Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Onion

It's that time of the year again... When all you want to do is escape the mad rush, the crazed looks, the crushing crowds. If you're up for a little bit of cooking, then you could easily tick off your holiday gift list without stepping out of the house. (It is Buy Nothing week-end, after all...) It may be a little late for making jams and other preserves, but it's just right for a few jars of chutney.

Although chutneys are not nearly as popular in North America as they are in the UK, they are great to have kicking about the pantry. They can make a meal: a dollop on the side of a roast can save one the trouble of making gravy; a spoonful dropped into a dull soup is a wonder; a slather on toast, with or without a piece of cheese, makes a tasty sandwich; even mixed into a plateful of pasta, chutneys are one of the most useful condiments to have on hand. While ketchup is often thought of as being in a class of its own, it is basically a smooth chutney. The following red onion chutney is a close sibling to onion marmalade, but is much easier to make.

Red Onion Chutney
Yields about three 500ml/1 pint jars

1kg red onions
3 Tbs olive oil
5 cloves garlic
10 sprigs thyme, or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
5 Tbs demerara sugar, or 4 packed Tbs light brown sugar
125ml/¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tsp salt
pepper to taste

Top and tail the onions, cut in half, and peel. Thinly slice the onions from top to bottom: you want the slices to look like parenthesis not half moons.
Peel and mince the garlic cloves.
Pick the leaves from the thyme
Heat the olive oil in a pan over a medium-high heat, and fry the onions until they turn translucent. 
Stir in the garlic and cook  out for a minute or two.
Season with salt, sugar, pepper, the thyme and bay leaves.
Turn the heat down to low, and cover with a lid. 
Leave to sweat for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
When the onions begin stewing in their own juices, add the balsamic vinegar, and turn the heat back up to high.
Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan: you want the onions to caramelise a bit, but not to burn.
After about 5 minutes, the liquid in the pot should have thickened somewhat, remove from the heat and pot up in clean jars.
Leave to cool in a draft-free spot.

The chutney will keep for a couple of weeks, though it will need to be refrigerated once the jar is opened. To ensure a longer shelf-life, process the filled jars for about 15 minutes. You can vary the flavour of the chutney by playing with herbs and spices. I had a bunch of basil and sage pining away in the fridge, so they got chopped up and thrown in. Cumin is great with onions, and would be lovely with red wine vinegar instead of the balsamic.

Bon app'!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Staying In

There were forecasts for snow last week-end. While the predictions did not pan out for London, the skies looked ominous: the clouds were thick, impregnable, yet luminous. As if the snow was ready and waiting. The deep, rich smell of dried leaves no longer lingers in the air when I walk through the piles heaped on the sidewalk. The chill has dulled down the aroma of Autumn, Old Man Winter is making a move.

It's definitely time for belly-filling, heart-warming fares, and who doesn't like a good soup? It is the epitome of all that is nourishing, tasty and comforting. If you make a huge batch, it becomes fast food at a later date as well. Soup basics were covered in this post; once you've got those down pat, you only need to let your imagination run wild.

Of course, that may be easier said than done. When faced with a cupboard full of dusty jars of who-knows-what, it may feel simpler to just shut the door and have toast for dinner. We all get stuck in a rut sometimes, and opening a new spice jar can be just as daunting as walking into a neighbourhood ethnic food shop. However, tweaking old standards can shift an entire recipe, so it is worthwhile to try something new.

Take the following basic carrot soup: it is good as it is. But if you play around with the suggested flavour packs that follow the recipe, you can travel around the world, without ever leaving the dining table.

Everyday Carrot Soup
Yields about 2L/2 quarts

1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
500g/½lb carrots
6 sprigs of thyme, or 1tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper
1 Tbs butter
2 tsp oil

Peel and chop the onion.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the oil. Fry the onion over a medium-high heat, until translucent and just beginning to brown.
Crush and peel the garlic cloves. Add to the pan along with the thyme. 
Peel the carrots, and roughly chop. Add to the pot, and sauté for about 5 minutes.
Cover with cold water, turn up the heat and bring up to a rumbling boil.
Turn the heat down, and eave to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the carrots are fork-tender.
Remove from the heat, and puré until smooth.
Adjust the thickness of the soup by adding more water or milk. Check the seasoning.
Re-heat if necessary, then serve.

Serve up this soup as it is, or drizzle in a little cream. It will keep for about a week without the cream, and will get better over time. Try the following flavour packs to add different dimensions to the soup.

Flavour packs
1 orange zest
double cream or crème fraiche
10 sprigs of chives

Add the grated zest of one orange along with the carrots. Proceed as above.
Serve the soup, and drizzle with some cream or dollop of crème fraiche. Sprinkle with chopped chives.

1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp curry powder 
2cm/1" piece of ginger
6 sprig cilantro/fresh coriander
thick yoghurt
garam masala

Toast the cumin seeds and curry powder along with the onion. 
Peel and thinly slice the ginger. Add along with the carrots. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Garnish the finished soup with chopped cilantro, a dollop of yoghurt and a sprinkle of garam masala.

1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 dried chilli
1 preserved lemon
6 sprigs cilantro
olive oil
ras el hanout

Fry the dried spices along with the onion.
Quarter the preserved lemon, remove the flesh, and rinse under running water. Coarsely chop. Add to the soup just before pureeing.
Garnish with chopped coriander, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of ras el hanout.

1 tsp caraway seeds
3 juniper berries
1 tsp peppercorns

Toast the spices along with the onion, and proceed with the rest of the recipe. 

Best of British
Garnish the finished soup with some onion marmalade or onion chutney and crumbled Stilton cheese. Nothing says winter holidays like a chunk of Stilton...

These flavour mixes add more depth when cooked into the soup, but they can be served up in little dishes, and sprinkled on top as and when needed.

Bon app'!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moving On to November

I don't know what it is about the impending end of the year, but Time just seems to fly as soon as October first rears its head! One day I'm thinking pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving, and the next I'm getting ready for Christmas! It doesn't help that the days are cut short: the sun barely comes out nowadays, and when it does it quickly goes back into hiding by mid-afternoon. Taking pictures in natural lighting becomes a challenge akin to an intense treasure hunt.

While most people will spare few thoughts to the upcoming holidays, for the catering world, November spells the onslaught of Christmas parties and the busiest period of the year. The frenzy just makes me want to curl up in a dark place and never come out! Don't get me wrong: we are all thankful for the business, but it would be nice if it was steady all year round, instead of being frantic at one end and dead at the other... 
In any case, the cold weather is sticking around for a little while yet, so it's a good thing that the seasonal offerings are perfectly suited for soups and stews; slow roasting; and comforting bakes. Now all we need to do is hunker down until it's all over!
Apples and pears are the old standbys at this time of the year. Both keep well in storage, so producers dole them out in trickles until the end of winter. However, they are not the only kids on the block: the new harvests of citrus are on shop shelves, and they are very nice indeed. Although most citrus are available year-round, I've noticed that the varieties available in November and December tend to be juicier, thinner skinned, and generally more sweet-tart than at other times in the year: in other words, just the way I like them!
Of course, some citrus only make an appearance come November, and are all the more special for it: Key limes have a very short season, and though they are full of pips and rather greedy of their juice, their fragrance is quite intoxicating and well worth the effort to extract it. Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are definitely winter favourites, and it simply feels wrong to eat them at any other time of the year (I know there's still well over a month until it's officially winter, but it bloody feels like it already!) There are also grapefruits to look forward to: cut in half, layered with brown sugar and grilled, they make a great addition to brunch.
Pomegranates are another cold season fruit. Although they hail from warmer climes, they only make it to market from November to February. Their jewel tones and sweet-tart flavours lend themselves well to both sweet and savoury, and do make a meal feel festive.

Root Vegetables
Carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes and beetroots are old faithfuls in the kitchen, but they don't always get the love they deserve. Nevertheless, they are steadfastly affordable, full of flavour, and they keep incredibly well, so if you happen to forget them in the pantry or fridge, chances they will still be fine when you get around to them. Sooner or later, you will be craving a good, heartwarming soup or stew, and they will be there for you.

Winter squashes are another cold season standby: they will keep for months in cool dry storage, such as in the garage, an insulated shed, or a cold pantry, so if you stock up now, you will be covered when they eventually disappear come January. 
The butternut squash has become the most ubiquitous squash on restaurant menus and in food magazines. They offer a good result to effort ratio given that a good chunk of it is all flesh and no seeds, but in my humble opinion, they are not the most interesting of squashes. The buttercup -pictured in October- has a dry, starchy flesh that is definitely sweet, yet has enough savoury oomph to complement any salty dish -they are the most prevalent squash in Japan, and are perfect for making croquettes
But there are other winter squashes to try out there. The acorn squash, tiny compared to most of its brethren, is often sold as 'single portion' sized, and its flesh, though not as dry and starchy as the buttercup, is full of intense squash-y flavour that you would never get from a butternut. 
The red kuri squash is so-called because its flavour is nutty and starchy, much like chestnuts (kuri means chestnut in Japanese). Because its walls are relatively tin, they are not very difficult to chop up, so they are rather hassle-free. 
If you are more into pumpkins, then you should veer towards the French squashes such as the potiron, also known as the cinderella squash, or the potimarron, a more compact version. Both are pumpkin-like in appearance and flavour, but have a dryer flesh, so keep much better than their Hallowe'en counterpart.

Bon app'!

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