Thursday, 31 March 2016

Achilles' meal

If you're a food writer, and you're writing about food that exudes fat or oil, you have to use the word unctuous or unctuousness whether you understand what it means or not. Ironically, another meaning for the adjective is, "Characterized by affected, exaggerated, or insincere earnestness."
Easter is over and its back to finding ideas for fulfilling weekday suppers.Moussaka seems the perfect choice for this time of year, like a parmigiana; a dish which simultaneously manages to taste of sunshine, and boast the warming qualities of cinnamon and allspice, sufficient to bring you in from the cold wind and unexpected spring shower.Funny that having just had an exceptional leg of new season Alentejan lamb for Easter and over purchased on aubergines for a pre-Easter catering job which involved individual parmigiana starters, all was in place for eating fresh products in the right season.
Eyebrows might be raised at the mention of leftover lamb, but I am sure that a lot of us have found ourselves left with a plethora of the stuff Easter dinner was made of. Moussaka is generally made with fresh mince, like a rather superior sort of shepherd's pie, but reading between the lines, both dishes can be immeasurably improved by using meat that has already been cooked and I am sure that is how they were first made. My mother used to have a little hand mincer that was permanently clamped on to the end of the kitchen work table: the point of it was not to do as Mrs Lovatt did in Sweeney Todd ( a little home butchery) but to grind up the remains of the former roast for recycling into a shepherd's pie or a Moussaka
Lamb leftovers are slightly trickier to use up than beef or chicken. The meat is very fatty, which makes it unctuous and flavoursome when hot, but too greasy to nibble as a cold snack or use in sandwiches and salads.Instead, your best bet is to recook it and turn it into something new.
If I was a Masterchef contestant,(which I was once) for my calling card,in which the amateur chefs are asked to cook up a dish that’ll make Gregg use the phrase “nice plate of food”. I would cook a cracking Moussaka.
Mousaka incorporates some essential basic techniques, such as making a good meat ragout and learning how to  make a good white sauce,there is even a bit of knife work with vegetables and also a bit of egg cookery, all of which should excite the novice cook and Gregg to boot
 Even to an old hand, it is a dish that gives huge satisfaction to make. It is one of those composite dishes, like cassoulet or a navarin of lamb, in which the coming together of two or three ingredients produces something transcendent and unique. Alchemy is afoot in the transformation of a couple of aubergines, a bit of old roast lamb and a white sauce into something so aromatic and satisfying.
Twice cooked lamb moussaka
Serves 6
Although I have specified cooked meat in this recipe, raw lamb mince would be fine. But fry it well in a little olive oil before adding it to the softened onion - and extend the cooking time by 20 minutes.
    750g (1lb 10oz) cooked lamb
    2 onions
    olive oil
    1 tbsp tomato purée
    1 cinnamon stick
    1/2 tsp allspice
    1 dsp dried oregano or 1 tbsp fresh
    250ml (9fl oz) stock or gravy from the roast
    3 large aubergines

      For the topping
        50g (2oz) unsalted butter
        50g (2oz) flour
        300ml (10fl oz) milk
        2 bay leaves
        generous pinch of nutmeg
        half an onion
        6 cloves
        200g (7oz) Greek yoghurt
        75g (3oz) feta cheese, finely grated
        25g (1oz) parmesan, finely grated
        2 egg yolks

          Mince the meat coarsely in a mincer. If you don't happen to possess a mincer, cut the meat into small cubes and then chop them finely in a food processor using the pulse button, taking care only to chop and not to make a purée of the meat. Peel and chop the onions finely. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a frying-pan and sweat the onions for five minutes until soft. Add the meat and turn it briefly with the onions before adding a good seasoning of salt and pepper and the tomato purée, the cinnamon stick, the allspice and the oregano. Stew these together for a couple of minutes, add the stock and cook for 30 minutes.
          Slice the aubergines crossways  into 7mm (1/3in) slices.Drag these through some flour and fry them in olive oil until golden brown on both sides (alternatively brush the aubergines lightly with oil and grill them in a dry griddle pan). Once cooked, drain the aubergines well.
          To make the topping, melt the butter in a small but heavy saucepan and add the flour. Stir well over a gentle heat for a couple of minutes until it acquires a sandy consistency then add two or three tablespoons of the milk. Work this to a smooth paste with a wooden spoon and then pour in the rest of the milk. Whisk this well as it comes to the boil. Add the bay leaves, the nutmeg and the onion studded with cloves. Simmer the white sauce gently for 20 minutes. Whisk together the yoghurt, the feta, the parmesan and the egg yolks in a bowl. Once the white sauce is cooked, pour it through a strainer into the yoghurt mixture and whisk it together well. Allow it to cool.
          Assemble the moussaka as follows.  Cover the bottom of a large oven-proof dish or tray with a layer of aubergines and then with half the meat sauce and then with a second layer of aubergines. Repeat the process - a layer meat and aubergines - and then pour the white sauce over the top in a single thick layer. Bake the moussaka in a medium oven (200C/400F/gas mark 6) for 35 to 4o minutes,until bubbling brown around the sides and acquiring a golden crust on topThe dish is best served after it has been out of the oven for 20 minutes. A green salad is all you need to accompany the dish,but a tomato and onion salad would be even better.

          Sunday, 20 March 2016

          Portuguese Rocha pear,apricot and polenta shortcake

          Thin slices of re-hydrated Rocha pear lie upon a halved shortcake, nestling alongside some poached fresh pear and re-hydrated apricot left over from breakfast. The other shortcake half covers that, and a sticky syrup of the reduced poaching liquid brings it all together.
          Something homely for a Sunday afternoon, this dessert is a stack of layered flavours and textures, but its components are all surprisingly light. It’s not a wooly dense cake, it’s more camel hair and cashmere.The golden colours bring Easter to mind too. Any dried fruit would work beautifully here; apricots, pears, apples or even peaches.Another thought on the filling, Portuguese quince jam (marmelada) -  why not?
          Dried apricots are a different breed altogether. When soaked, they hydrate perfectly, retaining their vibrant colour. More importantly, the flavour shines through, no matter what you're cooking.
          The drying process intensifies the very essence of the fruit, giving whatever you are making a sharper and deeper flavour.They are very easy to work with and when cooked after soaking, the dried fruit actually pulps. Particularly useful when you are making jam or sauce, a sponge pudding or a shortcake like this.
          Portuguese Rocha pear, apricot and polenta shortcake
          makes 16 pieces
          300g mixture of dried Rocha pears, dried apricots
          and 2 small under ripe fresh Rocha pears peeled cored and sliced thinly
          60g caster sugar
          150g Polenta(papa de milho)
          225g plain flour
          3/4teaspoon baking powder
          150g caster sugar
          150g unsalted butter softened
          1 egg lightly beaten

          To cook the fruits:pour enough boiling water over the pears and apricots just to cover them and leave to soak for several hours-preferably overnight. Place the pears and apricots with their soaking water and the extra 2 fresh pears peeled and cored, into a small saucepan,add the sugar and bring to a simmer.Cook the fruits until they are tender and the cooking liquid has reduced to a syrup. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

          To make the shortbread:lightly grease and flour a 25cm long x 18cm wide x 5cm deep baking dish and line with baking paper.Preheat the oven to 180C. Place the polenta,flour,baking powder and sugar in a medium sized bowl and stir to combine thoroughly. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs then add the egg.Mix together until the mixture forms a dough.Divide the mixture in half.Press one half evenly over the bottom of the prepared dish.Lay the fruits in a single layer over the shortcake base then press the remaining dough over the top.Bake the shortcake for 55 minutes or until deep golden brown.Allow to cool in the dish before cutting into sixteen slices.

          Wednesday, 16 March 2016

          Irish soda bread, Dia de São Patrício

          "Flour, Salt, Baking Soda, Buttermilk.  
          Anything else added makes it a "Tea Cake!"

          The Portuguese and the Irish have more in common than you might think. They both inhabit lands on Europe’s western edge, have a long Catholic history, revel in tradition and have a penchant for getting themselves into terrible debt.
          The Portuguese and the English famously claim the world’s oldest alliance. Despite a fracas or two along the way, this diplomatic accord has been in place for hundreds of years.
          It turns out, however, that the Portuguese and the Irish have been rather more than just good friends for thousands of years.Following wars in Ireland during the 16th century, there was a wave of Irish migration to Europe and in particular to Portugal. Some of these migrants had highly successful and illustrious careers; others like some of the todays migrants weren't so fortunate.I love recipes that are passed on and this recipe for Irish soda bread was given to me by one of our guests who stayed last weekend.With Saint Patrick´s day upon us I thought it was the perfect chance to give it a try.The recipes provenance is from a cousin in Dublin and having been given the recipe ten years ago he has been making it ever since.This recipe uses traditional ingredients,flour, buttermilk, salt and of course baking soda.The Americans include eggs and butter,which the Irish don’t normally add to the dough,tending so sensibly to keep all the butter back for spreading liberally over the freshly baked bread!

          Irish Soda bread was borne of necessity, without the climate to produce strong, gluten-rich wheat, the flour in Ireland was soft and made for poor quality yeast-leavened bread. Soda bread works best with lower gluten flours so has been popular in Ireland since baking soda (which in Ireland is called bread soda) became available in the 18th century. It has the great advantage too, of requiring no kneading and being ready in a matter of minutes.

          A crucial ingredient in soda bread is buttermilk. This was originally the liquid leftover when butter was churned from cream. The cream was easier to separate from the milk if it was left for a few days, which led to the characteristic slight sourness of buttermilk. These days the buttermilk that is commercially available is milk to which a little bacteria has been added. Not quite as authentic but it still works well in soda bread. I have been known to make my own buttermilk which is an extremely easy process but on this occasion I used a 50/50 blend of plain yogurt and water.
          So always use the traditional ingredients/recipes when making "traditional Irish soda bread." Of course, make some fancy cakes and desserts for St. Patrick's Day, but save a spot on the table for Irish soda bread as a memory of how far the Irish have come from the days when it was the only thing on the table, to today when our tables are filled with good things to eat and thoughts of the famine years (An Gorta Mor) are long forgotten. 

          A traditional Irish soda bread
          Ingredients for one loaf:

          Plain bread flour                            170 gms
          Wholemeal bread flour                   225 gms
          Sodium Bicarb                                       5ml
          Salt                                                       5ml
          Buttermilk                                         285ml
          Black Treacle                                      10ml
          Hot Water                                           60ml

          Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the treacle to a jug and add the hot water to it to dissolve it, add the butter milk to the treacle solution and mix thoroughly. Add all the liquid to the dry ingredients and mix until the flour is absorbed to a stiff mix. Pour into a bread tin and bake for 40mins at 180 fan.


          If butter milk is not available use a 50/50 blend of plain yogurt and water. An alternative to putting in a tin is to bake it free form in a circle like a large scone, which is the traditional Irish way, with a cross marked on the top.
          The treacle gives it a lovely brown colour, which toasts really well, but it can be omitted.

          Saturday, 12 March 2016

          Chá com Agua Salgada - Tea with salty water

          Every picture tells a story, and there is usually a story behind a name.In this case the name of a restaurant.I always thought our friends` restaurant Cha com Agua Salgada was named after a Portuguese idiom.My thought was quite feasible. A restaurant nestling in the sand dunes overlooking a beach could appropriately be called "tea with salty water", but why tea with salty water I asked them? I was so surprised when I got the answer that Cha com Agua Salgada was the Portuguese translation of Paulo´s favourite book as an eleven year old child.What a charming anecdote.I recently borrowed the book  (above) and found as it was written for youthful readership I was able to understand much of the language. The original book (left)Johnny Tremain by American novelist, historian and children's writer  Esther Forbes was first published in English in 1943 and is a story about the American Revolution and the principles of freedom and democracy it established throughout the world.The story is seen through the eyes of Johnny Tremain, a young silversmith who is drawn into the war after meeting Rab, a daring young member of the Sons of Liberty. Working closely with Paul Revere and the revolutionists, Johnny must learn to overcome the obstacles in his path through his courage and determination and help prepare Boston for the battle ahead,culminating in the famous Boston tea party when chests of tea were thrown off the boats into the sea.Hence the Portuguese title of the book.It reminded me of a favourite Fish and Chip joint in London´s Covent Garden, "The Rock and Sole Plaice",  that I used to frequent and whose name is derived from the idiom " between a rock and a hard place meaning “in a difficult or bad position with no good way of getting out of it.”
          This encounter with word play has made me look at Portuguese figures of speech relating to food and how they could potentially be adapted as names of other restaurants. 

          "puxar a brasa à sua sardinha", or ignite the coal under the grilled sardines, meaning bring to light a subject which is close to the heart

          "ficar em aguas de bacalhau"
           To remain in codfish waters, meaning a tackled but unsolved problem

          "comer o pao que o diabo amassou" meaning to eat the bread the devil prepared, to suffer intolerably, perhaps not appropriate for a restaurant.
          My most favourite  which I think would be a lovely name for a beach side restaurant is

          "É muita areia para a minha camioneta", literally this is too much sand for my truck, this is way over my head or this is more than I can handle. I would say this, for example, of a subject like quantum physics.

          Eu em espera para aprender mais. Si ninguém Português tem alguns figuras de linguagem interessantes que eu gostaria de ouvir de você.

          Cha com agua salgada 
          Apoio De Praia, Unidade Balneária 3 - Praia De Manta Rota, 8900-065 Vila Nova De Cacela, 8900-065  
          Reservas Phone: 281 952 856

          Chá Com Água Salgada​ reabriu hoje, sábado, dia 12 de Março 2016

          Sunday, 6 March 2016

          The empanada´s new clothes

          I now know where the expression pizza pie comes from.Well I think I do.While researching every nation´s pancake recipe recently I stumbled upon this little gem - Panzerotti.The word panzerotti comes from the Italian word for stomach—pancia—which reflects their belly-like shape. They are semi-circular pockets of bread, much like giant ravioli or mini Calzone, and are usually filled with a variety of fillings including cheese, meats and egg.They are then deep-fried in oil, and eaten piping hot.They are the Italian cousin of the empanada, which name comes from the Galician,Portuguese and Spanish verb empanar,meaning to wrap or coat in bread.These universal pizza pies have not changed much over time it seems, although these days some chefs experiment in dressing them up in a guise of fillings both sweet and savoury.In fast food joints nowadays you´ll find them filled with everything from tuna,vegetables and cured meats, to chocolate or fresh fruit.I´m not encouraging you out onto the streets as its much more fun to make home made dough and rustle up your very own custom made TV dinner.The taste test is that they should be slightly crispy,with a beautiful golden brown colour and filled with molten cheese; the steam rises into your face as you bite into it.Melty cheeses are the perfect choice, Mozzarella,Provolone or Taleggio.They are ideal for any time of the day and make a lovely finger food served alongside drinks or in my dreams given the current temperatures, added to your basket for a summer picnic.
          The empanadas new filling
          makes 32
          For the dough
          450g plain flour
          4 eggs
          4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
          Flor de sal
          For the filling 
          225g Ricotta or Requeijao
          225g mozzarella cubed
          225g mortadella chopped
          100g Parmigiano Reggiano,grated
          salt and pepper to taste
          Pour the flour into a bowl.make a well in the centre and break in the eggs. mix in the oil and a little salt.Knead well to form a supple, smooth dough.Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for a couple of hours.In the meantime,prepare the filling.Put the Ricotta or Requeijao in a bowl and stir in the eggs,followed by the other ingredients
          Roll out the dough as as thinly as possible then using a pastry cutter,cut out circles about 12-15cm in diameter. Place a spoonful of the filling along one side of each circle, as if you were making omelettes.Dampen the edges slightly and fold over the dough into acrescent shape.Press the edges firmly together,then leave to rest for half an hour.
          Deep-fry in very hot oil for about 4-5 minutes,turning once, remove and drain on kitchen paper.Serve piping hot.

          Wednesday, 2 March 2016

          As sweet as a potato......and nettles bring spring to the kitchen

          I tried my hand at baking again this weekend.Disaster about to ensue I hear some of you muttering.For those of you who have read about my previous forays into the realms of breadmaking, you will already know I do not have a proven success rate when it comes to flour and yeast. I was prepared for a Sunday of learning curves and unexpected stress.How wrong could I have been? I chose two very different types of bread.One to enter into blindly and another I had made once before. With ingredients gathered from the monthly farmer´s market for my first recipe and more natural ingredients plucked from the wild for my second, I was all set to bake. First up a sweet potato bread,the orange fleshed variety.The Portuguese sweet potato is purple skinned and white fleshed and carries a flavour I find insipid and more akin to a turnip, without the pepperyness.The recipe said "This couldn´t be simpler: you´ll end up with an irresistible orange coloured bread that is slightly sweet and rich".Tempting? It was for me. The words "simpler" and "irresistible" did it for me.For something that was once an exotic curiosity and a staple crop on the slave plantations of the southern states of America, my bread turned out a treat and my favourite application was having it toasted and buttered for breakfast.
          Sweet potato bread
          makes 2 x 750g /1lb 11oz loaves
          500g/18oz sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm / 1/4in dice
          400ml /14fl oz milk
          20g /3/4 oz fresh yeast (or 3 teaspoons dried yeast), dissolved in 50ml /13/4 oz warm water
          800g /1lb 12oz strong flour
          1 teaspoon salt
          Put the sweet potato and milk in a pan, put the lid on and bring to the boil.Cook until the potato is done, then remove the lid and boil until the milk has reduced by half. Put the milk and cooked sweet potato into a bowl and allow it to cool until lukewarm.Add the yeast dissolved in the water and mix well, then add all the flour and the salt and knead for five minutes.The dough should be moist but not sticky,so if it needs a bit more flour just add some. Leave it in a warm place to double in size - this should take about an hour. When risen,punch the dough down with your fist and divide into two lumps of equal size.roll each piece into along sausage shape and place on baking parchment on abaking tray.Again, leave it in a warm place to double in size.
          Turn the oven to 180C /350F / Gas 4.Brush the dough with warm water and sprinkle with alittle coarse sea salt,then place in the top half of the oven.After 20 minutes test by tapping a loaf on the bottom - it should sound hollow.If it doesn´t cook until it does, this should take no more than 10 minutes.Remove  from the oven and cool on a cake rack. 

          ........and nettles bring spring to the kitchen.Nettles are nature's well-armoured but plentiful offering at this otherwise rather sparse time of year. Barbed and bristled and undeniably stingy as they are, these plants are nevertheless a gift to anyone like me who favours cooking with local, seasonal, fresh ingredients.The end of February beginning of March is the time to bag nettles. If you're going to eat nettles (and I totally think you should), then the fresh, young growth of February and March is the crop to go for. Pick only the tips – the first four or six leaves on each spear – and you will get the very best of the plant.
          The only barrier to enjoyment is the nettle's ferocious stings, but these are easily dealt with. Before gathering your nettles, don some thick washing-up gloves or similarly impermeable handwear, roll your sleeves down and your socks up, then pick away. Keep those gloves on while you wash the nettles thoroughly, discarding bugs, grass and other unwanted organic matter, then drop them into a pan of boiling water or stock. As soon as they hit the hot stuff, the sting is vanquished and you can eat them with impunity and considerable relish.
          Nettle bread with feta cheese and green olives
          (adapted from a recipe by Maria Manuel Valagao)

          250g plain flour
          4 eggs
          100ml extra virgin olive oil
          3 soup spoons white wine  
          1 heaped teaspoon dried yeast
           salt and pepper to taste 
          1 soup spoon thyme
          1 soup spoon mint

          250g fresh nettle leaves blanched and roughly chopped
          125 g feta cheese
          butter for greasing the baking tin
          100g pitted green olives
          In a bowl mix together the flour salt and the dry yeast that has had water added.Add the eggs one by one lightly beating them in.Crumble in the feta followed by the white wine thyme and mint and stir until you have a uniform thick dough.Toss in the nettles and green olives.Stir to mix.Pour the paste into a loaf pan that has been previously greased and dusted with flour.Put it in a hot oven 210C/410F for 35-40 minutes.Allow to cool in the tin on a baking rack. Serve at room temperature or cold.