Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kris Kringle

I love fries. There, I've said it out loud. It is no longer my dirty, little, not-so-secret secret. In fact, I LOVE fried foods, and I am not averse to indulging my craving for greasy fries with unhealthy lashings of ketchup and mayo. In truth, I went through a period when I ate fries daily, I'm a little ashamed to admit it. But, as a vegetarian, there is often very little on offer to nibble on in a working kitchen -vegetarians are often sniggered at, and looked down upon- so platefuls of chips and mayo were a go-to when the hunger pangs hit. On the up side, eating fries daily at work meant that I never felt the urge to deep-fry potatoes at homes: no mess, no fuss.

But I no longer work in a restaurant, so I no longer get my fix of fries. There are local greasy spoons where I can get portions of fried potatoes, but I really have to be in the mood to walk into one and wait for my order. Especially when I know that I can make better fries at home, with perfect frying potatoes and, more importantly, without turning my kitchen into a greasy spoon.

Yes folks, it's true: you can indeed make beautifully crisp fries with just a few tablespoons of oil. And you don't even need to buy a new single-use contraption that will take up way too much space in your kitchen (you know who you are, I don't need to name you...) All you need are the right potatoes, a large frying pan, and some patience. Really.

The pictures aren't great because the lighting has been horrendous of late, but you will notice the tempting browning on those potatoes. It's all real, and I only used about two spoonfuls of oil. The hardest part in this endeavour is to find the right potato: in North America, go for the Yukon Golds or Russets; in the UK, Maris Pier, King Edward, and Desiree are good choices. You want a potato that is labelled for frying, roasting, baking, or mashing: these types of potatoes will have a high starch content that will not only gives good crunching satisfaction, but will also result in fluffy insides.

The next step is to cut them. They can be any size you want, but the entire batch should be the same size for even cooking. Also, be aware that the smaller fries will be a little more fiddly to turn onto all sides. Normally, the next step would be to give your potatoes a good wash to get rid of any excess starch: however, this step is only necessary if you are deep-frying your chips. When pan-frying, you need that extra starch for extra crunch. 

Get your pan moderately hot, and heat two to three tablespoons of vegetable oil. Place the potatoes in the pan in a single layer. Then wait patiently. When you notice a little bit of browning on the potatoes' edges, give them a little flip to brown the next side, and so on and so forth until the fries are evenly golden on all sides. Make sure they're cooked through by tasting one. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy while still hot.

Bon app'!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Feeling Festive

'Tis the season for entertaining, and you are very likely dusting off your drinks repertoire as we speak. I don't claim to have any new insight on the best holiday tipples, but I do know what I personally enjoy to toast my friends and family to. For down home affairs, I like to have a pot of mulled wine on the go to warm everyone up after a vigorous snowball fight. However, for slightly more posh affairs, nothing compares to a glass of bubbly, but champagne need not be the only liquid doing the rounds: I go weak at the knees for gin, and its heady juniper notes are definitely a winter-warmer.

A gin and tonic is wonderful at any time of the year, but to bring it into the holiday realm, add a healthy dash of cranberry juice. It's that easy, and it works like a charm. If you prefer your G&T in a tall glass with ice, freeze fresh cranberries and add them to the glass. Of course, those cranberries will be horrid to bite into, so you can always fish out whole berries from a jar of sauce, and freeze those instead. One cocktail done and dusted, and who says you have to save it for the party?

As for the mulled, if you make a base syrup in advance, and keep a few bottles of red wine in the pantry, you're set for any unexpected guests or neighbour who kindly removes the snow from your drive after a snowstorm.

Mulled Wine Base
Yields 1L/qt

1L/qt cloudy apple juice
2 cinnamon sticks, 10cm/4" each
2 star anise
6 green cardamom pods
4 cloves
1 orange, zested in strips and juiced
100g/3.5oz sugar

Bring all the ingredients up to a boil in a deep saucepan, then lower the heat to medium low, and leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
When the time is up, remove from the heat, and set aside to cool down to room temperature.
Sieve or pick out all the spices and orange peel.
Keep in a sealed jar in the refrigerator until needed.
When ready to serve, mix 1 to 2 parts syrup to every 2 parts red wine. 
Heat over a medium-low until heat until just simmering.
Serve immediately. Alternatively, keep warm over a very low heat.

Any left-over mulled wine can be cooled and saved for later, or better yet, used to poach pears or apples for dessert.

Cheers and bon app'!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Nut Cracker

There is something inherently Christmas-y about nuts. The most obvious link would be the ballet -The Nutcracker was a yearly tradition at home. If we didn't actually make it to the teater hall, then we would definitely watch it on the the television: I was, after all, obsessed with ballet and madly in love with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

There is, however, a more pragmatic reason for the association of nuts and Christmas: oily fruits were once a winter staple, providing much needed calories to withstand the cold, and they kept well into spring, often outlasting apples and other fruits.

Nowadays, most any fruit can be shipped around the world all year round, yet nuts are still very much present at this time of the year. It might be the sociable aspect of sitting around a crackling fire with friends and family,  while cracking open nuts; the shells get thrown in the hearth, feeding the flames, and the fruits are munched at, while great conversations are had.

I personally have a weak spot for flavoured nuts, tamari-glazed almonds being my downfall... They are a pricey habit to maintain, but they are a cinch to make at home. They also make great foodie gifts, especially for that oh-so-difficult-to-buy-for-someone on your list.

Spicy Tamari Nuts
Yields about 500g/1.1 lb

500g/ 1.1 lb mixed nuts: I prefer equal parts cashews, pecans, pistachios, skinned and unskinned almonds
125ml/¼c soy sauce
3 Tbs demerara or light brown sugar
1 tsp coarsely crushed or ground cumin
½ tsp smoked paprika
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Pre-heat oven to 130°C/ 250°F.
Mix all the ingredients together until the nuts are evenly covered with soy sauce and spices.
Spread evenly on a lined baking tray.
Bake for about 45 minutes, making sure to stir the nuts every 15 minutes or so.
If the nuts smell a little scorched after 20 minutes, lower the oven to  100°C/200°F.
The nuts are ready when they fell dry to the touch.
Leave to cool down on the tray before storing in airtight jars.

Try to prefer demerara sugar (or any coarse brown sugar) over a soft brown sugar: the large granule won't easily dissolve in the soy sauce, so instead of forming an overall sweetness, they'll roast into clusters of sugar that burst out every now and then. As long as they are stored in a dry spot, the nuts should keep for a few weeks.

Bon app'!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Deck the Halls

It's December. The fields are, for the most part, bare and barren. There is little in season that wasn't already on shop shelves back in November. However, now is not the time for the new: December is all about the holidays and traditions. Channukah is well on its way, and will be done by the end of the week. Even if one had potato latkas every night for eight days, few would even entertain the idea of complaining, and even fewer would give in to the temptation to try something different, such as vegetable galettes... And then, there is Christmas.

Even for non-Christians, Christmas holds a place in many a heart. It's not about the presents, the trees, or even the lights. It's about family, friends, and traditions. That word again: tradition. It's about your mother's top tip for the perfect roasted veg; it's your gran's scrumptious stuffing recipe; or maybe it's about your grand-pa's secret for the best ever fruitcake, the one that you squirrel away and nibble at weeks, nay months, later... It's about watching the same movies every year at around the same time. It's about the those cheese straws Aunt May always brings to brunch. It's about the food you share with loved ones. Now is not the time for innovation and new-fangled recipes.

However, every day in December is not Christmas, so while you may be knee-deep in preparation for the big day, you can still dabble in a few new recipes every now and then... In fact, they could even end up under the tree. Or in the freezer, for those days when baking trays of gingerbread men gets in the way of making dinner. 

Brussels Sprouts
Sprouts were never part of my Christmas panorama. However, I understand that they are not only traditional holiday fare in the UK, but also in parts of Canada and the US. In any case, sprouts are great in the midst of winter, and their flavour improves greatly after a few hard frosts. In Britain, stalks of Brussels sprouts remain in the fields, ready and waiting for the holidays. Sprouts should never be cooked til mushy, as it not only renders them hard to digest, it completely leaches away all flavour and interest in them. In fact, the best way to cook sprouts is either to shred them, and give them a quick stir-fry with lots of garlic, and maybe some chilli; or to cut them in half and to give them a brief spin in boiling, salted water before rolling them in some melted butter. Brussels sprouts should be eaten still slightly crunchy.

Chestnuts are often tossed through buttered sprouts. But, even though they are quite nice that way, I prefer them roasted in a dry pan, until they pop. They're also great to keep in your pocket when walking outdoors, as they will not only quell a grumbling tummy, they will keep your hands warm for a little while. They are also divine candied in a vanilla syrup, as the French are particularly fond of - in fact, marrons glacés are practically a requirement on the French Christmas spread. 
If there is one thing you may be able to tweak at Christmas-time, it may well be the dessert at the end of dinner: if so, you should try a chocolate and chestnut yule log. Mix chopped chestnuts in syrup, broken marrons glacés, or crème de marron (a sweet, sticky chestnut paste that is to die for on buttered toasts! It comes in a tin) through a chocolate ganache, and fill the yule log. Sprinkle with cocoa powder, followed by a little icing sugar.

Citrus galore
Key limes, Sicilian lemons, Seville oranges, California navel oranges, and Moroccan clementines. Is there really more to say?
Just in case: home-made marmalade makes a great gift, but for those who are not partial to marmalade, a thick syrup made with zest, juice and sugar is delightful drizzled on ice cream or a plain cake, or even in a glass of sparkling water or wine... These citrus are also a great addition to mulled wine, beer, cider, whatever you fancy...

No, not the crusty, trampled-on stuff that is already on the ground. You want the stuff that is still wending its way down, fluffy and feather-like as it dances in the air. Stick your tongue out, and look up at the sky, just like children do, not a care in the world. The sheer pleasure of it does not grow old.

December is about cherishing traditions.

Bon app'!

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