Posts

Pickles and Pizza

I like a bit of fine dining as much as anyone, but sometimes one’s tastes run a bit more on the casual side of things. I don’t mean I ever want to eat a Prawn Ring or kebab meat again and I believe ready meals to be a waste of calories. But I do have a soft spot for the kind of comfort food that borders on junk, especially that brand of Americana popularised by Nigella recently.

So when Mister North was down recently, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge some homemade delights that would make a dietician weep. I’d been lusting after deep fried pickles ever since a Southern friend told me about them a few years back. Seeing Homesick Texan and Food Stories‘ recipes for them put them at the top of my to try list.

I dialled down the trashy vibe and put myself in the running for a pretentiousness award by growing my own gherkins and pickling them myself specially. (If this makes you eye roll at the sheer foodiness of it all, be comforted by the fact they didn’t taste that different to a Mrs Elswood.) Horticulturally experiments aside, these babies are super simple. I got cultured buttermilk in Sainsbury’s, but you could use yoghurt watered down instead. Do not feel tempted to substitute cream crackers for saltines. You’ll end up crying into your hot oil as all the moisture in your mouth evaporates. I used coarse cornmeal instead.

Heat your oil while you do the flour, egg, dip thing with the pickles. Fry for about a minute each side and then serve piping hot on the side of something delicious. In our case it was some leftover rollmops, a zingy homemade ranch style dressing with buttermilk, tarragon and garlic and a beer on the side. It was a heavenly plate of tanginess, crunch and sheer gluttony. I want to eat all gherkins in a crunchy coating now.

You’d think that plateful would have quelled our cravings for pig-out style food for the day, but you’d be wrong. About an hour later, we started getting ready to make a serious pizza for dinner. We used Marcella Hazan’s pizza dough recipe, leaving it to prove for several hours and turned our attention to the mozzarella. And I don’t just mean jiggling it about the bag in a slightly smutty fashion, I mean making it from scratch

Using some non-homogenised cow’s milk from Alham Wood Farms at Brixton Farmers’ Market, my fledgling cheese making skills, some citric acid that we explored all of Brixton for* and my trusty bottle of rennet, we created mozzarella magic. Surprisingly easy, especially if you have asbestos hands like Mister North for dipping the curds into the hot whey, we ended up with two beautiful bouncing balls of mozzarella in no time at all.

Buoyed by this, we turned to the pizza bases, lovingly dressing them with homemade sauce courtesy of Mister North and a glut of Blackpool tomatoes and an umami hit of anchovies, green olives, some of my home grown plum tomatoes and a finishing sprinkle of ham salt from Comfort and Spice. Unfortunately made giddy by the cheese achievement, we forgot to dust the worksurfaces with semolina as instructed and the bases stuck somewhat, leading to some creativity with a fishslice and a slightly concertina style pizza.

The pizza might have lacked finesse, but it was loaded with flavour. The tomatoes tasted of summer and the mozzarella was so soft and fresh I could have eaten the whole ball like an apple to fully enjoy the texture. It needed a touch more salt and I think it would have been even better with buffalo milk, but for a first go, it was pretty amazing.

We devoured the pizzas like kids at a sleepover, both wishing we’d had more of the mozzarella to do a tomato salad with or go retro and deep fry in a crispy coating like the gherkins. Instead we rounded off a day of gluttony with a cheeky bowl of Veda bread ice cream and a glass of wine or two, proving that sometimes the taste of home is all you need. Your own kitchen provides the greatest comfort.

*Try the Nour Cash and Carry if you need it Monday to Saturday and the Low Price Food & Wine on the corner of Brixton Road and Loughborough Road on a Sunday. We did the walking round so you don’t have to.

Broccoli Slaw

I haven’t seen my lovely friend A in several months as she’s been Stateside sampling lobsters and fresh corn on the Maine coast, but thanks to the power of the Internet, she has managed to give me a truly fantastic gift in the shape of this recipe for broccoli slaw from Smitten Kitchen…

Fresh and simple, it re-invented the wheel somewhat for me in how I eat my favourite vegetable. I could eat broccoli with everything including breakfast, but I had never thought to try it raw until now. And it is revolutionary. It tastes fresher, less boarding house brassica in after taste and is addictively crunchy in texture. And of course, if you’re feeling lazy, it makes it even easier to get your 5 a day than getting the steamer out and playing the waiting game.

While I was immediately interested in this lovely sounding slaw, I also automatically started making plans to change the recipe. Deb suggests using her buttermilk dressing, but after my recent buttermilk disaster, I am steering well clear of the stuff until I can find a decent source. I was also perturbed by the amount of sugar and mayonnaise in it. If I’m going to eat raw veggies I want them to be super healthy (so that I can keep my fat intake for a nice cheese elsewhere). I also don’t like dried fruit in savoury dishes and find dried cranberries to be extremely expensive. And I didn’t have any flaked almonds…

So instead I made a dressing from live yoghurt with a big splash of cider vinegar and some salt and pepper. Creamy, yet tangy it goes beautifully with the broccoli and is low fat and easy while not creating any washing up as it can be mixed straight into the slaw. I then perked it up with some thinly sliced red onion, a handful of pumpkin seeds and in a flash of inspiration, some fresh pomegranate seeds. Super healthy and incredibly pretty!

And amazingly tasty! Those little jewels of pomegranate burst on the tongue with a explosion of sweet juicy deliciousness, the onion crunches with taste and the pumpkin seeds add extra taste filled texture to the mix of vegetables and the whole thing is just perfect!

I have made this six or seven times since getting the recipe just under a fortnight ago. I’ve eaten it on its own, with a steak, with a stew and with an avocado salad. I made it for the lunch at the most recent Invisible Food Walk and it went down a storm, even with the littlest walkers who loved the colours and textures. I just can’t get enough of this fresh feast and even though I will probably make myself ill by eating too much of it in the future, I can’t urge you enough to try this.

Make a big batch, knowing that it will keep well in the fridge and then amaze yourself by managing to eat it all in one veg-tastic sitting before having to make some more to satisfy the broccoli lust it will inspire!

Fried chicken…

I’ve been feeling quite confident in the kitchen recently so I decided it was time to shake things and make sure I didn’t get into a rut, so I invited 16 people round for beer and fried chicken at the weekend…

I love fried chicken, but have never really mastered the art of a light crispy coating and succulent chicken within, usually ending up with something closer to the greasy delights of KFC than I would care to admit. Obviously the way to sort this culinary blip is to put yourself under intense pressure in a very hot kitchen and then serve the results to your highly discerning friends. One of whom happens to make the best fried chicken you’ve ever eaten.

I was going to need some help to refine my recipe and get it right. I hoped Felicity Cloake over at the Word of Mouth blog on the Guardian had covered fried chicken in her ‘Perfect’ series each Thursday as she has a knack for explaining things well and giving handy hints that take a dish from pedestrian to perfection. But no such luck. I re-read the recipe I’ve been using for years from a weird little cookbook called Kenny Cooks America written by an oddly angry man called Kenny Miller who suggests marinading the chicken in milk first. I decided to take that a bit further and try using buttermilk instead to see if the extra acidity would help tenderise the chicken further.

Seeking reassurance on the internet, I Googled buttermilk fried chicken and found myself in the ever capable hands of Deb over at Smitten Kitchen with her delicious looking recipe. She suggests taking the buttermilk idea that little bit further and brining the chicken in a buttermilk brine overnight. The sheer saltiness of brining scares me slightly, but my American friends swear by it to keep meat (even a turkey) juicy and succulent. I often find frying chicken can make it a bit dry so this seemed like the perfect time to try it out.

I ran into some difficulty almost immediately though. Buttermilk is quite hard to come by here in England, even with Gin and Crumpets’ handy tip about Polish shops often stocking it and I had only ordered three small cartons online from Sainsbury’s which wasn’t enough for the both the brine and the batter. I improvised slightly and made up a brine from a mixture of natural yoghurt, buttermilk and a splash of whole milk to loosen it enough. Deb suggested mashed garlic, but I was fearful that this would jar with the mellow tastes of the dairy. Taking my cue from Nigella’s amazing Garlic Chicken from How to Eat, I boiled the garlic cloves til tender, popped them from their skins and pounded them in the pestle and mortar. This went into the marinade along with a hearty splash of Tabasco.

To this mixture I added the terrifyingly large amount of salt needed to make a brine. The recipe calls for Kosher salt, but having no idea where I could get such a thing in Brixton, I used good old Maldon Sea Salt instead. I kept the skin on the chicken (using a mixture of wings and thighs) and poured the mixture over them, rubbing it in well with my hands and then popping it all in the fridge overnight. Next morning, each piece was taken out and laid on a rack to airdry before being coated and fried. I could feel how tender the meat was even at this stage…

Batter ready...

Despite what Deb said, I don’t have a thermometer to test how hot the oil was for the chicken, but I erred on the side of caution and heated the pan while I was making the batter because an electric cooker means everything takes longer. The batter was very quick to make, but it was here that everything started to go wrong and my confidence began to depart me in droves.

The use of baking powder in the batter means that it puffs up incredibly and it seemed very thick, almost like industrial sealant rather than batter. I can only assume that the cultured buttermilk I was using is different in texture to the buttermilk in the recipe. Mine was more the consistency of yoghurt and I think it might have needed to be more milky to get a looser lighter batter. Nonetheless I perservered and dipped my chicken thigh pieces in seasoned flour, then batter, then flour again to get a light crisp coating and put them into the hot oil.

Frying pan, fire, all that...

They browned quickly and the first few pieces looked just the ticket as I turned them. Golden brown, crispy and light. I thought I might be about to give my friend D a run for her money. But then things started to go hideously and horribly wrong with the next batch of chicken pieces. The batter had continued to puff up and thicken and had become almost solid in texture, thus over coating the chicken and making it spongy and difficult to cook. I watered it down with some milk, but it didn’t seem to improve the consistency much with big globs of batter simply dripping into the dish of flour most unappealingly.

I allowed the pan to come back to the right heat and placed more chicken in it, but it soon became obvious that the coating was thick enough to be soaking up the oil and spreading around the edges so that each piece expanded in size and the batter formed a lip on each side when it was turned over, meaning each side was golden brown, but the middle still looked uncooked in colour. It was almost impossible to cook the sides evenly, having to set the pieces on the edge of the pan to try and colour it all evenly. This didn’t really work though and resulted in chicken that was overcooked in places. I then sampled one of these less alluring looking pieces of chicken and was beyond disappointed by it.

The offending article!

The batter was thick and bready like the stuff you get on cheap turkey shapes at a well known frozen foods store. Despite the generous amount of smoked paprika and seasoning in the flour, it tasted bland with a weird sweet aftertaste that made it seem cheap. This overpowered the amazingly juicy and succulent chicken and rendered the whole thing pretty revolting. I gave up at this point and returned the rest of the un-fried chicken to the original marinade along with some sumac and black pepper so I could cook it as yoghurt chicken rather than throw it all out. I was annoyed enough to have spoilt some good chicken and a couple of quidsworth of buttermilk without wasting anything more.

I cooled the chicken I had cooked so it could be reheated the next day, no longer caring if it wasn’t as crisp as I’d have liked since it was so rubbish to begin with. I then spent ages cleaning up the massive amount of mess the overly thick batter and hot oil had made. The lingering smell of frying food took much longer to subside.

I served the heated chicken the next day and while the batter hadn’t improved any the chicken was actually more moist and succulent than before. Very little of this got eaten and I’m not offended at all. It was mediocre at best and it is was up against the best fried chicken possible. I warned people off mine and hoped that D will give me her secret recipe instead. Hold out til then folks and don’t bother with this one unless you enjoy the faff of making disappointing poultry…

Brassica Tacks

I love broccoli. I love this much-maligned brassica so much that I get withdrawal pangs if I go too long with it. I love it so much I may have entered into broccoli eating contests with a friend on occasion. So imagine the excitement I felt when I discovered the new world of cape broccoli at the farmers’ market on Sunday…

This excites me far more than the oh-so fashionable purple sprouting broccoli, which can have very woody stalks and a slightly fusty flavour. It looks much prettier to me even if it is basically a purple cauliflower. I was intrigued to know how it would taste and would the colour last on cooking?

I decided to try some of it slightly steamed as I would with the normal stuff, but to encorporate the rest in this delicious sounding dish of slow cooked broccoli with buttermilk and serve it with pasta for a brassica-tastic midweek dinner. I am well known for my tendency to under cook broccoli so I thought I would challenge myself with this different style of dish.

I went for half cape broccoli and half regular broccoli with this very easy to make dish and it looked fantastic in the pan. I added an anchovy to the recipe for a bit more oomph, but otherwise stuck to the recipe. This all required about 5 minutes preparation, before simply leaving it to gently simmer for around an hour.

Unfortunately, this made my entire flat smell like a cheap boarding house as the dreaded musty sulphurous smell of overcooked brassicas permeated everything while it simmered. I figured I could overlook this minor annoyance since the dish was bound to taste delicious. I decided to serve it with pasta and while my bucatini cooked, I took the broccoli off the heat and added the lemon zest and buttermilk, along with some grated parmesan before plating up.

The broccoli did not look at all appealing at this stage. It looked like suspiciously how I imagine ectoplasm might look if you are unlucky enough to have a poltergeist about the house. But I refused to judge this book by its cover and tucked right in…and was instantly disappointed.

This just tasted of watery overcooked broccoli with a slightly warming kick from the chili. Admittedly it would have been better with pasta shapes so that the pasta and the sauce mixed better, but this shouldn’t really have affected the taste. I just think the long slow cooking actually cooked the taste right out of this lovely vegetable.

I ate the lot because after waiting an hour for it to cook, I was starving and because I can’t bear to squander food. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by this dish and feel that I rather wasted my poor cape broccoli on it. I will be sticking to my tried and tested 3 minutes steaming in the microwave with broccoli in the future and leaving longer cooking of brassicas back in the 50s where they deserve to stay!