I started cooking tonight’s dinner this morning at about half past eight, before anybody else was awake, and most importantly, before any of the neighbours had hung any washing out to dry.
Short beef ribs take a long, long time to cook, and they’re at their very best when they meet a little smoke. So, I made this introduction early on a Saturday morning, alone in the back garden, burning the dew off the grass with a serious pile of fire and a lot of oak scented smoke.
Beef ribs are everywhere at the moment, but the best place to get them is the market. The butcher had two great hunks of meat, each with two substantial ribs and a good ten centimetres of flesh, proud slabs of meat from an animal that had worked hard and eaten well. I bought both, about five kilos, about twice as much as I needed, and not cheap at about £25 for the pair. One piece fed four very well in the end, with plenty left over for late night fridge grazing and sandwiches.
The beef needs some flavour, so I sprinkled it liberally with a couple of tablespoons of a general multipurpose Cajun spice rub I make frequently and store in a jar. This is a magic standby, capable of transforming meat and fish into fiery, tasty goodness. It’s worth making a batch and keeping it to hand – the uses are endless.
This is an important dish for me.
Its one of the first curries I learnt to make, from an old and battered Madhur Jaffrey book. I used to make it in my mum’s kitchen, and we’d eat it outside on the old wooden table, the one with the benches, in the sun, by the hedge that hid a nest of benign wasps.
Saag aloo is a glorious thing, a simple dish of potato, onion and spinach. My version has evolved over the many years I’ve cooked it. It’s become more refined and less blunt, crisper and cleaner of flavour, more architectural.
I’ve toyed with the potato variety, and settled on the waxier end of the spectrum, cooking them on their own before adding them to fried onions and spices to soak up the flavour quickly and sharply. The spinach is now the last stage, where it started as the first, fresh and no longer frozen, all the better to cling onto that tang of bitterness.
I cook this dish by sight. There is no recipe anymore, and all measurements are instinctive and approximate. It doesn’t matter, for this is a curry that bends readily to your whims. More…
The best types of recipes use just one pot, the same one right through from the moment the first dice of onion hits hot olive oil right through to its placement at the centre of the table.
It’s efficient, streamlined, but to work properly, the pan itself is important, and that’s where heavy, solid cast iron cookware comes in.
My most used pan is a large, deep braising pan with a heavy lid, the type that will outlast generations. It has a weight and heft to it that’s quite satisfying, and the iron holds the heat in a way that no other material quite can.
And here, it’s perfect for a quick and simple North African tagine, a one-pot meal to lift the gloom of a late February day.
First, a chicken. More…
I spend a lot of time wandering around the market in Leeds. I go there at least a couple of times a week, mainly at lunchtime as an excuse to get away from my desk and see the city at its best.
I’ve shopped there for a while – getting the right things is a game … fruit and veg is generally a little B-grade (fine if it’s fresh but gnarly, not so fine when it’s already on the turn), meat is better than any supermarket, if you use the right butcher, but use the wrong one and it’s diabolical. Spice Corner is still the best place to buy huge bunches of flat leaved parsley to make you feel properly cheffy.
And then, there’s the fishmongers.
Now, landlocked Leeds has a motorway that stretches right to the East coast at Hull and Grimsby, where most of the local catch lands. Freshness is not a problem, and nor is variety. This time, the stall at the top of the row had a full hand of useful cephalopods – squid, cuttlefish and octopus.
All three of these are interchangeable to some extent, and they share similar characteristics. Squid is done a disservice if it doesn’t become calamari, cuttlefish lends itself to stuffing, but what about octopus?
Part of the reason I buy from the market is to freak out my colleagues with some random weird thing stashed in the office fridge. Live crab and lobster have been my highlight, but octopus is a new one, greeted with exactly the mix of terror and bemusement you might imagine. More …
We went on holiday to Sicily this year.
It was roasting hot, in the mid forties most of the time. The Italians sweltered, and complained that they’d never experienced anything quite like it. We were thankful for an air-conditioned apartment and hire car.
One day, we drove out of Cefalù to a town in the hills, up and around a series of death-defying hairpin turns and on roads that seemed to have an unrealistic view of how capable an average family car is at climbing very steep inclines. There was a restaurant up there, and we wanted to try it for lunch.
The meal was excellent, a menu based simply around what the kitchen had been able to get hold of fresh that morning. Lot’s of seafood, all scrawled out on a big blackboard lugged around from table to table and propped up on an empty chair for people to read. The terrace, overlooking the sea, was closed because of the heat. Everybody was glad to be in the shade of the building.
As we finished eating, the owner and general whirlwind of the place produced a freezing cold bottle of his home-made limoncello and insisted we try some. It was sweet and sharp, a perfect balance, potently alcoholic, but not overpoweringly so. It had a greater depth and smoothness than limoncello I’ve had before, which, really, I’ve always lumped together with Bailey’s in the ‘too disgustingly cloying to drink’ bucket.