Archives for March 2012

Give your Easter baking a lift

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 16:55 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2012

At Easter, religious traditions cross paths with the changing seasons at a time when you see life revving-up in the countryside. You might see parallels when you make hot cross buns at home as the milder climate causes dough to rise full-throttle into airy roundness. In springtime, nature feels driven at increasing speed and there’s a rush to the blossoming in the garden that feels upbeat and inspiring.

Hot cross buns

Many countries have vast Easter traditions, dwarfing Christmas in comparison, and the rising of dough is a metaphor that fits Easter recipes well. And by adding the last of winter’s hoard of luxury − ingredients such as butter, spices, dried fruit, honey and sugar − you’re making a confident sign that summer’s abundance will soon be back with us, and that the significance of Easter is worth some expense.

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Take stock

Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 11:06 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Tim Hayward’s programme on stock for Radio 4’s Food Programme this week extracted a wealth of information about the development of stocks and stock cubes, and piqued our interest in the subject.
Stock is one of those elements in cooking that is apparently simple but which takes attention and skill to make really well. Stock comes in a variety of guises, from a simple broth, to a clear-as-a-bell consommé.

It is a culinary fundamental that requires few ingredients and simple instructions – warning enough that ‘experience’ is the unnamed key ingredient. You start off with roughness; bones, carcasses, meat trimmings, crudely cut veg, a handful of herbs and you finish with complexity, savouriness, and a liquid which looks by turns silky and light-capturing. It’s cooking magic.

Professional chefs take great care over their stocks and have their own preferences. Thomas Keller excludes celery from his stocks, as it adds a bitter note. As a nonpareil for decadence, Marco Pierre White ordered in crates and crates of whole chickens, destined only for stock, for his 3-starred Oak Room restaurant. In 2011’s Great British Menu, Johnny Mountain aroused the disapproval of judge Marcus Wareing over his resistance to using fish heads in his stock for a bouillabaisse, stating fish heads had no place in his cooking. Marcus didn’t agree, and Johnny’s dish, sans heads, came off the loser.

It’s easy to see why the professionals take time and intense care over their stocks – they are the root of much that issues from the kitchen, most notably, stocks provide the base for sauces, the crowning glory of many dishes. The job of saucier in the kitchen is the highest in the brigade (pipped only by the sous- and head-chefs. During service, the saucier makes sure the sauces are on hand for the head-chef, ready to apply the final spoonful or drizzle to finish the dish. Stocks are the beginning of the eloquent finishing touch to the dish.

Chef spooning sauce onto a dish

A head-chef applying sauce from, yes, a sauce-pan, to a dish on the pass, moments before being served to a customer

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Why don't we like fish?

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Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 11:25 UK time, Thursday, 22 March 2012

For an island nation it's weird that we're not more enthusiastic about fish. Goodness knows our broadcasters try hard enough. Programmes are made on fish cookery from exotic locations. Celebrity chefs Rick Stein, Mitch Tonks and, more recently, Nathan Outlaw have devoted whole books to it. It's healthy. It's quick to cook. Yet according to the powers that be at the BBC website "we rarely see any fish dishes beyond fish pies in our top searches".

The Irish food and drink promotional body Bord Bia, which has recently undertaken research into attitudes to fish, suggests some answers − apparently we think fish is expensive, perishable, smelly and difficult to eat. But is that really the case?

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How to pair food and beer - part three

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Nigel Sadler | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 20 March 2012

In my third blog on the joys of beer and food, it’s now the turn of the darker beers to show their strength and character. We’ll also move closer to home, taking a look at stouts, porters and milds − all good traditional British beer styles.

It might go without saying, but as beers get darker in colour they will exhibit greater flavours from the coloured malts used in their production. These can range from lightly toasted, through toffee/caramel to dark chocolate or even coffee. Bitterness levels range from low, as found in milds, to the relatively high levels in stouts, though overall hop aroma and flavour is low. This rich diversity of flavour and aroma makes beer a fitting counterpart for red wine and a very worthy partner to a whole host of delicious foods, and not just meat dishes either!

Game works particularly well with the chocolaty notes in oatmeal beer.

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What to cook for Mother's Day

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 11:52 UK time, Thursday, 15 March 2012

This Sunday is the day when mums are meant to take a back seat and be showered with daffodils, plied with fizz and stuffed with fairy cakes. But is that what mothers really want? Are mothers such a homogeneous group that they can all be equally placated by, judging by the supermarket promotions, some sticky pink cake and sparkling rosé wine? Clearly it's a formula that works in business terms – when dads are left to arrange a special occasion, their well-intentioned panic seems wonderfully calmed by the notion that 'she'll like this – it's pink. Girls like pink, right?' (The same thing happens at Father's Day when mums automatically reach for the steaks and beer.)

Strawberries and cream cupcakes 

Sure, fresh colours are welcome after the long months of dark brown stews and casseroles. So a bit of seared salmon or a shockingly bright rhubarb fool is a lovely change. But surely, not everything has to be colour-coded like a baby-gro. I suspect mums are simply looking to redress the balance of very unglamorous domestic work and child-rearing with one day of civility, sophistication and indulgence. Hence the popularity of high tea as a mumsy thing to do.

However, it quickly becomes a parody of itself. Drag queen-like cupcakes, dripping in glitter and piled in lurid icing, cups of delicately-flavoured tea never drunk at any other time of the year served in flowery pink teacups, finger sandwiches filled with smoked salmon - it's as if women have reverted to being five years old, dressed in a fairy costume for a birthday party in the school hall.

So, where can we find a little glamour without girliness? Tapas or mezze is brilliant for combining strong flavours with the delightful variety of lots of small plates. And it can be remarkably simple – good bread, good olive oil, good quality cooking chorizo in wine, a little fried squid, a plate of serrano ham, fried artichoke hearts, creamy hummus or smoky baba ganoush, or some Spanish-style meatballs.

Deep-fried calamari and aioli


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Why is handmade cheddar the better cheddar?

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Brendan Lancaster | 06:00 UK time, Sunday, 11 March 2012

Cheddar hardly feels like an endangered species. But Slow Food UK think so, and they’ve put handmade cheddar into their Ark of Taste, a project that aims to protect traditional food from being forgotten. To find out what makes handmade cheddar so special I visited Westcombe Dairy, which along with Montgomery and Keen, is one of the three members of Slow Food UK's Presidium for Somerset Artisan Cheddar.

 As I'm shown around by Tom Calver he explains the process of making cheddar by hand.  I soon come to understand that apart from the knowledge and skill of the cheesemakers, it's the quality of the milk that’s key.

Westcombe grow the grass that feeds the cows that give the milk that makes the cheese, and hence they can monitor the quality of their cheddar all the way from start to finish.

Tom tasting cheese in the cheddar store

Tom tasting cheese in the cheddar store

One advantage of using their own fresh, locally produced milk is that it arrives at the dairy each morning in the best condition. Milk contains delicate fat globules that are damaged by travelling too long in tankers, or being pumped around in storage. More careful milk handling gives a mellower, smoother taste. The milk is drained (by gravity, not pump) from the tanker into the big metal vat in the dairy room, where it's used immediately without being pasteurised - another difference to large scale cheddar production.

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Meat glue and water baths: what next for the home cook?

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Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 11:41 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Cooking and lifestyle shows on TV are exposing the home cook to an array of new techniques and cooking methods, not seen since the early days of the microwave. A year ago seen on Michelin-star level Great British Menu, restaurant tricks such as water baths and meat glue, are now seen on shows like Saturday Kitchen with squarely domestic audiences.

The world of sous-vide cooking (vac-packing and water-baths) feels like a step-change, beyond presentation tricks of metal chefs' rings and ‘towers’of food, micro-herbs or quenelles. This time it’s technical.

Sous-vide (literally “under-vacuum”) cooking is by no means new – as anyone who remembers boil-in-the-bag will know. Professional kitchens make good use of the convenience sous-vide affords. But chefs have also been won over by the textures and flavours the method allows. For example, traditionally dry meats, such as game birds, can be gently cooked through, making them safe, whilst keeping all the juices with the meat. Once cooked through, just sear in a pan and serve up perfect charred-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside cuts of meat to order.

eggs cooking in a water bath

The one hour egg that caused Rhod Gilbert to exclaim, "I could do that in three minutes!"

The method can be used to raise eyebrows and be provocative. Jason Atherton ‘poaching’ a whole egg in a water-bath for an hour and 15 minutes on Saturday Kitchen recently, showed him exploring the texture of a well-known  ingredient and finding a new aspect to surprise and delight.  Or bewilder and bemuse. The bafflement on the other guests’ faces suggested the latter. Why spend over an hour poaching an egg? Surely it takes less than three minutes?! This is a case where convenience was not the priority, and the fact that Jason Atherton spent a season at El Bulli, under Ferran Adria provides some clues to where the chef’s interests lie.

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Can I make cheese at home?

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 11:16 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2012

If the Food Inspectors were in charge, we’d probably ban cheese. A product that is essentially formed from curdled milk – usually poured down the drain with disgust – and then injected or smeared with bacteria and mould, left for months at a time, in a cave… You’ve got to admit that cheese-phobes have a fair point. But along with bakers and chocolatiers, cheese makers are the alchemists of food production.

So where did it come from? The earliest remains of cheese were found in an Egyptian pot in the stepped pyramid of Saqqara dating from 2300BC, making it among the oldest known food products. Through what must have been phenomenal trial and error, the earliest cheesemakers would make a brine solution to extract the enzymes from the stomach lining of milk-fed calves to make a cheese somewhat like feta. 
But you can make your own cheese in as little as twenty minutes at home with just a few ingredients. A fresh cheese, made without rennet, can be brought to life using a little yoghurt as a bacterial starter and vinegar as an acid.  These form curds in the milk which can be scooped out and drained through a muslin cloth held in a sieve. The length of draining time will determine how crumbly or firm the cheese is.  You can also play with the fat content of your milk – adding cream if you want a more spreadable version. Or press it further to make a sliceable, fryable paneer.

Curd cheese with bread, salad and oatcakes

The crumbly ricotta-style cheese we made in a few minutes. Next time - more cream.

It’s crumbly and tangy and the smell as you make it is amazing – it’s like the smell of a baby’s head filling your kitchen. This cheese won’t melt like a rennet-curdled cheese – the protein structure is too fragile. But on top of a pizza (possibly mixed with chopped, wilted spinach), as part of a lasagne, drizzled with honey and served with soft fruits, your own homemade cheese lets you be a dairy alchemist for a half an hour.

Here are some great adventures in simple, rennet-free cheese:

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