Salsa – the sauces of South America

I’ve been around the culinary globe a bit in my time but I’m yet to visit South America and have a limited knowledge of its cuisine. So I was intrigued to dip into a pre-release copy of ‘Salsa’ [see what I did there?], edited by an old school friend and now available on Amazon. And $4.11 seems a small price to pay for a Kindle tour of the continent if you’re feeling saucy. Click on the image to find out more.

Salsa! The sauces of South America.

In Her Vietnamese Kitchen

Dried birds-eye chillies in a jar

I’ve been back in the classroom again, and whilst the cuisine is a close culinary neighbour of my last lesson [see the posts from my Cambodian experience] the schools concerned are over 6,000 miles apart as Uyen Luu runs her Vietnamese cookery class and her hugely successful supper club from her home in Hackney.

Uyen [pronounced Ewan, as in McGregor we're told at the start] is multi-talented individual being a writer, photographer, food stylist, film maker, supper club host and – as when we visit – teacher. Her first recipe book has been published [available everywhere but also through her website, see below], the seemingly inevitable TV appearances have begun, and in today’s Observer Food Monthly you’ll find a seven page spread [or see it online].

The cover of "My Vietnamese Kitchen", a cookbook by Uyen Luu.

You are advised when attending the class not to have a hearty breakfast, advice I would urge you to heed! We prepared and ate over a dozen different dishes, and took samples of several home in a doggy bag. I won’t list them all [book your own class!] but highlights for me were:

  • Beef in Betel Leaves – will be on all my canapé menus from now on.
  • Beef Pho – which I now know to pronounce feu, as in pot au feu.
  • Chicken Salad with Banana Blossom – very similar to the Cambodian version.
  • Bánh Xéo – heavenly savoury crepe eaten with herbs, lettuce and dipping sauce.
  • Summer Rolls – learning to make them properly, rather than give up and serve the contents as a salad as I had the week before!

And you won’t just be learning to cook. We were taught what is eaten at different times of day; what constitutes a breakfast, a snack, a meal; what to eat to rebalance your yin and yang, and cool heatiness; which brands to buy [bamboo tree logo rice paper, cockerel logo sriracha chilli sauce, boy and woman fishing logo oyster sauce]; Vietnamese table etiquette; and tips like slicing and drying your own chillies to make chilli flakes if you find yourself with glut – I had, thanks to shopping for the summer rolls / salad the week before, so I did! [see photo at the top of this post]

Part way through the afternoon, and partly I suspect to allow us to digest the first half dozen dishes whilst Uyen’s mum finished preparation of the rest, we were taken shopping at a local Vietnamese supermarket where we could stock up on perilla, cockscomb mint, coconut caramel, black cardamom, etc. Another top tip – go with shopping bags and ready to carry home plenty of goodies!

Uyen generously and graciously shares such a wealth of information it’s hard to single out a highlight, but perhaps the biggest revelation of the day for me was an introduction to proper fish sauce [three crabs brand if you're interested]. Made in traditional wooden vats, filtered multiple times, and allowed to mature properly, the best stuff loses any rancid overtones and you’re left with a deeply savoury, umami-rich, mushroomy, meaty aroma and flavour that’s as far removed from the usual rubbish as a bottle of supermarket plonk is from a Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru. My bottle of cheap crap went straight in the bin and Uyen, I will be eternally grateful!

I’ll leave you with a look at my own attempt at Bánh Xéo. My pictures can’t hold a candle to the beautifully posed, strangely tranquil shots Uyen shares on her facebook page, but the dish disappeared pretty sharpish nonetheless.

Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese rice flour pancake coloured yellow with turmeric and filled with pork, prawn and bean sprouts. Traditionally eaten wrapped in herbs and lettuce, and dipped in a spicy sauce.

Fancy a go? Then book here!

Sweet and Sour Horse

No, not Tesco’s latest tasty offering, but a re-post of something I originally offered at the start of the year of the rabbit, reheated for the year of the horse. Though having watched Ken Hom eat a traditional dish of fried rabbit’s head in Chengdu on TV this morning, perhaps horse wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. Whatever your choice of meat, veg or tofu – a happy, prosperous and healthy year of the horse to one and all! 

Sweet and Sour Sauce in a Yin and Yang bowl

Learning a language as an adult is far more difficult than doing so as a child when the relevant bits of our brains are more plastic, malleable and hungry for linguistic stimuli. And as it is with language, so with tableware. I could read English by the time I went to nursery school, but I didn’t meet my first pair of chopsticks until I was in my twenties. By then I could speak knife and fork with ease, and could happily conjugate the correct cutlery course combinations for soup, fish, cheese etc. But my adult mind has never mastered more than a rudimentary grasp of chopsticks. My fingers lack fluency, and even when I do successfully manage to convey a morsel of food to my mouth I’m sure it’s done with a thick English accent, clearly audible to anyone within spitting distance whose mother tongue is chopsticks.

I learnt years ago that to leave one’s chopsticks in a bowl of food shows disrespect for one’s ancestors [that’s what the rests are for people, do not dis the dead], but I’m usually more worried about the disrespect for my dining companions shown by showering them with flicks of my food.

However having recently received some smart new pairs emblazoned with the animals of our birth years I decided we needed to inaugurate them at the dawn of the year of the rabbit. And that’s where a sticky sauce like this comes in very handy for a chopsticks dunce like me. It’s effectively food glue, and I’ll be less likely to starve if I can use it to entrap some errant grains of egg fried rice. There’ll be forks involved before we’ve finished for sure, but like learning just a few words of a new language, at least I’ll feel like I’ve made an effort.

“Gung Hay Fat Choy!”

Very many recipes suggest this same basic technique and combination of ingredients though the proportions vary slightly. I’m not sure how traditional an ingredient tomato ketchup is but it’s certainly popular! Take 100ml of Chinese rice vinegar, 3.5 tbsps brown or cane sugar, 2 tbsps tomato ketchup and 1 tsp of soy sauce. Boil all together in a small pan for a couple of minutes and then thicken with a rounded tsp of cornflour mixed with water. This gives you quite a thick, dark sauce which is probably best for dipping.

I wanted something looser and less intense, so added 200ml of passata, 100ml of water and another good glug of rice vinegar. If you’re doing the same taste the sauce and adjust with more vinegar or sugar to balance the sweet and sour. Quickly stir fry an onion and a pepper [roughly chopped], add cooked chicken [unsurprisingly leftovers in my case], then the sauce and chunks of tinned pineapple. After a quick bubble and stir it’s time to check and adjust again.

I had another wok on the go to fry cooked rice, spring onion, small strips of chilli, some finely shredded smoked duck, peas, a beaten egg and a generous splash of soy sauce. Fried rice is another good place to use up scraps of this and that – the duck was leftover from our recent fondue. If only I’d had a bit of rabbit.

The sauce itself is suitable for vegetarians and vegans. If you prefer not to have it with meat then some fried tofu would eat very well.

Christmas Pudding Time Again

Blimey O’Reilly it’s stir up Sunday already and I haven’t even bought my fruit! Still, time to wheel out this old favourite from 2010 when I was also late…

Mixed fruits soaking for a Christmas pudding

Last Sunday was apparently ‘stir up Sunday’, the last Sunday before Advent when traditionally we’d begin preparing puddings for Christmas. However the Shopkeeper and I had been entertaining until the early hours and when I caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror that morning the idea of taking some wrinkled old fruits and soaking them in booze was just a touch too ironic to contemplate.

Not to worry, there is still time to prepare your puddings. It’s really not difficult, and so much more satisfying than opening a shop bought box on Christmas day. I base mine on a recipe I first picked up in Waitrose nearly ten years ago but I’ve tinkered with and tweaked it over the years. Unlike the precise science of cake baking, puddings are very forgiving of changes so you don’t need to agonise or work with milligram precision. Last year I realised two hours into the steaming time that I’d forgotten the flour altogether, and the puddings were none the worse for it. My main changes have been to reduce the amount of sugar and flour, and to up the fruit and booze content – I really can’t imagine making a Christmas pudding with only two tablespoons of brandy! I also try to find an interesting mix of fruits to add to the basic raisins and sultanas. For instance this year we have some ‘Persian Delights’ dried fruit mixes in the shop which include pineapple, papaya and mango, so a packet of these has joined the other fruits in their brandy, orange juice and spice bath. And I have to have halved glacé cherries! They were always there in my childhood Christmas puddings, feel free to add any childhood memories of your own.

These quantities will make two 1.5 litre puddings, each big enough for eight people with some to spare [no harm in having a spare, and they make great gifts]. If you only want one, halve these quantities but the cooking time will be the same. You can also make small individual puddings which will take just two hours to steam.

  • 1.2 kg dried fruits, including 350 g each of raisins and sultanas, the rest made up of a mixture of whatever takes your fancy from cranberries, apricots, cherries [dried or glacé], blueberries, candied peel, etc. The more the merrier!
  • 500 ml stout
  • 200 ml brandy
  • 1 tbsp toffee vodka [optional]
  • Finely grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
  • 1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 250 g suet [vegetable suet can be used if vegetarian]
  • 100 g flour
  • 200 g breadcrumbs
  • 100 g muscovado sugar
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 1 large apple [Bramley for preference] peeled and grated
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 silver coin, any currency or denomination!

Start by mixing the dried fruits with the orange juice and zest, spices, stout and brandy [and toffee vodka if using]. Leave to soak for a couple of days, stirring from time to time. Mine is doing this now [on top of the washing machine to make best use of the vibrations] and every stir fills the kitchen with the smell of Christmas.

When I’m ready to cook this tomorrow I’ll add all the other ingredients and mix well. Traditionally everyone in the house should stir the mix whilst making a wish, and I might even invite a few of the neighbours to have a go just to make sure. Grease the pudding basins [1.5 litre capacity] and fill them to a couple of centimetres below the rim, tapping and pushing down well to make sure there are no gaps or air bubbles.

The only really fiddly bit is sealing the basins for steaming, and if you really can’t be bothered then you can buy plastic versions with clip on lids. Otherwise for each basin cut two large squares of greaseproof paper and one of foil and stack them with the foil on top. Fold once near the middle, and then back again about two centimetres away to make a pleat. Cover the top of the basin with your pleated sheets and tie around with string. It will help if you can loop through another piece of string to make a handle, but this is easier with four hands so enrol a helper. You let your neighbour make a wish didn’t you? Well it’s payback time.

A wrapped Christmas Pudding ready for steaming

Place each sealed basin onto a trivet [an upturned heat-proof plate will do] in a pan and carefully pour in boiling water to around half way up the basin’s sides. Cover the pan, and once simmering steam the puddings for six hours. Check the water from time to time and top up as necessary. Six whole hours when you can’t leave them entirely alone but they will require little of your attention – time to do some online Christmas shopping perhaps, or to write your cards?

Once they’re done allow the puddings to cool, remove the foil etc., wipe the bowls clean and decide whether you plan to reheat them by steaming again or in the microwave. If the former then repeat the wrapping process described above. If you’re microwaving then simply cover well with two or three layers of clingfilm. Place the puddings somewhere cool and dark [I wrap them in plastic bags too] and forget about them until Christmas morning.

Come the big day heat your pudding by steaming for two hours, or give it six minutes on full power in an 850 watt microwave. Wrap your silver coin in foil [easier to find, less easy to swallow by accident, and cleaner] and make a slit in the base of the pudding to insert it. Ease the pudding from its bowl onto a plate, warm a ladleful of brandy, pour over and set alight. I can never resist a sprig of holly too.

You might want custard or cream, but I must have brandy butter with this. Recipe to follow when I make it a week or so before Christmas…

Ni Dauphinoise, Ni Boulangere

A dish of potatoes gratin. Neither a dauphinoise nor a boulangere, but something in between.

Neither one thing nor the other, but combining something of the best of both.

My love affair with pommes dauphinoise began, romantically enough, with late night assignations in a deserted hotel kitchen. Whilst all around us slept I’d sneak into the darkened larder and by only the light leaking from the fridge door would sate my starchy desires with a mouthful of chef Maggie’s magical combination of potato and cream.

Since the cardiac kerfuffle of a year ago though I’ve done my best to curb my cholesterol and more often opt for a boulangere, where the potatoes and onions cook slowly in stock rather than cream. But then I thought why choose, when you can combine the two without completely clogging your arteries?

  • 2 large potatoes, sliced 1mm thin on a mandolin
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • A glass of wine or vermouth
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • A bruised clove of garlic
  • 2 good tablespoons of half-fat creme fraiche

Add the wine, garlic and rosemary to the stock and reduce by about a third. Layer the potatoes and onion in a gratin dish, seasoning well with salt and pepper between each layer. Whisk the creme fraiche into the hot stock, and strain this over the potatoes. Cover with a cartouche of baking paper or foil and bake at 160°C for an hour and a half, then uncover and cook for a further half hour. Allow to rest for five minutes before eating.

You can of course make a vegetarian version by using vegetable stock, in which case you probably won’t want to eat it with lamb ‘lolipop’ cutlets, with which it eats very well!

Being Judgemental Again

Badge awarded to judges at the 2010 World Cheese Awards

I’ve confirmed that I’ll be judging at the World Cheese Awards again this year, on 28th November at the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC. For 2012 there are almost 3,000 cheeses from 300 countries. If you want to come and watch tickets can be had from the BBC – there’s all sorts going on and proper foodie slebs like James Martin and Paul Hollywood as well, not just cheesy old farts like me. This will be my third outing, you can read about the first one here.

Baked Figs

Figs ready for baking, with ginger wine, honey and rosemary.

It’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting a heart attack. Frankly Monty Python had more of an inkling about the Spanish Inquisition, and we all know how expected that was. Yes, I had the genetic predisposition and lived the lifestyle – but ticking all the boxes doesn’t always win you the main prize. Not always…

This time though I knew I must have hit some kind of jackpot because blue lights started flashing, sirens wailed and the machine wired up to my chest made frequent, frantic beeping noises. Turns out this prize was life-saving, piercing-edge, percutaneous surgery, and the specialist teams at the West Middlesex and Hammersmith Hospitals have earned – in every sense – my undying gratitude.

So now I’m faced with a choice food-wise: renounce totally anything enjoyable but potentially naughty and live out my days in the epicurean equivalent of a hair shirt, or expend some additional effort on finding foods that are both healthy and beautiful [whilst admitting the odd something sinful from time to time]. Actually you make the same choice several times every day, this sort of thing just has a way of turning decisions into DECISIONS.

Well I’ve made mine. And I will not go hungry into that good night.

I served this with a splodge of low fat crème fraîche, which would actually have been my choice before all the cardiac kerfuffle.

Feeds three or four

  • 12 ripe medium-sized figs
  • 100ml ginger wine
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
  • a good drizzle of honey, about a tablespoon and a half [vegans can replace with a sprinkling of brown sugar]
  • a few small sprigs of rosemary
  • crème fraîche to serve [optional]

Slash the figs with deep, quartering cuts almost all the way through, and arrange snugly in a shallow dish. Whisk the spice and vanilla into the ginger wine and pour over the figs. Drizzle the honey over and into the figs, strew the rosemary sprigs about, and bake in a 190C oven for 25 minutes to half an hour. Baste with the juices once or twice during cooking, and spoon over plenty as you serve.