Gai Yang – Lao Barbecue Chicken

I hope you read through the spatchcocking instructions yesterday (my spellchecker doesn’t recognise ‘spatchcocking’, and suggests I use ‘knocking shop’ instead – honestly). If you didn’t, have a quick look, then come back here. This recipe will have you marinating a whole bird in some extravagantly delicious paste full of lemongrass, chilli and coriander, then grilling it over hot charcoal. It’s my version of a recipe that’s originally from Laos. When I lived in Paris, most weekends found me face-down in a plate of sticky rice, Ping Gai (the Laotian term for what the Thais and subsequently the Brits call Gai Yang) and Laotian wind-dried beef at Lao Lanxang (105, Avenue Ivry, 75013 Paris). This is a handsome treatment of a chicken, aromatic, sweet and smoky from the grill.

The recipe is also found in the Issan province of Thailand, and has now been subsumed into the melting pot of Thai food, so it’s in Thai restaurants that you’re most likely to find it in the UK – but if you’re intrigued by food from Laos (and you should be – it is fascinating and delicious), read Natacha du Pont de Bie’s Ant Egg Soup, a foodie backpacking travelogue with a handful of recipes at the end of each chapter that takes you all over the little country, sampling marvels like silkworm grubs, river algae and bottled chicken. The book seems to be out of print now, but there are plenty of copies available second-hand at Amazon.

To marinate a whole spatchcocked chicken (enough to serve four with rice), you’ll need:

1 stick lemongrass
5 green chillies
4 fat, juicy cloves garlic
1 large handful fresh coriander, with stems
1 in ginger, grated
1 tablespoon turmeric
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 ½ tablespoons soft brown sugar

Chop the lemongrass, chillies, garlic and coriander coarsely, and put them in a pestle and mortar. Bash and squash until you have a rough, emerald-coloured paste, as in this picture. (Don’t worry about squishing everything until it’s completely smooth – you are aiming to break the cell walls to make an aromatic paste, and this sort of texture will be fine.)

Transfer the green paste to a large bowl, big enough to fit your chicken in, and add the other ingredients. Stir well to combine all the ingredients, and slip the chicken into the bowl, turning and spooning so it’s well covered with the sauce. Refrigerate, covered, for 24 hours, turning occasionally in the marinade.

When you are ready to barbecue the chicken, bring your charcoal up to temperature and set the grill high above it. Ideally, the chicken should cook relatively slowly, to prevent the delicious skin from charring too much. The spatchcocked chicken will lie flat, which helps it cook evenly. Stand over your chicken as it grills, turning it every couple of minutes (again, this will help to avoid the skin from turning too black), and basting each time you flip the chicken over with the remaining marinade from the bowl. After 20 minutes, poke a skewer into the fattest part of the chicken at the thigh. If the juices run clear, you’re done – transfer the chicken to a plate to serve. If the juices are still pink, give the chicken another five minutes and repeat the test until you’re satisfied it’s cooked.

Serve with rice and some grilled corn cobs, drizzled with lime juice.

Star anise chicken wings

I’ve been trying very hard to find a silver lining in this economic collapse. The best I’ve been able to manage is in the fact that supermarkets are suddenly stocking more of the cheaper cuts of meat – and those cheaper, nubbly cuts, like pork belly and hock or breast of lamb, are great. They’re often fattier, tastier and altogether more fun to cook with than the clean, boneless slabs of muscle supermarkets usually fall back on.

Chicken wings are among my favourite of the nubbly bits – all that lovely, crisp skin, and the sweet little nuggets of meat, full of flavour from nestling up against the wing bone. The nice chaps at SealSaver (keep this up, fellas, and you’ll become my very best friends) have recently sent me a couple of new SealSaver vacuum canisters, which, besides increasing the storage life of foods make marinading an absolute breeze. Stick the meat and marinade mixture in a Sealsaver, pump the air out, and some magical process occurs, making the meat marinate in a fraction of the usual time. If you don’t have a SealSaver (and you should – they make life in the kitchen very easy), marinate these wings for 24 hours in the fridge. In the SealSaver, they only needed two hours – brilliant.

To make 16 wings (enough for two as a main course or four as a starter) you’ll need:

16 chicken wings, tips removed
5 tablespoons dark soy sauce
8 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons molasses
8 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
3 heaped tablespoons soft dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons sesame oil
8 star anise, 4 kept whole, 4 bashed to rubble in a mortar and pestle
Spring onion to garnish

Prick the chicken wings all over with a fork. Mix all the ingredients except the chicken wings and spring onion in a bowl, and combine the marinade with the chicken wings. If you’re using a SealSaver, marinate, refrigerated, for two hours – otherwise, marinate in the fridge for 24 hours.

Remove the wings, reserving the marinade. Bring the marinade to a low boil for two minutes. Grill the wings (use the barbecue if you possibly can – the only reason I didn’t was that it was snowing) over a slow heat for about 15-18 minutes, basting regularly with the cooked marinade and turning regularly until they are mahogany brown and crisp. Serve with more of the hot sauce and sprinkle with spring onion.

Cochinita pibil

This red-cooked Mexican pork is marinated in an acidic dressing, then cooked slowly for hours, with meltingly tender results. It’s a traditional recipe from Yucatan, where pork would be marinaded in the bitter local orange juice with achiote paste, then wrapped in banana leaves and buried in a fire pit for hours (pibil is Mayan for buried). Those of you without a handy banana tree and fire pit can make it in the oven in a dish sealed tightly with tinfoil – banana leaves, although very decorative, don’t really add any flavour, so you’re not really losing out here. The juice of bitter oranges can be approximated with a bit of vinegar and some lemon juice blended with sweet orange juice.

Unfortunately, while you can do clever conjuring tricks with your lemons, vinegar and tinfoil, there’s not really anything you can substitute for the achiote paste in this recipe. Achiote is what gives this dish its lovely red colour. It’s a made from crushed annatto seeds – in the UK you can sometimes find achiote powder (Barts make it and it’s stocked in the spices section in some supermarkets), but the paste is far preferable. The Cool Chile Company, Mexgrocer and Casa Mexico are good UK suppliers of Mexican ingredients, and will mail you some paste.

To serve four, you’ll need:

825g fat pork shoulder
3 tablespoons achiote paste
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1½ teaspoons each fennel, coriander and cumin seeds, ground in the pestle and mortar
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 crumbled bay leaf
1 teaspoon oregano
10 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
Juice of 2 oranges
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 pointy peppers
1 large onion
1 tablespoon salt

Start by chopping the pork into chunks about 3 inches square. Don’t trim the fat away – it will moisten the meat as it cooks. Put the pork in a large bowl with the herbs, spices, juices, vinegar, salt and garlic, stir well to blend all the ingredients and marinate overnight.

When you come to cook the pork, chop the onion into large chunks and brown the chunks in a dry frying pan. Chop the peppers into long strips. Spread the pork and its marinade evenly in a shallow dish, layer the onion and peppers on top, and cover tightly with a couple of pieces of tinfoil, making sure you make a good seal all around the edge of the dish. Roast on a low rack in the oven at 150°C (300°F) for three hours.

When the cooking time is up, unwrap the dish and leave to rest for ten minutes. Serve on tortillas (corn tortillas are great if you can find them – again, they’re sometimes hard to find in the UK) with guacamole, a good dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche (crème fraîche is closer to the crema you’d eat in Mexico), some fresh coriander and Mexican pickled onions. Those onions are the gorgeous pink things in the picture at the top, and they’re a traditional accompaniment for this dish – I’ll put up a recipe for them later in the week.

Herby grilled sardines – gore warning!

Those Padron peppers have got me thinking about Spain, sunny weather and booze, so last night I made a selection of tapas and a big jug of sangria to eat in the garden.

It rained, so we ate indoors.

Some fat sardines, marinaded in olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs, formed the core of the meal. (More recipes, including one for sangria, to come next week.) If you’re fortunate enough to be able to find some really fresh sardines, which are sweet and tender, this simple preparation really makes the most of them.

Sardines come with a built-in set of biological zips, and can easily be cleaned, gutted and filleted with your bare hands, without any need for a knife until you come to the end and chop the tails off. It’s all a lot less unpleasant than you might think; really fresh sardines don’t smell at all fishy, just sea-like and delicious, even when raw, and I think there’s a real satisfaction that comes from doing this kind of thing yourself.

You’ll need to start by removing the scales from the whole fish. This is very easy – just run a cold tap and gently rub the fish with your fingers under the running water. The scales will come away as you rub. They are quite large and might block the plughole in your sink – scoop them out every now and then and put them in a bowl or a bin bag at the side of the sink. You’ll need this bowl or bag to put the heads and guts in as you prepare the fish.

To gut and clean the sardine, hold the head in your dominant hand and the body in your other hand. Snap the head off downwards, towards the fish’s belly, and pull it away from the body. Most of the fish’s innards will come away easily with the head, as in the picture. You’ll find that some of the sardines are rather fuller than the others; these are the greedy or pregnant ones.

Stick a thumb into the cavity that has appeared where the guts were, and slide your thumb along the underside of the fish to open up the cavity. You’ll find the fish unzips easily up to the point about a quarter of the way from the tail where its digestive tract ends. Run the opened fish under the tap, pulling any remaining bits of gut out of the cavity, and rinse the cavity out until it is clean and no longer bloody.

Your emptied fish should look like this.

You can stop at this point, and go straight to the marinading stage if you don’t mind pulling the fish’s spine out on your plate with your knife and fork. I prefer to fillet and butterfly the fish before cooking – this means that it has the maximum surface area available to soak up the lovely marinade. Removing the backbone is, again, very easy (and probably the most zip-like bit of taking apart this strangely zip-like fish). To open the fish up, put your thumb in that cavity and push your thumb along the underside of the fish to the tail. The fish can then be laid flat on a board. Starting at the head end, pull the spine out of the fish, zip-style, and chop off the tail with a knife.

You’ll be left with some tiny, hair-thin bones in the flesh, but you can leave these alone; they are so fine that you can eat them, and they won’t prick your mouth. I like to trim the edges of the filleted pieces of fish for neatness, but you can leave them ragged if you like.

To make enough marinade for eight sardines (enough to serve two as a main course), you’ll need:

1 wineglass olive oil
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons each finely chopped parsley, oregano and basil
1 teaspoon crushed dried chilli
2 cloves garlic, crushed
8 turns of the peppermill

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large bowl and submerge the sardine fillets in the mixture, adding a little more olive oil if necessary to cover. Marinade for at least three hours.

Sprinkle the sardines with salt and cook for about three minutes per side over charcoal or under a conventional grill turned to high, starting with the fleshy side and doing the skin side last. Use a wide spatula to turn the fillets carefully – they will be quite fragile. Baste the fish with any remaining marinade as it cooks. The skin should turn crisp and golden, and start to blister slightly.

We ate this with Padron peppers, chorizo al vino (recipe to come next week), a hunk of good bread and a jug of sangria. Not quite as good as going on holiday, but close.

Honey-mustard pork steaks with onion and apple pilaf

I’m going to the US for ten days tomorrow for a friend’s wedding in MA and my first trip to New York. (Yes, I am almost pathologically excited about the restaurants.) Posts may be a bit thin on the ground while I’m away, but I’ll try to update occasionally.

Today’s recipe is a nice easy marinade for some pork shoulder steaks (a lean cut that benefits from some robust marinading), and an onion and apple pilaf to accompany them. What is it about apples and pork that works so well together? I’ve used Braeburn apples here – although they’re an eating apple rather than a cooking one, they hold their shape well when cooked, especially if you leave the skin on, and that skin is a pretty pink, so they look good too. Being an eating apple, they’re also nice and sweet, which is fantastic with the salty pork. This is an economical dish to cook for a lunch party. You can often find pork steaks on sale at a low price, and although rice is more expensive these days, it’s still not crippling. Serve alongside a nice lemony salad to cut through the sweetness.

To serve six, you’ll need:

6 pork steaks
3 heaped tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
3 heaped tablespoons runny honey
4 tablespoons light soy sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

800 g Basmati rice
2.25 litres chicken stock
2 large onions
3 Braeburn apples
5 cloves garlic
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon crushed dry chilli
8 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1 small handful parsley
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pork method
Marinade the pork in the mustard, honey, lemon, soy and olive oil overnight. Cook under a hot grill, about 7 minutes per side, basting frequently with the marinade.

Pilaf method
Slice the onions thinly. Core two of the apples and chop them into dice. Chop the garlic. Sauté the onions, garlic and apple pieces with the chillies and cinnamon stick in the olive oil and butter until soft. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and sugar with a teaspoon of salt, and allow the vinegar to bubble and reduce for thirty seconds. Tip the dry rice and the sage into the pan and stir well to make everything is mixed. Pour over the hot stock and bring to a fast boil, then immediately turn the heat down low, put the lid on and simmer gently for 12 minutes. Season to taste and dress with the remaining apple (diced or sliced – it’s up to you) and some fresh parsley.

SealSaver vacuum tubs

Finally – a gadget I really rate! If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I am not always a huge fan of gadgets in the kitchen. I know that a lot of you have limited storage space your own kitchens, and this means that owning a special great hunk of plastic and metal which is only useful for coring and peeling pineapples is an irritation rather than a help. Most kitchen tasks can be achieved with good knives; a really good grater also helps, and I will also admit the usefulness of a collection of measuring jugs and cups, and perhaps the odd silicone spatula or medical syringe.

I have welcomed another worthwhile gadget into regular use in my kitchen – and this happens very seldom. A few weeks ago, I was sent the SealSaver system: a trio of storage vessels in varying sizes with a cunning vacuum pump mechanism built into the lid. I agreed to review them, expecting to find them diverting and perhaps helpful. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with them, though; and my whirlwind affair with these plastic cylinders isn’t over yet. I’ve been marinading, brining, storing stinky things and pumping, pumping, pumping as if my life depended on it.

SealSaver tubs allow you to store foods in a vacuum, which retards spoilage, especially if you then place the tub in the fridge. You suck the air out using a sort of bellows mechanism built into the lid – everything feels very solid and well engineered. A valve pops inside-out when there is a vacuum inside the tub, and no top-up pumping is necessary. The whole assembly clips apart and can be washed in the dishwasher (hurrah!); the bowl is also microwave-safe. Storing your bits and bobs in one of these in the freezer also eliminates freezer burn. And the bowls are also thoughtfully marked with liquid measurements.

A fan of the scientific process, I carried out some experiments involving raw, chopped onions, coffee grounds and washed salad, using my usual method (bowl, cling film, fridge) as a control and comparing with the same refrigerated ingredients in the SealSaver. (Not all in the same tub.) There’s definitely something in this vacuum storage malarkey – my elderly control onion stank of brimstone after a week, while my SealSaver onion stayed fresh and lively. Coffee retained its flavour and odour for a whole week even outside the fridge, and the salad wilted long after its friend in the bowl with the cling film.

So I’m absolutely sold on the SealSaver for storage. The moment, for me at least, the tubs really came into their own was when I started dabbling with vacuum marinading and brining.

If you marinade meat in a vacuum, some magic occurs whereby the marinade is pushed into the meat in a fraction of the time it would take at normal pressure. I’m not 100% sure of the science behind this – I’ve heard explanations which have taken in expansion in the meat’s pores (pores – surely not?), crazy speedy osmosis and a kind of reverse squashing effect from the low pressure. I am still none the wiser on how it works, but I can inform you that it does work, and it works like a dream. I was able to cut down on marinading time for chicken pieces by an eighth (an hour rather than overnight), and brined a whole chicken in the largest of the three to perfection in twenty minutes. Spare ribs took half an hour. (Recipes to follow in later posts – I’ll include marinading times for those of you without a vacuum-in-a-pot.) The meats were tender and moist, and had taken up the marinade beautifully.

This is more than convenient. It’s lunch-changing. How often have you picked up a recipe, thought: ‘My, that’d be great for supper,’ and then failed to cook because it needs marinading for four hours and the family is becoming fractious and grumpy through lack of food? You can reduce those four hours to half an hour if you buy your own tubs at the SealSaver website. I heartily recommend cramming a small chicken into the largest one.

Steak rub and a new gadget

I’ve nothing very complicated to cook this evening; Christmas has reduced me to a withered husk. Those wanting to see what Christmas lunch looked like will have to wait until after the New Year, when I next see my Dad, who currently has custody of the memory card with all the photos from Christmas on it. (Stay tuned. The main course was, if I do say so myself, fantastic as only £100 of ingredients can be.)

So tonight, rather than rolling whole sirloins of beef up in herbs, making complicated things with pastry or setting fire to the fumes coming off hot Cointreau-soaked Christmas puddings, I’m just doing some steak with some chips out of the freezer. I want something easy and tasty tonight, so I’ve made a cross-continental steak rub using Asian, European and American ingredients.

I’ve mixed two tablespoons of soft brown sugar, one tablespoon of a good five-spice powder (this is from Daily Bread in Cambridge, where they mix it themselves. Its ingredients include aniseed, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and pepper), an extra tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of Maldon salt and a teaspoon of ground chipotle chilis. (I get mine in America when possible, and take it home in that bulging suitcase of contraband, but fellow Brits can buy dried chipotles online in the UK at the Cool Chile Company and grind them up in a coffee grinder or Magimix. The Cool Chile Company also do excellent chipotles in adobo and a very nice chipotle ketchup.) I then added two tablespoons of liquid smoke (also from America – if you can’t get your hands on any, use a couple of tablespoons of cooking sherry, which will taste completely different, but fantastic). I rubbed the paste into the steaks, and left them to marinade for half an hour, then drained them and fried them with diced shallots in a knob of butter for four minutes each side until medium rare. Delicious.

Those shallots are where my new gadget comes in. Among a Santa’s sack of presents from Mr Weasel’s obscenely generous family was a little package containing an Alligator Onion Cutter. I’m not usually one for single-purpose gadgets, but this device is a thing of genius.

I’ve always had a problem with onions and shallots; I’m extremely susceptible to the vapours coming off them, and usually spend half an hour at least after chopping a particularly strong one looking like I’ve just been punched in the face. Tearstains and unusual swellings are not a good look for dinner. I’ve tried the business with the swimming goggles, the trick with the teaspoon between the teeth, and chopping them underwater. None of these ideas has worked very well; I steam up, lose bits of onion and weep, weep, weep the night away.

I also suffer from pretty mediocre knife skills; I may be fast, but I’m not very tidy, and my slicing and dicing is competent but uneven.

My new onion cutter eradicates both these problems, and reduced my shallots into perfect, tiny dice in three seconds flat. No fumes. Gorgeous little cubes which make me look like I know what I’m doing with a knife. And, best of all, it rinses clean or goes happily in the dishwasher. Keep one hand over the blades while slicing to keep the onion or shallot from popping all over the working surface, and you’re away. Hurrah! My next experiment will involve a potato, the Aligator and some hot, deep fat. And some of that chipotle ketchup.