Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let’s not get carried away

I wonder if I am alone in finding it curious when a cookbook is described as ‘the only one you’ll ever need’. I’ve seen it fairly often, and it always occurs to me that the marketing brain behind such a claim must have precious little understanding of how the average cookbook-buyer’s mind works.

The idea of only ever owning one Indian cookbook, say, depresses me enormously. Gordon Ramsey said that Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy: Food and Stories was the only Italian cookbook one would ever need. But what of it? Cookbooks — these days — are not about need; they are about desire. Gordon clearly has no inkling of the frenzied thrall that grips a foodie’s mind when passing the cookbook shelves at their local Exclusive Books.

The sheer pleasure of bringing home a new one, still crisp-smelling and splatter free, ensconcing oneself on the couch with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and something to nibble (NEVER read a cookbook on an empty stomach), is one of the greatest I know.

I could scold myself for not making more use of the multitude I already own, but I actually do make use of them. I can quite happily spend an entire morning paging through each one, getting reacquainted. Faced with the if-your-house-was-on-fire-what-would-you-save? scenario, I’d probably go for my grandmothers’ jewellery, but I would pause for one last mournful look at my cookbooks, with deep regret.

I own not one, but four River Cafe cookbooks, and the thought of picking a favourite is unthinkable — a bit of a Sophie’s Choice (aha, okay, let’s not get carried away) — but, if pressed (and you are pressing me, right?), I would have to say that the latest, the River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook, is my favourite.

It came out about two years ago, and contains all the authors’ favourite recipes, with a little note on where and how they discovered each dish. If I feel like a quick trip to Italy (in my head), I open this book. But I am not going to do a review here and now. Perhaps another time.

I would, however, like to share with you a beautifully simple recipe from it that is quite breathtaking in its simplicity, and just plain scrumptious. The only catch is that you’ll have to get hold of some chickpea flour, but this should be available at a good deli or health shop. I got mine from Wellness Warehouse.

It’s basically a thick, savoury chickpea pancake, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Ideally served as a snack before a meal with a good red in winter, or some fizz in summer. Plus it makes your kitchen smell wonderful.

Faranita con rosmarino
Chickpea faranita with fresh rosemary
Serves 6

1 litre warm water
300g chickpea flour
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
approx. 200ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

1. Pour the water into a large bowl. Sieve in the chickpea flour and whisk until the mixture has a smooth consistency. Add one tablespoon of salt and one teaspoon of black pepper and stir to combine. Cover with a cloth and leave to rest in a warm place for at least two hours.
2. Preheat your oven to 250C, or as high as it will go. Skim the foam from the surface of the batter and stir in 100ml olive oil. Pour one tablespoon of oil into a faranita pan, or a frying pan with an oven-proof handle, and place in the hot oven for about five minutes, until the oil is smoking.
3. Give the batter a good stir, then  pour just enough into the pan to make a layer approximately 1cm thick, tilting the pan to spread it evenly. Sprinkle a little rosemary over the top, and return the faranita to the oven to bake for about 20 minutes. The top should be brown and the pancake should have a crisp texture, but be soft in the centre. Slice into wedges and serve immediately as an appetizer, with a glass of Prosecco, while you get on with making the rest of the pancakes. This amount should make three.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Societi Bistro’s Risotto Nero

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in the studio audience of a (fictitious) Australian TV talk show called ‘Doug’. I’m sure you can guess the name of the host; a portly, silver-haired man (if you’re interested, he looked a lot like the actor who played Muriel’s father in Muriel’s Wedding). Before he appeared, the audience started chanting ‘Doug, Doug, Doug’, Jerry Springer style.

Not a lot else happed in the dream. I got lost trying to find the bathroom, and the show never actually aired due to technical difficulties (on my less up-beat days, I imagine this could be quite an accurate summary of my life).

I’d much rather believe this dream was a sort of existential greeting from my subconscious (you know, the usual: ‘Hello! I’m over here! Quick, stuff four sardines up your nostril and jump out of this poodle-drawn chariot so I can stop spelling ESIOTROT backwards’), than a result of my dinner the night before. But there’s something dark (literally and figuratively) and a little mysterious about risotto nero — which is what I had for dinner the night before — so I’m inclined to believe the latter.

I was compelled to make it after I’d tasted an absolutely exquisite plateful at Societi Bistro. They’re doing a kind of culinary tour of Italy over the next month or so, offering a full-course dinner from particular regions, and I was invited to pop in and have a taste. The risotto was my favourite, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I asked chef Stafan Marais for the recipe.

I found the result was fresh, gorgeously buttery and savoury, and the squid ink gives a delicate taste of the sea. Of course, you cannot make this without home-made fish stock, so I’ve included Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe. I get put off dishes that insist you have to make your own stock because I just don’t have time — but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that fish stock only takes a fraction of the time that other stocks do: no more than 30 minutes.

The other essential is squid ink, which you will probably only find at a good delicatessen, such as Giovanni’s or Main Ingredient (the only one’s I know of in Cape Town). If you don’t have any fish bones, your local fishmonger should be able to help you out — try The Little Fisherman in Muizenberg (in CT), or even your local Woolies, if it has a fish counter (like the one at Cavendish Square).  
Of course, if you don’t feel like the hassle of creating this splendid meal, you could always pop through to Societi Bistro — I believe their risotto nero is on the specials list this week.

Pleasant dreams.

Societi Bistro’s Risotto Nero
Serves 4

1 x 300g squid, cleaned, tubes cut open and cut into pieces, tentacles cleaned (discard mouth & eyes etc)
2 sachets squid ink
2 tbsp olive oil
60g butter
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
100ml dry white wine
350g risotto rice (I  [Stephan] mostly use Arborio, but Carneroli is also fine)
1,8 litres warm, simmering fish stock (see below)

1. Melt the oil and half the butter. Add the onion and fry gently until translucent. Add the garlic and fry for another two minutes, then add the squid and continue to cook for a further five minutes, until the squid has coloured.
2. Add the wine and let it reduce by about a third. Add the rice and stir through thoroughly so it is evenly coated.
3. Add a ladleful of stock to the rice and continue stirring until it is absorbed. Add another ladleful, and continue stirring and adding until the rice is nearly cooked (so it’s al dente but still has a slightly chalky bite). You may not need to use all of the stock. Now add the stock with the squid ink (see TIP), stirring for half a minute, then remove from the heat and beat in the butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

TIP: Wash the squid ink sachets thoroughly and then cut the packets open and submerge in about a cup of hot fish stock — otherwise loads of ink sticks to the inside of the packet and stays behind.

Giorgio Locatelli’s fish stock
Makes about 2 litres

The bones of flat fish make the best stock, as they give a good flavour but aren’t oily. If you want to give the stock a rosy colour, or a little more acidity, add a couple of smashed tomatoes.

500g flat fish bones, washed well to remove any blood as this will make the stock bitter
1 leek, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
a few parsley stalks
a few black peppercorns
100ml dry white wine

1. Put everything in a pot, cover with water by about two fingers (depending on how intense you want the stock to be — the less water you use, the richer it will be).
2. Bring to just under the boil (the lower you do this, the more flavour the fish stock will have). Skim the scum off the surface, turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, skimming as necessary.
Turn off the heat and let the stock settle, then put through a fine sieve [or muslin cloth].

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the lamb: Jamie’s gorgeously minty, lemony tartare

Autumn. It gets me every time.

I will be going about my business, and then it happens. Perhaps the light catches a vase of flowers just so. Or a break in the clouds illuminates the world so exquisitely that I can’t help but inwardly gasp — and then comes the intense, hollow longing; an unidentifiable nostalgia so acute that I tear-up, for no reason other than the autumn light is so beautiful, so tragic.

It only happens at this time of year, my favourite season. And it’s not a bad feeling, exactly. It’s ... bittersweet.

Maybe it feels tragic because it’s a portent of the cold months to come.

Or maybe I just need to refill my Prozac prescription (or should that be ‘Prosaic’?).

After reading one of Kate Liquorish’s posts, I decided to call on a butcher she recommended at the Neighbourgoods Market, where I relieved him of a beautiful piece of free-range lamb loin. Later I roasted two thirds of it, but first I cut off a chunk and made this molto delicious lamb tartare from Jamie At Home. Please do make it the next time you have a piece of good-quality free-range lamb. It is fresh (thanks to the mint and lemon juice), tasty and deliciously juicy and meaty. I far prefer it to beef tartare.

Just a note: I served the tartare with caper berries instead of cornichons, and only used lemon juice, leaving out the orange juice, and it worked out just dandy.

It’s the perfect dish — with a good red — for an autumn afternoon, when the sunlight is thin and slanting... (Oh dear, there she goes again.)

PS: Check out my Q&A at iAfrica Food (if only to see a very unflattering photo of me eating an ice cream in Melbourne).

PPS: I have a new 'About' as well as a new masthead. What do you think? Prefer the old one? I'm undecided...

[Jamie’s] really very delicious lamb tartare   
Serves 4

You might be surprised to hear this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating raw lamb, just as there’s nothing wrong with eating raw beef. Carpaccios and steak tartares are pretty common in France and Italy, and for quite some time now we’ve been featuring lamb tartare on our menu at Fifteen. It always goes like hotcakes and people clean their plates, so I’d love for you guys to give it a go. It’s quick to make, contemporary, slightly restauranty but absolutely delicious.

In Italy I tasted this with new season’s olive oil, which was just delicious. Try to get hold of some because a good oil can make all the difference, rather than using cheap gear.

As far as the cut of meat is concerned, the fillet or loin is traditionally used to make tartare, but with lamb you can use slightly tougher and tastier cuts like rump and leg, as long as the sinews are removed (this is really important, the butcher can do it for you) and you give the meat a good bash with a tenderising hammer, or something heavy, before you start chopping it up.

450g trimmed best quality lamb meat
1 fresh red chilli, halved and deseeded
a small jar of little gherkins
a small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped, baby leaves reserved
1 teaspoon French mustard
Juice of one orange
Juice of one lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
8 x 1cm thick slices of ciabatta bread
2 handfuls watercress, washed and spun dry

1. Get yourself a large chopping knife. Put your meat on a chopping board and slice it up, then chop it until you have a coarse mince. Push this to one end of the board and finely slice your chilli on the other. Add the gherkins to the board and chop these up on top of the chilli, then add the mint on top and finely chop again.
2. Put the meat and all the flavourings from the board into a bowl and stir together, adding the mustard and orange and lemon juice. Mix up and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour in a few glugs of olive oil. Mix everything together so that all the meat is nicely coated and dressed in the lovely flavours — have a taste. This is your opportunity to have a little more heat if you want it, with mustard or chilli, or a little extra lemon juice to cut through. Seasoning it well is also really important.
3. When the meat is tasting really good, heat up your grill or a griddle pan and toast the ciabatta slices. There are two ways I like to serve this dish. You can give each person a couple of ciabatta slices on their plate, topped with a spoonful of tartare, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a little lemon-dressed watercress. Or, if you want to be a little more family style, you can put all the tartare onto a platter and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Place a couple of extra gherkins on the side and scatter over the reserved baby mint leaves. Serve with a bowl of lemon-dressed watercress and a basketful of toasted bread next to it, and let everyone dive in and help themselves.