Of Mince Pies & Christmas Crackers

xmas table

As far back as I can remember we have celebrated Christmas in pretty typical Anglo fashion. When we lived in the UK, on Xmas morning, the stockings we put out would be filled not only with smaller gifts, but also oranges and nuts, lunch was roast turkey and pork with all the trimmings (but I recall boiled bacon and pease pudding was served before we adopted the Turkey tradition) and the table wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas Crackers. Of course dessert was always a flaming Xmas pudding served with brandy butter. Other traditions our family subscribed to apart from the Queens speech, included the exotic addition of a fresh pineapple, obligatory bowls of nuts ready to be cracked (only ever Brazils, Hazel and Walnuts) trays of dried dates, crystalised and glace citrus and always, but always, trays and trays of mince pies dusted with a “snow” like layer of icing sugar.

mince pies 5Over the years, many of our family “traditions” like all traditions, have morphed and changed. Once in Australia Xmas stockings became pillow cases, fruit and nuts became lollies, lunch became dinner then dinner became an all day graze (as the turkey and pork took a back seat) and Pavlova joined the pudding table. On the side of the main event, things changed as well, the no longer exotic Pineapple disappeared, thank goodness, the whole cracking nuts thing waned in favour of the ready to eat roasted and salted variety, and sensibly dates and sugared fruits went out in preference to fresh summer fruits like cherries, apricots and mangoes.

But with all these changes, two things have remained constant, Mince Pies and Christmas Crackers. The crackers thing is not surprising, they are as much a symbol of Christmas excess as a present laden tree, but why when everything else has changed did we keep the mince pie tradition? Essentially it was mums “thing”, in fact the more Xmas celebrations changed, the more she embraced her passion for baking and giving away literally thousands of mince pies as Xmas gifts each year for friends and family, and they were universally loved and looked forward to, even by people that had previously professed not to like them.mum - cropped

So what made mum’s pies so popular?, was it the filling, well maybe not, she only ever used “Robertsons” off of the shelf, but she did add copious amounts of brandy, and I mean lots of brandy. Or was it the pastry, no thick, sweet and heavy dough like shop bought long life mutations here, mums pastry was a instead an unsweetened short paste and rolled paper thin. Of course both these elements are important but I think the key ingredient in mums pastry was the love she put into them. I know this is a cliché but I can’t think of another explanation.

The pastry itself though is something mum was famous for amongst family and friends. Passed down by her maternal Nan, it is the only type of pastry she ever made, and it graced everything from blackberry and apple pies through to sausage rolls. Technically it is very similar to an all lard pie crust I like to use, but mum’s recipe differs in two distinct ways, first she used softer self raising flour instead of the plain or bakers I would use and secondly, and critically, the fat she employed (in Australia at least) was “Fairy” pastry margarine.

fruit minceNow this poses a problem for me, I really dislike margarine and prefer to use pure natural fats and for years I tried to make her pastry using only butter, but always without much success. However this year after deciding to honor mum by making her mince pies for the Barossa Farmers Market (albeit with our own fruit mince – see image at right) I decided to give her recipe yet another go with just one amendment and that was to replace margarine with a mixture of butter and lard and hey presto, in a blind tasting I would swear we were eating mum’s pastry.

And I suspect my great grandmother would approve, because by reverting back to butter and lard we have gone full circle, after all margarine was not popularised until the middle of the 20th century and so natural fat would have been the only option when she learnt to make it back in Mrs. Beetons day. So if you feel like getting in the Xmas spirit (or just want a foolproof pastry recipe) why not give the following a try.

 

Mince pies

Pastry (makes 2 doz small pies)

225g                  self raising flour – sifted
35g                    lard
75g                    salted butter – cold in 5mm cubes
35ml                 iced water (approx)

 Method

  • Rub fats into flour gently with fingertips to make a fine crumb
  • Add water and continue to work with fingertips until it starts to come together
  •  Press dough into a flat rectangle, (do not knead)  wrap in plastic film and chill for 20 minutes before using

Mince Pies (to make 2 doz small pies)

1                           recipe pie pastry (above)
350g                    Fruit mince
50ml                    Brandy
2 tablespoons     milk
1ciing sugar to dust

 Method

  • Roll out half the pastry on a floured surface until almost paper thin, using a small (6.5cm) crimped cookie cutter, cut out 24 tops, cover and refrigerate and reserve trimmings separately
  • Roll out remaining pastry to the same thickness as before and using a larger (8cm) plain cutter, cut out 24 bases (you will need to rest and reroll trimmings to achieve the full quantity)
  • Place bases  into small round based patty pan trays pressing into place firmly
  • Mix Brandy and fruit mince and place a heaped teaspoon into the centre of each pie, do not flatten out or push to edges the top will do this for you

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  • Brush lightly the inside of each lid with milk and press milk side down onto the top of each pie sealing around the edges
  • When all pies are filled and covered, brush lightly with remaining milk, prick or cut a small slit in the top of each pie and bake at 170c until golden brownmince pies 3v

Remove from the oven and dust immediately with icing sugar. Enjoy while still warm or cool and store in an airtight container for up to a week if you have strong will power and please don’t refrigerate!

mince pies

Don’t be mean with the beanz…..

black beans 3

Imagine a range of iconic European dishes missing the beans we associate with them. Think Cassoulet sans haricot beans, Spanish Capparrones without kidney beans, Pasta e fagioli devoid of borlotti’s  and  Ribollita minus cannellini. All of these dishes would be very, very different had the Spanish not bought back from the Americas the family of “wild  beans” that also includes the flageolet, navy, pinto and black turtle.

Of course these were not the only foods to come from the new world, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn also became staples around the globe, but it is the cheap and abundant protein in beans that sets them apart. Consumed in large quantities where plant based diets dominate they are often called “poor mans meat”. However in the wealthier  “new world” by comparison we eat very little with our abundant and cheap animal protein. In Australia at least, most of the beans consumed are of the value added or canned variety with one famous brand of baked beans owning the lions share and in fact all too often dry beans are seen as an inconvenience food.

 heinz

Subsequently, many people miss out as the best bean dishes get their distinctive  flavors from how they are prepared,  seasoned and slowly cooked. Of course this takes a little forward planning, but it’s more than worth the effort. It also provides the chance to strip the beans of some of their flatulent qualities. Simply put, pre soaking beans overnight or for a few hours at least and then discarding the soaking water not only hastens cooking but also removes a good amount of the fermentable sugars that provide beans with the reputation of being the “musical fruit”…

In Central and South America where beans are often the staple protein they take this process a little further, cooking their beans with a dried herb called epazote and in Japan, kombu is often added to the cooking water and the enzymes in this seaweed reputedly break down these sugars mentioned above. As for cooking times, which is the reason most people site for not using dry beans, there are a couple of very easy ways around this.

A slow cooker will cook beans  without any care or attention while you sleep, work or play  but you can also drastically reduce times to under an hour if you need to by simply using a pressure cooker.  However, there are a few things to note that will also affect both the cooking times and finished tenderness in beans and these are salt, sugar, and acidity. All of these will tend to harden  beans in the early part of the cooking process and so most commonly, these ingredients are only added once beans have reached tenderness.

Of course there are always exceptions to rule and in Latin America and the Caribbean, cooking beans with salted meat is a common treatment. These dishes are often a little firmer in texture and stand up to prolonged cooking without dissolving into overcooked mush. Importantly the bean of choice for most of these dishes is the relatively unknown (at least in Australia) black turtle bean and of all the beans mentioned in this blog this has to be my absolute favourite.

black beans 1

I first came across them a few years ago as an ingredient in a version of the Punjabi  classic “Kali Dal” where they replaced the regular “Rajma” or kidney beans, lending a deeper richer colour. However their real home is the Americas from Louisiana, throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America where they take their place in many national or regional specialties from black bean burritos, tamales and “Frijoles Negras” to the Cuban classic “Moros y Christianos”.

What makes them special is their dense, meaty texture, that and the rich dark gravy they create. This is especially so in the dishes that are not purely vegetarian, but rather combine cheaper cuts of meat like pickled pork hocks and salt beef where very long slow cooking is needed to tenderize the meat. A great example of this would be one of Brazils national dishes, Feijoada,  a supremely rich and meaty stew only needing  a little rice and maybe a side of greens to be a complete meal.

The following recipe for braised black beans is simplicity at its best, of course it doesn’t have to be this simple as these complex flavours work well, tricked up “restaurant style” like the image below with some grilled or roasted meat and a creamy root vegetable puree but the recipe is a great base well suited to a cold winters night like were having right now.

Enjoy, remember they’re  good for your heart!

Venison with black beans and celeriac

Braised Black Beans

125g                       dried black beans
2 cups                    water
2 cloves                 garlic – peeled and crushed
½ onion                chopped
500g                       pickled pork hocks
½                            chorizo sausage – diced
½ teaspoon          paprika
½ teaspoon          chili powder
1 teaspoon            cumin – ground
½                           bay leaf
2 cups                    white stock – chicken or pork
Seasoning to taste

Method

  • Place black beans and water in large pot and soak overnight or cover with water and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for 1 hour.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, cover and simmer until the meat and beans are just tender.
  • Serve as below with some rice and steamed greens as a simple meal or shred the meat through the beans and use it as the base for something altogether grander as above.

black beans 2

Suppa Zuppa

Free Range - Acrylic on Canvas - Jo McNamara 2015

The cold weather of recent days has had me thinking about soup. Always a great warming stand by, offering some of the most diverse dishes available, limited really only  by ones imagination. Of course traditionally in addition to providing warming nourishment, these “wet” foods would have provided much of ones daily liquid intake, and I clearly remember as a young chef being told by my first mentor, a chef of Indian extraction that we didn’t “eat” enough liquid in the west and to be honest he was right.

Our western diet today tends to be over processed and “dry”  with moisture ironically provided by bottled water or other beverages. By comparison Southern India has broth in the form of thin clear rasam at the centre of its cuisine. Take “Milagu Thanni” or pepper water for example, unfortunately we probably know it as the anglicized Mulligatawny, a heavy, creamy curried chicken soup thickened with rice and garnished with apple, but this is a far cry from the original almost  clear, spicy, tomato, tamarind and curry leaf broth that aids digestion and helps with hydration.

quote2

Of course right now because of the Paleo fad and the fuss that has surrounded the bone broth craze, there is renewed interest in nutritious stocks and consommés. But nutritious broths are nothing new, every carnivorous culture knows and has valued the restorative power of soup (this is supposedly how the term Restaurant was first coined, but that’s a story for another day). In Victorian Britain, Eliza Beeton recommended Beef Tea for invalids, the famous Chicken Soup of Eastern European/Ashkenazic tradition and so beloved in my Barossa homeland (albeit with noodles instead of matzo balls) is often referred to as Jewish Penicillin and the Vietnamese pay great attention to the health and strength given properties of a long simmered Pho.

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More to the point our modern English word soup comes from the old English “Sop” to soak bread in liquid, which in turn is related to “Sup” meaning to swallow and certainly soaking stale country bread in hot broth made these early soups thicker and more filling. Continuing on this theme, some of the worlds best known national dishes are really soups or soupy stews, for example: Bouillabaise, Minestra, Gulyas, Borscht, Cock a leekie, Waterzoi, Chowder and the list goes on, but the  thing these all have in common is that they were originally simple peasant foods, basic dishes that formed the basis of most meals.

Today’s blog is about one such soup, one definitely not as well known as any of the soups mentioned above, but absolutely and fundamentally peasant in origin. I am talking of the Italian classic Zuppa Pavese. Hailing from Pavia, near Milan in Northern Italy. Romantic legend has it that it was created in the early 1500’s by a peasant farmer for the then King Francis I of France who was fleeing a defeat in the battle of Pavia, though this is highly unlikely seeing as he was captured on the battlefield, nice story though…

portrait-of-francis-i-king-of-france

As far as my history with this soup is concerned, I first came across it as a young chef dining at a tiny, rustic, Italian restaurant in Adelaide in the 1970’s, the type with gingham table cloths and ruffina flasks as candle sticks.  I recall it was both cheap and the special of the day and completely unknown to me, but to my surprise it was a revelation remaining a personal favourite to this day.

Simply put it is perfect for lunch or a light “Supper” being very quick and easy. To prepare it, take a good slice of crusty country style bread, fry it in butter until crisp and golden on both sides, place in a heated bowl, break a couple of very fresh eggs  on top, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pour well flavoured,  boiling broth over to just set the eggs and serve immediately…. nothing too it really!.

Sure it’s not modernist cuisine, though I am sure someone out there will have by now put together a ludicrous deconstructed version with a “40 minute sous vide egg, buttered sour dough gravel, parmesan foam and gelatin filtered consommé” . Of course in its own way that idea ’s not very different from Escoffier listing a recipe for “Mille –Fanti” in his Guide Culinaire. This was an Italian inspired egg drop soup made with strong consommé, eggs, bread and parmesan, precisely the same ingredients as Zuppa Pavese and one can only wonder if the Thousand Footmen of the name is another reference to Francis’s and his army.

mille fanti

No, for me Zuppa Pavese  is a perfect example of a simple peasant dish that to succeed only needs great ingredients and absolutely no embellishment. Now my poor old dad would have never come at this, the thought of what he would call a “snotty egg” being just too much, and another very good chef friend of mine will probably be equally repulsed at the thought of a “soppy, soggy croute”. But this soup is a restorative in every possible way. The protein of the egg, gelatinous broth and umami rich cheese combining with the butter fried bread to make a simple and honest, healthy and hearty meal, seriously can good food be any easier?

Buon Appetito

Zuppa Pavese – per person

200ml                chicken stock- well seasoned– recipe following
2 teaspoons       butter
1 slice                  day old crusty bread
1 or 2                  eggs – very fresh & at room temperature
2 tablespoons   Parmesan cheese – grated

Method

  • Warm bowl(s) with boiling water and place eggs in bowl to warm slightly

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  • Bring stock to a simmer and ensure it is well seasoned
  • Pan fry bread until golden on both sides, drain water from serving dish

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  • Place fried bread in the base of bowl, crack egg(s)onto bread and sprinkle with half the parmesan
  • Ladle boiling stock into bowl and over egg – stock must be boiling rapidly

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  • Cover bowl with a lid or plate for 30 seconds, remove, add remaining parmesan and serve

Chicken stock

1kg      chicken bones
1kg      chicken wings
1           carrot
1 stick  celery
2          onions
1          bay leaf
6          peppercorns
20g     parsley stalks
1.7      litres water
Sprig thyme

Method

  • Rinse bones and wings well, place in a pressure cooker with all other ingredients
  • Close and seal vessel, bring to pressure and cook following safety instructions for 20 minutes.
  • After cooking time is complete, follow your appliances safety procedures to reduce pressure and only open when fully depressurised.
  • Strain through a fine filter, allow to settle for 10 minutes and remove as much fat as possible from the surface and reserve for later use.

Note: if not using pressure cooker, use recipe but increase water to 3.5 litres, bring to a simmer uncovered and cook very gently for 3 hours, strain and reduce by boiling to 1200ml

Kale…FFS……its just ancient cabbage …..

To be honest I have had it with the mania surrounding Kale, not that I don’t like the stuff, it has its place, but talk about over exposed and over hyped. Seriously does anyone really “love” the taste of Kale juice or think that shredded kale in a salad is “amazing” and don’t get me started on Kale chips…..

Sure it has really healthy properties, and can taste pretty good when cooked correctly, but these simple “headless” members of the cabbage family are punching way above their weight right now and I have no doubt that down the track this “healthy trend” will be consigned to the “loony fad” bin along with pet rocks, cabbage patch kids and hopefully cold drip coffee but that’s another rant!

yummy kale juice

So this week when the “latest” Kale phenomenon “Kalettes” hit the media with a fanfare, enough was enough. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3088556/Meet-Kalette-hottest-new-vegetable-hybrid-hitting-Australia-mash-trendy-Kale-BRUSSEL-SPROUTS.html So now we have a new hybrid that apparently took the Northern hemisphere by storm last year so now of course its our turn. In reality of course this “new vegetable” is just another branch among many in the Brassica family.

Maybe it’s best to get a few things straight about Kale. Firstly all members of this genus started life from a humble wild cabbage or Colewort as is was known historically, and over the past 3000 or so years we have seen this “weed” (for that’s what wort means) gradually “improved” to develop the vegetables we know today that include: Cauliflower (Cole-i-flower) Broccoli (Broc-cole-i) Collard greens (Cole-ard) and Borecole (Bor-i-cole) amongst others.

Wild Cabbage

 

Essentially variations of  the English “Col” meaning cabbage or kale  are used similarly in different languages to name members of this family, for example, Col (Spanish) Kool (Dutch) Kohl (German) Kail (Celtic) Kal (Scandinavian) Couve (Portuguese) Cavolo (Italy) and finally Chou (French) and Choy (Chinese). For those interested the following is worth reading http://wordhistories.com/2014/03/24/cabbage-chou/

Now, taken to its logical extension, this “Kalette” hybrid is simply put, Kale, an ancient improvement on Colewort, crossed with Brussels sprouts, one of the more recent cultivars from the same plant with the result a kind of reverse engineering and I’m pretty sure we’ve probably been here before except we didn’t have major seed companies and supermarkets invested in their success.

So what’s my objection to humble Kale?, well its certainly not the vegetable itself, I actually really like it as part of my Dutch mother-in-laws’  “Stamppot” where the Borecole or Curly kale or Boerenkool as she calls it, is cooked with potatoes, mashed and served with rookwurst  (a delicious smoked pork sausage) and with my Irish heritage I am no stranger to it through that stalwart of the Gaelic kitchen, Colcannon (pictured below) which is equally good with pork sausages, chops, crispy belly or maybe its just good with pork full stop.

colcannon

I also remember a stomping great plant that towered over me in our backyard in the UK when I was a little tacker and back then, Kale was a very common veggie patch and allotment staple (think community garden) because it grew like a weed at a time during and post WWII when nutritious vegetables were in short supply, no hint of its rock star status back then, so yes I have had my share of Kale, boiled or steamed with lots of salted butter and white pepper and its fine this way as well.

No, its just that frankly, despite what some may say its not a cure all, its just another cruciferous vegetable, and there is a whole big world of brassica’s out there to choose from, (and that come with a lot less self righteous indignation I might add). No please give me gai lan, bok choy, or a nice small savoy cabbage or heaven help me tiny sweet baby Brussels sprouts that have been grown somewhere nice and frosty (which brings out the sweetness) rather than pander to yet another super food trend.

So in keeping to my rant I post the following recipe for one my favourite cabbage dishes. Not surprisingly for those that know me it is Indian in origin (actually specifically Bengali) but it is comfortingly enough familiar to the western palate to be a great winter food to accompany rich meats like Duck, Goose or even pork . However at risk of being labeled a hypocrite, I need to note that it does contain that other recently lauded “super food” turmeric, except here it is performing its ancient role as a calmative along with the other digestive spices, not only to help make it delicious but to mitigate the potentially sulphurous effects of these leafy greens and definitely not to save the world or make my skin more lustrous, Enjoy!

banda1

Bandhakopir Bhaji

1 tablespoon      sunflower or mustard oil
2 teaspoons       panch phoron
2 teaspoon         turmeric
1 small                green chilli – chopped
1 small                onion – chopped
1 clove                garlic – crushed
1 cm                     ginger – grated
¼                        white cabbage – shredded
2 teaspoons       sugar
1 teaspoon          salt
2 tablespoons   tamarind water

Method

  • Heat oil and fry panch phoron until seeds pop, add turmeric and chilli and fry briefly

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  • Add onion and ginger and cook golden then add garlic and cook briefly until fragrant.

banda2

  • Toss cabbage through, then add all remaining ingredients, cover and cook quickly until cabbage wilts and liquids evaporate

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I may be colour blind, but I do know what green tastes like!

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“Eat the Weeds”……..I’m certainly not the first person to use this phrase, nor to suggest that there is  a bounty of free, nutritious greens growing right under our noses. After all if you have a productive vegetable garden, you need to keep on top of the weeds and instead of spraying them with poison or hoeing them in, if they’re  edible then why not put them on the plate. So as the landscape greens up as winter closes in, many of these emerging and potentially invasive weeds have genuine culinary value. Take the sour sob for example, I would be surprised if most people growing up in South Australia, had not at some time tasted the lemony sourness of this pretty yellow weed. More properly known as Oxalis  or by the fancier moniker of “wood sorrel” I have used its tangy sourness to give “zing” to variations on Salsa Verde and Sauce Gribache, especially with lambs tongue or brawn.

sour sobs

Next on the list of edible “nuisance” plants would have to be the Dandelion. Named in “Old French” for it’s leaves resemblance to a set of lions teeth or “Dente De Lion”, this plant is the root source for all modern chicory, endive and lettuces. Of course anyone that has eaten Dandelions will be familiar with their bitter digestif qualities, and also know that the tender young leaves are by far the best. Unfortunately though, in keeping with the French connection, and supporting its reputation as a diuretic, a salad of these young leaves is known as “Pissenlit” or literally “piss in bed” however in moderation with crispy bacon lardons and a good vinaigrette, they are delicious.

dandelion

But that’s not all, right now there are literally a dozen other common “weeds”that can easily be found or foraged in my garden, from purslane and chick weed, to sow thistle, prickly lettuce and plantain. None of these have ever been intentionally cultivated nor purposely allowed to run to seed, (and just a quick note for chefs, restaurateurs and spin doctors out there, this is what foraged means, it doesn’t refer to things you have planted, or bought from a commercial source) but my all time favourite at this time of year are the really young nettles that are starting to carpet my veggie patch.

pick

Yes we are talking about nasty, evil, stinging nettles, but I genuinely look forward to their emergence each year as they really are a delicious culinary herb,  in fact more a vegetable than a weed. Not only do they clearly have the greenest flavor of all leafy vegetables, but they are packed with vitamins and minerals, almost certainly richer in iron than spinach and higher in protein than cabbage.  At this early stage in their growth, their “stinging ability” is lessened,  and they are tender and pure in flavor when compared with more mature plants, (cooking destroys or neutralizes the formic acid that provides the “sting” anyway, but it is still a good idea to wear gloves to pick them!) Importantly, when young, as part of this delicious risotto, and right now I can think of no better reason to keep on top of the weeds.

Nettle Risotto

200g                   baby nettles – freshly picked
1/2 cup               white wine
3 1/2  cups         chicken stock – well seasoned
150g                    butter
50g                      onion
2 cloves              garlic – crushed
1¼ cups             arborio rice
4 tablespoons   Parmessan cheese – grated

Method

  • place nettles in a bowl and cover with cold water to rinse well, pinch out tips and leaves discarding stems (you should end up with about 120g nettle leaves)
  • sprinkle nettles with salt and cover with boiling water, drain immediately and place in cold salted water, squeeze leaves gently,  chop blanched nettles and reserve

wash, blanch,squeeze

  • Melt half the butter and gently fry the onions without colouring, add garlic and sweat until fragrant but without colour.
  • Add rice and stir through butter and onion mixture for a couple of minutes, rice grains should be coated with oil and appear whiter in colour
  • Add the wine and stir until completely absorbed, then add half the hot stock and cook stirring constantly over a low heat until all the liquid is absorbed
  • Continue to add stock as above one ladleful at a time until all 3/4 of the stock has been used, then stir through the chopped nettles.

stock, nettles, cheese

  • Add final portion of stock and cook until fully absorbed, stir in remaining butter and cheese, cover and keep warm for 10 minutes
  • Serving with a little extra shaved Parmesan cheese.

nettle risotto

Red Gold – Saffron that is!

saffron crocus

Walking around our garden today in the Autumn drizzle, copper leaves cascading off of our old Pear Tree and the first signs of our saffron Crocus’s sprouting through the soil, reminded me of a time over 30 years ago when we lived albeit briefly on the Herts and Essex border in the UK. This was a really beautiful part of the English country side with narrow winding lanes, ancient villages and quaint thatched pubs dispensing real ale. When we lived there, exploring this countryside was a favourite pastime, and we frequently visited the medieval market town of “Saffron Walden” not quite 20km away. Once home to a major saffron industry, several centuries have passed since this fragrant and colourful little crocus was commercially cultivated there, and today, only the name remains as a reference to its past. However, this all got me thinking about the global trade and history of one of my very favourite spices.

crocus

Of course nowadays, saffron is found in just about every supermarket and gourmet store, readily accessible and affordable for everyday cooks but this hasn’t always been the case. Starting as a wild variety of Crocus, probably in the Eastern Mediterranean, over thousands of years Saffron spread across the old world via the Persians who took it east through to the Indus and on to Kashmir, and also via the sea faring Phoenicians that traded it throughout the “Middle Sea” and up along the Atlantic coastline of Spain to the Celtic coasts of Cornwall, where cakes coloured and flavoured with saffron still exist to this day.

Unfortunately over the years the term “Saffron” has been misused to describe almost anything coloured yellow, and certainly when I started in professional kitchens most things labeled “Saffron” as in  “Saffron Rice”were simply coloured with turmeric (which in itself is not a bad thing because Turmeric is an amazingly healthy spice) but  Turmeric as the root of a tropical lily related to ginger bears no relationship in flavor or fragrance to the delicate but powerful stamen of a tiny crocus and a true “Zaffran Pilau” (saffron rice) remains one of the most fragrant and honest examples of just how delicate but powerful this spice can be.

pilaf

And it is this power and intense purity as a dye that saw it used to colour cloth for the highest and most revered in the land. In a culinary sense it has long been used to impart food with the colour of the sun and is thus pretty much always associated with warm and sunny lands like Morocco, Spain, Provence, Iran and India, and of course, no spice or herb history would be complete without reference to its medicinal qualities with natural practitioners regaling it as a cure for many, many ills.

Suffice to say with all this background, over the years a lot of confusion, misinformation and mythology has sprung up around Saffron and even today urban myth holds that Saffron is worth more than gold, in all actuality given todays bullion price it is actually worth about 1/10 of the precious metal per gram.Still at around $3800 per kilo (wholesale) it is hardly cheap but quality differs enormously.

From the rubbish regaled as finest Spanish which is often 3rd or 4th grade at best, to the dubious stuff which is clearly safflower, marigold or other such rubbish (all of which may colour food, but also leave it with a taste of decidedly manky daisies). Then there is the con played out in spice markets around the world, often involving a little sleight of hand,which I have to admit I fell for in the old town of Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala. Famous for its pepper market and spice traders, we chose to visit one that was so fragrant of Saffron from the street we just had to go in, of course this “Kashmiri Saffron” was a bargain and after checking the quality, I decided that it was too good to pass up. Transaction complete the ever polite proprietor insisted on parceling it up for me and it wasn’t until I opened the package several days later and thousands of kilometers away that I realized that the stuff in my tin was absolute rubbish.

However its not all doom and gloom, Tas-Saff in Tasmania have great quality Australian grown Saffron and even here in SA we have had some commercial harvests, plus we can always grow tiny quantities at home (see above) but most excitingly I have recently discovered an importer of some amazing Iranian saffron marketed under the “Bahraman” brand, and tagged “the red gold of Iran” , this is nothing short of amazing as well as really affordable ( details of suppliers follow) and this is exciting because good quality saffron makes all the difference to so many dishes. Of course this leads to the obvious question of how do I use saffron and then what do I use it for?

zaffran

Firstly, for those not accustomed to using Saffron, always soak the filaments you need in a couple of tablespoons of water for about 20 minutes before adding the liquid and soaked stigmas to the dish. As for favourite recipes, personally I love to braise chicken koftas or thighs in a creamy saffron and almond gravy in the Egyptian way, or use it to make richly fragrant pilaf of rice or mixed grains, of course it is an essential ingredient in Paella and the moors spread its use around the Mediterranean coast with all manner of fish soups and stews like Zarzuela de Mariscos from Spain, Cacciucco from Tuscany and of course the most famous fish soup of all Bouillabaise from Provence.

soaking

And here I am in total agreement with Elizabeth David when she writes in her book Spices, Salts And Aromatics In The English Kitchen :   “if I myself had to choose just one type of dish in which saffron makes an important difference it would be Mediterranean fish soups and stews…..”  So following is my loose version of “Bouillabaisse”. It doesn’t quite carry the correct number or variety of fish and shellfish required of the authentic version and is certainly a little less bony, but it is certainly warming and delicious on a cold autumn day and makes great use of the fabulous fresh seafood found along South Australia’s Mediterranean like coastline.

IMG_3827

 

Bouillabaise
60 ml                                  olive oil
1 teaspoon                         fennel seed
1                                           orange – rind only, thinly peeled strip
2 ea                                      leeks – whites only, finely sliced
3-4 cloves                           garlic – sliced
1 ea                                       fennel bulb –sliced into small wedges

2 med                                  ripe tomatoes – peeled and diced
1 tablespoon                      Pernod
1 litre                                   fish stock
pinch                                    saffron – soaked in 30ml water

500g                                     whole white fish – cut into chunks through the bone
200 g                                    prawns – tails
12                                          whole black mussels – scrubbed and debearded
1 tablespoon                       parsley – shredded

Method

  • Heat oil, add the fennel seeds and orange peel and when just sizzling add the sliced leek, fennel and garlic , lower heat, cover and allow to stew gently until soft, do not allow to colour
  • Increase heat, add tomatoes and Pernod and allow tomatoes to soften a little then add the fish broth and saffron. Bring to a simmer for 5 minutes then add fish and boil hard for 5 minutes
  • Add mussels and prawns, bring back to simmer , add parsley and serve immediately with croutes and rouille.

Rouille
6                             cloves  garlic
2 ea                        egg yolks
pinch                     cayenne pepper
Salt & white pepper to taste

1 ea                        lemons – juice of
1 tsp                      water – lukewarm
250 ml                 olive oil

Method

  • Puree the garlic, egg yolks and seasoning in a food processor or blender.
  • With the blades still turning add lemon juice and water, mix well then add the oil in a thin stream.
  •  Taste the rouille and add more lemon juice, salt and pepper if necessary.

Retail Stockists & Wholesale Enquiries:

In Adelaide Central Market – Bahraman Saffron is available at Lucia’s Fine Foods http://lucias.com.au/

Wholesale – email: sales@aus-ktc.com.au   Website: http://aus-ktc.com.au

Just Nuts about Hazelnuts…

cropped-Torino-e1367812482559

Piemonte is one of the food and wine world’s best (or worst) kept secrets. Little wonder that the Slow Food Movement is headquartered here because seriously, there is so much great food and wine packed in this little region of Italy than is really fair. Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, & Arneis are but a few of the wine grape varieties that enjoy near legendary status, grown as they are in famous Appellations like Barolo, Alba, Barbaresco, Asti & Gattinara.

Then there’s the food, white truffles, chestnuts, amazing cheeses, rice, all manner of game meats and hazelnuts. Believe me the Piedmontese are literally nuts about hazelnuts, especially when combined with chocolate and of course this is the where the famous Ferrero family of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella fame are based. What culinary extremes, home to not only some of the world’s most highly regarded wines and rare perfumed fungi but also some of the most widely available and popular sugary confections on the planet.

hazelnuts

But why is the chocolate and hazelnut combination so strong here? The Hazelnut part is easily explained, the climate and terrain of the “Langhe” has been well suited to the cultivation of hazelnuts for centuries, but when the new fashion for cocoa was at its peak in Turin during the late 1700’s this fad ran head long into Napoleon’s Regency of Piedmonte. At that very time around the early 1800’s, restrictive trade sanctions and a physical blockade (sound familiar) prevented cocoa and other luxury imports from reaching destinations under Napoleonic control.

Legend claims that it wasn’t much later, that resourceful Piemontese pastry cooks came up with a smooth, sweet and creamy, firm paste of roasted hazelnuts and bitter cocoa to manage the scarcity of the more highly desirable chocolate. They called this confection Gianduja after a carnival character (pictured below) who was a symbol of independence  Interestingly the development of Gianduja  ran pretty much parallel to the development of Milk chocolate a relatively short trek across the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately for the Torinese, milk chocolate went on to conquer the world while Gianduja remained largely a local specialty in Turin.

gianduja2

However fast track almost a hundred years and in 1946 following world war 2, another severe rationing of chocolate apparently led Albanese pastry chef Pietro Ferrero to produce large batch of chocolate-like “Pasta Gianduja” . Importantly because the major ingredient was locally sourced he was able to make this at a fraction of the cost of chocolate candy and this paste proved both popular and profitable. Over the next few years he refined this to a smooth spread finally launching Nutella as we know it in the early 1960’s.

Since this humble start, Nutella consumption has spread from its Italian home into every corner of the globe to the extent that it is estimated or rather claimed on the internet that the weight of Nutella consumed globally each year roughly equates to the mass of the Empire State Building! Whatever the facts, Ferrero’s success has spawned a whole range of imposters and lookalikes of varying quality.

wheres the bread

However last weekend over Easter when I needed some Nutella I found the cupboard bare and the shops closed. With a little research, I realized that I actually had all the ingredients on hand to make a little batch of something very close to a soft pasta Gianduja, and the result surprised me , it was smooth, rich and dairy free with a much more pronounced toasted nutty character and devoid of the rancidity which often plagues the cheap substitutes mentioned earlier.

The other big plus is that it was quite a bit less sugary and with a tiny hint of salt and some nice cocoa bitterness it even has a slightly savoury edge, and just for the record it made a delicious filing for the Hazelnut and Chocolate Danish Pastries we were trialing for next week’s Vintage Festival Breakfasts at Bethany Wines. Try it yourself, it really is ridiculously simple and equally delicious.

Hazelnut and Cocoa Paste 

120g                                     hazelnuts
1/2  cup                               icing sugar
2 tablespoons                    cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon                       sunflower oil
1/2 teaspoon                      vanilla paste
tiny pinch                          fine salt

Method:

Roast hazelnuts until lightly golden brown, skin blisters and nuts are fragrantly toasty

roasting nutsroasted nuts- skinningready to grind

Rub in a cloth to remove skins and when cool place in a blender and grind very finely

ground nutsblend 20 secondsadd sugar, cocoa, vanilla , oil and saltblend 20 seconds

Add cocoa, icing sugar, vanilla, oil and salt and process until very fine, smooth, glossy and spreadable, its that simple!