Sunday, June 27, 2010

Beetroot, red onion, red cabbage, crème fraîche and chervil salad

If you choose to Bunbury in town and if the town is London, consider dining at St. John. The restaurant resides in a former smokehouse in London’s Smithfield Meat Market. St. John’s Fergus Henderson is a catalyst of today’s whole beast movement. His first cookbook is Nose to Tail Eating [1999] and its sequel is Beyond Nose to Tail [2007].

Although Henderson may be responsible for tongue, heart and pig’s tail finding their place on fashionable metropolitan menus, it is a mistake to only focus on his nose to tail credentials. His cookbooks cover more than how to prepare offal. He states in his Nose to Tail Eating introduction: “This is a book about cooking and eating at home with friends and relations, not replicating restaurant plates of food.” His cookbooks share a kinship with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food. Both authors feature “simple” cooking, but with a different focus. Olney memorialized traditional regional French cooking; Henderson creates a decidedly modern kind of British cooking using traditional ingredients.

Henderson’s brilliance is his use of ingredients that are often more arranged than manipulated. Here is a recipe that embodies this approach. It is a salad of beetroot, red onion, red cabbage, crème fraîche and chervil.

  • Healthy splashes of extra virgin olive oil
  • A little gesture of balsamic vinegar
  • A small handful of extra-fine capers
  • Sea salt and black pepper

  • 2 raw beetroot, peeled and finely grated
  • ¼ raw red cabbage, cored, very finely sliced
  • 1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half from top to bottom, finely sliced
  • 6 healthy dollops of crème fraîche
  • 2 healthy bunches of chervil, picked

Mix everything together for the dressing. Toss all your raw red vegetables in the dressing, then on six plates place a bushel of this red mixture. Next to this, nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers. Finally, a clump of the chervil rested next to the other ingredients in the friendly fashion. A very striking salad ready for the eater to mess up.

If you try this salad a number of things will stand out. Although unique and elegant, it is extremely easy to create using generally available ingredients. Perhaps the chervil and crème fraîche might be a tad more difficult to find. Do not let this deter you—most good markets carry both.

You will also find that that this salad offers a spectrum of flavors, textures and colors. The crème fraîche is round and rich. The sweet balsamic vinegar and briny capers play off the cream’s richness. The red ingredients add a wonderful crunch while the green chervil contributes a mild yet essential liquorice flavor.

Finally, and most importantly, this salad is delicious and fun to eat. It is constructed for your eaters to deconstruct. You get to fool around with fork and knife and make a mess.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Potato and leek soup

Where one chooses to Bunbury is a matter of personal preference. Some choose the country, say in Shropshire; others Bunbury in town. Bunburying can be exhausting, thus the need to restore one’s self with soup. In my mind, nothing works better than this simple yet perfect dish, potato and leek soup. It contains, apart from salt, four ingredients: water, potatoes, leeks and butter. This soup has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first things that I learned how to cook.

The recipe is from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food [1974]. I came to this classic work by mistake thinking it was a primer. The food that Olney presents is simple in spirit but not necessarily in execution. Take for example cassoulet—certainly rustic but not simple to prepare. Simple French Food surveys traditional foods served in home kitchens and country restaurants across France. Olney worried these regional French dishes were at risk of fading away. His recipes collected throughout France favor the south.

I gravitated to his recipe for Potage aux Poireaux et Pommes de Terre because it looked easy to make. It is. Olney wrote that the soup “is nothing more than potatoes and leeks more or less finely sliced or cut up, depending on the bonne femme, boiled in salted water, and served, a piece of butter being added then to the soup….” Certainly simple, but Olney added: “were my vice and curiosity more restrained, I, too, would adore to eat it every evening of my life.”

You can learn a lot about cooking by making this soup every night for weeks and weeks. Inevitably there is improvisation. Alternating thick and thin potato slices changes the soup’s texture. Thinly slicing the leeks creates a more refined dish while adding roughly peeled potato slices leads to a more rustic soup. You learn that the quality of every ingredient is essential. Adding other ingredients, such as fresh tarragon, or replacing some of the water with chicken stock produces something wonderful but different.

Here is Olney’s recipe.

  • 2 quarts boiling water
  • salt
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered lengthwise, sliced
  • 1 pound leeks, tough green parts removed, cleaned, finely sliced
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Add the vegetables to the salted, boiling water and cook, covered, at a light boil until the potatoes begin to cook apart—or, until, when one is pressed against the side of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, it offers no resistance to crushing—about ½ hour to 40 minutes, depending on the potatoes. Add the butter at the moment of serving, after removal from the heat.

Olney makes no mention of pepper, but I grind some in when I add the butter. I found that testing the potatoes at approximately 20 minutes is a good idea. Overtime I reduced the 2 quarts of liquid to 6 cups. No matter what amount or type of liquid you use, salt to taste. Seasoning dishes with potatoes is tricky because potatoes can take a lot of salt. Start with a light hand as you can always add more salt as you go. As a benchmark I found that approximately 1½ teaspoons of sea salt works well when using a ratio of 4 cups water to 2 cups of low-sodium chicken stock.

Finally a word about the butter; use the best you can afford. If available, I recommend Straus Family Creamery’s butter, which is a local product in my region of California. This butter tastes outstanding.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist? You shall see in due time, but today a few words about dashi. Dashi is a Japanese stock well worth learning how to make for many reasons. First, it is delicious: warm, often smoky, mellow, elegant and fragrant with a “refreshing aftertaste that calms the heart.” Second, it is quick and extremely easy to make. Finally, it is versatile. With fresh or frozen dashi available in your freezer, you can quickly prepare a wide range of soulful meals.

There are many different types of dashi, but we shall focus on a core recipe with only three ingredients: water, dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) and kelp seaweed (kombu). 

If the idea of making something so remarkable from three ingredients excites you, then I recommend Dashi and Umami – The Heart of Japanese Cuisine. This book, published by Cross Media Ltd., explores dashi and its ingredients with zeal and deference.

  • 3 liters (plus 100 milliliters) soft water
  • 20 grams kombu
  • 80 grams dried bonito flakes
Place the kombu in a pot with 3 liters of soft water. Checking with a thermometer, heat the water to approximately 65˚C. At this temperature small bubbles are forming in the pan. Remove the kelp, turn-off the heat, and pour in 100 milliliters of water. This last step keeps the water from exceeding 60 -70˚C, which is the ideal temperature range for adding the bonito flakes. With the heat off, add 80 grams of dried bonito flakes. The flakes will quickly absorb liquid. Immediately strain the dashi through cheesecloth.

The resulting stock is called ichiban dashi or primary stock. You can stop at this point or use the kelp and bonito flakes again to make a secondary stock called niban dashi. Lighter in color and flavor, niban dashi is also delicious and easy to make. Place the left over kelp and bonito flakes (removed from the cheesecloth) into a clean pan. Add 1.5 liters of soft water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Turn-off heat and strain the stock through cheesecloth.

You can store dashi in a refrigerator for 2 days. I typically put aside 4 or so cups for immediate use and freeze the rest in 2 to 4 cup portions. Dashi will keep frozen for 3 months.

You can use dashi in any number of different soups, stews and sauces. Most often I use dashi in a dish that somewhat resembles a category of Japanese dishes called nabe or hot pots. The dish is so simple that calling it a hot pot makes it out to be more than it really is: rice served in dashi with vegetables and meat (or tofu). Like most wonderful meals, it is all about the ingredients. I usually work around the vegetables, in this case fresh Tokyo Cross turnips from my garden. I use both the tops and roots that I cook separately in butter with just a little dashi, salt and pepper.

Adding other ingredients to your hot pot is a matter of personal preference. Slices of cooked chicken or roasted pork work well. In this case I made pork dumplings with ginger, scallions, chives, breadcrumbs, mirin, sake and soy sauce. I quickly browned the dumplings, which are about the size of a large walnut, in an iron skillet. I added approximately 4 cups of dashi, sea salt to taste and braised the dumplings for about 20 minutes. I often add other ingredients to the dashi at this point, such as a little soy, mirin, sake and/or miso.

To serve, place cooked rice in a bowl, top with your prepared ingredients, and pour in ¾ to 1 cup dashi.

Much of the fun of having this simple meal is enjoying it with sake. Very cold beer is an agreeable alternative beverage.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


My poor friend Bunbury is very ill again. So instead of dining with dear Aunt Augusta, I shall be able to enjoy making bigoli. Described by Oretta Zanini De Vita as "[a] feather in the cap of the Veneto's homemade pastas," bigoli is a long, thick string pasta. Although often made with whole-wheat flour, I offer an alternative dough that worked extremely well in my torchio da bigoli, which is a beautiful, heavy-duty pasta press.

Here is how you can go about making bigoli. First, prepare a very hard dough. This is easily accomplished with the following recipe that I developed from various sources:

  • 150 grams Extra Fancy durum flour
  • 150 grams all-purpose flour
  • 2 small fresh eggs
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Approximately 4 to 5 tablespoons water
  • Sea salt
A quick word about these ingredients. I recommend using Giusto's Extra Fancy durum and all-purpose flour in this recipe. As to eggs, I have four chickens whose eggs greatly vary in size. In this recipe I used two small white eggs from Lucia, a Sicilian Buttercup. The amount of water depends upon how the other ingredients are getting along. You want a hard dough so add just enough water to bring your ingredients together.

After mixing the ingredients to form a shaggy ball, knead the dough for a good, long time. I set my kitchen timer to 10 minutes and have at it. Ten minutes of kneading is usually enough time to achieve an excellent dough. Flatten the dough, which should weigh about 450 grams (just shy of 1 pound), into a disk and slip it into a plastic bag to rest for 1 1/2 hours in the refrigerator.

Your dough is now ready to extrude. This is the exciting part! Lightly dust the dough with some of the durum flour and cut it into 4 equal pieces. Slip a piece of your dough into the torchio and crank the handle until you sense pressure.

Now a few words about what comes next. You will be surprised at the amount of pressure needed to create your bigoli. With a hard dough you will encounter a good deal of resistance. Lightly dust the bigoli as it emerges from the torchio. I found that although the pasta was slightly sticky, I had no problem separating the strands into individual pieces. You can cut the bigoli into whatever length you choose; I aim for approximately 12 inch long strings.

Cooking bigoli is straight forward if you are familiar with cooking fresh pasta. Add enough sea salt to boiling water to approximate the taste of sea water. Add your fresh bigoli and when the water returns to the boil, cook for approximately 3 minutes. Taste as you go to achieve your desired texture.

Update: Torchio Revisted