As the courgettes keep on growing and the weather begins to turn, it was time to think of more substantial uses for them and their flowers. I was reminded of a bread I once had in Rome that used elderflowers and decided that grated courgettes could take their place. They sit happily between the saltiness of some cured ham and the freshness of ricotta and basil. The result is somewhere between a bread and a savoury cake – fairly dense but happy sitting on a table amongst salads or as a side to soup. It also looks pretty great, I think.
Pane di Zucchine
Makes one loaf in a 23cm cake tin or large loaf tin
250g plain flour
100g corn flour
5g dried yeast
3 tablespoons grated parmesan/pecorino
100g cured ham such as speck cut into small pieces (optional)
500g grated courgette
80ml good quality olive oil
3 tablespoons ricotta (optional)
handful chopped basil
generous pinch of salt
courgette flowers (optional)
Mix the grated courgette with a pinch of salt and leave for 10 minutes before wringing out moisture with a clean tea towel.
Combine well all of the ingredients in a large bowl except the salt and courgette flowers, if using. It should be of a cake mix consistency – add a little more milk if it isn’t. Add the salt and stir in before placing in a greased non-stick cake or loaf tin. Add the flowers on top. Leave to rise slightly in a warm place for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden on top and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a rack before removing from tin.
This is a soft bread so keep it in the fridge. Also great toasted.
I defy anyone to find a better way of eating these flowers. A shell of light, crisp batter protects a delicately perfumed flower petal, leading to an explosion of freshness from the light cheese and herbs inside. So when these big blossoms started sprouting in huge numbers in my garden, it was time to fry.
If for some reason you’re trying to watch your deep fried food consumption, then slicing them raw into salads, oven baking or even shallow frying will produce great tasting and probably healthier results. It also saves the hassle of trying to remove the pistil or stamen without tearing the petals so that your flowers do not leak water into the oil causing a volcanic bubbling of oil. I found the best way to remove these was to pick the flower in the morning when it was still open and cleaning then, before filling later.
Some great combinations to go inside your flowers:
- Seasoned ricotta and basil (+ finely diced salami if feeling indulgent) – my favourite.
- Mozzarella and speck
- Mozzarella and anchovies
The petals will have a natural twist when closed so they should be easy to reseal when you have spooned a teaspoon or so of your preferred filling into the flower.
Recipe for the batter from Jacob Kenedy’s cookbook ‘Bocca’ which has a whole chapter devoted to fritti if you should need further reason to invest.
100g plain flour
20ml extra virgin olive oil
10g dried yeast
250ml tepid water
Combine the flours, olive oil and yeast in a bowl. Stir in a little water and combine to form a thick paste without lumps. Add the remaining water until you arrive at a nice single cream texture.
Leave to rise covered for one hour or up to 5 hours at room temperature.
Heat a saucepan with 4cm of your preferred frying oil to 190C.
Sort your workstation out around your hob. A plate lined with plenty of kitchen towel on one side, the batter on the other with the stuffed flowers.
Hold the flowers by the stem and twist in the batter to keep shape and seal any holes. Hold the flower above the batter for around 10 seconds allowing most of it to drip off – this is Kenedy’s trick for a lighter batter.
Then carefully place the flower into the heated oil, dipping the head in first to seal the head and then releasing it away from you – do not drop from a height!
Fry for 1-2 minutes, turning once when the underside is taking on a golden hue.
Remove carefully using tongs, allowing as much oil to drip off as possible before draining on the kitchen towel. Try and do in batches but do not overcrowd the pan, you have about 4 minutes until they are perfect temperature to eat, and 7 minutes until the batter becomes soggy!
Pasta in Italy is a wonderful demonstration of adapting to the ingredients one has to hand. Fillings, shapes, sauces and even the names attributed to this commodity reflect the diversity of the country’s ingredients, people and cultures from the snow-peaked mountains of the North to the sun-drenched expanses of the South. With that in mind and having transformed half of the garden into a vegetable patch confused as to whether summer was coming or going, it was time for some homegrown beets to get the Italian treatment.
The diversity of pasta lends itself to something that can be wonderfully humble and unpretentious – spaghetti aglio e olio or spaghetti al limone, for example – through to more complex and delicate filled pastas. In this dish, the filling of leaves provides an earthy and crunchy contrast to the creamy cheese and pasta parcel, a silky puree of beetroot adds a sweet touch and a touch of nutty walnut paste tops it all off.
Recipe a reduced version from Giorgio Locatelli’s excellent Made In Italy: Food and Stories
300g shelled walnuts (double if not shelled)
1 small garlic clove
good olive oil
Prep the walnuts by toasting them in a 170C oven for 4-5 minutes, wrap in a cloth and rub to loosen the skins. Shake and pick out walnuts to cool, removing any large remaining pieces of skin with a knife.
Crush the garlic in a mortar, add the walnuts and work to a smooth-ish paste. Stir in olive oil slowly (around 2 tablespooons) to loosen and create a lovely texture.
This can be stored in sterilised jars for around 4 weeks.
400g raw beetroot, leaves and stalks removed (or spinach, kale, swiss chard etc)
good olive oil
Cook the beetroot in your preferred way – I roasted for one hour in a 180C oven with some oil and seasoning. I’m sure boiling them would be just as good.
Remove skins and roughly chop. Blend the flesh adding a slow trickle of olive oil at the end to emulsify slightly. Season to taste and set aside.
For an extra fine puree, pass mix through a fine sieve before adding oil.
400g fresh pasta dough (see here for a good start)
Leaves and stalks from beetroots, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove
100g ricotta or queso fresco (this worked really well and worth trying at home – a world apart from supermarket ricotta), seasoned with pepper
Lightly fry the garlic in olive oil and add the leaves, stirring on a medium-high heat. Once slightly wilted, take off the heat and set aside.
Roll the pasta dough a handful at a time, leaving the remainder wrapped in the fridge. Roll through each setting of the machine before folding over 3 times and repeating until you have a silky textured sheet with smooth edges, as thin as possible without it breaking during filling.
Lay the sheet on a floured surface and cut a few squares from it. Place a teaspoon of the cheese and of the beetroot in each and fold over into a triangle, getting as much air out as possible. Use a little water to moisten finger if to dry to seal. Join the two long corners together to form a ring. Set aside on a floured surface.
When all the parcels are made (I’d do four at a time and then bring out the remaining dough to start again to avoid drying out), drop into salted water at a rolling boil. Leave for 2-3 minutes until cooked before draining.
Toss in a little olive oil or melted butter to prevent the tortellone from sticking.
Quickly reheat beetroot puree and place a large spoonful onto each plate followed by pasta. Add drops of walnut paste and fried sage leaves.
With this blog I have always attempted to bring recipes to the table with the idea that meat can be part of a sustainable diet and not a source of exponential environmental degradation or animal suffering. Be they less commonly eaten cuts or animals altogether, I still believe – perhaps in vein – that this approach with the right consumer attitude can secure meat as a viable menu option for the future.
One masters in Corporate Social Responsibility and a couple of sustainability research positions later, and my belief in business as an agent for sustainable development and not just blinkered economic growth remains. My research over the past two years has opened my eyes to the difficulty of operating sustainably in global markets where influence and accountability are often lost in complex supply chains that serve price first, ethics second consumers.
Perhaps India is a good place to return to to ease myself back into this blog and approach to food. While as a country it faces many of its own food security challenges, if there were to be a vegetable haven in the world then India must surely be it. But away from the billion preparations for daal, bhindi, and aloo, there is an approach to meat-eating that reflects many of my own values. Although maybe not out of choice, meat is a rare luxury for many of India’s non-vegetarians – something for feasts and celebrations not just mindless consumption.
During a trip there a couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to stay with a family who, as Indian hosts tend to do, go the extra mile for their guests. After an impromptu cooking class in their idyllic space on the edge of the Corbett National Park, we would feast on the most vivid flavours imaginable.
This is an involved dish, but the resulting flavour complexity and the satisfaction from having transformed a tough old goat into something wonderfully rich, moreishly spicy but equally fresh are worth it. Pungent spices permeate the once tough but now meltingly tender goat, marrow waits to be slurped out of bones and everything is punctuated by the freshness of lime, coconut and coriander.
If you can’t get hold of goat, then mutton or lamb can be substituted
Spice proportions are very open to interpretation
25g each fennel seeds, coriander seeds, poppy seeds,
5-10 dried red chillies
10 black peppercorns
1 coconut, white flesh only, liquid reserved
Toast the spices in a small frying pan over a low heat. Crush in a pestle and mortar until fine.
Blitz the coconut flesh in a processor or blender until a thick paste forms. Loosen with the reserved coconut water. Add the ground spices, combine and set aside.
2kg goat, mutton or lamb (neck, shoulder or any tough cut) in 5cm chunks, bone-in
1 cinnamon stick
3 red onions, thinly sliced into rounds
1 bay leaf
3 black cardamom pods (or green if unavailable)
2 teaspoons garam masala and coriander powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder (or to taste)
3-4 tablespoons ginger and garlic paste
4 medium tomatoes, grated
To serve: 1 lime, coriander, small green chillies (optional)
Lightly salt the chunks and brown the mutton in batches in a large saucepan or pressure cooker on a high heat. Return all mutton to the pan with the cinnamon stick, add water to a 1cm level, cover and leave to cook on a low heat. 1 1/2 hours for a pan or 30 minutes for a pressure cooker. Remove from the heat and leave meat in cooking juices.
30 minutes before the meat is finished cooking, heat 1cm of preferred cooking oil in a large, heavy pan. Fry the onions until golden-brown (around 15-20 minutes). Add the dry spices and stir for 1-2 minutes. Then add the ginger and garlic paste, the coconut paste above and the grated tomatoes. Combine all the ingredients over a medium heat for 5-7 minutes.
Switch to a low heat and add the cooked mutton pieces, leaving the remaining liquid in the other pan. It should be falling off the bone as you stir it in but don’t worry about this. Leave to combine on a very low heat for as long as you like or until needed. Add a ladle of the mutton cooking juices and the reserved coconut water every 20 minutes or if the curry needs loosening. These juices combine with the other ingredients to slowly form a thick gravy.
When ready to serve, squeeze the lime juice into the curry. Sprinkle with coriander and green chillies (if using). Serve with some good raita, chapatis and plenty of cold beer.
It seems outrageously hypocritical to write a post criticising attitudes towards meat, accompanied by images of, and a recipe for a multi-layered meat feast. From my point of view, it is even more ridiculous to concentrate upon a subject I have put so much effort into not eating for the past few weeks and thus find myself uncontrollably salivating over the keyboard whilst editing said photos. Yet in times where meat is no longer consumed in terms of availability and quality, but in those of cost and quantity; in the context of a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity for a slightly less bleak environment of the future, I felt the urge to offer my humble opinion upon my public platform. And so, in keeping with the imagery and style I aim to maintain on here and so that this blog doesn’t become just a textual rant, I provide my view alongside a sustainable, 100% horse venison crepe lasagna.
As the supermarkets’ inability to act with any grasp on responsibility or sense of moral fibre increases alongside their profits, the horsemeat fiasco has led the British ones to immediately look, as is the trend with such corporations, to anywhere but themselves to place the blame. The unjust pressure they consistently place upon suppliers to conform to their drive for increasingly lower costs seemingly playing a trivial role in the whole thing. And as some shoppers reeled in disgust at the thought of (shock-horror) being lied to by their ‘trusty’ supermarkets, they started to read labels and look up from their processed plates of food to question what they were really throwing down their gullets. The latest consumer statistics show a decrease in processed meat consumption alongside consumer’s level of trust in supermarkets; a rise in sales at local butchers, of meat alternatives such as (the questionable) Quorn; and increased calls to action for a more tightly regulated food industry.
But equally as clouded as the supermarkets’ ethical position may be, and as sinister as the ‘Mafioso’ abattoirs that supply them, is the destructive path down which we as consumers are leading ourselves. I watched an inspiring documentary this week, ‘Surviving Progress’, which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in our planet and where it is headed. One of the standout moments was David Suzuki explaining our planet as a ‘natural economy’. For the hundreds and thousands of years up until around the 1980s, as humans we lived from the ‘interest’ of the land thus what we consumed was naturally replaced in a relatively harmonious cycle. Yet we have now reached a point where we are delving into the capital of the land and consuming much faster than resources can replenish themselves. With a spiralling world population and the rise of the middle class in some of the world’s most populous nations idealising the destructive Western culture of overconsumption, the demand on a whole multitude of industries has never been greater. At this pivotal time, this insatiable and deeply ingrained desire for more needs to be replaced with a culture of less.
The sad reality is that this objective, this necessity, is seemingly unachievable at any kind of effective scale. Changing that many attitudes to such an extent requires a time scale that is not afforded to us. So my new pledge to eat meat and fish just once a week bought from an independent butcher and fishmonger is completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. On a problem of this scale, there is no ‘every little helps’ solution. As items make their way from the supermarket shelves into our packed baskets, we as consumers are voting. We vote for products to survive with their purchase and be discontinued through their lack there of. Thus the horsemeat scandal has been a fantastic and much delayed wake up call for those corporations to which consumers reacted so rapidly to with their purses and wallets.
The fear is that it becomes another short-lived phenomenon. Much as we have seen in the past with consumer reactions to BSE, it doesn’t take long for us to forget and move on, to return and to vote based on the lowest price. It doesn’t take long for their ‘more tightly regulated’ supply chains to slip in salience, so profit margins increase until the whistle is blown on them again. This change requires a rewiring of the mind-sets that constitute our Western societies so as to consume less, more responsibly, from the controlling oligarchies right through to those who are being priced out of buying sustainable items of food. For corporations to sacrifice their own profits and not pass the added costs of responsibility on to the consumer. For governments to demand more transparency from these overly powerful corporations and to regulate a self-destructive industry.
My very brief stint without meat or fish has left me with a deep found respect for vegetarians and vegans (not ‘pescetarians’ – your thinking is deeply flawed so feel free to climb down from your hmm… high horses anytime soon). My very insignificant project was a personal one, born out of a realisation that in the future I don’t want my meat and fish to come from a chemical lab as our stocks are so deeply depleted and the industry’s effect on our natural habitat so deeply scarring. I impatiently wait for it to be over and to sink my teeth into some meat once again, rightly unashamed that I will so eagerly return to eat it. However, I will become that cliché who checks the menu at a restaurant for sourcing information and who can’t just pop down to the local supermarket and pick up some fish for dinner. I know that the change for me is a positive one in terms of satisfying an ethical conscience; eating better quality food; and the innate feeling of goodwill derived from directly benefitting those working in a shorter, more transparent and mutually beneficial supply chain rather than playing into the paws of the fat cats.
I’m no sustainability saint but I endeavour to practice what I preach. I’d love to fly the flag of youthful optimism and believe that we, as a society, have the opportunity to change just slightly whilst there is time and adjust to be happy with a life of less. Yet more realistically, I believe that whilst the powerful are so comfortably in control, they will sit back and wait for reality to more brutally change it for all of us.
On a much lighter note, this rich venison ragú, so gluttonously trapped between thin layers of crepes and silky béchamel is a wonderful alternative to the denser pasta tradition. I guess the majestic beauty of a deer is quite comparable to that of a horse, but this is about as sustainable and efficient as meat comes in the UK and can be found at reasonable prices at butchers and even supermarkets, at most times of year.
n.b The photo of the dish was taken the day after it was made, and not wanting to ‘zap’ the colour out of it in the microwave, I didn’t reheat it. Thus it is not displayed to its full oozing potential… I guess you’ll just have to experience that for yourselves.
Venison Crepe Lasagna
For the Ragú
1kg venison meat, a cheap cut such as shoulder or neck either minced by your butcher or finely diced at home
200g smoked pancetta, diced
1 large onion, 1 carrot, 1 celery stick all finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced or minced
2 tablespoons tomato puree
250ml red wine
1kg tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped or two tins of peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
fresh thyme sprigs
salt and pepper
In a large, heavy pot, brown the meat in batches on a high heat and set aside. Render the Pancetta in the same pan on a medium heat for 5 minutes and use this fat to sauté the vegetables for another 5-7 minutes or until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes then stir in the tomato puree.
Deglaze with the red wine then add the tomatoes, herbs and seasoning to taste.
Bring to the boil then reduce to a very low heat and cook for 6-8 hours, partially covered until the desired consistency is reached. Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaves when done.
For the Crepes
60g unsalted butter, melted
300g plain four
2 medium eggs
pinch of salt
Melt the butter and leave to cool. Whisk the eggs and milk into the flour, leave to rest for 30 minutes and finally add the melted butter just before cooking.
Heat a crepe pan or decent non-stick frying pan, very lightly greasing with butter for the first pancake but not the remaining. Ladle in the batter, swirling the pan whilst doing so to cover the base. Flip after one minute and cook for another 30 seconds before setting aside. This quantity made enough pancakes for around 10 layers, thus adjust according to size of dish being used and layers desired.
For the Béchamel
100g unsalted butter
1 litre milk
pinch nutmeg, grated
200g parmesan cheese, grated
Melt the butter in a saucepan on a medium heat, sieve the flour a little at a time into the pan, constantly stirring with a hand whisk. When a thick paste is formed, very slowly add the milk in small batches. Whisking until fully combined each time and so a silky béchamel forms. When all the milk is combined, stir in the nutmeg, parmesan and some pepper.
Oven @ 180C
Lightly grease a large baking dish, then add a ladle of ragu and a smaller ladle of béchamel. Combine and spread the two to generously cover the base, then cover with a layer of crepes, cutting them in halves if needed to ensure no gaps and as little overlap as possible. Repeat with the béchamel and ragu, then pancake layers. Finish with a layer of béchamel and extra grated parmesan then bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Leave to rest out the oven for a further 10 minutes before serving at the table.
Roast partridge with mascarpone and thyme, polenta and red wine braised radicchio.
I wanted to catch the end of the British game season so made use of the free weekend after exams to get a few different dishes done. I settled with partridge, and the cold weather served as the perfect excuse to eat it with hearty polenta and bitter radicchio to cut through the richness.
I pinched the idea for the mascarpone and herb stuffing from a River Cafe recipe I had seen and used the cooking juices to braise the radicchio with some red wine to serve as a sauce too. Getting my hands on radicchio reminded me of the constant variation in leaf vegetables available during my time in Valencia, so I trawled through my photos from the city centre taken around this time last year for respite from the unrelenting grey skies here and have included them in this post.
It was the first time I had bought real polenta and cooked it rather than used it for cakes. Despite the extra effort in making it, the resulting texture and flavour subtlety makes it worth the effort and a far cry from the stodge that instant polenta produces. It needs some sharpness to cut through it, so the radicchio really helped in balancing the richness.
2 tablespoons of both finely chopped fresh thyme and parsley
salt & pepper
250g thinly sliced pancetta
Oven @ 220C
Ensure the partridges are clean before mixing the the herbs into the cheese and seasoning well. Fill each cavity with the mix. Wrap each bird in pancetta and secure with string.
Heat some olive oil in a roasting tray on the hob until hot. Brown the birds on all sides before transferring to the oven for 18 minutes.
1.75 litres cold water
Bring the water to boil in a large, thick-based saucepan. Add the salt and slowly add the polenta flour in a continuous stream whilst stirring with a whisk to prevent lumps. Once completely blended, it will start to bubble. Reduce the heat to minimum and stir frequently for around 40-45 minutes until it falls from the sides of the pan.
Stir in the butter and any extra seasoning if needed.
handful of pinenuts
handful of sultanas, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes
roasting juices from the birds
3 or 4 round radicchio (or treviso if avialable), quartered lengthways
250ml red wine
150ml chicken stock
small handful fresh thyme and parsley leaves roughly chopped
Toast the pinenuts and set aside with the drained sultanas. Add the roasting juices to a heavy bottomed wide pan or skillet on medium-high heat. When smoking, add the radicchio quarters and turn frequently until caramelised on all sides. Add the red wine and stock, turn the quarters for a further 30 seconds before setting aside. Reduce the liquids to a desired consistency on a high heat, adding the herbs, sultanas and pinenuts for the last 10 seconds before transferring to a pouring jug.
Spoon some polenta to the centre of each plate, place the partridge on top and arrange the radicchio before pouring over the wine reduction.
Coniglio fritto, confit leg, rocket & walnut pesto, girolles, roast tomatoes and balsamic baby onions
It has been a while since my last post due to a constant stream of university work and ever shorter days, so I finally managed to put a dish together over the holidays and get some photos just before the light went. This will be the third post out of the last four which uses rabbit as a principal ingredient, reflecting my love for its tasty and versatile meat.
Instead of roasting or braising the saddle, I recalled a dish I had made with an Italian friend whilst living in Spain. Coniglio Fritto sounds a lot better than fried rabbit, but essentially that is all it is. The meat doesn’t dry out as so often can happen with roasting farmed rabbit and retains a wonderful texture enveloped in a crisp exterior. But laying down a couple of fried fillets didn’t really fit in with the rest of the dish so I wrapped them in Serrano which added a salty element to work with the sweet onions and tomatoes.
The Pesto adds an underlying nuttiness and earthiness to the dish, along with the girolles, which again made for some great flavour pairings. I made the pesto following the fantastic recipe for traditional pesto on Tales of Ambrosia, adjusting the quantities only slightly so it was less liquid.
If anyone takes just one thing from this dish it should be trying rabbit cooked this way, eaten with some aioli or some pesto, I defy anybody to not be going back for more.
saddle of rabbit, carefully cut from bone
flour, for dusting
1 egg, beaten
breadcrumbs for coating
oil for deep frying
Heat the oil to 180C
Roll the saddles in the flour, followed by the egg and finally the breadcrumbs. When fully coated, carefully place in the hot oil and cook turning when the underside has browned. After around 4-5 minutes, or when golden brown all over, remove and leave to rest on paper towel.
CONFIT RABBIT LEG
front and hind legs from 1 rabbit
salt & pepper
duck fat, pork fat or sunflower oil
Preheat oven to 130C
The night before, season the legs with salt and pepper and leave covered in the fridge. The next day, rinse off the seasoning and pat dry. Place in an ovenproof pan and cover with your choice of fat. Bring to a simmer for 15 minutes on the hob before covering with foil and cooking in the oven for 4 hours.
ROCKET & WALNUT PESTO
See recipe here, changing pine nuts for lightly toasted walnuts. (I made a larger batch to keep some in the fridge for another time)
handful of girolles or similar wild mushroom, lightly rinsed
knob of butter
Heat the butter in a frying pan and when hot, sautee the mushrooms for a couple of minutes until slightly browned. Remove from the heat until ready to serve.
cherry tomatoes on the vine
salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 180c
In a small roasting tray, move drizzle with some quality oil and season well. Roast for 15 minutes or until skins are starting to split.
BALSAMIC BABY ONIONS
10 baby onions such as cipollini, peeled
salt & pepper
20ml balsamic vinegar
100ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon butter
In a bowl season the peeled onions and stir with a couple of tablespoons of oil. Meanwhile heat a heavy-based saute pan or skillet on \ medium-high heat, and add a tablespoon more of oil to this. Add the onions and brown for 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, add the vinegar and stock, then cover. After 20 minutes, uncover, increase heat to high and add the butter, shaking pan and glazing she onions for 2 minutes.
Spread a tablespoon of the pesto onto the plate. Wrap the fried saddles in Serrano ham, cut off the ends and plate.
Heat some oil until smoking in a frying pan and quickly but carefully brown both sides of the confited legs. Split the hind legs if large, before plating.
Arrange the vegetables and serve.
It took me a while to decide on how to present this post about Spain’s most infamous and disputed dish. I thought about going down the history route and how it arrived to become the national dish of Spain for the rest of the world. I considered just discussing what makes a ‘true’ paella and why. But after a year of living in Valencia, I feel what I can best write on is what the Paella is and means to the Valencian themselves. The photos were all taken at an afternoon lunch on a friend’s farm in the heart of Valencia’s most fertile farming land where Paella and an addictive preparation of snails were served.
As a Londoner I have never been able to lay claim to a ‘regional dish’ of my own. In fact the only true London dish I can think of is some East End jellied eels. I am however a fierce defender of English food and believe we have some truly great dishes and a recent resurgence in British cooking has produced some amazing new chefs, restaurants and a realisation that the dishes and produce that we have can actually be wonderful with a bit of time and thought. But despite the resurgence here. there isn’t the same attitude and relationship to regional foods and their history that exist in the likes of Spain, Italy and France; amongst many other countries.
I remember my first flight to Valencia from London and reading an article from the in-flight magazine about the debate between Valencia and Alicante over the origins of the Paella and other rice dishes. I couldn’t believe things were so heated and unresolved after so many years, especially as it is barely a two hour drive between the two.
The first paellas I ate were very average and formed part of lunchtime set menus in restaurants. I kept asking where to go for a good paella and I was often pointed in the direction of Albufera (the National Park and principal rice growing region in Valencia) but the resounding answer was you need to go and eat it in a Valencian home. As cliché as it sounds, it really is true, and most simply because it is a Slow Food. Each paella needs to be done in it’s own pan, from scratch, preferably over wood from the abundance of orange trees and carefully attended to for flame intensity amongst other things – quite infeasible in a restaurant.
The beauty of the Valencian paella, lies not in fancy ingredients but like most truly great dishes, in the little touches and techniques that bring those basic flavours and textures together in perfect harmony. I learnt that the rice is the real star of the show: it holds so much flavour from the other components that their role is reduced to mere sidekicks alongside the perfectly textured and rich grains. It was a peasant food, using the things that were easily available to the inland ‘campesinos’. Water voles have been replaced by rabbits and chicken, snails disappear and reappear through time, but nothing else has changed in the recipe.
Ask a Valencian what their opinion is of chorizo in a Paella, or worse still the combination of chorizo, seafood and anything else that Costa del Sol restaurants throw in and watch as they shudder a little before composing themselves to ridicule what is known as ‘Paella Mixto’. Many just don’t understand why you would add chorizo which overpowers the other flavours of a seafood or Valencian Paella, or why the basic Paellas need changing at all. I guess that’s how the Italians feel about the thousands of abominations of Pizza and Pasta around the world too. And why wouldn’t they be frustrated? The gastronomic representation of their land and history is essentially abused and potentially given a bad name to the rest of the world that consumes it.
A memorable experience of this shared passion for their local food was during Las Fallas festival when I was invited to a sort of Paella ‘cook-off’ in one of Valencia’s tree lined streets. Fire wood, a paella stand and a table were provided and each group of guests supplied their own pan, ingredients and of course alcohol. Much like I imagine the ‘grillman’ culture to be, the men quickly congregated around the paella, each one giving his two cents throughout the fire building and cooking process but never daring to get in the ‘paelleros’ way. By the time the Paella was cooked, the competition had been forgotten for most, but this bringing together of friends over a dish that had always been in their lives left a lasting impression of its ongoing importance in Valencian culture
Returning from Sunday bike rides with my team was made an even more challenging task due to the midday air in the streets of every small town being filled with the aromas of Paella emanating from kitchens and gardens. As each member of the team recounted their personal stories with Paella, debating matters such as varieties of rice and varying flame strength I came to understand that it remains a very macho dish that the man of the house devotes a few hours to every weekend. If not to provide a good family meal, to uphold his reputation as a good ‘paellero’. There is an unmatched pride in producing a Paella which ticks all the boxes and presenting it to friends and family who all come with their own expectations of how it should be. Successful execution of this depends on controlling the numerous small variables throughout cooking.
It is perfecting the combination of developing a rich stock; the absorption by the grains; the speed of evaporation and correct cooking point of the rice – all this is very difficult and makes it the most challenging rice to cook well. This makes me wonder why its fame is so superior to that of the numerous other Valencian rice dishes. Ranging from dry to stock-heavy varieties, baked in the oven or on gas and with ingredients ranging from Cuttlefish ink to Morcilla (black pudding). In my opinion, nothing tops the ‘Meloso’ types of rice. These are cooked with a higher ratio of reduced stock to rice than Paella and therefore leaves a creamy rice almost comparable to a risotto but with flavours left true and not dampened by a parmesan and butter finish.
In writing this post, I came across an interview with a rice grower from Albufera in El País newspaper. Threatened by cheaper Asian imports, the rice growers of Valencia uphold a tradition dating back centuries. The passion with which he speaks about rice is typical of the attitude of many other Valencians:
“Rice has a neutral personality. It doesn’t have a particularly powerful or pleasant flavour, however we have such a varied gastronomic environment for it. There’s no other product with such a vast number of recipes; this is due to the capacity that it has to lose its personality and acquire the tastes of all that you combine with it”.
So, how do you recreate this masterpiece? I would start by visiting www.LaPaella.net which provides insightful information into the history of the dish and the region, tips and tricks (including correct pan size) as well as recipes for this and Seafood Paella.
As I learnt through watching, I will put down below what I took away. But in the words of the ‘paelleros’ that day, it is a dish that takes experience to perfect; so if you follow this recipe or the very similar one from LaPaella.net then you will recognise tweaks and how to improve its elaboration.
La Paella Valenciana:
Ingredients per person
30ml olive oil
1 chicken liver
50g chicken, bones in
50g rabbit, bones in
30g of broad beans
30g of green beans in pod, cut into 2cm chunks
30g butter beans, soaked overnight if they have been dried
40g tomato, grated
⅓ clove garlic, v. finely chopped
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
pinch of saffron
80g rice (Bomba, Senia or Bahía)
small sprig of rosemary
In the correct sized pan over a medium-high heat, add the livers to the hot oil. Once browned, remove the livers and eat separately/discard, then add the chicken and rabbit. Brown the meat well, good caramelization here is vital to the stock.
Once browned, reduce the flame and add the vegetables. Stirring occasionally, leave them to sauté for a few minutes.
Make a well in the centre of the pan and add the grated tomatoes and the garlic, leaving it to reduce for a few minutes. Then add the paprika, stir and quickly add water so that it doesn’t burn creating a bitter taste. Fill the pan up to near the edge with the water. Add salt to taste, then leave it to reduce for around 35 minutes until the level is halfway up the pan and covering 75% of the ingredients. Taste for the correct level of salt here too, remembering that it will lose some intensity once the rice is added.
Add the rice to the paella in a line from one side to the other through the middle of the pan. This line should be about 5cm wide and come above the stock level 1-2cm. Add the saffron and then stir well to spread the rice evenly around the paella, ensuring no grains are above the stock level. Now leave this for 8 minutes on a high flame. In this stage you achieve the burnt crust on the bottom layer of rice.
Then reduce the flame to minimum and leave for another 6 minutes. Add the rosemary sprigs now too so they can infuse the paella. After these 6 minutes if stock is still visible then leave the paella on a medium flame for a further 4 minutes and if there isn’t any visible stock leave for another 3 minutes on minimum heat.
Remove from the heat and leave to rest for 5 minutes before proudly taking it over to the table.
Delhi is one of those cities that I think is quite hard to like as a tourist. As an arrival point in India, it throws you right in the deep end and leaves you wanting to escape the madness until you settle into the travelling lifestyle a bit more. This also had to do with arriving at a time of year when the hot summer sun and 90% humidity meant walking more than a few metres left you in dire need of a shower and lime soda.
Lucky enough to have a base outside of the city accessible by metro we managed to see most of the main sites in a few brief city trips. The one place that really took my breath away and was the the Spice Market situated on Khari Baoli.
The fact that it is the largest wholesale spice market in India should evoke some sense of scale, but it is only when you are there with every sense being invaded from every angle that you can fully appreciate the organised chaos of this famous bazaar. Vivid colours and scents of anonymous spices spill onto the street from hollow shop-fronts, then a sack of floral tea provides a brief relief before a rickshaw or cart laden with too many sacks of rice almost knocks you from your feet. It is intense but once embraced, a great experience.
Every town or city throughout India has a bazaar of sorts running along a main road or hidden down winding back streets. They were the best place to immerse oneself in the vibrancy of day-to-day life and get a feel for how this common ground was shared by all warps of life.
Braised Rabbit and Zucchini Fritters
There are some films which momentarily transport you to another time or place as the story unfolds and then there are those which when finished have a more lasting effect and allow your mind to wonder and wish you had lived in that time or place. For me, one film that produces the latter effect is ‘The Talented Mr.Ripley’. Aside from the playboy lifestyle and amoral / sinister behaviour and eventual murder the viewer is immersed in an idyllic lifestyle spanning various parts of Italy. One of those places is the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, now a heaving tourist destination, back then it was as traditional and untouched as Islands come.
On Ischia, rabbit is the major source of protein as the steep hills make farming larger animals near impossible. The Italians have a vast variety of preparations for rabbit and this was the first I tried. In Valencia where I lived for the past year, rabbit was the main meat in the traditional Valencian Paella, it was therefore cheap and very available which is much more than can be said for England. Rabbits there were lean and flavoursome, so I was shocked at the large size of the rabbit I picked up from my butchers here but left wanting by the reduced gaminess of the meat.
This braise is quick and for me it is more of a summer dish so to accompany I made some light and creamy Zuchinni fritters by adding a few tablespoons of ricotta to the mix. It was the first time I had made them and I was so happy with the result. They would go great on their own or as a side to other things.
I am in Northern India for the next 3 weeks so this will be the last post for a while.
Recipe adapted from the fantastic book ‘Al Dente’ by William Black. Serves 4
1 rabbit of around 1.5kg
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
150ml red wine
500g plum tomatoes, chopped or tinned
a couple of thyme, marjoram and rosemary sprigs
small handful of fresh basil
salt and pepper
Ask the butcher to cut the rabbit into large chunks, or do it at home yourself. Wash and pat dry before browning in batches in hot, smoking olive oil in a large casserole or flameproof terracotta pot. Add the garlic and chilli and replace all the browned rabbit.
Add the wine and bring to a boil to reduce slightly over a high heat before adding the tomatoes. Reduce the head to medium and add the thyme, marjoram and rosemary sprigs. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the basil 5-10 minutes before serving to leave a fresh, fragrant flavour.
The dish can then be served as it is, or for a thicker sauce (like I have done), remove the rabbit chunks and reduce the remaining sauce to the desired consistency. Passing through a chinois once or twice for an even more refined texture. Serve with zucchini fritters, the red wine used in cooking and bruschetta.
Frittelle di Zucchini
Makes 5-6 large fritters
2 medium zucchini
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
70g all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons ricotta
Olive or another oil of your choice, for shallow frying
Grate the zucchini or shred in a food processor into ribbons. Then mix through a teaspoon of course salt and place in a colander or sieve over a bowl with a weight on top to squeeze out the liquid (add extra pressure yourself to help squeeze out even more). Alternatively, place in a cheesecloth, tie and squeeze. Removing as much liquid as possible is vital to the mixture holding.
Then combine the rest of the ingredients with the zucchini in a bowl adding a little more salt if desired. When well mixed, leave in the fridge until ready to fry.
To fry, I used a cast iron skillet and poured a thin layer of oil in the bottom. Heat the oil over a medium heat and add a large spoonful (a serving spoon) of the mix to the pan, then flatten slightly with the back of the spoon. Leave for around two minutes before turning over with a spatula to fry for another couple of minutes or until lightly browned.