Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

October 30, 2007

Pak Choi with caterpillar

I was surprised last night to discover a plump and chilly caterpillar curled up on a pak choi leaf, surrounded by a number of large, healthy-looking droppings. Its body-to-poo-size ratio was really impressive. It had eaten its way through almost an entire pak choi before a spell in the fridge had cast it into Cryonic suspension.

Fortunately the wee critter had been well potty-trained and confined his efforts to a single one of the four cabbages that arrived with this week’s box, leaving me plenty of untainted leafage with which to cook up this seasonal stir-fry.

A bowl of mussels

Pak Choi, Mussels and Rice

You’re going to need… basmati rice, mussels, pak choi, garlic, chilli, ginger, a lemon, soy sauce.

To start, put the basmati rice on to cook – enough for however many folks you’re feeding.

Wash the caterpillar poo from your pak choi and break them into seperate leaves. If each leaf is too large, break them into more managable sizes. I like my pak choi leaves cooked whole so you get the contrast of crunchy stalk and tender leaf in the same mouthful. And it looks more Ken Hom.

Stir-fry pak choi

Prepare the mussels by pulling off the beard and throwing them in a wok over a fierce heat until they open. Throw away any that remain closed, and remove the flesh from the shells. Strain the mussel juice and put to one side.

Chop the flavourings finely – a couple of garlic cloves, a fresh red chilli and a small knobule of fresh ginger.

Heat some sunflower or corn oil in the wok until smoking. Throw in the pak choi and stir-fry until wilted, ensuring the stalks retain some bite. Next add the garlic, chilli and ginger. Keep stirring for a few seconds to allow the flavours to mingle. Chuck in the mussels next. Stir again over the heat for half a minute or so.

Next add the rice. But not so much that it overwhelms the other ingredients. Again, stir around long enough for the rice to heat through. Add the mussel juice back to the wok.

Finally add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a few glugs of soy sauce. A splash of Thai fish sauce would also be good.

Mussels, Pak Choi and Rice

Potato and Onion Frittata

September 21, 2007

Fritatta

Hailing from land-locked Derbyshire I’ve never developed a strong attachment to the sea. Coastal towns make me a little nervous, partly, I think, because the sea cuts down your escape options. From wherever I’m standing I like to be able to move quickly in any direction, just in case.

Nonetheless, Mopsa’s mussel-foraging expeditions on the Cornish coast do have me feeling a tad jealous of his coastal lifestyle. London has a surprising amount of wild food, but unfortunately there’s no shellfish to be found clinging to the arches of Tower Bridge.

So here in the city we have to make do with what the veg box man brings. Last night was the first evening for a while that Maths Chick and I managed to sit down and have a meal together, and I cooked up a homely frittata from Marcella Hazan to mark the occasion.

Onion

Potato and Onion Frittata for two

1. Cut four or five small potatoes into 1cm cubes. Shallow fry in medium-hot oil (enough to come 1cm up the side of the pan) until cooked through and golden brown all over. Drain on kitchen paper.

2. Slice an onion finely and add to the oil. Continue to fry, on a lower heat, until soft and golden.

3. Whisk up 5 eggs in a bowl, season well and add the fried potatoes and onions. Add a good grating of parmesan at this stage if you like.

4. Heat some butter in a deep frying pan until it froths a little. Pour in the eggy mixture and turn the heat down to low straight away.

5. Cook slowly until mostly set through. Flash under the grill for a few minutes to finish off the top of the frittata if need be.

I served it with julienned cabbage and carrots, steamed then dressed with butter and fresh parsley and tarragon.

Julienne

Cabbage and Bean Soup

September 7, 2007

Cabbage and Bean soup

“Too much of nothing, Makes a man feel ill at ease” grumbles Dylan on the Basement Tapes. What he doesn’t go on to say, is that too much cabbage laying around the house can lead to similar feelings of uneasiness.

When I’m suffering from EBAS (excess-brassica-anxiety-syndrome), I often resort to Cabbage and Bean soup therapy, which generally does the trick. I don’t really follow a recipe, just a basic method. It’s all about patiently waiting for a good, deep flavour to emerge.

Cabbage and Bean soup

1. Firstly, build a strong base of flavours by slowly sauteing together, in plenty of olive oil, whatever is available of the following, chopped together roughly:

onion, garlic, carrot, celery, tomatoes, mushrooms (ideally, dried porcini soaked in hot water for an hour), pancetta, bacon, salami (in chunks, not slices), herbs (rosemary, parsley, marjoram), salt and pepper

2. Stir in a tin of beans – haricot, chick peas, flageolet – whatever’s available in the cupboard. Continue to cook everything gently while the flavours continue to mingle and develop.

3. Next the liquid is added. Perhaps a small glass of wine first, then water. Not too much, the soup should be quite thick and concentrated by the end.

4. Let this cook for a good while, at least an hour or two. Continue to taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more water if necessary.

5. Finally, 15 or 20 minutes before you’re going to eat, finely slice some cabbage leaves, wash them, and add them to the soup. Continue to simmer until the cabbage is well cooked.

6. This soup is good served at the table with freshly grated Parmesan, maybe a bowl of pesto to spoon in, or some chopped red chilli and fresh herbs to sprinkle on top.

Ravioli Tuesday

June 16, 2007

ravioli_dish.jpg

So what happened to the (predicted) hottest summer since records began? Here I sit at the kitchen table on a wet Saturday afternoon, looking out into a damp, bedraggled, snooker-table-sized London back garden. A short, crackling thunderstorm has just passed over, and everything is still.

Maths chick is spending her weekends marking GCSE exams online, and so I’m left to my own devices again, which normally involves me staring at the wall, rocking backwards and forwards in a semi-catatonic state. But at the moment I’m reflecting back on an eventful week.

The Facebook phenomenon has hit my social group with a vengeance. Me and MC were introduced to this social networking site last weekend at a party, and within the space of three or four days almost everyone I know has registered on the site and become instantly, shamefully, addicted.

Yesterday as I walked through the offices I’m currently freelancing in I noticed every second or third person surreptitiously checking their profile to see how many new Facebook friends they’d acquired in the last 10 minutes. As a site, it’s better looking and more usable than mySpace, less blatantly self-serving than LinkdIn, less nostalgic than Friends Reunited. The site promises to arrange your entire social life for you, while keeping the psychotic or  predatory at arm’s length.

The impact of these social networking sites on your life can be hard to predict. Already I’ve met up with a long-lost school friend who I’d hardly seen since he dropped out of the 6th form and dissappeared into the Madchester club scene during the second summer of love in 1989. He’s now re-surfaced as an IT project manager in the City by day, a keyboard player with the legendary Manchester band ACR by night, and an all round good bloke. He had some great stories to tell, impressing me most by the fact he’d been personally given the nickname ‘Acid House Pixie’ by one of my personal heroes, the great Mark e Smith.

In between squabbling over who had the most Facebook friends, the MC and me managed to squeeze in a pasta-making session on Tuesday night. I’d had a go at making linguine on Monday night and it had ended up a large, globby mess, drowned in a flash flood of aubergine and ricotta sauce. This time we tried to keep it simple, in conception if not execution – we decided to make ricotta ravioli.

The MC worried this was too ambitious for a Tuesday night, and that we wouldn’t be sitting down to eat until the early hours of Thursday morning. In the end, with the two of us working in blissful harmony, we managed to crank out a couple of servings of misshapen but deliciously melting ravioli in about 40 minutes.

The filling was very simple – Ricotta, drained of excess moisture, seasoned well with nutmeg, salt, pepper and parmesan. Although they’d have been great served just with butter and parmesan, we decided to serve them with thinly sliced cabbage fried with fatty cubes of bacon, which turned out to be a good contrast between the subtle, velvety ravioli and the salty, crisp accompaniment.

I wouldn’t even start trying to describe how you make ravioli. The instructions in the Marcella Hazan book we used run to at least four pages. It’s a black art, but well worth the effort, if you can tear yourself away from Facebook for long enough. Otherwise, just open a tin of the old 70’s school canteen ravioli in the sickly sweet red sauce and see if you can track down that well-endowed lass you used to lust after in double French.

ravioli_tray.jpg

There seemed to be scores of planes circling over London last night. A line of blinking red, green and white lights stretched to the horizon, high above the Thames, and beyond in to the Surrey night. It was an eerie and majestic sight. A slow, stately dance at 5000m. Like watching a global warming documentary on a giant outdoor plasma screen.

It got me thinking about something that’s been troubling me recently. The ethics of air travel. After flying to New Mexico, New Zealand and Spain last year, I feel I’ve left a big dirty carbon footprint on the global shagpile. After New Zealand, I piously informed maths chick that I wouldn’t be flying anywhere in 2007. Who needs a romantic weekend in Fez? Let’s book a B&B in Weston-super-Mare. It’s time to explore the nooks and crannies of this nooky little island of ours, I said. Or something like that.

And now, 21 days in to the new year, and we’ve already bought a bargain-bin flight for 2 to Valencia. So much for good intentions. A quick visit to a carbon offsetting website assured us that we could fly with a clear conscience for a small donation of £5.15. Which seemed like a good deal.

But then I read in this week’s Riverford newsletter that perhaps only about 14p of this will actually pay for trees to be planted. And anyway, it’s not been proved that planting trees will have any real impact on climate change. Goddam, what’s a half-assed eco-consumer to do?

Sometimes I think it’s time I made some serious lifestyle changes to help keep this planet from overheating. Other times I think, sod it, why should I be the one making all the sacrifices? I get a veg box, don’t I? I don’t buy New Zealand kiwi fruit. I’m doing my bit, aren’t I?

Whatever. Here’s a good way to reduce a whole Savoy cabbage to a few spoonfuls of soft, savoury mushiness. It’s an Italian recipe from Anna Del Conte’s The Classic Food of Northern Italy. I was going to write about battutas, sofrittos and other arcane secrets of the Italian kitchen. But I feel this post has already out-stayed it’s welcome, so here it is, in ADD-friendly comic strip format.

Stewed Savoy Cabbage

Cabbage stuffed with sausage

December 19, 2006

Stuffed cabbage ingredients

Cabbage ears, cabbage head. You’re a complete cabbage. The cabbage is a much-maligned veg in the English vernacular. An insult, it suggests either stupidity or ugliness, or both.

When over-boiled, cabbage becomes translucent, water-logged, flatulatory. A short-hand for all that’s wrong with British institutional life – the damp, gloomy stench of school canteens, hospital wards and village halls.

It’s all a bit unfair. The Savoy cabbage, in particular, is a handsome beast – tightly wrapped up, crinkly and squeaky. It looks like a big, green brain. If you bring it up close to your eye and turn it over in your hands you can recreate the opening credits from Tomorrow’s World, circa 1980.

Thrown against a wall, or walloped with a stick, it produces one of the vegetable world’s most satisfying explosions.

Or you can stuff it. We did, with sausage.

Cooked stuffed cabbage

Cabbage Stuffed with Sausage

1. Take a whole savoy, snap off the loose outer leaves and trim the stalk.

2. Dice a carrot, finely slice an onion, assemble a bouquet-garni. Have a bowl of sausage meat to hand. A well-seasoned, herby sausage such as Cumberland would be ideal. If the sausage is too mild in flavour, add extra seasoning and herbs, chopped sage fits the bill.

3. Bring a large pan of water to boiling point; add the cabbage and leave for 5-10 minutes to soften.

4. Remove the cabbage and drain. Carefully peel back the leaves one at a time, adding a spoonful of the sausage meat to each leaf as you go.

5. Use your hands to reshape the whole caboodle back to its original shape. Tie it up with kitchen string (or crochet string, if that’s all you’ve got). An extra pair of hands is useful for this awkward procedure.

Stuffed cabbage before cooking

6. Put the carrots, onion, bouquet-garni and seasoning into a deep oven dish. Place the cabbage on top and lay 2 or 3 bacon slices over, as in the photo below. Pour over 3/4 pint of either stock or half white wine, half water.

7. Seal the edges with foil. Put on the lid and place in a low oven (100-120C) to braise gently for around 3 hours.

Stuffed cabbage in pot

8. At the end of this time, drain the juice from the dish. You can reduce this, or thicken it with butter and flour, or simply adjust the seasoning and serve it separately in a wee jug.

9. Bring the cabbage to the table in the dish and serve it in slices, along with the cooking juice. It worked well for us with a big dollop of dry, fluffy mash.

And so the frumpy old cabbage is transformed, Cinderella-like, into the belle-of-the-ball. A vegetable fairy tale, just in time for Crimbo.