Stirato, or an Italian take on the baguette

Food & drink
Stirato, or an Italian take on the baguette

Italian baking, and Italian bread in general, tends to be a lot more relaxed than French baking.

Where a Parisian baguette must have a specific number of slashes, and be baked to a certain hue and uniformity, an Italian ciabatta ‘passes’ if it looks vaguely like a slipper. Italian bread is a lot more rustic, and this stirato, the Italian version of the French baguette is a classic example of that.

It lacks the slickness, the sleekness, of its French cousin, but gains an artisan quality and an individuality that’s quite endearing.

I like this.

It means that my ham-fisted attempts to shape baguettes are fine here, where they would be laughed out of any French bakery. A slightly wonky Italian baguette is not a problem, nor should it be.

A stirato is made with a pre-ferment called a biga. This is really a method of boosting the taste and flavour of the finished loaf by developing a starter dough well in advance that will eventually be used as the base of the final dough.

The starter dough, or biga, is a stiff, fairly dry dough made with a small amount of yeast and allowed to ferment slowly in the fridge for anything up to sixteen hours. The result is a very ripe dough that shares some characteristics with a sourdough starter – both give that spine and backbone to a bread that’s generally missing from a loaf made the from a dough that’s simply mixed, risen, knocked back, shaped and proved over the space of a few hours.

A biga is typical of Italian baking, a poolish of French. The main difference is that a poolish has more water and is therefore looser. It does the same job, but doesn’t ‘hold’ as well in its ripe state. More…

Eat Like a Londoner: An Insider’s Guide to Dining Out, by Tania Ballantine

Books, Eating out
Eat Like a Londoner: An Insider’s Guide to Dining Out, by Tania Ballantine

Ever stumbled into a new city, a place brimming with possibilities and with a reputation to match, and found yourself completely overwhelmed, fumbling around for somewhere to eat, realising that all the good places are closed/rammed/somewhere else, and being forced to settle for some lazy tourist trap with barely a local in sight?

This happens to me all the time, because I’m terrible at planning things out.

Since the dawn of twitter, things have got a little bit better, and I’ve used the Hive Mind to pin down quite a few good places in new cities at the very last second, having failed to do the whole boring planning thing beforehand, but that’s an unreliable method, if sometimes devastatingly effective.

I need to get better at that whole boring planning thing.

Books like this help, and this particular one hits right at one of my biggest blind spots: London.

Now, I know that London is a big place, and I know that restaurants come and go with an alarming regularity, that there’s always some new fashion or other just around the corner, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. Tania Ballantine’s Eat Like a Londoner: An Insider’s Guide to Dining Out is a very good place to start.

This generous pocket-sized book is a run-down of about a hundred restaurants dotted around the capital of various shapes, sizes and styles. Restaurants are arranged in terms of categories, with chapters covering cult classics. late nights, ‘small & buzzy’, and so on. There are other lists that further segment places by geographical area, places that are more forgiving for the last-minute diner, and vegetarian-friendly destinations.

Well written, well presented, with lovely pictures of some frankly stunning food and dining rooms, this is a book written by somebody who obviously knows what she’s talking about, and I’d be happy to take her lead.

I must plan better next time I’m in that London.

Slow cooked oxtail pie, with suet crust pastry

Food & drink
Slow cooked oxtail pie, with suet crust pastry

So, cold isn’t it?

All of a sudden, those rolled pieces of brisket and the big slabs of pork belly in the butcher’s window don’t seem like such a bad idea. Nor do the ox tails, hanging in braces on butcher’s hooks like some sort of skewered alien lifeforms.

Well, never one to shy away from the odder cuts …

The tail of a cow does a lot of work. It’s never still, a simple swatter whose main purpose is to swish backwards and forwards to keep its owner fly free and comfortable. It’s a cut of beef that’s worked hard, and it’s therefore tough. It’s very tough indeed, and it needs careful cooking to tenderise it – long, low, slow.

It must be braised in some form of liquid, the marrow from those plentiful bones melting into a rich and thick sauce. If that liquid is red wine, then so much the better. Add the Holy Trinity of vegetables – carrot, onion, celery – and you can see, smell, sense how this is going to shape up.

First thing’s first. You need an oxtail. Buy a whole one, and have the butcher chop it up for you. Seriously, this is why butchers have those massive cleavers. You aren’t going to get very far doing the chopping on your own, no matter how good your knives are … chopping up an ox tail is a brutal, inelegant job best left to the person with the biggest tool.

Don’t let the butcher fob you off with a load of skinny pieces from the end, either. Buy a whole tail and ask for the thick bits to be cut into two pieces. This is where the best meat and the best marrow is.

It’s possible to make a thoroughly decent stew or casserole with oxtail, but such a thing, good as it undoubtedly is, will in my book always feel like a bit of a let down, as if there’s a part missing.

It needs some pastry.

It’s destiny is to become a pie.


China Towns: Asian Cooking from around the World in 100 Recipes, by Jean-François Mallet

China Towns: Asian Cooking from around the World in 100 Recipes, by Jean-François Mallet

I sometimes have to travel to London for work, and every once in a while, I find myself with an evening to kill and nobody to kill it with.

This, I relish, and I spend most of my time wandering around the streets, just watching things happen.

Often, I’ll walk around the West End and up Shaftesbury Avenue, turning into Gerrard Street, the main thoroughfare through London’s Chinatown.

That turn might as well be a right-hander into a different universe, so distinct is the look and feel of Gerrard Street, a concentrated microcosm of Chinese life and culture. Ducks hang in the windows of restaurants, gleaming red with soy, the street names are mirrored in Chinese, there’s a huge oriental arch.

Walking down that street, which I do slowly, relishing every step, is a wonderful experience, each restaurant bursting with people eating dim sum, Peking duck, noodles, the smells drifting across the street.

And then, as quickly and abruptly as it began, it ends, and I’m slapped with the brashness of Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus. Straight back to earth, back to London.

It’s natural for people who migrate to want to live together and to carve out a piece of their own culture in their new home, and that brings a richness and diversity that we can all be proud of. These little enclaves, these Chinatowns that have sprung up in cities all around the world are important places for the Chinese who live in them, and give everybody else a glimpse into Chinese life, and more importantly, its food.

Chinese food travels well. It’s exotic, it’s different, far removed from the European canon of cuisine. It’s flavours are big and bold, but there’s subtlety and precision there too. Above all, it’s delicious.

Jean-François Mallet’s book China Towns: Asian Cooking from around the World in 100 Recipes is a tour of some of the most important Chinatowns around the world, a journey told through a hundred recipes and nine restaurants. It’s primarily a cook book, primarily a collection of recipes, but those recipes tell a story of migration, settlement, of working and living together in a new place, of forging a life.


GEAR REVIEW: SuperFast Thermapen® 4 Cooks Thermometer

Kitchen gear
GEAR REVIEW: SuperFast Thermapen® 4 Cooks Thermometer

I’ve always taken gambles when it comes to testing the ‘doneness’ of things, and this sense of lottery normally reaches a tension-filled crescendo just before lunch on Christmas day, when I’m stood in front of an enormous turkey, out of the oven, wrapped in foil, rested and I start to wonder … is it cooked properly, or is this going to be the day that we remember forevermore as the day I poisoned my entire extended family?

I do the normal tests, stabbing the bird in the thickest part of the leg and studying the juices for any traces of blood, which is generally pretty inconclusive, and I’ve also tried my luck with one of those crappy £3 thermometers with a manual dial on the top, the ones where the needle never seems to get above the ‘rare lamb’ stage regardless of how long whatever the subject is has been cooking. I firmly believe that you could plunge a turkey into the heart of an erupting volcano for several hours, take a reading with one of those thermometers and be led to believe that it was still dangerously raw.

There has to be a better way, and I’ve discovered that better way! In September! Months ahead of D-Day, sorry, I mean Christmas Day!

The Superfast Thermapen thermometer is exactly that – it’s a kitchen probe that works really quickly, and very, very accurately.

The most important attribute of any thermometer, and especially one that’s going to help you make decisions about whether something as potentially harmful as an undercooked chicken should be eaten or not, is accuracy. All Thermapen thermometers are hand calibrated before being shipped, and certified as such. The person who did the calibration even signs a certificate to say so.