28 February 2011

Braised fish and tofu (dou fu shao yu)

This dish of braised fish and beancurd is fairly similar to the mapo tofu I made a week or two ago. It doesn’t have any minced meat in, rather some lumps of fish that are made extra tasty by being first fried. As Szechuan is an inland area the fish eaten there seem to be freshwater carp and catfish. FD recommends various substitutes (mullet here) but I had some odds and sods in the freezer which needed eating up so I used some snapper pieces that had been maturing in a drawer since their impromptu and purposeless purchase in Dalston over a year ago. They worked fine!

This one is of course another winner and tastes as might be expected. You get to enjoy the lovely soft beancurd, the hot and numbing spice combo and then the fried crust of the fish, now soaked in the delicious braising liquid.

Ingredient used fairly often in Szechuan recipes are the preserved vegetable ya cai (similar to the Tidjan ones available in shops) and preserved salted chillies. The Tianjin vegetables are pretty cheap and come in a pretty earthenware pot (visuals below). They have a real strong, salty taste and should be used almost as a seasoning I feel, chopped up small and mixed in with meat or veg. I don't have any Szechuan salted chillies yet so I substituted some pickled Turkish ones chopped up small. These two ingredients were tossed in with some stir-fried Chinese cabbage type thing (sorry, have no idea of real name - like a pale yellow/green long lettuce shape with a watery stem) and dressed with a minor sprinkling of sesame oil, which made a nice vegetable side dish. Like the mapo tofu this sauce was composed of stock and thickened. Scatter with spring onions greens and eat with rice. Super hearty.

24 February 2011

Red-braised beef with vegetables (hong shao niu rou)

all hail fermented chilli-bean paste, food of the gods

Refrshingly, the (European) received wisdom of starting every braise or stew by frying onions and browning the meat to maximise flavour does not apply here. Since they are two of the few things that take any time, the prep time of this dish is seriously short - under five minutes. The chilli-bean paste packs so much flavour it's all you need. I wonder if a crossover stew inclusive of these two steps, with many onions cooked down in the stock, would be a success?

Fry chilli-bean paste in oil and add chilli and SP. I found the amount of SP specified by FD in the previous dish I made a bit on the conservative side so beefed it up by a factor of around three. Add the beef (something cheap and with fat/collagen to release) stock, a star anise, a drop of dark soy sauce for colour and some smashed ginger. Simmer for one or two hours, adding the veg to cook at an appropriate time.

Big white radish aka mooli/daikon is specified here and is a lovely vegetable – porous and good at absorbing savoury liquids whilst retaining structural integrity and a decent crunch. I also had some common or garden radish and kohlrabi to use up from this salad and a depressed and wrinkled beetroot waiting aimlessly on the window sill. That went in too. Maybe not wholly authentic but it did the trick. To complete the low-effort ethos I just tipped in some noodles rather than bother to do rice.

one-pot goodness

I used ox cheek for this as Waitrose had some reduced to crazy cheap levels. Much as I've enjoyed it before it went almost too soft here, whilst maintaining a slight rubbery-ness that was not wholly pleasant. I can imagine shin being nice here: maybe it would be a touch more succulent.

PS. Szechuan experts - do your Szechuan peppercorns have the hard gritty seed in the middle of the husk? Some of mine do and when you bite in to them it can get a bit emotional - perhaps superior stocks somehow have this bit removed? Thanks!

23 February 2011

Szechuan season - pock-marked mother Chen's beancurd (mapo tofu)

Why oh why have I only just got around to getting the ingredients needed for cooking Szechuan food at home? What a fool. I got the ubiquitous (and excellent) book by Fuscia Dunlop a while ago but a quick read on a work-bound bus gave me the impression that a large amount of obscure or hard to obtain ingredients were needed for even the most basic of recipes. When I browsed it more thoroughly one lazy weekend morning I realised this wasn’t true at all. What you really, really, need is not much – fermented broad-bean and chilli paste (dou ban jiang), Szechuan peppercorn and dried chillis pop up in most things, with Shaoxing wine, preserved vegetables and Chinkiang vinegar forming a second rank of importance.

I’ve been eating in the amazing Szechuan restaurants London has to offer and evangelising to friends and family about them but finally I can do it at home! And bonus of bonuses – it’s dead quick and very easy.

tofu - most misunderstood of ingredients

Straight into a classic – Mapo tofu. My, what wondrous interplay of ingredients! Feel the heat, feel the soft tofu, taste the salt and savour of the bean paste (best ingredient ever) and then feel the heat again. Lips kissed by the spices for seconds afterwards. Bliss.
  • 500g tofu
  • bunch of spring onions
  • chilli bean paste
  • Szechuan peppercorns + dried chillis (I used Vietnamese medium ones and they were grand)
  • fermented black beans (not essential I found)
  • thickener (potato flour recommend by FD but I used corn flour very happily)
  • light soy

Soak the tofu in chunks in boiling water. Toast SPs and chilli and grind down to a powder. Fry the bean paste in oil, add chillis and fermented black beans. I did a vegetarian version but traditionally here you would add minced beef and fry it (or pork and shiitake mushrooms for a Hunanese version apparently).

Add the tofu, and stock (veg bouillon is fine) and simmer for five minutes. Add the spring onions, soy sauce and the thickening agent. 'Break the rawness' of the spring onions for a few minutes then dish it out. Suggested serving: cover with massive amounts of ground chilli and SP.

Delicious with some greens on the side - cucumber and kale in this case softened in the pan and dressed with sesame oil.

17 February 2011

A salad with truffles and a mushroom pie of sorts

Nicked from Bocca Di Lupo, a valentine's day salad seemed like a good excuse for us to try some of the truffles waiting in the cupboard.
  • radish
  • celeriac or kohlrabi at a push
  • truffle or truffle oil
  • pecorino or parmesan
  • pomegranate

Slice the veg as thin as possible and artfully strew with pomegranate seeds (is seeds the right word?) and lashings of parmesan. Drizzle over the truffle oil and/or slice the truffle on top. Top up with some extra virgin and a splash of red wine vinegar.

When I've had this salad at the restaurant I think they also put parsley in it which is a good clean, green addition. The first time it combined normal radishes and slices of a giant black type and the second time radish with celeriac. Could it also work with mooli perhaps? I couldn't lay my hands on any celeriac so went for kohlrabi, remembering Bread & Wine doing something nice with it sliced raw and thin and dotted with a lemony oil. In truth I think it's a pretty rubbish vegetable but in thin slices it can at least lend a welcome crunch.

And then a supreme mushroom pie (kind of).

  • mixture of fresh musrooms
  • dried porcini
  • tin of those small and slimy Italian ones found sometime in antipasto
  • onion or leeks
  • double cream
  • sage, garlic, Dijon mustard and drop of balsamic vinegar

Blind bake some pastry pie-bottoms in remekins.

Fry the onions slowly for half and hour with some butter until really soft. Rehydrate the dried mushrooms in boiling water. Add sage and garlic to onion mix and fry, then add the fresh mushrooms. When their leatheriness had gone add the refreshed porcini with their juice and then the cream and vineger. Correct seasoning, add to the pastry shells and bake. The sage, cream and mushroom combo is the business!
 A fine dinner with some mash and veg

Happy valentine's day team.

15 February 2011

Tagliatelle with guanciale and leek

I got some goodies in Bologna a few weeks ago and wanted to try this guanciale I got, along with  bottarga (tuna, not the phenomenally expensive mullet version) and a fat rock of parmesan, from a nice looking deli. It's made from the cured jowl of a pig and I had never had it before.

This is just a simple pasta combo - the meat has a deep, almost dusty savouriness to it, the leeks offer a bit of greenery and the chilli and garlic (plus some parmesan and black pepper at the end) complete the savoury megamix.

Ingredients (for one)
  • eight fat matchsticks of guanciale
  • one garlic clove
  • one pinch dried chilli
  • one medium leek
  • one big grate parmesan

Fry the guanciale. The fat has an amazing perlescent quality and becomes translucent when heated. I recommend going through the translucent stage and well into the stage of crisp - it's going to be a but rubbery otherwise. Some of the fat renders out and will coat the pasta if boosted with a drop of olive oil (definitely time to bring out the extra-spesh-extra-virgin).

When this is half way done add the leek to soften. I like a lot of leek and wish I had put more in but this is at your discretion naturally! Add the garlic and chilli half way through the leek softening. When everything is looking good add to some cooked pasta (you’ve had that on the boil all this time, right?) and things should be looking lovely.


7 February 2011

Congee Mk 2 - aromatic lamb

After my first attempt at congee I fancied another go to try and perfect the texture and thickness, this time with a rich lamb stock with lots of aromatic spices in. This amount served four. Some interesting history.

    • half a scrag end of lamb, sliced
    • one onion and one head garlic, cleaved in twain
    • chilli, cloves, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon and coriander seed
    • two scant handfuls of rice
    • medium chopped root vegetables, any veg lying around
    • soy and fish sauce

First make the stock: brown the lamb, onion and garlic. If you are bothering to brown meat pre-stewing then you need to get plenty of colour on the meat to get the malliard reaction going. I read about scorching onions and garlic before going in the stockpot and, er, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Not sure it led to any extra flavour in the congee but it's not going to do any harm if you have the pan going already for the meat.

When it's done add to a pan of cold water along with the dry spices. Aromatic and a mite of heat is the way to go here I feel. Simmer for 1.5 hours. Take the sliced scrag out, cool and remove the meat from the bone. Strain the stock and return to pan. Squeeze the cooked garlic back into the soup, chop the cooked onion and return that also. Add the rice to the stock and put the bones back in to ensure max flavour extraction. When the rice is getting really soft and starting to break down (this seems to take ages) add the other veg (I used carrot, parsnip (sweetness worked really well) and baby leeks) and cook till everything is done. Remove the bones, put the shredded meat back in and then when everything is hot add a shot of fish sauce (nam pla) and two shakes of soy.

Rubbish pic of finished article

Hmm, still not nailed the rice cooking part. Nowhere near. This congee had discernible rice grains in it, albeit visibly disintegrating ones. Some of the photos on the net show a cloudy stock and almost jellied consistency with no individual grains of rice left. Am I using the wrong rice? I just used an easy-cook one I had in store. Still, it was tasty and warming soup. Scrag end definitely seems reminiscent of oxtail in mouthfeel and levels of fat, collagen and gelatine. So I guess I'll carry on - keen, green congee dilettante - in looking for the perfect mix!

1 February 2011

Hot and sweet plum chutney

I like chutney recipes which cook everything together in one pot. No need to soften the onions in this one - everything goes in, simmers for an hour and then comes out. The recipe is from Nigel Slaters's Tender II. It's an extremely handsome book but I'm finding it better to look at than cook from at the moment. Could just be me, mind.


    • 750g plums
    • 250g brown sugar
    • 125g raisins
    • 350g chopped onions
    • 150ml each cider and malt vinegar
    • two teaspoon yellow mustard seeds, one salt and half dried chilli
    • cinnamon stick

Two things I reckon seem to happen with chutneys, though I'm still learning the ropes. Firstly they become less liquid after a while which is good as this one really needs it. And secondly the flavour gets better - rounder, with the harshness of the vinegar receding and the gentler tones of fruit, sugar and spice coming to the front. At least that’s what I’m hoping happens here. At the moment it’s tangfastic beyond belief: mouth-puckeringly sharp, sweet and vinegary at the same time. I'm hoping that a lie down in a dark place for a month or so will tame it a bit.

PS. If anyone knows about the scientific reasons behind chutneys maturing and changing in taste please do tell.