we all have ovens, and you can buy Heston’s gold leaf at Waitrose instead and poke at it gently all over the bird with a soft brush, if your family is the sort that really needs impressing, but I think the skin is perfectly golden enough if you cook it using the method below.
Potato stuffing is the perfect choice for a bird as fatty as a goose. Use a fluffy, floury potato; I chose King Edwards. The potato will soak up the bird’s delicious juices in a way that will astonish you, and takes on flavour from the sage, onion and pancetta it’s mixed with, which flavours also impregnate the flesh of the goose. A couple of sweet eating apples cut into small chunks and stirred into the mixture will collapse on cooking to give the whole stuffing a very gentle background sweetness which is glorious against the rich meat. Buy the best goose you can afford; the way your bird is raised, killed and butchered really does make a difference. We had a beautiful free-range goose, good-smelling even when raw, from Franklin’s Farm, which supplies my parents’ local farmers’ market.
To serve about six people you’ll need:
A goose weighing between 5 and 6kg
1 kg King Edward potatoes
2 Granny Smith apples
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
Leaves from 1 stalk fresh rosemary
1 large handful (about 25g) sage leaves, chopped finely
1 teaspoon salt
Your goose should start off at room temperature, so make sure it’s out of the fridge for long enough to lose any chill.
Peel the potatoes, chop them into pieces about 1 inch square, and simmer them until soft (about ten minutes from the time they come to the boil if you start them off in cold water). While the potatoes are cooking, peel and core the apples, and chop them into small pieces. Peel and dice the onion.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy frying pan, and saute the onion, apple and pancetta together with the thyme and bay until the onion is soft and sweet, but not coloured (about 8 minutes – see the picture for the sort of texture you’re aiming for). Remove from the heat to a very large mixing bowl with the buttery juices.
When the potatoes are soft, drain them and add them to the mixing bowl with the rosemary, sage and salt. Stir the stuffing mixture well to make sure all the ingredients are blended.
Remove any poultry fat from inside the bird’s cavity – if you’re lucky there should be at least a couple of fist-sized white chunks in there. You can use scissors to snip it into pieces and dry-fry it over a low heat to render it down for a jar of goose fat for the fridge if you like. It goes without saying that you should remove the packet of giblets too – if you want giblet stock, simmer them without the liver (which does not make good stock) in some water. You can use that liver – my Dad and I have a bit of a tradition of chopping it up and cooking it along with some good curry paste in a little bowl sat in some water, covered with some tin foil, then spreading it on toast for Boxing Day breakfast.
Heat the oven to 225ºC.
Spoon all of the stuffing into the bird, and use stout cotton and a thick needle to sew the gap shut. If you can’t face it, you can also use skewers to secure it, but this will be much less neat. Weigh the stuffed bird and put it on a rack in a large baking tray.
Cook the goose at 225ºC for half an hour, then bring the heat down to 180ºC, taking the opportunity to pour off the fat that will have rendered out of the bird in that first hour – save it for spuds. After the initial 30 minutes at 225ºC, cook the goose at 180ºC for 30 minutes per kg stuffed weight, pouring off the fat regularly.
Check that the juices run clear by poking a skewer behind the thigh. The juices should run clear. Rest the goose for ten minutes before carving.