Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden

"a hip addition to the kitchen shelf"

 James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking recounts exactly that: a mini-voyage of culinary exploration, through Corner Shops and Cheap Cuts, Emulsions and Macerations.  Small they may be, but our adventurer is intrepid, unflawed by the likes of Ox cheek or Duck Rilletes, unflailing faced with the Korean fermented cabbage dish, Kimchi, or soused Mackerel.  Convivial and colourful from the outset, the reader is swiftly drawn in, to venture alongside Ramsden in this culinary foray.

Separated into eight unorthodox sections, Ramsden writes food as he thinks it: from Va Va Voyages, where you’ll find the exotic and quick to cook, to Corner Shop Capers, a eulogy to the quirky ingredients available in city corner-shops, including Soviet Salmon Soup and a Pitta Pizza topped with the unlikely Tinned Fried Onions(!).   Morning Missions is dedicated to breakfasting, suggesting Home-Made Baked Beans, Huevos Rancheros and Chilli Hot Chocolate as additions to the breakfast table.  Being a devotee to the art of breaking the fast myself, this quite won me over.  Exploring the Cheap Cuts; Formal Forays and Feeding the Flocks are self-explanatory. The latter I found vaguely disappointing, although the food is fun – kebabs, fondues – it has the feel of pub platters.  That said, the Goat Curry had me swooning, as Ramsden writes:  “Curry is  a great party-dish”, to be stacked on rice and served with a multitude of chutneys, raitas and home-made breads.  And, I cannot but triumph a cookery book that includes a chapter on Preserves for the Pantry, particularly one that suggests how to use them, saving each of us from that tendency of filling the pantry, only to find same preserves festering on the top shelves years later.  Finally, in Surfing the Stumbling Blocks he tackles those notions that tend to terrorise the novice cook: from Shortcrust Pastry to Hollandaise, smartly rendering the seemingly impossible, possible.

The introduction sets the tone for the book: “Surely the kitchen should be a place of comfort and reassurance, not terror and torment”.  A voice at once personable and exuberant accompanies the reader;  hip without being daunting, it offers guidance without preaching.  The recipes are succinct but comprehensive, couched in tips and tales, ever reminding the reader that cooking is a joyous experiment, recipes are: “a guide, not a gospel”.  Intrinsic to this is the very malleability of the recipes, all to be “tweaked”, “tarted”, the leftovers used “tomorrow”, spawning same flexibility in the novice-cook, and this is surely one of the hardest kitchen arts for the unexperienced, unadventurous soul, so Ramsden writes:  “Trust your instincts”, “Have an amenable agenda” and “Make your itinerary flexible”.

One of the most pertinent mantras of the book: “Keep your ear to the ground” encourages the reader to “Be Chatty” reminding us that cooking is a communal act that commences with sourcing the produce and culminates in that most profound and joyous of communions, the sharing of food.  Talk to the shopkeepers, he writes, “as well as making for great entertainment, such discussions are inspiring reminders that there are very few absolutes in cooking”.  In this tone, Ramsden recalls an encounter with a “bonkers polish man” who introduced him to an apparently tasty Tinned Sorrel Soup with a Boiled Egg.  He takes this interaction one step further by inviting responses to his recipes via Twitter and Email, reminding us that cookery is an art to be explored and above all to be shared

Much as one might pretend otherwise, a cookery book is no longer simply a manual, it has a secondary function: it must induce pleasurable browsing, preferably with a glass of wine in the hand whilst dreaming-up next week’s banquets.  This is a beautiful book, quite the sort to curl up on the sofa with.  And, a stencilled card and gaudy orange binding, sumptuous photos and near-scrawling notes on carnet-like pages, it proves a hip addition to the kitchen shelf!

Aimed at an audience of twenty or thirty-somethings, the book is far from highbrow, it does not indulge in the literary meanderings of an Elizabeth David, nor for that matter is it a scientific tome.  So intent is the writer on keeping the kitchen a light-hearted place, a gentle colloquialism verges on (and happily fails to fall into) the Jamie Oliver tendency of catchphrasing: expressions such as “you get the idea” might put some off, and the book would perhaps be unsuited to the culinary snob. 

I say this, and yet, written with such flair, so abounding in joy, and such an utter pleasure to read, I wouldn’t hesitate to pass it on to any of my entourage.

A cook-book that combines a boy-next-door charm and lack of pretension, with an erudite wealth of culinary knowledge, an evident depth of research and recipes destined to please multiple pallets on myriad occasions, with his Small Adventures in Cooking, James Ramsden heralds an exciting new generation of cookery writing.

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden

New Voices in Food, Quadrille Publishing, London 2011, 191 pages.  
 ISBN: 9781844009572

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Hot Beetroot Hummus, in flamboyant pink?


As is doubtless apparent, I am all for quirky cuisine.  But I do baulk at the Blumenthalian tendency to make one food look like another – I am now envisaging (baulking) Heston’s Medieval Meat Fruits Bowl.  So, when Amelia (@TailoredTat), lover of all things gaudy, suggested Pink Hummus, I had to bite my tongue, put aside my suddenly-uber-conservative-kitchen-conventions…

Hot Beetroot Hummus

I am ashamed to say I used a tin of Chick Peas, and some ready-cooked vac-packed Beetroot.  (Whatever's to hand) Otherwise soak the Chick Peas overnight, cook until tender, reserving cooking water, and use Beetroot, raw or cooked as your prefer.

Blend Chick Peas, 1 Beetroot, finely chopped (if cooked) or grated (raw), 6 cloves of garlic, ½ tbsp Whole Cumin Seed, 1 tsp Ground Cumin, 1 tsp Chilli Powder, 1-2 tbsp water, 1 lg tbsp Tahini.  The mixture should be pretty solid still, the Lemon juice will smooth it out.

Once blended, add the juice of 2 lemons to the mixture, and salt to taste.  Tweak Lemon, Tahini, Salt, Cumin until you have the exact flavour desired.  With conventional Hummus I would then spread this paste-like mix on a plate and drown the lot in Olive Oil.  However, the Olive Oil dousing looked all-too incongruous against the pink, so I mixed in a good tablespoon of Olive Oil before plating.  Sprinkle with Chilli Powder and Cumin Seeds and garnish with a Chilli. 
It did of course look much like a Blackcurrant Blancmange, one invitee was sorely disappointed to discover ‘twas not indeed a hankered after Raspberry Mousse.  But the Beetroot was scrumptious in the Hummus, and like-it-or-not, in flamboyant pink, the dish was a vibrant addition to the table.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Elderflower Champagne, Elderflower and Gooseberry Vodka, Pickled Gooseberries.

In an expression of culinary nous, the Elderflower and Gooseberry Seasons just overlap, offering myriad excuses to combine the tart berries with the diaphanous sweet-scented flowers.  Be it in an Elderflower and Gooseberry Fool, a Champagne, a Marmalade, or as here in Vodka.

Elderflowers are best picked on a bright early morning when the volatile oils are rising.  Choose unblemished flowers in blossom.  ‘tis the season, and the season is short, with the current heat and winds the flowers will soon be over.  So, on a spritely Sunday morning - to pick! 

A simple recipe for Elderflower Champagne, using the wild yeasts gathered on the blossom, tried and tested in several gallon quantities, by Christophe, brewer extraordinaire on Macalla Ecofarm, Clare Island, is the following:

5 heads of Elderflower (shaken for bugs) ; 1 Lemon (very finely sliced); 500g Sugar, 1 tbsp Cider Vinegar (White Wine if to hand), 5lt Water.

Put the lot in a fermenting bucket, stir, cover with a tea-towel, and leave to ferment stirring regularly to dissolve the sugar, for three to four days, depending on the rate of fermentation. Then bottle in sterilised screw-top bottles and keep for a month at least before drinking.

Put the lot in a fermenting bucket
A momentary panic set in here, when my own batch failed to start fermenting. Perhaps due to the temperature of this house, where even my Sourdough takes a full twenty-four hours as opposed to the usual ten.

The unsettling time is now over, a flash of sunshine had the brew in burgeoning effervescence.  And yesterday afternoon, smartly, for over fermenting in air can turn the drink acrid, the Champagne was strained through muslin and bottled using a siphon.  Already a glorious, if slightly sweet, sparkling Elderflower wine, the in-bottle fermentation will allow the flavour to mature and, I believe, ferment the remaining sugars.
A couple of litres was kept aside to ferment for Wine in an airlocked Demijohn... As I stacked the many bottles into the Shed, alongside the other pickles and preserves, and saw the Garden Shed/Pantry 'plenishing I was reminded of a Macalla Farm adage:   We may have holes in our clothes, but we are rich... 

Inspired by With Knife and Fork’s “Elderflower Rush”, and having picked a lot of gooseberries to encourage better fruiting, I decided to attempt Elderflower and Gooseberry Rush:
Elderflower and Gooseberry Vodka

Top and tail 200g Gooseberries and pierce.  Add these, 5 heads of Elderflower, 250g of Sugar and 70cl Vodka to a Demijohn.  Shake well to help dissolve sugar.  Store in a cool dark place, shaking regularly for the first month.  Strain and Bottle.  Mature in bottle for a further month.

Pickled Gooseberries

The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, a handy-sized guide to the multitudinous means of preserving, lured me, and with it in hand I soon found myself pickling the remaining Gooseberries.  Sadly, as is perhaps painfully evident as I write, I am far from adept at following recipes.  The Pickled Gooseberries turned out quite other to the gleaming tender pink/green berries I had envisaged bedecked in a rich gloopy coating of cinnamon-spiced vinegary syrup – No!  Mine were a rather watery hotchpotch of Gooseberry seeds and skin in various merging pallid tones.
"a rather watery hotchpotch of Gooseberry seeds and skin in various merging pallid tones"

From this description, I know you cannot but wish to get hold of my own variation on the recipe.  I thus include it herewith:

Top and tail 200g Gooseberries (pert, green).

Put 150ml Cider Vinegar and 150ml Cider, Cinnamon, Cloves, Root Ginger in a pan.  Boil. Simmer for 5 mins.  Leave to cool.  Once cool, strain and place Gooseberries and ¼ Red onion thinly sliced in the mixture, 2tsp Mustard Seeds and a Chilli.  Heat slowly without bringing to the boil (I fear I cooked my own too quick, encouraging the Gooseberries to fall to pieces). Simmer very very slowly until Gooseberries tender.  Strain, keeping liquid.  Pack fruits into warm, sterilised jars. Meanwhile add 200g sugar to liquid and reduce to a thick syrup. Cover the Gooseberries in Syrup.  Seal and keep for a month before eating, allowing the Gooseberries to fully pickle.

Prior to making, I had imagined the berries served with a Camembert or a Pyrenean Ewes Cheese. However, at the result, I think this would be more appropriate served with Mackerel in a pickled variation on the Maquereau aux Groseilles theme.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Eulogy to Norfolk Roadside Wares