Valentines’ recipes

The sous-chef and I have got together and decided on some recipes for Thursday, so with no more gilding of the lily, and absolutely no further ado, here is what we went for:

Artichoke Starter

This green and purple thistle is one of Annabel’s favourite things. In Rome they eat them cooked in butter, garlic and wild mint, but seeing as they are not in season I’ll pick up some preserved artichoke hearts from Amaretto, Norwich’s best delicatessen. We are going to combine them with prosciutto and griddled sourdough bread to make a simple bruschetta starter. This will go well with a glass of cold bubbly!

Tunisian fish Stew

I promised Annabel no fish heads this time, so we are compromising with a few shell-on prawns. I’m basically going to use a Boulliabase recipe that I’ve made before and integrate Tunisian spices; coriander, cumin and saffron. I’ll fry coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in hot oil, then add an onion, a finely chopped bulb of fennel, garlic, and fresh tomatoes; added just in time for their juice to prevent the spices from burning on the bottom of the pan. Into this fragrant bubbling concoction I’ll add fish stock and a good pinch of saffron – making sure the soup doesn’t heat beyond a simmer. As soon as the fennel starts to become tender I’ll add a tot of Pernod, then in go the mussels, shell-on prawns, a big handful of white fish chunks and salt and pepper to season.

Each bowl of soup will get a handful of crunchy sourdough croutons, some fresh parsley and a dollop of char-grilled red pepper and chilli rouille made with plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

Panpepato

I know this is a bit of a cheat, but I’m going to follow a recipe seeing as I have never done it before. The benefit of this dessert is that it can be made the day before to take the pressure off. Here it is, lifted off the Waitrose website;

Ingredients

  • Rice paper
  • 100g walnut pieces
  • 100g whole blanched hazelnuts
  • 100g blanched almonds
  • 200g mixed peel or candied citrus peel, chopped
  • 50g plain flour
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 225g runny honey
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • Icing sugar, for dredging

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Lightly butter an 18cm-square loose-bottomed tin and line the base and sides with rice paper. Bake the nuts on a tray for 12-15 minutes till golden brown. Cool, then roughly chop and transfer into a bowl with the peel and sift in the flour, cocoa and spices. Turn the oven down to 150°C, gas mark 2.
  2. Put the sugar, honey, and butter in a saucepan and gently heat, stirring till dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil until it reaches the ‘soft ball’ stage (113°C-118°C on a sugar thermometer). To test this, you can also scoop some out on a spoon and drop into a jug of water: it should go into a soft ball. Stir in the nut mixture, pour into the tin and smooth the surface with an oiled potato masher. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to firm up in the tin on a cooling rack. Remove the tin, trim the paper, sieve over some icing sugar and cut into slices or cubes.

Annabel has promised to combine the roles of Sous-chef and photographer on thursday, so expect some cracking photos this time next week!

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What’s the fuss about posh dried pasta?

3 kinds of dried spaghetti

From left to right; Napolina Basic, Napolina Bronze Died, Tesco Authentic Italian

The discrepancy between different brands of dried spaghetti has never really occurred to me. I always thought the question was whether to go for time consuming but delicious home-made pasta, or quick perfectly acceptable dried pasta. When most dried brands contain just water and wheat, how much better can the more expensive stuff possibly be? And is it worth paying more for this staple food? I came up with a pasta criteria to find out; good dried pasta must:

  • Have a firm texture when cooked
  • Have a flavour of its own that comes out when cooked in salted water
  • Hold onto the sauce it is then mixed with

Mike Sissons, author of Global Science Books explains the science behind the firm texture of good pasta; ‘The key features of durum wheat include its hardness, intense yellow colour and nutty taste.’ High protein semolina* from good durum wheat is made up of uniform protein particles and minimal starchy particles which makes the dough strong and elastic during manufacture and firm to the bite when cooked. If the correct balance between protein and starch is achieved the pasta shouldn’t shed too much starch into the cooking water.

(*Semolina is a coarse flour made from the protein-rich endosperm of the wheat.)

In her book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David concurs that the dried pasta with the best flavour and texture is made using very hard water and the highest quality durum wheat. Naples is the home of such favourable conditions which is perhaps why Napolina spaghetti, at £1.55 per 500g, is more than twice the price of its Tesco ‘Authentic Italian’ counterpart. The latter comes in at 65p per 500g despite the nutritional information on the two packets being very similar.

But does sauce adhere to Napolina spaghetti more than cheaper brands? Azélias Kitchen has a highly educational post on bronze die pasta. When making pasta, dough is extruded through a stamp mechanism called a die. The shape of the die determines the shape of the pasta and the material the die is made of determines the texture of the finished product. Though Napolina spaghetti costs £1.55, it is extruded through the same synthetic die as the cheaper brands which gives the pasta a shiny sauce-repelling texture.

The best dried pasta is made using a traditional bronze die, which makes the pasta rough and absorbant, the perfect surface for soaking up sauce. The spaghetti in Napolina’s Bronze Die range costs £1.99 for 500g.

Bronze die

Bronze die (photo found online)

So there you have it, the very best dried pasta on offer is made in Naples out of the finest quality high protein semolina from durum wheat. The dough is mixed using the local hard water, before being extruded through a traditional bronze die and slowly dried.

That is a lot of things to remember if you do decide to splash out on a pack of dried pasta. The main buzzwords to look out for are ‘bronze died’; Generally if the manufacturer has gone to the trouble of using a bronze die, then their ingredients will also be of good quality and their method sound.

Having conducted this research I cooked a spaghetti bolognese with Napolina Bronze Died spaghetti last night. With all my newfound knowledge I thought the spaghetti would dance a waltz around my mouth and romance my taste buds. However, my initial reaction was sceptical with regards to the value of the product.  Luckily the ragù alla bollognese made up for the disappointing spaghetti. I used up the dried porcini left over from the mushroom risotto I made last week and it was fantastic!

Despite falling at the first hurdle, my gut feeling is that good ingredients and traditional processes must yield a superior product, so I will continue looking for a pasta whose taste lives up to its credentials.

No Mere Mushroom Risotto

Dried porcini mushrooms

Dried porcini mushrooms

Rice first arrived in Italy and Spain in the Middle Ages from the Arab states. The humidity of the Mediterranean climate best facilitated the growing of short grain, starchy rice; perfect for making a dish with a luscious sauce. The first ever risotto was made in Milan, containing locally grown rice and saffron. Milan was ruled by the Spanish at the time, which is why short grain rice and saffron pop up in the Spanish paella as well.

In order to make a mushroom risotto that stands out from the crowd I went for the sweetness of forestière and the intensity of dried porcini.

Ingredients

  • 20g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Half an onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 250g arborio risotto rice
  • 200ml white wine
  • 250g forestière mushrooms
  • 500ml stock (home-made is best, Marigold Bouillon otherwise)
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 3 tbsp grated parmesan

Instructions

  1. Pour boiling water into a mug containing the porcini mushrooms. Slice the forestière mushrooms and set aside
  2. Warm the oil on a medium heat, dice the onion, crush the garlic and toss them into the pan until soft
  3. Make up your stock and keep hot in a pan on another burner
  4. Add the rice and stir to coat each and every grain with oil. From this moment the risotto needs to be continuously stirred. Set the timer for 10 minutes
  5. Strain the porcini; add the liquid to the stock pan and the mushrooms to the risotto pan
  6. When the rice has absorbed the wine, ladle in the stock, only adding more as the last ladleful has been absorbed
  7. When your timer goes off, add the forestière shrooms. Keep stirring and adding stock. After 10 minutes test the firmness of the rice. It should be slightly al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  8. Take off the heat, add 2 tablespoons of the parmesan and stir; keep 1 tablespoon to sprinkle on top.

Don't stop stirring!

Don’t stop stirring!

Rehydrated porciniRehydrated porcini

Mushroom risotto

Mushroom risotto

The end result was a powerfully shroomy flavour and a deliciously creamy texture; this is a food that is high up on my list of comfort eats!