Best Stir-fry: Pepper Beef and Mangetout

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To master the art of stir frying is the way to cooking great tasting and healthy food in a hurry.

The key, as in all cooking, is in the preparation. If everything is ready to add before you begin, the food will be on the plate in minutes. Don’t bother and you’ll be a stressed out wreck before you can even pick up your chop sticks!

To get started, this is definitely one of my favourites. It’s a version of a dish that is popular in Chinese restaurants in the West. The bonus is that you really can’t cook as tasty a dish as this so simply. And this recipe is extra versatile because it’s possible to substitute any fresh vegetable for the mangetout, aka snow peas.

To get the best out of these ingredients you really should put the effort in to find some authentic Shaoxing rice wine. It is one of the most famous varieties of huangjiu, or traditional Chinese wine, and is available in most good sized supermarkets. If you find this impossible, then you can use a dry sherry instead.

Stir-fried Pepper Beef and Mangetout can be served with either plain steamed rice, or noodles (I like Fine Egg Noodles).

This recipe serves four people.

INGREDIENTS

450g beef steak, sliced

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine

2 teaspoons sesame oil

½  teaspoon salt

¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons cornflour

100g red or green pepper

3 tablespoons groundnut oil

225g trimmed mangetout

150ml chicken stock

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

METHOD

  1. The beef needs to be cut into slices that are thin and about 5cms in length. Then these should be tossed in a bowl with light soy sauce, along with Shaoxing rice wine, the sesame oil, pepper, salt, and the cornflour. When this has been mixed well it should be left to marinate for 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the pepper into strips again about 5cms in length.
  3. Heat your wok (a large frying pan can suffice) until it is very hot.
  4. Add the oil until it’s hot and slightly smoking.
  5. With a slotted spoon, remove the beef from the marinade, and add it to the smoking pan and stir-fry for three minutes.
  6. Remove the beef slices, which should still be succulent, drain and reserve the oil.
  7. Wipe the wok clean, and reheat it.
  8. Return 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pan and add the pepper and mangetout when it is very hot.
  9. Stir-fry for two minutes. Then add the oyster sauce and the stock. Bring it all to a boil.
  10. Add the beef back to the pan and give it a good stir.
  11. Turn on to a warm serving plate and serve at once.
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The all-but-lost art of braising

Braised chicken and root vegetables

When our oven of six years gave up the ghost we had to forego roasting, baking, and grilling but we benefited by me relearning the all-but-lost art of braising.

There is plenty of tasty food that can be cooked on a cooker’s top! And a happy coincidence was that I knew we had a leftover half a celeriac, half a Swedish turnip, and some good-sized carrots occupying our fridge with some useful bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, a load of onions, a couple of leeks and a pack of smoked bacon.

It had started turning cold as November was here and the clocks had gone back, so I decided to do some braising.

Braising is one of those styles of cooking that is too often overlooked in the modern kitchen. But there are few other techniques that ask so little yet give so much.

If you have patience and can remember just four simple steps your home will be filled with the most tempting of scents as a result of the braising process.

The essentials are a Dutch oven or a covered container for cooking casseroles made out of either earthenware or cast-iron (I use a Le Creuset pot!), and a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom without scratching.

Armed with your tools, it’s what you do prior to the braise that counts.

STEP 1: SEAR THE MEAT

Season the meat you are using on all sides. Pour the oil into your heavy lidded pot which should be set over a medium-high heat, then add your meat without crowding the pot. Take your time getting a deep color all over the meat. The meat should really be taken out and kept warm, but if you are in a hurry move onto the next step.

STEP 2: SAUTE THE VEGETABLES

Chop your onions, leeks, carrots, etc., in the drippings from the meat’s searing, stirring frequently over a medium-high heat. You should aim for caramel brown colour but don’t scorching the ingredients.

STEP 3: DEGLAZE THE POT

Add your braising liquid (wine, stock, water) stirring and scraping any of the browned bits that may have formed on the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon. These are the flavour bombs, which when dissolved in the cooking liquid enrich the dish.

STEP 4: THE BRAISE

Return the meat to the pot along with any juices that have accumulated and the broth. As you’re braising the meat should not be submerged. You’re not boiling shanks!  Bring the pot’s contents to a simmer and cover.

This is what our dinner became.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH ROOT VEGETABLES

INGREDIENTS

  • 3  slices uncooked smoked bacon, diced
  • 4   bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • ¼ tsp each of salt and black pepper to taste
  • ½  lb (225 g) small potatoes
  • 1   medium onion
  • 2 small leeks
  • 1   medium carrot, peeled, cut into 2″ (5cm) pieces in half lengthwise
  • ½ celeriac
  • ½ turnip/Swede
  • a handful of mushrooms (optional)
  • 2  garlic cloves
  • 300 ml chicken stock
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • A bouquet garni of fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  • Parsley for garnishing (optional)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Cut the bacon into pieces. Brown the bacon in the casserole dish over medium heat for 10–12 minutes or until crisp.
  2. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken, skin-side down, for 5–7 minutes or until golden brown.
  3. Meanwhile, cut the potatoes and onions into wedges and thinly slice the garlic. Clean and cut the leeks into 1” pieces (and half the mushrooms if you are using them). Peel and dice the root vegetables.
  4. Add all the vegetables to the pot; stir in the stock and wine. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat.
  5. Cook covered on a lower heat, for a further 40–45 minutes.
  6. In a small bowl, mix the cornflour with a small amount of water.
  7. Stir in the flour mixture and bring the casserole to a boil over high heat. Simmer for 5–6 minutes or until thickened. Garnish with a sprinkling of parsley and serve.

Bon Appetit!

Scalloped potatoes FAST!

Scalloped Potatoes

Don’t be fooled. People make out that it’s only on special occasions when luscious, creamy scalloped potatoes turn up at the table. It’s a fib. This is extremely easy and quick to make.

With layers of cream, onions, and potatoes all baked until lovely, rich and bubbly, people think this is a complex and indulgent dish. It is and it isn’t, but it’s possible to cook the prepared layers in the microwave in just 10 minutes!

I agree there are few other dishes which pair comfort and luxuriant elegance quite so perfectly.

Is there a difference between Scalloped Potatoes and Potato Gratin? Both are constructed with thinly sliced potatoes and then cooked in full cream milk or cream, but the difference is cheese.

Scalloped potatoes only really need to be made with milk or cream and potatoes, while gratins add cheese, either between the layers or just over the top. But if you want to add cheese, it’s fine, just that bit richer.

To give the dish a bit more acidity, I like to add some thinly sliced good-old brown onions, though red or white is good too. The layers should be: potato at the bottom, then onions, then more potatoes, and more onions etc. until the last layer which should be potato again.

The key is to choose a starchy potato – and don’t bother to peel it.

It’s the starch that will help the dairy you choose, whether milk or cream, to thicken to a velvety smooth sauce while cooking. Russets have the most starch and you will find the sauce will be creamier than when you use a more watery spud.  Russets, by the way, are the large ones, with dark brown skin and few eyes. The flesh is white, dry, and mealy, and it is suitable for baking, mashing, and chipping.

Work on the basis of one good-sized potato per person. Slice the potatoes so they are between 1/8” and ¼” thick. Using a mandoline makes this very easy and quick. What’s important is to make sure the slices are all about the same thickness so they all cook at the same speed.

If you were cooking this dish the long-winded way you may simmer the sliced potatoes in the milk or cream for a few minutes before arranging the layers. If you do it this way then remember you don’t want to thoroughly cook the potatoes at this stage. Once the milk and/or cream starts to simmer, it’s time to move on.

Place the layers in the baking dish you have to hand and pour over the seasoned cream and or milk sauce so that it seeps through all the layers. Cover this dish in cling film and put it all in the microwave. Cook on full power for ten to 12 minutes.

If you would like a slightly caramelised top then remove the cling film when you take the dish out of the microwave and finish it under a hot grill for a few minutes more.

Serving your scalloped potatoes, don’t worry if the dish is still loose and liquid, as long as the mixture is tender and bubbling everything will be delicious.

A slotted spoon or even a fish spatula will help you lift the layers and serve the potatoes in whatever shape or non-shape you like. Make sure you scoop out all that creamy sauce. Don’t leave it in the pan.  Drizzle it over the top.

Bish, bosh. Delicious!

Lost and found: why it was important to revive the very special Haricots Tarbais

haricot_tarbaisTarbais beans  are the holy grail of beans – probably because they are so damned difficult to find.

Introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the dying years of the 15th century, the Tarbais bean became the first haricot bean in France to be granted the coveted Label Rouge in 1997 and a Protected Geographical Indication in 2000, guaranteeing its level of quality.

This is a surprise only because, thanks to intensive farming, the variety all but died out in the 1950s. It was only revived in 1986 by a small group of farmers in the Tarbes region who came together and created the co-operative that continues to cultivate this exceptional bean today.

The tradition of Tarbais beans in the Bigorre region of Gascony, close to the town of Tarbes, began in the 18th century in the valley of the Adour river. As it is a climber, it is traditionally planted alongside maize, whose stalks support it as it grows.

Over time the haricot adapted to the Gascony climate and environment, resulting in the treasure that is grown today.

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Proof is in the eating: a traditional Garbure is a good way of sampling the bean’s quality

This special bean benefits from its terroire thanks to its its well defined criteria and being seeded on a specific date. Picking is exclusively by hand, pod by pod.

Tarbais Haricots have a very thin skin, making this type of bean easier to cook and giving it a particularly delicate flavour.

The lack of skin also causes them to melt in the mouth and deliver a creamy texture as well as making them light on the stomach and easy to digest. With low starch content they are remarkably tender, though they do not burst during cooking or become mushy on your plate.

Tarbais Haricots have other unique qualities: they cook 10% to 50% faster and absorb 10-20% more water than other varieties, like lingot, coco and soisson varieties. And nutritionists say they are full of health benefits.

As well as being low in lipids (1% fat), they are also rich in fibre and protein. Low in calories : 128 Kcal/100gr of soaked beans, the pulses help to balance the protein in your diet and may well help to prevent heart disease and some cancers.

Planted in May, these haricots are harvested between August and October, when they are hand-picked and commonly used in cassoulet and other classic French stews, including Garbure and La Mounjetade.

Inspired by this discovery, I decided to try a classic Garbure. The name is associated with the term “garb” which describes sheaves of grain on a coat of arms. Garbure is eaten with a fork,  a reference to the use of pitchforks to pick up these sheaves of grain.

A large tureen of garbure is a common sight in Bearnais restaurants, where guests can help themselves to as much as they wish using the ladle provided.

Often this meal ends with a traditional chabrot or godala. This is the custom of consuming red wine that has been added to any liquid left in the bottom of the bowl.

Ingredients for a classic Garbure for two people

1/4 green cabbage, cut into thin strips

100 g smoked bacon lardons

50 g Tarbais haricots soaked in cold water (if these are impossible to find use cannellini or other white kidney beans)

2 legs of duck confit

1 large potato, peeled and quartered

1 clove of garlic, whole

1 leek, sliced

1 turnip, quartered

1 carrot, sliced

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 bouquet garni (typically bay leaf, thyme and parsley)

Salt and pepper

 

Method

In a casserole, brown the bacon, add the soaked beans, garlic clove, leek, turnip, carrot, onion and bouquet garni, salt and cover with water (no more). Bring this panache of vegetables to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for one hour.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, boil enough water to blanch the thin strips of cabbage. Let them sit in the boiling water for five minutes. Then remove the cabbage, pass it under cold water before adding it to the other vegetables. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes.

To finish, add the potato, the confit duck legs and some coarse ground black pepper. Taste, adjust  the seasoning if necessary and continue to simmer for another 25 minutes or so.

When you’re ready to serve, put a slice of toasted baguette on each plate, pour over two good ladles of vegetables, place a piece of duck on top and sprinkle on some of the bacon lardons.

C’est tout!

London: the Capital of Con-Fusion food?

What has happened to the food served in an increasing number of restaurants in London?

It was bad enough when Fusion cuisine began its infiltration of the capital’s kitchens back in the 1970s, combining elements of different culinary traditions. For the 20 years that followed it was, although queer in some cases and an acquired taste in others (Italian Thai cooked by an Austrian chef anyone?), describable in a couple of geographic terms.

Regional fusion combined different cuisines of a region or sub-region into a single eating experience.   Asian fusion restaurants combining the various cuisines of different Asian countries became a mainstay on many UK high streets.

Tex-Mex took southwest United States cuisine and mixed it with Mexican. Pacific Rim smashed together the different cuisines of the various island nations that surround that ocean.

aurora

Confused dot com?

But my wife Louise came back from an evening with friends in Soho earlier this week and tried to explain what was on offer at Aurora, the restaurant where they all met up in Lexington Street.

Purporting to offer “a seasonal Modern European menu”, Lou looked distinctly puzzled when I asked her what she had had.

“Warm Salt Beef with Sun-Blush Cherry Tomatoes, Grilled Artichokes, Black Olives, Red Peppers and Rocket Salad with Basil Pesto” had been her starter.

One of the others had, for some reason, chosen as a main course “Pan-fried Fillet of Trout on New Potatoes, Sauté Fennel and Tenderstem Broccoli with Coriander, Lime, Chilli and Coconut Dressing and Toasted Almonds”.

The feeling was that they were all pleased the place was where it was, and not too badly priced for that part of town, but this menu was less an appropriate fusion  and more of a cacophony of con-fusion food.