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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.

Homemade Buffalo Curd Cheese…

I’m going to confess something. You’ll either nod sagely at my bravery or recoil in horror and never speak to me again. I’m just not that into cheese…

That’s not to say I don’t ever eat it. I’m partial to a nice slice of Jarlsberg (the holes make it taste better). I keep Parmesan in the house to add some extra umami to everything. And I’ll eat cheese at other people’s houses, but I never think to buy it and I never crave it. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy the same way a nice salami does. So I’m as surprised as you are that I made my own cheese last night.

My eye was caught by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s column in the Guardian the other week explaining that making certain types of cheese at home is a walk in the park. I imagine cheese to be a combination of dairy and witchcraft so this intrigued me. And then I happened to come across a bottle of rennet in Waitrose* the very next day and the spell was cast. I was going to make my own curd cheese!

It is ridiculously simple. You need some non-homogenised milk, some rennet, a pinch of salt and some muslin or ahem, cheesecloth and then you can get going with a few small pieces of attention to detail. You should be able to get non-homogenised milk at a Farmers’ Market but if you want to do raw or unpasteurised milk for whatever reason, then source yours through Duchy Originals at most major supermarkets or try some of the suggestions here. And while you’re at the supermarket, follow this excellent tip from the comments on the original article and pick up a pack of muslin squares from the baby aisle. Much larger than the trendy facecloths around, you’ll get about 5 for a fiver and can use them for cheese making or the forthcoming preserves season. Just iron before use to sterilise it.

I was using raw buffalo milk from Alham Wood Farms and I was surprised to see just how creamy it looked in colour and texture. Much more like the milk when I was a kid and most appetising looking. I heated it to 38° with the aid of a thermometer and then added the rennet. I think I used a touch too much, around a quarter of a teaspoon to a pint of milk, but a little bit extra splashed in so I suggest you measure carefully and not above the milk itself if your hand isn’t too steady. I stirred it in well and then left it for 15 minutes to separate into curds and whey while I got on with a batch of lemon curd.

And when I came back, it really was like magic. What had been thick creamy milk was now a slightly unappealing layer of watery liquid and something that did look quite cheese like already. I scooped the curds out with a slotted spoon into the muslin and tied onto the kitchen tap to drain and set for around three hours, dispensing with the whey completely. This is all you need to do. I won’t judge you though if like me you keep going in and staring at it as if hoping to catch a glimpse of the alchemy as it happens.

About three hours later, when I could wait no more, I unwrapped my little milky miracle. And it looked like real, honest to goodness cheese! Possibly a little bit firmer than it was meant to be due to the extra splash of rennet, it looked like cottage cheese with the firmness of mozzarella. I served it crumbled on some green lentils and homegrown tomatoes and it was stunning. Slightly bouncy, with a touch of saltiness while rich and creamy, it turned some placid pulses into something rather racy as it melted slightly and soaked up the juice from the tomatoes.

I couldn’t get over how delicious it was and how unlike the shop bought equivalent in flavour and depth. That’s probably the buffalo milk but I like to think it’s my natural cheesemaking skills. On an effort to taste ratio, it scores maximum points. I enjoyed it so much I had exactly the same dinner the next night as well and probably would have done so a third night had I not run out of cheese. Had I been able to get my hands on some more milk, I’d have made more and served it on my favourite black pepper infused crackers from Ryvita. I might even have remembered to photograph the meal instead of gorging myself. I think it’s safe to say I finally get the cheese obsession. I’ve come over the dark side of dairy…

*which happened to be vegetarian on closer inspection.

Buffalo Soldier

My regular Sunday morning trip to Brixton Farmers’ Market always involves fresh soft pretzels from Luca’s Bakery, but I managed to branch out from just baked goods this week and I couldn’t resist picking up a few seasonal goodies in the shape of some British asparagus, fresh garlic and buffalo steak for the rest of the week.

The buffalo steaks came from the amazing Alham Wood Cheeses stall which is so low key in the market I’m not sure it even has a sign. Only my finely honed mozzarella radar meant I noticed it…but it has some superb well matured cheeses as well as a small selection of buffalo meat each week. This stall is not to be missed if you are a serious cheese lover. They supply the succulent mozzarella for the top class pizzas at Brixton institution Franco Manca and it is a treat to be able to add this exceptional product to dishes at home.

My eye was drawn to the juicy looking organic buffalo frying steak. Two well sized thin cut steaks weighing in around 180g cost an incredibly reasonable £2.34, reminding me that it is possible to eat ethically raised higher welfare meat even on my limited budget. The fact that buffalo meat is also very low in fat and cholesterol was simply a bonus. I was definitely looking forward to trying buffalo meat for the first time! Read more