Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cooks' tricks - for instant flavour:update

I've read countless "handy hints" and "tips" for cooking. One of them said that professional chefs have 4 great "rescue ingredients". Or, to put it another way - ways to cheat the tastebuds by adding instant flavour.

I'm not recommending you adopt them for every day use. But they may help you out of a tricky spot (or make you aware of what is hiding in the ostensibly simple dish you buy in a restaurant)

They tend to be ways of boosting a dish by adding to one of the 5 basic taste sensations- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, savoury or umami.

This is the list I'm aware of - let me know if you come across any others!

Sugar and salt I understand that salt opens the palate and helps us enjoy the flavour in dishes. When boiling vegetables (e.g. carrots) the combination of a teaspoonful of sugar and quarter teaspoon/pinch of salt added to cooking water can really lift the flavour, particularly if the vegetables are a little old.

Of course, you can educate your palate to enjoy less salt, or none at all, and use other things to give the flavour.

But the basic principle of sweet and salt together being "tasty" explains their presence in prepared foods. Urban legend has it that KFC use a combination of a little salt, sugar and chicken stock on their fries, to make them moreish.

Brown sugar can disguise the salty taste in an over-salted soup or stock. The salt is still there though - not good for health or blood pressure!

And of course salt is added to chips. I was told that this is partly to absorb excess fat, although I don't know if this has a scientific basis.

My summary : use sparingly - don't add salt or sugar as a general rule. Use it in moderate quantities where it has maximum impact, as part of a balanced diet. It can be great for bringing out flavour in vegetables, but you don't want to rely on the sugar/salt combination in everything you eat.

Butter, melted or whole, adds fat, but always tastes good. Hence it's role as a chef's rescuer! Be careful for the calories, and enjoy immensely in small quantities!

Worcester Sauce Adds flavour and richness - to pasta sauces or cheese on toast!

Ground white pepper This can give food a body and zest. Used in casseroles or seasoned vegies it can give a real lift. Similarly, a sponful of tomato paste can add body and richness, and excite the "umami" taste.

Cream for creamy-ness (and calories!)

Lemon or lime juice can cut through a rich dish

Parmesan cheese also provides the umami flavour.

And then there's MSG - the original umami. I don't use it or eat it myself, although some scientists claim that the MSG/chinese restaurant syndrome is due to things other than MSG, and it's not actually bad for you. It's widely added to food in many parts of Asia. Up to you!

I know that's more than 4 taste tricks - the original four were, I think, salt, brown sugar, worcester sauce and butter. If you know of any other tricks and tips, let me know!

Update: When I compiled this list, I forgot to add Sherry. It can be a miracle ingredient in soups. A couple of tablespoonfuls will make an ordinary soup (dare I say it - even a tinned soup - taste fabulous.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pasta sauce with a secret ingredient

Today's recipe comes from my friend Simon's kitchen in Romsey, Hampshire. I'm staying with Simon for a couple of days, before we head off to the Crawley Juggling convention.

Yesterday, while he was at work and I was working on my laptop, I made my classic pasta sauce. It's based on a recipe I found in a book published for the New Zealand Red Cross . The cookbook was published as a fundraiser in the late 80s, and asked then celebrities to contribute their favourite recipe. George Balani offered his Italian mother's pasta sauce, and it's from him that I got the secret ingredient (see below!) George didn't have vegetables in his sauce (as I recall), except maybe onion and a little garlic. The sauce can be very good with just the meat/tomato base, but it is a lot richer. It's more cost effective to extend it with vegetables, and I prefer the flavour. It's a good way of making meat go further, getting your 5-9 servings of vegetables a day.

Like most of my recipes it's very flexible.

The basic ingredients:
The meat:
Lean beef mince (you can use turkey or lamb too) About a pound/450 grams will go a long way - feeds 4 comfortably more if you extend with vegetables. Lean for preference - no-one needs the extra saturated fat.

The tomato base
The classic "balani" version had 2 cups tomato puree, 2 tablespoons tomato paste.
I've done it very successfully with Tomato puree, Tomato paste, and chopped tomatoes, even a few skinned fresh tomatoes.
Last night's had a jar of sainsbury's chopped tomato with olive oil, and 4 large vine tomatoes that I skinned. Around 500ml in some form or other is needed. The tomato paste makes a big difference. I've found that the tubes of tomato paste are very useful to have round the house, and last well in the fridge.

The vegetables
Always at least 1 finely chopped onion
1-3 grated carrots - for me this is the key "extender" ingredient.
1/2-1 cup chopped celery, finely chopped zucchini, courgettes, mushrooms or even cauliflower!*
1-3 cloves garlic

Herbs - parsley, oregano, basil if you like basil (I find I prefer it on its own, as a pesto, or as a garnish, rather than in a tomato sauce)
Sugar - 1 tablespoon. If your tomato base ends up a little acidic, a bit of sugar can lift it. Adding sugar is one of the four cook's cheats - I'll blog on that more later!
Red wine - if you like, instead of water.

The method
Saute the onion until translucent in a frypan with lid (I've found a large non-stick wok works really well). Add the mince and brown. Add the grated carrot and cook until it's starting to go a bit dry and caramelisey - the sugars in the carrot respond well. Add the tomato paste around this time too Just when it's starting to stick a bit, add the vegetables, stir really well to cook them by heat rather than steam (this really improves the flavour!). Leave them as long as you can, without them sticking (add the lid to keep the heat in - but keep an eye on it).

Before it burns*** add the liquid, dried or fresh herbs, tomato puree, and enough water or red wine to just cover. Then it's time for:

The secret ingredient
Time. And yes, that is T I M E not T H Y M E. Much as I adore the the smell of the herb** it's the long cooking time - 2 hours if you've got it - that makes the real difference to this recipe.

Keep an eye on it, simmer gently, give it a stir occasionally, if it tastes a bit sharp add a spoonful of sugar (white or brown). And let time and heat do its work.

The sauce can become quite thick. Thin it down with water (perhaps a dash of red wine) if you want a looser sauce. It's great for lasagne, or spaghetti. It also freezes well, so you can make a huge batch, freeze portions and reheat as you cook the pasta.


Random foodnotes below!

* This recipe is great for clearing out vegies which are sitting round in the vegetable drawer in the fridge. I learnt to make the best of what we had, on a limited budget, from my mother. We had a limited budget to feed a family, of up to seven including exchange students. We were good at using what there was to hand, and finding ways of using up the left-over vegetables in the fridge. My mum was also ahead of her time in seeking a healthier diet - we had muesli for breakfast and I was the only child in my class with brown bread sandwiches!.

** The smell of thyme brings back wonderful memories for me of a fantastic New Year's Eve sitting with my then boyfriend on the hillside overlooking the Clyde Dam, listening to greatest hits from the 80s. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the new job I was about to start, but the proclaimers were singing that they would walk 500 miles, and life felt good. Thyme also grows on the hills around Agios Pavlos in Crete. When I finally plant my own garden in my house I will definitely plant thyme in the garden..

*** Yes I know it's not helpful to say "if it burns you're too late!" But it really is a question of keeping an eye on it - you can tell if something's about to burn. The trick is to use the heat to get a little caramelisation going, without it burning. You get a richer flavour that way.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Dan Pengelley's Brownies

This is the brownie recipe of the multi-talented Daniel Pengelly, Court Jester and cook.

You can see what Dan looks like and find out when he's performing, on the Court Jesters Website. Encouragingly, despite cooking and eating the below you can see that he is more Johnny Depp than Augustus Gloop.

Here is the recipe, in Dan's own words

250g butter
2 cups of white sugar
5 eggs (four big ones)
2 teaspoons Vanilla essence
2/3 cup of cocoa
1 cup of flour
1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 block of dark whittakers chocolate

Add water to cocoa-enough to mix into paste (not runny) and vanilla essence and leave to refresh.

Whisk butter and sugar together- I say whisk and when I do it properly it comes out like sponge...

Add eggs one at a time (recipe can get too eggy so don't think you have to use 5 eggs!)

Then add cocoa mixture and mix.

Then flour, baking powder+soda, salt and mix.

Put into lightly oiled and papered tin- 30cm x20cm or thereabouts - or slice tray (but has to be 2 inches high)

Break up chocolate (as small as possible) over top this will melt through cake and end up in the bottom!

Oven 175 celcius for 32 minutes (well 32 in my oven at least-35 will burn it in my old house!)

Be warned this cake is deadly in the wrong hands - and never ever ice unless you want to kill with calories!

Some notes-
1) Watch eggs - if to much I find the cream mixture splits
2) I say whittakers chocolate cause it works- but cooking choclate does the trick or raspberries. I used Cadbury's and the fat came out of choc and tasted like lumps of condensed milk!
3) Cooking time depends on your level of moisture preference!

And there you have it!

A note from Rachel again for non New Zealanders.

Whittakers is a cult chocolate brand, famous for their peanut slabs. In the UK, I'd use Green and Black's or maybe Lindor dark.

Anywhere in Europe I'd use the 50-75% cocoa solids chocolate you can get for a song (well a euro or two)at LIDL. Best chocolate bargain around!

An interesting chocolate fact: Dan mentions he used Cadbury's chocolate. He would have used the version sold and made for the New Zealand market. I understand they use a different recipe in Australia, where the chocolate needs to have a higher melting point, due to the higher temperatures it's transported and stored at. When I was in Australia, Cadbury's chocolate seemed a little crunchy to me - and I was told this is the reason. I'm not sure how either compares to the chocolate sold in Britain - more like the NZ formulation I think.

I'm not planning exhaustive testing though...Green and Black's Maya Gold is my chocolate of choice (emergencies only!). Not only does it taste great, it's also organic and more importantly fair trade.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Cures for jetlag and a cold

Today's new recipes aren't really recipes - they're a record of my trip to Borough Market (yes I am in London now!) and how I treated my cold and jetlag!

First ingredient:

Double espresso: go to Starbucks, or Monmouth Coffee company, order double espresso. Drink. Monmouth recommended as it was only 60p for a double! Starbucks it's £1.49.

Effect: Sinuses are much clearer (more effective than Sudafed!) and jetlag kept a little at bay.

Second ingredient: What I used to call the "Hangover smoothie" at borough market with blackberries, currants apple and fresh orange juice. Yummy and immune boosting.

Raspberries for £1 a punnet.

A carrier bag (well about a shoebox sized bag) of flat mushrooms for £1 at closing time!

Bread roll with red onion and feta on top - 5 for £1 at closing time - so my brother Matt had 2.

Chocolate brownie (David ate it, I sampled it!) Yum. Can't compare to Dan's as I haven't made the latter yet, but v v good.