Monday, November 18, 2013

Pilchard Curry And Other Student Stories

Times were hard when I was a student. Not like today. We enjoyed unheard of things like housing benefit and free tuition fees in those pre-Clegg nut times, but they were still hard. And, of course, any money you managed to save on optional extras like food and heating meant the more you could splash out on subsidised booze - in my case strong lager with vodka, lime and soda “greenies”.

One way to do this was to make a communal pot of tinned tuna curry most nights - which was absolutely delicious, if a little repetitive. But not repetitive enough obviously for one of the blokes who shared our house. I shared a flat with him briefly 20 years later, and he still made tuna curry every night when he got home from work. He was a strange chap, but they say the habits you learn at university stay with you the rest of your life.

Anyway, this recipe is based on that tuna curry recipe slightly, but I’ve tinkered with it over the years. I got ideas from an Indian friend whose mother used to make delicious curries and claimed the best ones were made from tinned pilchards.

It’s also got influences from a dish that I got addicted to while living in Cambodia - char trey cor compong (fried tinned fish) - the recipe is here if you want to try it. So this is a hybrid of Brightonian, Indian and Cambodian cooking, and it really is worth trying especially if you’re counting the pennies, or just want something spicy and healthy to see you through these dark, cold nights.

It uses curry leaves, and I find the best thing to do with these is to buy a big bag of fresh ones from an Asian supermarket and then freeze them and use a handful as you will - they defrost in seconds in a hot pan. The dried ones aren’t worth bothering with. Anyway, I hope you like it...

(Serves 2)

2 large onions
2 medium potatoes
Knob of butter
6 garlic cloves
12 curry leaves
2 cups of water or more
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsps of extra hot chilli powder
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 x 155g tins of pilchards in tomato sauce
4 level tsps fish sauce
1 level tsp sugar
1 red chilli

Chop the onions fairly finely, then peel the potatoes and cut each one into eight cubes. Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the onions and brown slightly for a few minutes, stirring all the time. Then add the potatoes and stir well.

Fry for another five minutes over a low heat, stirring from time to time. Then finely dice the garlic and add to the pan with the curry leaves. Fry for a couple of minutes, then add the cumin seeds, garam masala, turmeric and chilli powder. Fry for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time to stop the mixture sticking to the bottom and burning.

Add a cup of water and the tomato puree and stir well. Allow to simmer gently over a low heat, stirring from time to time, and adding another splash or two of water as the liquid evaporates - remember this is a fairly dry curry, so don’t swamp it.

Continue cooking for another 20 minutes or so, then test one of the potato chunks to see if they’re cooked. If not, add more splashes of water and continue cooking until they’re done. Add fish sauce and sugar and stir well.

Then add the first tin of pilchards, including the juice, and mash slightly with a spoon. Stir well and simmer for a minute, then add the second tin, but this time just break the fish in half and stir gently to ensure they don’t break up. Add a little water to each tin to get the remaining juices out. Simmer gently for another minute until the second tin of pilchards is just warmed through, then serve with sliced fresh chillies and sticky rice.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pork Carnitas: The Quick Way (Put That On Your Tacometer)

There are many recipes for this classic Mexican pork snack - usually involving great hunks of pig that are cooked for hours until they can be pulled apart with blunt spoons. 

Here is a much quicker version I was given by a man I met in a lift in San Jose in Costa Rica. He swears by it and so do I. 

You nestle a spoonful or two of the greasy, fragrant pork in a warmed tortilla, and then roll it up. I like them on their own, but add whatever to the taco - guacamole, sour cream, grated cheese, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, salsa, jalapenos, refried beans et al. 

What’s important is getting the pork bit right, without burning up half the North Sea's gas - unless you like throwing your money to the profit-chasing, rip-off Big Six energy cartel. Here goes...

(Serves 2)

350g pork shoulder steaks
4 large garlic cloves
2 cups or more of water
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsps oregano leaves
Salt, pepper

Slice the pork into short, thin strips, about a centimetre wide. Don’t trim the fat as this adds to the flavour and you don’t use any other oil in the recipe. Put a frying pan over a medium heat and when hot, throw in the pork and allow to brown slightly before giving it a stir.

The fat (and water injected into the pork if it is supermarket-bought) should lubricate the pan to stop it catching when you give it a stir. If not, add a knob of lard or beef dripping or something. Continue browning for a few minutes, and then throw in a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and the cumin seeds.

Keep stirring and browning the pork. Then finely chop the garlic and add to the pan and brown the pork for another few minutes (notice how many times I'm irritatingly using the word 'brown' - that's what the whole recipe's about). It should be evenly browned by the end (and once more). Then add a cup of water. Don’t completely submerge the pork - there should be bits sticking out.

Stir well and allow this to bubble away until it is reduced to a syrup. Then add another cup of water and stir occasionally until it is reduced. Keep repeating the process until the pork has been cooking for about an hour. Five minutes from the end, chop the oregano leaves and add to the pan.

When the pork has been cooking for an hour, test a piece - it should be soft and not at all chewy. Boil away the last of the liquid until the pork is coated in a glossy syrup.

Remove the pork and then clean out the pan with a piece of bread. Put the pan back on the heat and warm the tortillas in it, turning from time to time. Put a spoon or two of pork in the middle of the tortilla, top with lettuce, salsa sauce, grated cheese, chilli peppers etc and roll up and eat with your fingers, like you're Tuco Salamanca in Breaking Bad (who, fittingly, the bloke in the lift reminded me of in some ways).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chicken And Black Bean Stew

I’ve been getting into South American and Mexican food lately after re-reading the beautifully-photographed World Food Cafe recipe book and authors Chris and Carolyn Caldicott’s travels through the orange-sunset Americas.

As I sit here, barely able to type with frozen hands, and the woodburning stove behind me spluttering the last log, filling me with Withnail-ian thoughts of burning the furniture, despite what little there is in my ramshackle cottage, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be than Brazil.

This recipe is a take on the South American country’s traditional black bean stew. Normally, you’d add a few vegetables like cubes of carrots, sweet potatoes and turnips or something, and in the Caldicotts’ book, no meat. But this is all I had in the cupboard, and as it turned out pretty well and kept the cold at bay for an hour or two, especially with the high chilli content, I thought I’d share it with you...  

(serves 2)

6 chicken drumsticks
2 small onions
4 fat cloves of garlic
1 tbsp beef dripping
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons extra hot chilli powder
2 handfuls of fresh coriander
400g tin of black turtle beans

Melt the dripping in a pot and fry the drumsticks on all sides until lightly browned. Roughly chop the onions and garlic cloves and add them to the pot, stirring away over a medium flame for a couple of minutes. Add the cumin seeds and continue to fry for another minute or so.

Add half a cup of water and cook away, turning the chicken from time to time, until the water has evaporated into a thick syrup, then add another half cup of water and the chilli powder.

Put the coriander in a tub of water and wash well, then leave in the water so any mud sinks to the bottom of the tub (there is nothing worse than grit in a stew). Cut or twist off the roots and leave the leaves in the water. Roughly chop the roots and add them to the pot and cook for another ten minutes, adding a little more water if necessary.

Add the turtle beans (including the purple liquid the beans come with) and stir for a minute until thoroughly coated. Cook over a low heat for another five minutes, stirring from time to time, and at the end add salt to taste and stir in the chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with warm tortillas (which you can heat either by putting them on top of the woodburning stove, or by turning them a couple of times in a dry frying pan, or pinging them for 30 seconds in a microwave if you’ve got one).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fakirs' Smoked Mackerel Pate

I can’t claim this recipe for my own, even though I’d like to, and you’d probably never know any different. But it would feel wrong. Because the chef who lays claim to this wonderfully-simple dish deserves much wider praise.

He’s one of those proper cooks who lies undiscovered their whole lives. A small celebrity in a tiny brook who brightens the lives of the many who head to his harbourside haunt in the West Country.

Whether it’s for rib of beef on Sunday, or fish the rest of the week. Whole brill with elderberries, slabs of smoked haddock, or grilled hake in green tomato sauce. Flounders and plaice the size of your plate. And if you’re lucky, and the chef’s had a fruitful trip to the harbour, and you’ve both remembered your drunken order in the bar the night before as he sips that wonderful taste of after-service cider, then a lobster the length of your forearm - just poached, split lengthways, and warmed in parsley butter.

It’s the sort of place that thrives on word of mouth, and if one word were to describe it, it would be quirky. Because from the soused fishermen balanced precariously on stalls at the bar, planning their next day’s attack at the bass, to the old boy who grows his own in the garage, to the picture framer who says “I’m hanging in there” whenever anyone asks how business is, to the glass buoys pinned to the walls, to the sign saying “no thieves, fakirs, rogues, or tinkers, no skulking loafers, or flea-bitten tramps”, to the mermaid with her sleep-inducing flute, to the oft-forgotten service, to the ogre-sized portions, to the unripe plums and blueberries decorating a dressed crab this time from a fruitless lobster search from last night’s drunken pledge, there is no other place I prefer to eat.

Which is why I’ve been staying there in my room above the pub, dining on fish every night, and raising a glass to the chef after he emerges from the stove, glowing like a horsefly on the saddle and supping like a man who’s swallowed an ocean. Happy, content, beaming back. Fervent in the warmth of adoration. That vicarious pleasure only a true cook understands.

I love this place and the smoker at the back where you can take your fish to be brined in a barrel and browned over applewood embers. Slabs of smoked mullet eaten with butter-smeared fingers, or garfish if you don’t mind the bones and have no aversion to green ones.

But the best of the lot is the smoked mackerel pâté the chef makes. I’ve seen it made many ways, and far more complex at times, but that pate like all his dishes has a simplicity, a knowledge that the fish should be left to speak for itself and not be messed around with.

Other flavours are there - horseradish, smoked garlic, lemon and black pepper - but nothing takes away from the warming taste of that mackerel - silver skin turned gold from the wood smoke, and still warm from trickling embers, and then minced and left to sit and merge in ramekins overnight.

Eaten with nothing but toast, as you ponder each flavour and reflect again on how wonderful it is to eat fish, draped in salt and smoke, such a magical, binding chemistry of forgotten old England as you wait for your brill to arrive.

(Serves 4)

200g smoked mackerel
Lots of black pepper
Half a lemon, squeezed
5 smoked garlic cloves
4 level teaspoons horseradish sauce
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
200ml double cream
1/2 tsp salt

Throw all the ingredients into a blender, and blitz for a minute or so until smooth. Spoon into ramekins and leave in the fridge overnight. Dust with paprika. Serve with triangles of toasted brown bread.