Is this a Paella or just my deconstructed dish of chicken, mussels and saffron rice? How important is tradition when it comes to a national dish? (Spain of course in this instance). Should it constrain us or free us to improvise?
They say Paella was once a meal eaten outdoors, made in a flat pan over a fire pulled together from foraged sticks. It was a meal eaten by workers in the fields from what could be caught and added to with rice and herbs, (often rabbit and snails). Somehow it evolved into a dish of many elements, but held together by rice, garlic and saffron.
I've been told by a friend just back from Madrid that as the dish is originally from Valencia, everywhere else, you just call it rice - arroz con pollo y langostinos, for example. Only in Valencia is it Paella. In Codoba, you order rice with...
Now that's taking local appellation very seriously. Close relatives of the Paella, or rice cooked with other "stuff" (as a one pot dish) are everywhere.
The best polo I know is Shireen Polo - rice, chicken, slivered pistachio and almonds, orange rind, carrots, saffron, the whole sweetened with a dangerous amount of sugar which makes the golden colours glisten. It's definitely made for an occasion.
Is a Jumbalaya just a saffron-free Paella? Is Biryani just a young sibling of the Pilau? (Didn't some Persians drop down into India some centuries ago?) Is Paella just Shireen Polo without the nuts? There is certainly different rice used in each dish, perhaps different spicing but ultimately, I guess, it's down to provenance, locality, country, "terroir". So in Australia, what do we call it?
And is there ever a life situation, gastronomic or other, that can't be illustrated by a Seinfeld episode? Compare dumpy George with the sexy, exuberant Kramer.
George Costanza: Paella? It’s a mélange of meat and fish with rice. Very tasty.
Kramer: Have you ever had really good paella? Oh, it's an orgiastic feast for the senses. A festival of sights, sounds and colours.
So I have a nice robust chicken, some locally sourced mussels, tiny broad beans picked that morning by my brother Jean-Pierre, (grown by his wife Liz), and enough saffron left with which to be generous before my next "gift box" arrives.
As usual, I'm with Kramer, the hipster doofus. (Seinfeld, season 5, eps 18 & 19)
And it's a very difficult dish to make in small quantities!
Georges mother Estelle Costanza: What am I gonna do with all this Paella?
(And this very week, in the Spectator, I read about Paella. paella-five-top-tips
Zeitgeist! We concur and I further learn you eat it with a spoon, which I feel very comfortable with. Yes, yes, the Spectator is a monstrously conservative mag. It can, unfortunately, be very amusing. Trust me, I balance it with The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times et al and my natural bolshy tendencies,)
So tradition or improvisation? A close friend and I should/could host a cooking show. No, not The Two Fat Ladies but the Traditionalist and the Iconoclast.
Join the conversation.
Comment👇. Are you a traditionalist or an iconoclast?
My Hervey Bay scallops, grilled with herb butter and espelette pepper. I miss the orange "coral" but they're pristinely trimmed and easy! (Waechtersbach serving platter with pierced draining plate, early 1950s.)
Went to lunch recently at a new restaurant. Slick decor, "tribal" tattoos, local gin, a hint of "shabby-chic", a wine list with just enough "natural" wines to be in the zone, a tempting menu of politically-correct provenance. It was easy to have trust in the next few hours.
There were some neat, small starters and a nice idea with lamb to follow - a slow-cooked braised shoulder on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses.
My friend said "Lamb, pomegranate, pickled lemon? That sounds nice."
Our order was taken and for main course, we requested the lamb.
The waiter said "You mean the slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb, on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses? Good choice." *
Strangely, when asked about bharat and nduja, our waiter said he'd have to ask the kitchen.
It was a warm spring day so we settled for a chilled glass of trendy grüner veltliner rather than a red and played around with our starters - some better than average (much better) falafels, excellent Hervey Bay scallops and grilled eggplant with pine nuts.
Plates cleared, our main course arrived and was put down for us to share. The waiter said, "We have here your slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses."
Now I could have said "Well that's a relief because that's what the menu said and what I was expecting." Sarcasm however, would have ruined the mood.
But is this just too much information, too often?
Do we need this? Do you think this is good service? Incidentally, I'd love to go back and have more of the menu but how about "Can I describe any dish for you?" rather than automatically getting a full shopping list, cooking instructions and culinary road map?
*And what branch of people management teaches this art of positive reenforcement. Our lamb was a "good choice" but at the next table the chargrilled octopus with black rice and foraged samphire was surprisingly also a "good choice". If I'd been having a low self- esteem day, I would have been confused.
Tell me if I'm being difficult. 👇
My favourite glasses*, on the windowsill the next day after dinner, are waiting to be washed by hand. These don't "dish-wash", the shape is awkward and they're old enough to suffer pitting from the machine detergent. I wash and leave them to drain on one of those spongy towelling mats.
I love the cooking and the planning. I love the experimenting. I love the gatherings. I love the memories the next day as I dump the empty wine bottles in the bin. I love the putting away of my toys we have played with that evening. I love the calm meditation later over the ironing. But let's face it, even when there are only two of us, it's still work - the price of pleasure- the wages of sin.
Now to share. I've been a little overwhelmed lately by hospital visits, taxi servicing, consoling, listening, empathising. I'm bloody exhausted.
But over the last eight days, we've been fed and cared for at a casual lunch over-looking the beach, after a Vernissage** (a dazzling post art gallery opening dinner for 12) and a Sunday evening table of five with very amusing friends.
Two artists at work.
Left: Jo - lazy lunch on the verandah. We could be anywhere from Pt Elliott to Pondicherry, from Bali to Bora Bora.
Right: Liz - sumptuous atmosphere with cleverly re-purposed "stuff" from auctions and junk shops.
Here were three days out of eight when I didn't have to think, didn't have to face an untidy kitchen when I came to make my jentacular*** cup of tea, didn't have to unload the dishwasher. Bliss. Can you imagine how helpful, how fabulous that was?
Remember this. It's so easy to add a couple of people to an evening meal or put together a sandwich or salad lunch. It could really make a difference to someone's week.
*Glasses - The tall ones - Holmgaard Princess, mid 60s. (Catch sight of them in Darling, 1965, Julie Christie, Dirk Bogart, Laurence Harvey.) Lovely, but admittedly a touch unstable; only used with certain friends. Rear, Kosta Boda Isadora, mid 80s.
**Vernisage - the French expression for an art gallery opening. I've heard it used here sometimes. (It's possibly from the early 1800s, when artists could varnish or put finishing touches to their work before opening to the general public.)
***Jentacular - You can't live without this word. It relates to any pre-breakfast ritual - a walk, a cup of tea, the crossword...
Comment 👇 and help out a friend.
A Tajine is a dish named after the pot it's cooked in. Simple, perhaps.
Alice is a Danish friend in Kopenhavn. She bought the tajine (left) in Morocco a few weeks ago and starting working on it immediately (right).
The dish is of glazed earthenware, has two pieces, attractively decorated. It cooks and works nicely as a serving dish. It is placed over embers to cook very slowly. In a modern kitchen, a diffuser needs to be used between the dish and the hotplate, to moderate the temperature and also to risk not cracking the dish. Modern ones are made with a heavy cast iron bottom with the funnel top of earthenware.
A modern tajine - not as romantic but might be easier, cast-iron base and ceramic lid.
Tajines are stews or casseroles or ragouts, whatever. They are mixtures of meat, lamb, chicken or fish with vegetables. They are sometimes just vegetables. They often incorporate fruit, dried or fresh, nuts and honey. The aim can be for a sweet sour balance but they are always aromatic with saffron and or a spice mix, ras el hanout, more often than not (see below).
Popular, traditional or classic combinations might be...
They are beautifully aromatic, sometimes spicy hot, sometimes not. You get the idea.
A Tajine is not a Couscous. You eat a Tajine with bread on the side, not couscous. You eat couscous with a Couscous (see post 20th Oct. 2017).
Would you like to cook a Tajine? Can you prepare a Tagine without a tajine? Do you need a tajine?
So first, get going with some preserved lemons and some ras el hanout.
(I've made the assumption that you know how to get a stew going. For a Tajine, start with lots of onion, two at least for a serve of 4 and go from there. If you'd like a real recipe, just contact me. I'm happy to oblige.)
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Ras el hanout - the spice mixture, not exactly the Alice B Toklas mix.
(Dinner plate - Rosenthal "Landscape" 2008 - Patricia Urquiola, architect).
By 1907, the Americans, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were comfortably settled in Paris and were home to writers and artists such as Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse. Stein managed the salon, Toklas, supported, ran the house and cooked.
After the war, Stein died unexpectantly, leaving a badly organised will, with Toklas caring for the collection and very little to live on. To make ends meet, in 1954 she published The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook which was a run-away success with its collection of French and American recipes.
Today the book is mainly known for its memoir of their lives together and for two recipes; ras el hanout and hashish fudge (given to her by Brion Gysin, friend and Surrealist).
There is a Youtube Alice B. Toklas Hash Fudge on making hashish fudge which looks like a hip health-food bar or protein ball, chock-a-block full of nuts, dates and dried figs - yum. (Toklas warned that 2 pieces are ample for a lively evening.)
Her ras el hanout is a mixture of around fifteen ingredients, three of which you may wish to omit. (1) Spanish fly, known as an aphrodisiac is the crushed secretion (cantharidin) of the blister beetle (lytta vesicatoria) and causes itching and swelling of the appropriate organs, so we can live without that. (2) Dried mariuhana heads might be put to better use and (3) the crushed rose petals I recommend only if you dry them yourself. (Those supplied for potpourri have been dangerously sprayed.)
Ras el hanout – my mixture
This looks like a mix of anything you can lay your hands on, a hodgepodge, the more the merrier, but it's indeed quite glorious. You can buy it in supermarkets, I hear, but the liveliness of the mix is more apparent when you make your own. You can also lean a bit towards your favoured spice (e.g. introduce fennel seeds if you're doing a vegetable or fish dish). It should be spicy with a hint of the sweet and floral.
Use it liberally, anytime, anywhere, roughly 3 teaspoons in a dish for 4 people.
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Coriander
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Ground Ginger
1 tsp Peppercorns
½ tsp Allspice
½ tsp Cardamom
½ tsp Cloves (4 whole)
½ tsp Paprika/Cayenne (your call, heat-wise)
½ tsp Turmeric
½ tsp Salt
(As an aside, might I suggest a double recipe, in a small re-usable clip-lock box, as an unusual and creative house present along with your bottle of wine.)
Grind fresh as many whole spices as possible or on hand. My mother's Algerian, brass mortar and pestle is useful but now that George Cluny makes my coffee, my coffee grinder is dedicated to spices.
In North African cuisine, where the preference is for softer, less acrid pungency, the spices are not dry roasted. Ras el hanout is similar to the Israeli baharat, but think also of the Indian panch phoron or garam masala, the French quatre épices. They are very useful.
(Stein & Toklas, both with rabbinical Jewish parents, were collaborators during the war, disturbingly accepting help from the Vichy government to live safely on the Swiss border. Their collection of art works was not plundered.)
New home page - in season and we could be eating artichokes. To prepare them, perhaps re-look at Blog Post 19th December, 2018)
And broad beans are around too. A braise, Greek-style, of small artichokes, broad beans and mint is a winner. Remember to eat the stem but avoid the leaves.
Chicken Tagine with Mograbieh & Minted Yoghurt
This lovely chicken tagine is from Ashraf Saleh, who features as guest chef in the week-end magazine "Life" section of national newspaper, The Australian. Saleh is chef/owner of Coya in Sydney; his book Coya: French Middle Eastern Cuisine could break my "no more cook books" mantra.
The recipe calls for an organic chicken. Now I'm as "woke" as your next foodie-eco-warrior but I must ask, would the recipe still work if I used a free-range chicken, or a corn-fed chicken, or a macro-biotic chicken? What about a harassed mum who just grabs a poor blighted supermarket chook on her way home? (A previous "guest chef" recipe called for free-range chicken pieces. Once again, would an organic chicken have ruined the recipe?)
I'm being facetious here, but what do I require of a chicken?
Mograbieh is sometimes called pearl couscous, sometimes Israeli couscous, sometimes Lebanese couscous. It's now made specifically to size and dried. It was once a by-product of making couscous from scratch, by hand at home, something that is rarely done today. My mother could do it. I can do it, but rarely choose to.
When the semolina is dampened in the open flat wooden bowl, and rolled and rubbed to create the fine grains of couscous, there are always some large ones formed, the size of a small pea, that are winnowed and set aside.
Mograbieh is basically little round pasta. Whatever, it's a useful starch alternative, under stews or roasts or part of a salad.
A Tagine is both a dish and the pot it's cooked in. If you make a tagine, (often a combination of meat, vegetables, sometimes dried fruit) but cook it in a covered saucepan or casserole, can it be called a tagine? A conundrum.
Tagines are often just a decorative kitchen piece or an exotic serving dish, the earthenware base and funnel-like lid needing to be handled carefully. Le Creuset make a "modern" one with a cast iron bottom and red earthenware top. (There have also been good ones at a fraction of the cost at Aldi!) As the food simmers, the steam rises up the funnel and dribbles back down, round and round, like a retort in gin making. It does seem to create rich flavours.
Perhaps there will be a mograbieh recipe and a tagine in my next post. And I'll make sure to get an organic, free-range chicken.
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It looks like our Gastronomy Book Club is going ahead.
Those keen to read and who can't join the face to face, live group, can be part of a wider, on-line connection. We have started a "closed" Facebook page and only book club people will be able to read comments posted. We'll see how we go. Let us know if you want to be included. If you're not a "Facebooker", we'll email information, comments etc. to you, nonetheless.
We're going to start easily. We may leave Brillat Savarin, the Greek philosophers and the Post-Modernists for later! October's book will be Bee Wilson - The Way We Eat Now. The title is self-explanatory. I was particularly touched by the loss of the lunch hour and the family table.
November's book will be Gabrielle Hamilton - Blood, Bones, Butter - an autobiographical account of her life in food, through an eccentric, hippy, slightly dysfunctional childhood, her discovery of Italy and to her N.Y. restaurant Prune.
Let us know if you'd like to join the gastronomy readers.
Lunch at Chez Jupiter, a very French little bistro in Adelaide.
Apparently "Bill Anxiety" is a thing, another one of those 21st C, First World problems. It's experienced at the end of a shared lunch or dinner when faced with the account. Recent studies show (love that phrase) that about 75% of diners who eat out feel uncomfortable when eating in a group, to such an extent that many even consider not going out at all. Will they be asked to split the bill or pay separately?
Come on, people! Are we friends, or what?
Most restaurants state they will not prepare separate bills. This annoys some people. Having seen it from the restaurant side, I understand how difficult, time consuming and petty paying separately can be. Are we concerned that others have ordered more than we have or that we have over-stepped the mark and look greedy?
(As an ex-school teacher I can share the joke that teachers are notorious - from Athens to Sydney, from Paris to Anchorage. "I had the fish, you had the salad but you spent more drachmas on the wine." Or "But you had Saint-Géron (the "niche", very delicate, lightly effervescent French water ) but I had tap."
Don't give the restaurant a hard time. Don't look tacky. Come up with a strategy and a strategy means talking.
When might you possibly pay the whole bill? More of that later.
Are you a sharer or a separate payer?
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