Saturday, January 28, 2006

Arroz Negro

I had bought some very fresh squid from the wet market. As luck would have it, these beautiful specimens, save one or two, pretty much had their ink sacs intact. At any rate, there was more than enough to deeply stain and richly flavour plenty of rice pitch black for two. While those little plastic sachets labelled nero di seppia do an admirable job in a pinch, there's nothing like the natural ink to infuse a dish with the taste of the sea. So black rice it would be for dinner.

Why a Valencian arroz negro and not a Venetian risotto nero, equally handsome a dark horse?

I was down to the last cupful of arroz bomba from Calasparra - remains of the thoughtful gift from a friend recently returned from Spain - the low-yielding short grain rice variety that's notoriously challenging to grow but makes up for its trouble by being remarkably good eating; bomba grains are thirsty things, majestically swelling up to about four times their original volume when cooked (as compared to the two to three times of more mortal rices) yet retaining firmness when fully done, equally celebrated for their flavour absorbtion capacity and superb texture. Last cupfuls of hard-to-come-by commodities, in my books, deserve extra TLC in the form of a special recipe, a befitting farewell, a last supper of sorts until the next gift of rare rice comes to pass.

(Digressing, Vialone Nano, rich as it is in amylose - the firm inner starch - is terrific for creating a risotto nero with the elusive combination so prized in Venetian-style risotti, that of all'onda, or loose rippling consistency, yet with kernels that offer a satisfying resistance to the bite.)

I am also completely besotted with José Andrés' Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. To be precise, his recipe for arroz negro con calamares has been haunting my waking hours as soon as I set eyes on it. Now so it seems, it was destined to be the first dish I try from the book. Deliberating what first to make from a volume brimming with so many fabulous dishes is no walk in the park - for a dawdler like me, nothing beats having your choice cut out for you. You may expect a book by a protégé of Ferran Adrià's to be full of the technical wizardry and culinary pyrotechnics that have put El Bulli on the map. Instead, the book is surprisingly accessible - not a liquid foam or siphon in sight - a standout collection of recipes that manages to strike the perfect note between traditional and avant-garde.

The true star here, as with all Spanish arroces from caldero to paella, is indubitably the rice, each grain impregnated with the lush depth of flavour and heady complexity that's mounted by layering a fragrant stock (in this case, fish stock) over a thick tomato and onion sofrito, the whole permeated by and therefore showcasing just one or two main ingredients (here, squid and its ink). Garlic, parsley and olive oil pounded to a fragrant paste and stirred in halfway through the process, add nuance and roundedness to the arroz negro.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Oozy Quail Egg Ravioli

These pillows of supple egg pasta, each coddling a single quivering yolk of a quail's egg, are probably best consumed after your annual cholestrol test. But, you only live once (although, funnily enough, the health police will likely say the same). The dish, based on that found in Rick Tramonto's Tru, is exceedingly rich - which thus makes it perfect as a small first course, each person getting a modest helping of just two ravioli. Do the math, and the heart-stopping number of eggs required for the full recipe really isn't so heart-stopping. And honestly, if you're going to spend that weekly egg quota in one go, you may as well do it boldly.

As with most good things, it's not for the faint of heart - I love eggs, so I mean this metaphorically rather than literally. This recipe, as is the case with others in the book, is a time-consuming multi-component affair involving fairly lavish ingredients - to be exact, it sprawls across 3 whole pages excluding the picture. To make each dumpling, the carefully separated quail egg yolk is nestled atop a dollop of herb-scented cauliflower cream then daubed with truffle butter before being swathed by sheets of pasta. The cooked ravioli are gently plopped onto an aromatic puddle of porcini puree, dressed with a frothy porcini emulsion, slivers of seared mushrooms (I used a mixture of dried porcini, king oyster, and portobello) and shavings of parmesan, then finished with white truffle oil and chives.

If the ravioli have been correctly cooked (precisely 1 minute from when the water returns to a boil), whence spoon pierces pasta, rivulets of truffle-scented yolk, all runny and golden, will ooze. Shamelessly indulgent on every level, and unapologetically so, I daresay the guilt makes the eating even more of a pleasure.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Ossobuco alla Milanese, Risotto alla Milanese

Few things merit and reward patience like risotto. I never cease to marvel at how a little time and elbow grease can meld butter (or olive oil, depending on the risotto you're making), rice, broth and parmesan into a creamy mass, each mouthful a soulful taste of oneness, the elements that make up the soffrito and cast of flavour compoments (again, depending on the risotto you're making) having surrendered their distinct characters to the creation of a singular, sublime entity. All risotti are one-pot, one-dish wonders that need no accompaniment, and accompany nothing, so good they are to eat, with the sole exception of risotto alla Milanese - as lovely as it is all by itself - otherwise known as risotto giallo (yellow) thanks to its beautiful saffron gold hue, classically partnered with ossobuco alla Milanese. For this most simple yet divine of risotti, enriched with beef marrow and a fine meat broth, I prefer using the Carnaroli rice variety to amylopectin-rich Arborio or amylose-rich Vialone Nano, both of which are more suited to other types of risotti. The Carnaroli kernel possesses the perfect proportions of the two essential starches, endowed with sufficient amylopectin - the soft surface starch that dissolves in cooking - to produce a clingy, velvety moistness yet boasting a higher content of amylose - the firm inner starch that gives the cooked rice an al dente toothsomeness - than any other risotto rice variety so that it offers the much-prized resistence to the bite. The resulting risotto is thus exquisitely balanced in consistency.

Thick meaty cross-sections of veal shin from milk-fed calves, beloved as much for the delicate sweet flavour and melting texture of its flesh when correctly braised (which is to say slowly braised) as for the unctuous marrow that nestles within the "bone with a hole" (ossobuco, literally), are surely the ultimate meat cut for slow cooking. There is plenty of debate, as is often the case with any iconic Italian speciality, over whether an authentic ossobuco alla Milanese should include tomatoes. There certainly exist traditional ossobuco recipes (say those from Emilia-Romagna) that are flavoured with tomatoes, just not ossobuco alla Milanese, argue those in the bianco camp. Having tried recipes both with and without, I must say that purely on the grounds of flavour (as opposed to authenticity) I much prefer the veal shanks in bianco (the recipe I loosely follow comes from Anna del Conte's Gastronomy of Italy), particularly when I'm eating it with risotto alla Milanese, the soft subtleties of which languish when pitted against the tanginess of a dish imbued with tomatoes.

This archetypal pairing is truly special occasion food. While not something to whip up at a moment's notice, the entire process is something I really savour. My favourite part, apart from the eating of course, occurs towards the end - sprinkling on the pungent gremolada of lemon zest, garlic and flat-leaf parsley which is aromatized by the heat of the sticky braising juices to give the dish an appetizingly heady lift, and swirling the lump of butter and cupful of freshly grated parmesan into the steaming pot of rice off heat, the mantecare flourish essential to the hallmark creaminess of a great risotto.

Last Saturday was definitely a special occasion - one of W's oldest friends from his years at Vassar was in town for a few days with her husband on a business trip. As it turns out, she is not just a foodie but a hardcore Italophile - the couple, currently based in the UK, have pretty much eaten their way through every region of Italy over the years. Below, the other courses we had at dinner.

Soup of Pea, Tortellini of Ham Hock

This recipe is based on one found in the incredibly detailed Formulas for Flavour by John Campbell, the Michelin-starred chef at The Vineyard at Stockcross, one of Britain's most acclaimed country house hotels. The plump little tortellini are filled with finely diced ham hock, previously simmered, bound by a light chicken mousse - having gone through the effort of making the pasta dough and stuffing, it's well-worth shaping extra tortellini to freeze in anticipation of an impromptu pasta meal later in the week. To finish, a drizzle of mint oil and a parmesan tuile.

Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Thyme, Truffle Oil, and Pancetta

No matter how many new titles I buy on a whim, I tend to turn to the same old trusty books when it comes to Italian food. For once, I ventured beyond my comfort zone (I know, not exactly the wisest thing when cooking for company) - I simply couldn't resist this dish, found in Scott Conant's New Italian Cooking, a recent release chockfull of vibrant, sumptuous Italian cooking with a modern twist. An intoxicating mixture of mushrooms (I combined field mushrooms with dried porcini as W and I adore porcini) is finely ground and enveloped by slippery smooth squares of homemade egg pasta. The ravioli are cooked then finished with more mushrooms and pancetta flavoured with thyme and shallots, the whole dressed with a splash of white truffle oil and a generous shower of freshly grated parmesan. I definitely plan on making this frequently now that I've given it a go - it is that delicious.

Triple Chocolate Parfait

A frozen dessert from Fran Bigelow's wonderful book, Pure Chocolate, which she describes as possessing "the velvety, melt-in-your-mouth consistency of the richest ice cream". Are you sold? I was. Dark, white and milk chocolate layers (made by folding each type of chocolate, melted and cooled, into a custard base, which is then lightened with whipped cream) sit atop a sweet chocolate cookie crumb crust for a sweet ending that's as elegant as it is delectable.

Friday, January 06, 2006

2005 Food Blog Awards, and Another Sweet Surprise

I woke up this morning to an incredibly pleasant surprise - Kuidaore has been shortlisted as a finalist in the Best Food Photography category of the 2005 Food Blog Awards! I am immensely thankful to everyone who nominated me, not to mention very honoured to be in the company of the other blogs - and how very fabulous they all are! - named. If you have a moment to spare, check out all the wonderful categories and terrific blogs nominated in each at the 2005 Food Blog Awards or click here to cast your vote.

On a completely separate note, it must be my lucky day. My battered old candy thermometer finally died an untimely death - thanks to my inordinate clumsiness - whilst I was following the Honey Walnut Tart recipe in Alice Medrich's book, Chocolate Holidays (the recently revised edition of the title previously published as A Year in Chocolate). The honey and sugar syrup for the filling had to be brought to hard crack stage at 305˚F before the butter and cream are added to produce a toffee mixture which is cooked to firm ball stage at 246˚F. I had to guess at both stages via sight and smell - for a pedant like me, this is the stuff of kitchen nightmares. As the tart, essentially an Engadiner Nusstorte dressed up in gilded chocolate glaze, was a double-crusted affair, I was kept in gripping suspense about the state of the enclosed filling right up to the moment of truth, the slicing and serving. It was hard to tell what the chances were I had completely missed the critical 10 degree window of firm ball-dom (245 to 255˚F), that the tart would be a real dog's breakfast to serve, the filling either too soft from undercooking or too hard from overcooking - accurate temperature readings ensure the perfect chewy-yet-creamy texture. Very fortunately, the tart turned out as hoped - short, buttery pastry encasing a honey and cream enriched caramel filling that's delectably taffy-like, generously studded with toasted walnuts.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

2005: We ate, we ate, and we ate some more

Happy New Year!

2005 was an eventful year for us. In W’s case, because he had embarked on an exciting new venture he’s incredibly passionate about. In my case, because I had decided to leave a fairly cushy job as the fashion and beauty editor of a popular lifestyle glossy to freelance. Working from home, and empowered with the ability to accept or decline projects as I see fit, has meant that I have never been happier on many counts. Not least of which, because I now have the time, and consequently the right frame of mind, to cook in the manner that I’ve always wanted to – by hand, from scratch, with love and patience in as much as possible as often as I care to. Below, two meals from the final weeks of the fabulous year just past.


Spicy Prawn Bisque with Crab Dumplings
Inspired by a recipe in Neil Perry’s book, Rockpool, this dish marries classic French bisque-making technique with piquant Southeast Asian flavours. The intense base flavour comes from slowly frying prawn shells with a pounded spice paste of garlic, shallots, galangal, tumeric, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest and chillies before the alcohol (I used cognac) and chicken stock are added– sounds implausible, tastes fantastic. The dumplings are filled with freshly picked crab meat bound with prawn mousse. Fried curry leaves add the final, fragrant finishing touch.

Ann & Franco Taruschio’s Vincisgrassi
This is the delicious porcini and prosciutto variant of the luxurious lasagne dish that's a speciality of the Marche region, something I’ve written about previously. The recipe can be found in Ann and Franco Taruschio’s lovely book, Leaves from The Walnut Tree. Squares of silken homemade egg pasta are layered with parmesan and a rich besciamella thick with slivers of porcini and prosciutto, baked till crustily golden and served with a splash of white truffle oil.

Noir Orange Truffle Tart with Earl Grey Tea Ice Cream
Earl Grey Tea Ice Cream, adapted from a recipe in Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, which I had infused with Mariage Frères’ elegant Earl Grey French Blue blend, is paired with a chocolate truffle tart designed to showcase the citrusy bergamot flavour of the tea – the crisp pâte sucrée shell is filled with a velvety cream made by blending some Earl Grey-flavoured crème anglaise with Valrhona’s Noir Orange 56% cacao dark chocolate. Unlike a straightforward cream-and-chocolate ganache which would have set firm when chilled, using custard for the base ensures the filling sets to a soft, pudding-like texture even when served straight from the fridge.


Handmade Squid Ink Noodles with Tiger Prawns, Squid, Chilli and Coriander
Adapted from Neil Perry’s signature recipe in Neale Whitaker’s The Accidental Foodie, this pasta dish blends robust Italian and Thai flavours to great effect. Slippery smooth squid ink noodles, freshly made, are tossed with stir-fried tiger prawns and squid spiked with chillies, coriander and fish sauce. Who would have thought? But like most Neil Perry recipes, the unlikely combination works beautifully.

Polenta with Truffled Brie & Caramelised Sage Butter
A hearty and wholly satisfying way with polenta that’s a recent addition to my repertoire and has since become a firm favourite in our home, something I make whenever W comes back from Geneva bearing fat, ripe wedges of luscious truffled brie. Roasted polenta flavoured with porcini is blanketed with unctuous truffled brie sauce, and given an added fillip of caramelised sage butter.

Michael Recchiuti’s Caramel & Milk Chocolate Pots de Crème
Cooked just so, these intensely flavoured little custards have a lovely texture. Best served in small portions thanks to their ultra rich nature, the recipe is from Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage’s gorgeous book, Chocolate Obsession. Alongside, something crunchy is good – I used shards of buttery pecan toffee.