27 January 2009

simple, delightful and entirely messy

Do you remember that bowl of aioli, standing slighly forlorn next to the ciabatta in last week's post?


Well, no need to, actually. It just happened to stand next to the bread, and now as I am looking at the images for this week's post, I realise that there isn't a single one of the aioli with the food it was originally meant to go with.

I don't even have a single image of the aioli just by itself. Which, in my eyes, is quite a shame - it would have deserved one. It is THAT good. With bread, with prawns, with almost about anything else except itself.

(As a sidenote - just one thing that several guests on one of our annual summer parties have learned in quite a nasty way - never, never place the aioli next to anything that looks like it could go with vanilla custard. Woodruff jelly and aioli are a strict no-go.)

But, as already mentioned, it is close to unbeatable when it accompanies seafood, especially crustaceans. And even though as a kid I first learned to like the french 'crabes araignée' with homemade mayonnaise, today I'm rather a fan of the spanish version - gambas con aioli.

Simple, delightful and entirely messy, they're perfect if the dreary winter weather calls for some summery food to lift up your spirits. Though, admittedly, they're at least as good in the middle of summer, fresh and steaming from the barbecue.

gambas con aioli
(serves four as starters or two as main)
(aioli not pictured)

for the 'gambas'
1kg king prawns, whole and raw
50ml soy sauce
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon honey
a pinch of pepper and / or chili

for the aioli
2 eggyolks
200ml - 250ml vegtable oil (sunflower, preferrably)
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons lemonjuice, maybe more
1 teaspoon honey
optional: a tiny pinch of ground saffron

Defrost and / or clean the prawns, if necessary.
We usually buy them frozen, size 16-18 (meaning that there are 16 to 18 prawns in a kilogramm) at our local wholesale market. Of course, if you want to go extravagant on a really nice barbecue, you can always buy one huge one per person, which would be rather expensive but always makes one hell of a posh plate.

Cut open the tails of the prawns with a sharp knife or a kitchen hatchet, beginning at the 'chest' between the legs and cutting lengthwise down to their tailfins.
If you just want to ease the later peeling and allow some marinade touch the meat, it is enough to cut the prawn's belly and leave the back intact. Especially on a grill and with bigger specimen, I prefer also cutting the back, because then you'll get two 'curls' of prawn that almost look too pretty to eat.

De-vein if necessary.

Mix the remaining ingredients for the marinade in a big bowl until the honey is dissolved. Toss the prawns with the marinade until they are well-covered, the leave to rest for about half an hour, longer for bigger prawns.

For the aioli, put the yolks in a high, narrow mixing bowl. Mix with the handheld mixer at the highest setting, then add the oil. Only add a few drops(!) at first, then mix until well combined. Then you can add about half a teaspoon, then more and more until you have a very, very stiff, almost glassy rudimentary mayonnaise.
The amount of oil you need varies significantly with the size of the yolks, the temperature and probably a hundred different things I have no clue of. I just add oil until the mix feels really stiff, like fluffy butter.

Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, honey and salt, and mix until well combined.
Try to balance the taste of lemon, honey and salt. There is a point where you can hardly tell them apart, and that is where the aioli goes from 'garlicky mayonnaise' to 'nom nom nom...' or rather 'gobble gobbble gobble...'. Usually, I just add the lemon juice and add touches of salt and honey until I have the right balance. In this case, I have given the amounts you'll approximately need for a rather mild version, though you can surely double the amount of lemon juice and get a really, really pungent (really tasty, but maybe exhausting) result.

If you want, you can also add a pinch of ground saffron for more colour and a more original, spanish taste.
If you add saffron strings, you'll end up with bright red lines in your aioli, bleeding orange, but then again I can imagine that little bit of added colour being wanted. If you only have saffron strings, grind them with a mortar and pestle with the salt from above and add with the salt. I usually omit the saffron, as the wife doesn't really like it.

Chill the aioli at least twenty minutes, and stir well before serving.
There is very little moisture for the salt to dissolve in. So even if you use very finely ground salt, it'll make weird white specks on the aioli in the first minutes or crunch if you eat it right away.

Drain the gambas from the marinade. Either drop them into a rather hot skillet with just a hint of oil or put them on the grill, whatever season and equipment allows. Fry on both sides until just done, shouldn't take more than 10 - 15 minutes.

If you want some gravy besides the aioli, you can deglaze the pan with some of the marinade and a piece of butter.

Serve immediately, with white wine and something to clean your hands afterwards. Enjoy!

18 January 2009

damn, that feels good

There is one tiny side-effect of cooking that I really, really love.

It makes you independent.

See, we have this truly awesome bakery here in town. Their sweet stuff is best ignored, in my humble opinion, but their bread is legendary. Whole grain, slow raised, locally procured, organic, artsisan's bread in the very best sense of the idea. They have several outlets in town, but still on saturday mornings people cue up in lines on the sidewalk to get their bread. They are really, really good.

And for several years, they were making the best ciabatta I have ever eaten. The absolute favorite bread of my wife. The best bread you could think of if you hadn't a french 'pain de campagne' around.

And then, one day this summer, they stopped making their ciabatta. Just like that. They offered another white bread, but not even remotely what we were looking for. No brittle crust, no chewy, tangy bread.

My wife was devastated, to say the least. Teary eyed, she looked at me, pleading me to bring her beloved bread back. Well, maybe a little less melodramatically so, but I think you get my point.

And guess what? I did. I searched for recipes, figured out what it actually was what we were looking for, and over sevaral weeks now have been working on the perfect bread to go with all that rillettes, the mussels and the countless other things I make.

You can't believe my joy and satisfaction when yesterday's batch didn't only turn out good, but perfect. Sure, the loaves are still a little too crooked for my taste, but that's merely technical. I'll learn that too. But the taste and the texture were pitch perfect. Not only as good as the ciabatta we were so direly missing, but better.

So, my dear bakery. You didn't only lose a faithful, year-long customer last summer. No, you also taught me how to make my own bread. I don't need you any longer, and damn, that feels good. Now kiss my *bleep*ing *bleep* and go cry in your corner.

Did I mention I really, really love being able to cook?

Rustic Ciabatta
(makes two medium loaves or a whole lotta ciabattini)
(aioli not included)

adapted & evolved from here

for the biga
a pinch of active dry yeast
200 ml warm water

300g high-gluten wheat flour (German type 550)
2 generous tablespoons whole-grain wheat flour
2 generous tablespoons whole-grain rye flour
180ml warm water [Edit: use a little more water if the biga feels too tough to handle, especially when using a machine]

for the dough
350g high-gluten wheat flour (German type 550)
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
3 teaspoons salt
300 ml water

To prepare the biga, dissolve the yeast in the water.
This step is not meant to proof the yeast, but to measure a tiny little bit of yeast, see below. Probably using just a few grains would work just as fine, but so far I didn't see the reason to gamble.

Mix the different flours, add the second batch of warm water and a tiny tablespoon of the dissolved yeast. Discard the remaining yeasted water. Knead with the hook attachment for several minutes, until the dough gains elasticity.
Whatever you do, do not skip the rye flour. It is needed to bring in the necessary bacteria to get the fermentation started, else you'll end up with just another white bread.

Cover tightly and leave to ferment for two days(!).
I started yesterday's batch on thursday, and started with the proper dough on saturday morning. I think it wouldn't have hurt the dough to ferment even longer.

On the day of baking, add the remaining ingredients and knead with the hook attachment for several minutes again.
The dough is very soft and won't clear the sides of the bowl, but you should look out until you see that the dough gains elasticty.

Put the dough in a large bowl and leave to rest.

After about half an hour, take out the dough onto a well-floured surface. Do not knead but merely stretch the dough a little and fold the sides to centre. Put back into the bow and leave to rest. Repeat three more times after about half an hour each.
The dough will gain some stability by folding, while not noticeably losing air - a process that never fails to amaze me.

After the fourth time folding the dough, leave to reast another ninety minutes to two hours.

Take the dough out of its bowl (it should have at least doubled its volume by now) and cut into half, once again without kneading. Roughly push into desired form, put onto a well-floured tea towel and leave to raise a last time, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven as hot as you can get it, mine ends a 250°C. Put an old baking tray right onto the bottom of the oven and get a small glass of water ready.

Transfer the loaves onto a paper-lined baking sheed, turning them upside down. Pour the water onto the baking sheet on the bottom of the oven and immediately put in the bread. [Edit: Put the bread on the lowest rack possible.] Bake for about 15 minutes until the crust underneath all that flour is dark amber to walnut coloured.

Put on a rack to cool, and enjoy!

PS: Talking about great bread - have a look at Susan's tremendous WildYeast blog, where this recipe just might feature in the YeastSpotting section!

11 January 2009

slightly cthulhoid fellows

We're currently seeing one of the longest cold stretches here since I can remember. Sure, in this part of Germany it's no great deal to have the occasional night well below minus ten degrees celsius. But since Christmas, it's been freezing, with 'coldest night on record' records coming in every other day.

It's great actually, it's white outside and the air is clean and crisp and lovely.

I really ought to be reveling in cold weather food, like cheese fondue and such. But I think I've had more than enough of that already before christmas, when it was merely rainy. Who could have known that for a change, we would get a proper winter this year?

As much as I enjoy our daily walks in the sunlit, icy forest that begins just at the end of our road, I already feel that longing for a different kind of food.

Oddly enough, it's the summer food I miss, not necessarily summer itself. Not yet, probably.

So I when we were at our local wholesale market, stocking up on the bare necessities of life - like toilet paper, olive oil and crayfish - I noticed them having fresh octopus. Immediately, my holidays in Croatia were back full force. My father is an avid sailor, and I have spent quite some weeks by now sailing among the Cornati Islands.

It is a lovely region, with crystal clear water, tiny cities dating back to roman times with pale slabs of stone paving the streets, worn smooth by countless feets so they shine in the mediterranean sun.

And of course, the lovely food of the adriatic. Grilled meat, great vegetables, fresh fish everwhere. And of course one of my all-time favorites - octopus salad.

Admittedly, nothing here can match an octopus fresh from the sea and real sun-ripened tomatoes you have bought from some black-clad granny on a farmers market down there.

But still, the longing struck me right there in front of half a ton of various fishes on crushed ice, and I knew I just had to try. After all, I was on holiday, so what was there to lose but some time?

So I bought some of these slightly cthulhoid fellows and tried to make that salad, and it turned out just fine. It's not really whipped up in an instant (meaning it takes more than 5 minutes of my attention), but it is lovely, and close enough to the real thing that you can almost feel the sun.

(serves four)

1,2 - 1,5 kg octopus
200ml plain white vinegar
1 onion
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chilies
2 tablespoons salt

500g tomatoes
1 onion
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
olive oil
vinegar and / or lemon juice
salt & pepper, a dash of honey

In a large pot, boil enough water so your octopus will have enough room. Add the vinegar, the salt, onion, bay leaves and chilies.

Clean the octopus under running water, check that the intrails have been taken out. Turn the 'head' sack back to normal it necessary, so that the colored skin is on the outside.

Boil the octopus until the meat is tender but not soft, probably about 40 minutes.
Cooking time varies greatly with size, age and type of octopus you get, large specimen can need up to 1 1/2 hours. It's ready when a fork inserted gets a proper 'meaty' but not 'rubbery' resistance.

Drop the octopus in cold water for a moment.

Clean them of their dark skin, make sure to remove eyes and beaker.
Actually you'll see immediately which parts you'll want to eat - you keep the ones that are pale and firm and get rid of everything slimy.

Chop them into bite-sized pieces and marinade in some salt, some vinegar or lemon juice and a generous amount of olive oil.
This mix keeps well a day or two in the fridge and can be perfectly prepared for a party.

Right before serving, chop up the onion and the tomatoes, and add them to the fish. Season with salt, pepper, parsley and eventually some more vinegar or lemon juice.

Serve with crisp bread and maybe some white wine, and enjoy! Maybe it's not quite as good as in Starigrad on Hvar, but really damn close.

04 January 2009

a breathtaking sight

We were in France this spring, in the Perigord region near Domme, to be precise. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been to on earth so far, and it is not only because of the food.

Looking down from the market place of Domme onto the valley of the Dordogne, especially at dusk, is such a breathtaking sight that I wonder every time if maybe this was what God's plan for our planet had originally looked like.

But this year, there was another sight I will probably remember fondly for a very long time: It was early afternoon, and market day in Domme. We were strolling around on the market as I noticed a bunch of stall holders (local students, by the looks of them) gathering for a 'casse-croûte'.
A casse-croûte, literally 'breaking the crust', is a 'very simple meal', as the french wikipedia has it. But, being in France, this wasn't a bunch of sandwiches from the store and a bottle of 'coca' - no, these guys in all earnestnes pulled out a bottle of red wine, bought a loaf of bread from one of the neighbouring stalls, some cheese and a jar of rillettes, and just looked like having the greatest of all times.

It wasn't the admittedly picturesque scenery that made the moment so magical - for me, it was a reminder that great food wasn't something dreamed up by some foodies in their ivory towers, but something very down to earth, real and entirely charming - and happening every day out there, and not only in carefully orchestrated environments. For me, it was a moment to hold on to.

Alas, I can't take that place or the occasion with me, but what I can do is work on the food.

Lately, I have begun making my own rillettes, a simple greasy spread of long-cooked meat. Nothing for those counting their calorie-intake, and much less for anyone who isn't a convinced carnivore. It doesn't even look like much.

But it is a great, simple dish and makes a lovely gift. And most importantly, it goes perfectly with some cheese and a glass of wine, which in my eyes is as close to a perfectly french casse-croûte without actually being in France.

(makes four to six medium jars)

2 goose legs (appr. 1kg)
400g porc belly
200g lard (porc or goose)

3/4 l water
5 juniper berries
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
1 clove

more lard [Edit: You will most probably need about 200g+]
bay leaves for decoration

Clean the goose legs, but leave bones and skin. Cut the porc in rough cubes.

Put the meat and the lard in a heavy, ovenproof pot and sear the meat (especially the goose skin) until it takes colour.
I usually take my heavy, cast-iron pots for this. Though roasting the meat is not particular necessary, it adds a nice flavor and my wife loves it.

When the meat is nicely browned, add the water and the spices.
If possible, put the spices in something that helps getting them out again - like a cloth sack or a tea egg or similar. In this particular case, it really helps saving a lot of time.

Cover with the lid and put in the oven to simmer at approximately 150°C for 6-8 hours(!). The rilletes is ready when the meat falls apart at a touch and all eventual cartilage has dissolved.
There is hardly any way to overcook a rillettes, so if you have an oven you can trust, it's perfectly fine to put it in before you got to bed and switch it off in the morning - that is, if you don't mind a night saturated with dreams of delicious, greasy meat, as you whole place will smell of it.
On the other hand, it the lid doesn't close neatly or the oven temperature varies strongly, you might want to keep an eye on the pot to see if there is still enough liquid. If necessary, refill with some more water.

Leave to cool.

When the rillettes has cooled, take out the spices and all remaining bones and skin. Crush remaining chunks with your hands until everything is smooth and nicely spreadable.

Reheat one last time. Once it has boiled, turn off the heat and leave to settle for a moment.
Depending on how greasy your porc belly was, you'll have more or less fat floating on top of the meat. Normally, you'll want to have about a centimeter of surplus fat, as it will form a lid on your meat that'll keep it preserved.
Add more lard if necessary. This year, I was lucky enough to have kept the surplus lard from our annual goose roast in the freezer. I prefer goose lard to porc or vegetative fats as it is smoother and keeps the rillettes spreadable, but both would be fine in an emergency.

Fill the rilletes into wide-rimmed, screw-lid glass jars and cool.
If you want, you can put a single bay leave on top of each portion for decoration.

The rillettes keeps several months in the fridge, but even in the larder it'll stay perfectly fine for several weeks.

Enjoy as a spread on fresh, crispy bread, or even on a cracker as a truly indulgent snack.

01 January 2009

of boars and cookie-tins

Christmas and New Year's eve have passed in a whirlwind.
I just removed the decorations and brought the last cookie tins back to their cupboard in the basement, where they will faithfully wait until next year. The cookies have neatly lasted till today, so that is a very good thing. No more cookies found in some corner in the beginning of august.^^

How comes that time even seems to accelerate when you do less?

Christmas dinner, as usual, has been great - with my mother's boar roast and the home-made potatoe dumplings earning a special mention. BIG movie magic, as a friend of our swould say. And, as a special treat, my mother had gone through the efforts and had prepared a two-tiered tray of various self-made sweets and brittles for my aunts and my mother-in-law each as a present. That was a great thing, both in look and taste and a really precious gift.

Short, I just want to express my gratitude for having such a lovely family and my luck of being able to spend this time with them.

I hope you're all having such nice times as well, and I wish you all the best of luck, love, happiness, prosperity, inspiration and plain good times for this brand-new year.

Happy 2009, all of you!