Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire, Not bloody likely!!

It is that time of the year where I make every effort to give my family & friends a heart attack by feeding them my "Deep Fried Chestnut Plums" as dessert.
The primary ingredients for this delight are home made Marrons Glacés and
Crème de Marrons and having struggled over the years to get a decent yield of whole chestnuts  for glazing I decided to explore the standard (as in published) methods of preparing the chesnuts and then try to improve on them.
Here is the result.

Shelling and Peeling Chestnuts for Marrons Glacés
When preparing chestnuts for Marrons Glacés or other chestnut dishes I find that the “standard method” of roasting, peeling, boiling and skinning  produces a “standard” result.
By that I mean that every chestnut or batch of chestnuts reacts differently based on size, age, thickness of shell and genetic variations from tree to tree.
The standard result is therefore a handful of chestnuts that are cosmetically good enough for glazing, broken bits that can be glazed as “chefs’ perks” or consigned to a puree, and a mealy mush that can be consigned to the pig swill bucket.
Bugger the sentimental Christmas songs, chestnuts roasting on an open fire will get you a family full of sore thumbs and broken thumbnails and a carpet full of chestnut shells and broken bits.

“The Grinch hath spoken here endeth the first lesson”

Now if you are serious about making a decent, whole and properly done roast chestnut you will need the following tools:
A good heavy skillet (preferably cast iron)
A Birds Beak knife (Unashamedly I will plug Furi brand as the best Birds Beak on the market).

A strong, well-manicured and varnish free thumb nail (optional if you have good knife skills).
A small roasting pan with either a wire rack or perforated insert.

The Method
First cut an ‘X’ on the flat side of the chestnut, the cut should penetrate the shell and not cut into the meat,
This is where a good knife is essential.
Now the traditional method says bung ‘em in the oven and roast them, I say bollocks.
Neatly cut and 'X' on the flat side
Using the well-manicured thumb nail and the Birds Beak Knife carefully peel back the shell starting at the center of the ‘X’ and working side to side.

Nicely Shelled, Note the Furi Birds Beak Knife
The shell will be just as easy to peel off and you will now have chestnuts in perfect unbroken form with peel intact.

Next take a goodly knob of butter (I use about 2 tablespoons in a 10” iron skillet), melt the butter on medium heat then add the chestnuts to the butter and toss, shake, rattle and roll them around until they are thoroughly coated in butter.
The idea is to get a good coating but not to fry the chestnuts so don’t muck about for too long.

Lovely and buttery!
Now preheat the oven to 400F.

Transfer the chestnuts to the roasting pan and let them rest until the butter has congealed, this will ensure that the butter has soaked in thoroughly.
Ready for roasting.
Put the roasting pan on the middle shelf of the oven and roast the chestnuts for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool.
You will now have roasted chestnuts with crispy skins and a buttery layer on the nut surface.
Once the nuts are cool enough to handle (if you are a righty), pick up a nut holding the top and bottom between your left thumb and fore finger and squeeze firmly across the nut with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand. You should hear a satisfying crunch as the skin cracks.
Now using thumbnail and trusty Birds Beak Knife pierce the crispy skin slightly at about the center of the flat side and pry up the skin with the point of the knife.

Now, when you were shelling, I told you to work side to side but for peeling you must work from center to top and center to bottom on the flat side and from top to bottom (top being the “pointy” end of the chestnut), the reason for this is that the nut has a “grain” with the fibers running top to bottom and if you work across the grain the nut may possibly split and fall apart.
That said, first peel the flat side as described above and then flip the nut over and peel the rounded side from top to bottom.

Where you find folds of skin that have grown into the nut (I call them butt cracks) start at the narrowest end of the fold and carefully lift the “vein’ out.

You may find some nuts where a membrane has grown almost completely through the nut, these I call "double yolkers" and you might just as well save yourself some aggro by dividing the nut into two pieces and removing the membrane just as you would the skin.

Work in Process
Voila, you have a perfectly shelled and peeled chestnut.
It may sound like a lot of work but if you are going to spend the next 4 days making Marrons Glacés the time spent here is well worth it.

I tried this method on some large and obviously quite “mature” chestnuts.

A few, like the author, were wrinkled, stubborn and a pain in the arse.
I tossed those into a saucepan, barely covered them with water, brought the water to a brisk boil and immediately removed from the heat and drained.
About half of them peeled very easily the rest were too old and tough to even consider so they were binned.

I think with fresh young chestnuts this process should be a doddle and will try it when my local farmers market has them on the stalls!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Waste not and you shall eat well.

As usual at the end of the growing season, the temperature is too low to kick over the ripening process in my tomatoes and I am left with a couple of buckets full of lovely firm unripe ones.
It makes no sense to waste them and a couple of years ago I found the perfect remedy.

2 quarts sliced, small to medium green tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 lemons, sliced thin and peeled (save the lemon peel).

4 cups sugar
A knob of butter (optional – see helpful hints)
Please review helpful hints at the end of the recipe before beginning.

Thinly slice the tomatoes (I use the 3mm setting on my mandolin).
Tomatoes sliced with a mandolin.
Slice the lemons thinly and then remove the peel. Discard any lemon seeds but save the fruit and as much of the juice as possible. (I slice the lemons over a bowl using a mandolin so that all the juice is saved in the bowl)
Lemon peels and fruit seperated.
Fine chop the lemon peels, including the white pith then combine the tomatoes, lemon peel and salt in a stainless steel jam kettle or a large enameled or non-stick saucepan.
Do not use an aluminum pan.
Tomatoes, Lemon Peel and Salt combined together.
Cover with water and boil briskly for 10 minutes.
And I mean briskly, this is very important.
Drain well.
Add lemon slices, juice and the sugar to the mixturen then stir over moderate heat until sugar melts. Add the knob of butter now if you are using it then bring to boiling, reduce heat, and simmer until thick - about 45 minutes.
Simmer slowly, stir occasionally.
Test and ensure that the marmalade is set (See methods below).
Skim off any tomato skins, tomato pulp or lemon seeds that have risen to the top.
Pack in sterile hot canning (Ball) jars leaving a half inch of space at the top.
I absolutely love my canning funnel.
Seal, submerse in boiling water and process for 10 minutes.
Cool upright and let stand for 24 hours before transferring to a cool dark cupboard or refrigerator.
Three for the pantry and three for gifts.
Helpful Hints
Note that the pith (white) of the lemon rinds is a natural source of pectin this will, in most cases, allow the marmalade to set up without adding pectin.
However if your marmalade does not set up add pectin very sparingly until the desired result is achieved.
When making jam or marmalade do not continually stir the jam/marmalade. Wait until it reaches setting point, stir for a minute (this will get rid of quite a lot of the scum), then remove the remainder. A knob of butter/margarine put in when making the jam/marmalade will not only safeguard the jam/marmalade from burning in a thin pan but will also help to prevent scum.

Now you can test the setting point when making marmalade or jam!
There are three methods for testing the “set”.
  1. Test with a sugar thermometer-jam sets at a temperature of 220 degrees F.
  2. Stir preserve thoroughly with a wooden spoon, turn the spoon round to cool the jam adhering to it, then hold the spoon horizontally. If jam has set it will form a firm drop or flake on the edge of the spoon.
  3. Put a little on a cold saucer and allow it to cool then tilt the saucer, if adequately set it should flow very slowly, wrinkle on the surface and feel firm.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Family, fresh caught trout, wild mushrooms, free range eggs, courgettes, haggis and other delights.

Scotland, October 19, 2011

I finally got my suitcase packed and headed off to visit my darling daughter Kathy.
Like her dad she loves to garden and cook and has the advantage of getting free range eggs from her own chickens.
Now I know nothing of the art of chicken (other than Kathy and Petra seem to spend a great deal of time rounding them up and putting them to bed in the evening) but it appears that her brood is omnivorous and consumes the parts of birds and rodents that her cat Ripley leaves scattered about the garden, she swears that, given enough mouse heads in their diet, they produce double yolkers.
Not going to argue the toss on that one, suffice to say the eggs are delicious.

Since I missed a great deal of daughters’ life and see her infrequently we packed in as much in the way of activities and food that we possibly could.

Trout Fishing
Bloody airlines have placed so many restrictions on baggage that I was unable to take my rods without handing over vast wads of cash and so, having promised to teach Kathy the art of fly casting, we rented a rod and got down to the business of doing just that.
I managed to annoy a nice rainbow trout into taking my fly and so was able to teach Kathy my simple method for cleaning and cooking trout.

Rainbow Trout ready for Preperation
Once the trout was cleaned and scaled the cavity was liberally treated with butter, salt and pepper.
Placed a strip of bacon on top of the fish and wrapped the whole shooting match in greaseproof paper.
Into the oven at about 350 F for 15 minutes and that is it.

The Falls of Bruar.
A lovely walk up the Bruar Water on the river Tilt.
Not too strenuous for the old legs and the weather was what the Irish would call “a soft wee day”.
Fall colors abound in the firs, ash, beech and rowan that were planted by the Duke of Atholl at the request of Robert Burns.
The Lower Falls of Bruar
 On the hike back down Kathy picked some nice Mutton Foot Fungi (Pieds de Mouton), we supplemented these with Winter Chanterelles from the market at the House of Bruar.
The wild mushrooms met up with some dried Porcini and were married into a delightful Risotto which I cooked up for dinner.
Lunch at the House of Bruar was a very nice green pea soup with chunky freshly baked bread and the shop there stocked a goodly variety of meats and cheeses.
I was not the only one cooking, Kathy contributed a lovely Tomato Tarte Tatin made with tomatoes from her garden, a Smoked Haddock Pate and a very interesting sausage made with a mixture of pork, herbs and black pudding.
Tomato Tarte Tatin fresh from the oven
We ate out at The Blue Marlin in Dundee with Petra and the highlight of that repast was a Scallop and Haggis appetizer, a seemingly odd combination that worked exceeding well.
A lovely Piedmontese Barbera wine accompanied our meal.

Culinary delight for the last night in Scotland was my Penne Pasta Carbonara with Courgettes fresh picked from the garden.
Penne Rigata Rarbonara with Courgettes
This recipe is fast becoming a favorite amongst family and friends.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

World War II Rationing – The Original Diet

I know, bad taste old chap, but I can’t help thinking that those of us who were born in Britain during the war should, according to dieticians, live forever.
Starting in 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were rationed and this was followed by meat, tea, cheese, eggs, lard, milk and canned fruit.
One of the few items not rationed was fish.

Not much in the way of fried food either because fat was virtually unobtainable and there was not enough meat in the weekly ration to be able to scavenge the fat for the fryer.
In other words, all the things deemed bad for us in this day and age were either not available or available in very limited quantities.
Rationing in Britain did not officially end until 1954 when I was 9 years old so my memories are mostly of the bleak austerity of the post war period.

In fact the peace time rations were, at one time, reduced to below wartime levels.

Now despite the rationing we did not starve, children were provided with dietary supplements but mostly we ate what we could grow. I hated standing in line with my siblings for a tablespoon of malt and a tablespoon of cod liver oil dispensed, with great seriousness, by my mother from huge and threatening jars kept on top of the piano.

As soon as we were physically able we were sent off into the garden to pick berries and that progressed to weeding, mulching and harvesting as we got older.
I think that this is where I developed both a green thumb and a love of gardening!

We practically lived on home grown salad, potatoes & green vegetables and these were supplemented by wild mushrooms and other wild edibles in season.
Many a country walk was taken in search of wild strawberries, elderberries etc., and if a country friend should surreptitiously bag a rabbit with a wire snare we would have extra meat on the table.
Blackberry, gooseberry, raspberry and rhubarb tarts were the desserts of choice (or of availability).

I just loved the smell of fresh earth, the colors of the growing things, the orderliness of the garden surrounded by the chaos of daily life.

One of my favorites was banking up the dirt around the celery to keep the stalks properly blanched, too much dirt – dead celery, too little - sore bottom from a paternal spanking.
My reward for this chore was the celery "cob" with my Sunday salad.

I think that living on the fine edge between famine and plenty in those years is the reason why I now plant far more than we can possible consume. However the excess is not wasted, it goes out to friends and neighbors.
The pity of it is that food banks do not accept fresh produce, how much better would the health of the needy be if they were not eating out of cans.
Midsummer Garden

Monday, September 12, 2011

Americans & Food

I find it quite disconcerting when American visitors to Britain criticize British food. 

This is especially so since most of them have barely set foot outside the designated venues on their tour of “Ye Olde Tea Shoppes of Shakespeare Country” and “ Old Ma Gwyns House” in St Martin in the Fields. And they seem to think we all go around wearing smocks and knee breeches, tug our forelocks and say  things like “Oo Arr m’lud ‘twas that bloke over yonder what shivered me timbers”.

Equally disconcerting is the American aversion to organ meats in a country that is blessed with the finest farmed and wild meat bearing beasts on the planet.

They will eat factory floor sweeping  chemically enhanced dross called a hot dog, have no problem devouring acres of plasticized muck known as cheese slices, slather everything with genetically altered tomato waste (oops sorry Ketchup) but get a case of  the shudders at the thought of biting down on a nicely sautéed kidney.

As a result it is almost impossible to buy suet for a nice Steak and Kidney pudding over here.
Yes you can get universally awful vegetable suet but what about a good old chunk of hard fat from a healthy beef kidney, nicely minced, ready to enhance a proper pudding pastry.
An unabashed plug is about to follow:

I had almost given up on having a decent steamed pudding until I came across U.S. Wellness Meats.
I purchased a goodly supply of suet from them and, to make up my order, added some lamb and beef kidneys and a healthy portion of ox tail.

Oh my goodness what wonders did I behold when my shipment arrived.
Huge 1lb Beef kidneys, meaty oxtail, luscious lamb kidney, visions of puddings and pies galore.
Now for you who are used to AtoraTM beef suet, the US Wellness product is rather coarsely ground so immediately upon receipt you need to chop it into smaller (still frozen) chunks, bung it in your food processor and reduce it to the nice “AtoraTM sized”  grains needed to make a nice smooth pastry.

Immediately after I got the goodies, from a recipe given to me by my daughter, was born the most delicious Steak & Oxtail Pudding.

My family drooled over it (not for long, drooling ended where devouring began) but when I described it to an American friend he got all pale about the gills.
Funny lot these Yanks.
Steak & Oxtail Pudding

To Gadget or not to Gadget, that is the question.

"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind" etc. (With apologies to Billy S.)Preparing food for the table has been made so much easier by the invention of numerous helpful doodads, widgets and gadgets that there are times when I think that giving up and opening a can of "chemically enhanced" Spaghetti O's is a lot less technologically daunting that making a wholesome meal.
There are machines for just about everything and, whilst I am not opposed to the presence of a really good vegetable peeler or a mixer that will ease the ache in my arthritic fingers, I do think that the advance of technology has taken the feeling out of food.
Bread makers are my pet hate, if one wants a bland brick of white "stuff"' then one should go to the supermarket and buy a loaf, at least you won't be fettered with the awfully strenuous chore of slicing the bloody thing.
Now I am not a die hard "beat the clothes on a rock" anti-technology nutter (although according to my beloved daughter I am a nutter) but somehow feel that if you can't be bothered to knead the dough for a loaf of bread then you really have some issues in your life that a psychologist should examine.
There is something about kneading bread that makes all the niggling little stresses of the day go away.
The obnoxious twat that tail-gated you on the way home no longer matters.
Mushroom Bread
The bloody awful woman at the supermarket checkout who had to find her cheque book at the bottom of a cavernous handbag, and who didn't start looking until after all her purchases had been rung up, is now a misty memory.
The soothing rhythm, the changing of the texture as the gluten forms, and knowing that it is ready from  the way it feels, not from the clanging of an awful electric timer.
And in the end, and what is most important, wrapping your gob around a texture filled flavorsome chunk of home baked delight.
No machine in the world can reproduce that.

The Last of the Summer Wine.

Tomato and Sausage Ragu with Pan Pugliese
I  was reminded, watching the program of this name on PBS, how much I miss just plain ordinary folk and just plain ordinary places.
Our lives are filled with images of so called superstars playing in televised roles about ordinary people, and not one of them has a scab, deformity or any other affliction that might make them seem real.
Thanks to the good old BBC, our affectionate Auntie Beeb, for creating a series about ordinary (and delightfully eccentric) people played by actors who look like ordinary people.
The indomitably scruffy Compo, mild and thoughtful Cleggy, Truly of the Yard, people that you could meet in your local on an every day basis.
The wives too, good old plain talking women who will give you a piece of their mind whether you want it or not.
And the delightful setting in the Yorkshire Dales, no studio sets of overpriced & over furnished Manhattan apartments here.
What brought all this to mind was that I am just harvesting the "Last of the Summer Veg".
Cool evenings are starting to creep slowly in and the summer plants have pretty much given their all.
Time to gather the last of the tomatoes, pole beans and such and consign them to simple folksy Al Fresco recipes.
A casserole or two, tomatoes slow cooked with game sausages, zucchini with pasta.
All brought to the table with slabs of freshly baked crusty Pugliese bread.
Ordinary food can be so satisfying if cooked with passion (and a wee bit of talent).