Black Holly Leaves of Doom
This is definitely the worst thing I've ever produced, the worst thing I've ever pulled from an oven, the worst miscalculation of any recipe I've ever tried.
I'm not wild about a commercial panettone. They are too airy and often with too much undefinable (i.e artificial) flavouring. So I did a lot of talking around and reading about its culture, history and preparation. I went from Paul Hollywood (British Scouser from The Great British Bake-Off) to Carol Field, Marcella Hazan and Pellegrino Artusi et al.
It all seemed like a wank, a procedure aimed at making the cook feel important, admired and loved. Days of angst with three different fermentations and proofing! Rubbish! None of that. I understand pastry, I make brioche with my eyes shut, for me puff pastry replaces yoga.
Instead of making panettone, I decided to make a festive, culturally sensitive, fruit-studded brioche. Culturally sensitive in that I wanted to stay away from any rebukes from my Italophile friends. You know how it goes, add one more mint leaf to a traditional risotto recipe and you'll be banned from the aperitivo for life.
So instead, I ended up with this. What went wrong? It is literally inedible and I use the word correctly. It's as dry as if it had been made a week ago and left un-covered on the bench. Toasted this morning and buttered, it didn't improve and there's not much that can't be fixed with a good buttering.
What do I learn?
What to do with this? Perhaps I'll make Tiramisu but is this allowed with messed-up brioche? I could make a trifle and be careful not to call it Zuppa Inglese. I'll also go buy a panettone.
Apart from pride and ignorance, where did I go wrong?
I’m lucky to have a greengrocer who dares to stock artichokes. Some growers keep a small crop on the side, it seems, and some plants come from local back yards. To most people the fresh variety remains a mystery. I’ve been asked what they are and what you do with them.
There’s a lot of fancy stuff on the grocers’ shelves that has little going for it, IMO. Dragon fruit? Gorgeous to look at but tasteless. Chokos? OK, plentiful on someone’s back fence but flavour ditto.
I love artichokes. I love them for sensible reasons. I love them for shallow reasons.
They are fun. They taste good. They’re easy to prepare for a spectacular outcome. They are strange, esoteric, arcane (great word). They are a great vehicle for sauces such as hollandaise, mayonnaise, vinaigrette. They are an excuse for an artichoke plate! They are healthy. (Gosh! Never thought I’d stoop so low. More later.)
But most of all, I like them because they are slow to eat. They take time (like eating crabs), time to chat and lick your fingers.
To prepare them, pull off perhaps the two bottom rows of very small petals, cut off the stem, discard. Cut off the top 3-4 cm and trim the rest of the leaves with scissors, just to neaten the globe.
Have some water simmering with a cut lemon in it to help keep the artichoke's colour. Be warned. With all the trimming, there will be debris! Simmer in gently rolling water for at least 15 minutes. This is not the time for "modern" crunchy vegetables. Check they are very tender by piercing the bottom with a knife tip.
Drain the artichokes up-side-down. Serve at room temperature, on a plate with a dipping bowl of sauce per person. (An artichoke plate, of course, is designed to hold the bulb, hold the sauce and also hold the discarded leaves in an orderly fashion.)
How do you eat them? Now you've done the work, how do you get the reward?
Start at the bottom. Pull off a petal. You will eat only the soft base (the rest is inedible). Dip the end into your sauce. Now for the tricky part. Turn it over, concave down, and pull/scrape away the flesh with your lower teeth. (See my teethmarks, above.)
Keep going round and around until you get to the hairy choke. (This is the part that becomes the flower.) With a small sharp knife, trim this away. (Often it will pull away easily.) You have now reached the prize - the artichoke heart. Voilà.
OK, you're not going to be gorging yourself with this but the pleasure is not only the flavour but the slowness. (All this for just the tip, you ask. Surely saner and more ethical than hummingbirds' tongues.)
Tick if this helps. Tell me how you go. Comment or add to the conversation, below.
Left: Artichoke bush in the garden.
Right: Atichoke, grown huge and spiky, just ready to bloom.
Artichokes are thistles and left on their bush long enough, the buds become huge, tough and spiky, developing the purple flower we associate with Scottish kilts, Laphroaig and Sean Connery. We buy the young, underdeveloped buds. They can be green, purple, round or pointed.
When we first arrived in Australia (Ten Pound Poms, French mother) my mother took us out to pick tiny wild artichokes. Well of course, they were thistles - and delicious they were, too.
Jerusalem Artichokes are a lovely tuber dug from the roots of a type of sunflower. They bear no relation to the artichoke. The English names are very confusing. In French, there are artichauts and topinambours, respectively. In Italian there are carciofi and topinambur.
Hoping one day someone will make me artichaut à la juive or carciofi alla giudia, an old Jewish recipe from Rome. Whole artichokes are deep-fried in olive oil (imagine the quantity of oil) so that they open like roses and can be eaten like potato crisps.
Avoid bringing the leaves anywhere near food. They are extremely bitter. An unfortunate friend once got creative and added the leaves to a dish of chicken and artichokes - for decoration. Disaster. The leaves can be rubbed on your fingers if you're still fighting the urge to bite your nails.
Don't attempt to eat the fibrous petals. They get more tender towards the centre. I've seen people make valiant attempts to eat the lotus leaf or banana leaf wrapping around Chinese sticky rice and the sugar cane of Vietnamese sugarcane prawns. Artichoke petals should also be left alone. You can't have it all.
A strange sweetness can invade your mouth when you drink red wine with artichokes. This happens only to some people. Any ideas, anyone?
Artichokes not only contain every nutritional device, meme and trope imaginable, every vitamin, folate, fibre, antioxidant (highest level of any vegetable), known for thousands of years. You know the story. But it is particularly useful it seems, for the digestive system and can be delivered to you through a glass of Cynar, a digestive so bitter, it's impossible to imagine it doing you anything but good. It could remove original sin, given a chance along with plague, locusts, boils and pestilence.
The plates - any large plate will do, large enough to hold the discarded petals as you eat but...
Majolica artichoke plates have been made by the French company Gien since the late 19th C. Mine were collected bit by bit on eBay but date no later than the 1970s.
Isabella Blow with shoemaker Manolo Blahnik (Shutterstock)
What makes a great host? Someone who invites you! I share Isabella Blow's sentiments...
"My style icon is anybody who makes a bloody effort," said Isabella
Blow (1957 - 2007)
At this time of year we’re inundated with advice on getting through the holiday/party season sanely. Happens every year, year in year out, but are we listening? Well, here we go – more advice.
First scenario - You don’t often gather friends around a table so you make up for it by preparing nine courses. They are all small but nine, nonetheless.
Let’s face it, we’re all bored by the dégustation menu concept. A mouthful here, mouthful there and nothing big enough to really taste. By the fifth course, I’m bored. Don’t bore your friends. Keep it simple and stay with them at the table with three (at the most four) pre-prepared courses.
A plate of asparagus with vinaigrette (or beurre blanc, previous post) is a course. A slice of terrine (bought from the French guy at the market) and a few cornichons (gherkins to you) is a course. A platter of nicely sliced tomatoes, some ripped mozzarella, some basil and olive oil is a course (don’t forget the salt and garlic). A Waldorf salad is a course (think Basil Fawlty). Prosciutto and melon (or figs) is a course.
Second scenario – I was asked how I managed the numbers. Their friends and extended family gather for a sumptuous feast of turkey, ham, prawns and up to seven different vegetables and salad. (Imagine for a moment what that all looks like on the plate.) I was asked, so I replied. I suggested that I would just never offer so many choices. She looked beatifically into the distance and sighed, “Ah, but they’ve come to expect it.” TOUGH!
It’s not the last supper.
After the first course, preferably vegetal (salad), think one protein, one carb, one veg, at the most two. Sounding like a dietician? Well check it out. Once you’ve had cheese or pudding, you’ve got the five food groups covered!
And stick the food down the table for guest to help themselves and pass on. You’re not a restaurant, canteen or a pub buffet. It’s friendly to pass, it creates intimacy and helps if conversation is touchy. “Could you pass the chutney?” “Have you had the broccoli?” “I adore mushrooms.” “I shouldn’t, peas make me burp.”
Third scenario – we arrive to eight glasses set up on the bench and some delicious toast fingers of chopped egg & top-notch anchovies, another with rare beef & pickled beetroot. After some Champagne we are directed to the table while SH discreetly sets out plates on a bench and pulls a couple of boxes from the refrigerator. She plonks some peeled, grilled capsicum at the bottom of each plate, tops with a ball of pre-wrapped, prosciutto-wrapped buffalo mozzarella. A scattering of oregano leaves, olive oil and voilà. She also removes a platter of thinly sliced cooked veal from the fridge, to allow it to come to room temperature. (Sorry no image. I was too engrossed.)
Main course to the table, vitello tonnato, the veal slathered in capers and a tuna mayonnaise, with extra in a sauce boat. Grilled broccolini accompanies as well as a salad of interesting green things, varied peas, beans, strips and leaves – superb. That is it.
After cheese – one perfect Délice de Bourgogne and some candied cumquats – comes a buttery raspberry cake with cream.
A perfect lunch for a warm day. We all laughed and gossiped and pledged undying love for friendship and each other.
There was no smell of burning martyr. SH is someone who makes a “bloody effort”, and her guests don’t have to suffer for it.
Click like and better still, add a comment or suggestion.
We were asked to lunch last week. When I walked into the space and saw the table, I knew all would be well - such sensible simplicity and such ease. (No mountains of tinsel and poinsettia crowding the table.)
You'd be hard pressed to find a more beautiful plate. Steph and I used to haunt the auctions where she found (for a song) this vintage pile of Villeroy & Boch - plates, sauceboats and platters. (Haven’t been able to date nor name it yet.)
It doesn’t get much better than to be invited to someone’s house. The end of the year, the festive season, whatever you wish to call it, there’s going to be a lot of hospitality going on. And it’s not about the food. We do it because we want to be with each other. So let’s have some open discussion this month on making it all happen, with dignity and grace.
Three simple pointers to start with, for both sides…
Be the best host/e
Be the best guest.
What are your pointers? Comment below.
Sauceboats - they don't pour, they're not meant to pour. Add a spoon, easy and no drips. European
sauceboats have attached underplates. Very sensible. If you can, have two per table. If you're still hunting around the junk shops, use a bowl with a spoon (rather than a jug).
I've long thought that serving fish well, basically boils down to having a lemon and to knowing two sauces - beurre blanc and sauce vièrge (see post 15/12 2018)
There has been a lot of feed back on the Coulibiac (November 2018 post), with promises to make one and send photos! In that case, you'll need to try a beurre blanc, the perfect sauce to serve along side. This is not a sauce for fat phobics and margarine eaters. If you think you'd better only have a small serve, perhaps this is not the sauce for you.
This sauce relies on technique and understanding. Somehow you are making oil and water emulsify. It's magic. BUT if my kitchen phobic partner can do it, anyone can. It can be made with red wine - nice with steak - and of course it is then a beurre rouge.
Beurre Blanc (a tidy serve for 6 to 8)
½ cup white wine
1 spring onion or 1 tbsp finely chopped shallots
dash of cream **
250 gm butter
seasoning to taste
lemon juice to taste
Use a saucepan with a handle so you can easily lift it on and off the heat to monitor the heating temperature.
Unfortunately the sauce should be made no earlier than 3/4 hour before serving. Let this be the only last minute thing you have to worry about.
Any left over can be eaten the next day spread on toast.
**Cream doesn't feature in the classic recipe but Gabriel Gaté suggested it to me as added protection against the sauce splitting.
New home page - an impressive Coulibiac. This is a free-form pie of salmon, rice, mushrooms and dill, wrapped in a brioche pastry, made to feed eight to ten. Originally Russian (Koulibiaka), it was refined for the classic French repertoire (see Escoffier) when French culture had a craze for all things Russian, such as ballet, samovars and Fabergé. (A Koulibiaka is in essence a large pirogi and might contain cabbage, a humble ingredient rare, if ever, seen in la cuisine française classique.)
My niece and I had a session recently to re-acquaint ourselves with its construction. Making a Coulibiac is certainly a "project" but an easy one, prepared ahead, cooked or re-heated for serving. Any stress from preparing its various components is compensated for by its easy (and stress free) finale. It's a fully integrated course, protein, vegetables, carbs all in a neat package! With a butter sauce or sour cream on the side, it's all you need.
When I had my restaurant, I encouraged my staff to hunt out old copies of the wonderful Time-Life Foods of the World series - (second-hand book stores, junk shops, garage sales). Anyone who dumped his or her copies in the eighties is sure regretting it now! The Classic French Cooking volume gives three A4 pages of dense recipe and instructions for Coulibiac, photographs extra. The salmon is poached in cream first, dill pancakes are prepared and used to wrap the layered filling, every layer is clearly defined, a brioche mousseline encases the whole. STOP! Our version is the "Readers Digest" of recipes and loses nothing in looks and flavour.
The melding of ingredients in a Coulibiac is a definition of "synergy".
It's an old-fashioned recipe. It's an entire meal. Craig Claiborne, restaurant critic, food writer and editor of the N.Y. Times said in 1976 "To my mind, it's the world's greatest dish".
It's a show stopper. Ours sits on an excessive bed of fresh flat leaf parsley - just because it was growing madly in the garden. Try it and let me know your results.
Coulibiac (Will generously feed up to eight or more.)
Filling - make this first
Olive oil for cooking
250 gm mushrooms sliced
200 gm (1 cup) long grain rice
2 eggs, hard boiled
1.5 kg salmon or ocean trout, skin off, fillet or pieces
1 – 2 tbsp chopped fresh dill (or 2 tsp dried)
Brioche - make this the day of assembly
1 tbsp dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1-2 tbsp sugar
550gm plain flour
80 gm butter, soft and cut into pieces
Extra egg for egg wash
Use the mixing bowl of a Kitchen Aid or large Magimix.
Close the ends neatly, tuck them under, cutting away any excess dough.
Glaze the Coulibiac with the egg wash and prick it attractively all over with a fork.
Now's the time to get creative, if you wish, with left over dough, decorating the top with leaves, flowers or fish.
Place the Coulibiac in the refrigerator for 1/2 an hour or for several hours until you're ready to bake it. Allow about 40 minutes, 180˚C (fan) or until the pastry is nicely golden.
Let it sit for 10 minutes before cutting and serving, having put it on an attractive oval platter.
Prepare a melted butter sauce, a beurre blanc or a bowl of sour cream to be passed around.
Cut the Coulibiac into slices about 2 cm thick and place in the centre of each plate. This can be done at the table. It's very rich. Second helpings may be possible. It needs nothing else, although green beans or asparagus would suit.
Let me know how you went. Do you need a beurre blanc recipe? Comment below.
I have just had 24 hours in hospital, undergoing a ten minute, non-threatening sinus surgery which kept me in hospital overnight. Once home, I wore a glamorous "tampon" under my nose for three days, secured from my ears. No photograph recommended nor available. The results have been spectacular, recovery easy and as for my fifteen year old ear, nose and throat specialist, she's obviously a genius.
Not one to miss an interesting gastronomic moment, I took the opportunity to observe the catering for my evening meal.
In my home state, “Menu & Nutritional Standards for Public Hospitals” is a manifesto of 23 pages, updated regularly by a “Working Party” with a serious grasp of jargon and ducumentese.
“It is recommended that a gap analysis of the current menu against the Standards and the nutritional implications of any noncompliance be completed. This will require Standards Recipes to be in place, with nutritional analyses.”
Language like this makes one feel secure, doesn’t it?
It is noted that food is "fundamental to patient care in that it meets nutritional needs and contributes to a sense of well-being. Patients are provided with a variety of safe and good quality food that is appealing, enjoyable, and nutritionally adequate".
But as T.S. Elliot wrote "Between the dream and the reality falls the shadow..."
Nutrition unfortunately, seems to be achieved through rampant margarine, low fat milk and desserts, low-joule everything, appalling bread, the cheapest commercial biscuits and lots of sugar.
In a recent local newspaper article, a panel was asked to review or critique the latest menus. The Public Hospitals representative and “professional” dietician judged the meals as excellent, 5/5.
"While patients are in hospital, diet is a number one priority and will govern how quickly a patient recovers. Looking forward to something delicious (and hopefully nutritious) will make the patient feel better, whatever their ailment.”
Needless to say both the food writer and “lay person” did not find the meals delicious, observing tactfully that not all the options survived the holding and reheating process.
Hospitals used to have kitchens but they were refurbished to become reheating and distributing facilities. Food now (for city and suburban hospitals) is prepared off site, highly mechanised, standardised and regimented. Pleasure and grace easily fall victim to economy and efficiency.
On my tray I had...
A tomato soup, pleasantly chunky but so sweet that frozen, it could have made sorbet.
Two very firm chicken croquettes topped with 2 teaspoons of "gravy" .
Vegetables, carrots, corn, peas (capsicum for colour) all reheated from frozen with not a skerrick of butter, also soft roasted potatoes.
A plastic tub of very sweet custard and a plastic tub of green jelly (so much plastic).
A cup of tepid water from which to make tea.
In for a knee operation a couple of years ago, my best hospital treat came from a smuggled-in extension cord, an electric jug, a teapot, some Darjeeling, and a Les Blakebrough cup with its SAUCER. Bliss, better than chocolates or flowers.
If you have a friend in hospital I suggest you take in a vinaigrette dressing (made by you – dash of Dijon mustard, 1 part white wine vinegar, four parts olive oil) to help the food along. It can be kept for each meal, in the bed-side locker, along with the prunes and dried pears, (depending on your Endone requirements).
(But of course, hospital food is notorious. My tray was not brilliant but believe me, there is worse. Barcelona, in possibly Europe's top heart hospital, my partner was served a thick slice of steamed eggplant, no seasoning, no dressing, no salsa de tomate. Nada. (Check out on-line sites such as "Hospital Foods of the World" for some interesting viewing.)
Any ideas on improving a friend's hospital tray? Comment below.
Warning - controversial content follows.
Do vegans cook? Can vegans cook?
We were eating recently at our favourite Thai restaurant, Soi.38, in Adelaide. We started with a plate of Sago Peanut Dumplings with salted coconut sauce. These were apricot-sized balls of sticky steamed tapioca, stuffed with both finely chopped mushrooms and peanuts. They sat in a shallow sauce of coconut milk and were topped with a ring of sliced red chilli and some coriander. They were amazing and delicious, like nothing I’ve ever had or imagined before.
Then it struck me. They were inadvertently, unselfconsciously, quite naturally made with no animal product at all. I guess you’d say they were vegan. I type this word with a tremor in my hand. Why?
This brought to mind another “vegan experience”, in particular a dish of steamed whole zucchini, served as is, with no enhancement. Let’s be brutally honest here, the zucchini is not the wildest little veg on the block. Apparently it has some food value hidden in its fibre and is certainly a flavour carrier but plain, steamed…?
The worst part of the experience was that the hosts/cooks commented at every bite “Yum. Isn’t this delicious!” Now I love sitting around a table and will enjoy practically everything I’m offered (and I don’t have to wash up). But, I’m the guest here guys and it’s my role to comment on any deliciousness, not yours.
I’ve found a recipe/explanation for the sago balls above, on the great Google cookbook in the cloud (and I’ll try that later) but my mind is buzzing. I know I can do a fantastic, delicious, exciting, meal where no-one misses the eggs, cream, honey or meat. I would have to put in a little effort, of course and that raises the question. Do vegans cook? Are they interested in flavour? Are they interested in texture variation? Are they committed to honouring the produce of this beautiful earth? Are they interested in exciting the senses or is that too base a desire?
Above - steamed asparagus and poached leeks (à la grec) topped with a toasted mix of chopped walnuts, olive oil, coarse breadcrumbs and parsley.
I'm thinking of a menu starting with gazpacho or chilled avocado and count milk soup. (Tetsuya offers a nice carrot and soy soup in his eponymous cookbook.)
We could follow with the dish above (1910 Wedgwood)...
or perhaps red capsicums, halved, stuffed with cherry tomatoes, garlic, marjoram and roasted just short of caramelisation...
or tofu fritters on a bed of pickled seaweed...
or... or... or...
Vegan cheese? Don't go there! We'll finish with orange segments, dates, cinnamon and caramelised zest with perhaps an orange sorbet or...
Help me out here. Comment and suggestions below.
My Smørrebrød with prawns, egg, spring onion & mayonnaise, then herring, red onion, apple, dill & sour cream. Below some suggestions...
(Plate - Aluminia Sonja, c.1950 a subsidiary of Royal Copenhagen, cutlery by Arne Jacobsen 1957, as seen in a Space Odessy.)
We finish here, in God’s own country. We have been generously lent a small “town house", in an enclave surrounded by farmland and forest. This community placement seems quite common in Denmark. Here I spend a week pretending to be Danish. I have Danish muesli, Danish blueberries, Danish milk, Danish tea…The Danes have not learnt how to make bad bread. Danish pastries are called Viennese pastries. I drink lots of elderflower water. The food is very good.
Just going to the nearby shopping centre is a thrill. Have I mentioned that I love supermarkets? You learn so much. The language is difficult - I take photographs then look up words on "Google Translate" (the traveller’s friend). These ginger shots I learned were not for making dessert or cakes. The Danes also do "healthy" by adding them to their kale & chia smoothies.
Iceland has its Hákarl – fermented shark that has an underlying smell of ammonia
Sweden has its Surströmming – a salted, fermented, canned herring so fetid one is advised to open the can under water in a bucket.
Norway has its Lutefisk – whitefish soaked in lye. Left for too long the fat turns jellied and saponification takes place. (It’s the same method as making soap.)
Denmark just has the glorious pickled herring, seen at their best with sour cream, potatoes, egg perhaps, and there’s no better way than as a smørrebrød.
There are restaurants that specialize in smørrebrød such as the well-known Ida Davidsen (who boasts as patrons everyone from Danny Kaye to American presidents). It’s simply any delicious combination piled on bread (as distinct from the Swedish smorgasbord, which is a buffet). The bread is a delicate platform, generally a crumbly rye which in no way overwhelms the topping.
Left: Traditional /old-style restaurants are often underground. They're very "woody" and serve lots of herring, dill, beer and aquavit. Café & Øle-Halle is in the cellar of the "Workers Museum". As well as butter, they serve a smoked lard, studded with crispy bacon bits. Bliss.
Centre: Contemporary restaurants all seem to claim someone who did time at Noma (the Danish restaurant at the top of the world's best list for many years). Here, a very "on-trend" dish of haddock terrine, pickled vegetables and foraged beach-side herbs sits on a "soil" of smoked rye.
Right: We have a light lunch in the palm-filled atrium of the Glyptotek museum - a salad with blue dressing and a brioche filled with a massive heap of tiny prawns (locally sourced, fresh and hand peeled), topped generously by a cap of rich tomato mayonnaise.
We spend a couple of days trawling through acres of vintage, mid-century modern furniture and hardware where the "big names" fetch eye-watering prices. They are proudly displayed and curated, redolent of tung oil and turpentine, in particular in Frederiksgarde, the street that runs through to the museum of decorative arts. We calm our longing with a visit to the Kunstindustrimuseet to soak up chair upon chair upon chair and rooms full of porcelain.
At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum, I am pleased to make the acquaintance of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853). He is seen as the father of the Golden Age of Danish Art. He studied abroad, in particular with Jean-Louis David, in France. One painting was particularly mesmerizing. With neo-classical perfection, the delicious, tactile flesh is juxtaposed against blocks of cold marble... but I did wonder why he had no clothes on, only his hat.
But it was the title of this 1812 painting that left a smile on my face all day.
Danish: En ung skytte, som sliber sin pil ( 1812)
English: A young warrior sharpens his spear. (ROTFL)
Smørrebrød are a great way to feed friends, with several compilations, one after the other. The bread should be less than the piled topping, in fact shouldn't be seen. Use thinly sliced whole grain rye (dark or light depending on the topping). This is crumbly and therefore light with no hard crusts. In the opening image, dressing is served in a plastic half egg - cute. Only in Denmark! (Save your eggshells and make your own.) You can Google suggestions but you can't go wrong with...
Herring, egg, red onion, prawns, dill & cucumber, blue cheese & fresh pear, roast beef.
Go cross-cultural with asparagus & humous, prosciutto & mortadella...
Be generous with dressing and herbs. Eat with knife and fork. Offer chilled beer, aquavit or schnapps from the freezer.
Like (👍) or Comment below.