Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Polishing off the Pandan Cake

Pandan cake is incredible. It’s cakey-brown on the outside yet alarmingly green on the inside, so light it could almost fly, and has a gaping hole in the middle. One slice is never enough, so airy - like a Wispa, and is horribly moreish. It shouldn’t share a surname with heavy drunken fruit cake - they’re so polar-oppositely different.

Of Malay origin, it’s a popular cake in South-East Asia - where the pandan leaf grows. Uniquely aromatic, the dark green juice from the leaf gives the cake its flavour and that colour, whilst the lightness comes from using oil rather than butter. There’s a taste I can only describe as satisfying – coconut milk. I’m not a fan of coconutty-flavoured things, but this in no way dominates the pandan flavour.

My mother used to drop this off whilst I was a student to make sure I was at least eating something. And now that I’m not a student, she still drops it off - and this week I’ve been picking away at it scoffing at least two wedges a day.

Pandan cake is a good way to round off an Asian meal – I usually crave something like this rather than a good old-fashioned Western pud after a pork belly or a stir-fry.

You can pick this up from any good Chinese or Asian supermarket in small, medium or large. I usually get large. Look for the cake with the hole in it.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

1 chicken, 3 meals and a whole lot of joy

I have an almost moral objection to buying a packet of chicken breasts at the supermarket. There are two reasons for this.

The first is highly embarrassing. I have inherited a flavour preference for meat on the bone – I like to pick at jointy bits, chew at the leg and savagely eat what Americans call dark meat. Think of fillet steak which may boast a velvet smooth texture but just doesn’t pack a flavour punch as much as an oozy rump or rib-eye. Breast versus a nibble on the rib of a roasted chicken? No contest.

The second, and the most important is simply to do with cost and waste. I flatly refuse to buy two chicken breasts for £4 when a whole chicken, which already has two breasts thrown in, costs the same. And what joyous meat you can get from a whole bird - being clever about using your chicken means that you’d never have to buy individual pieces again. I sometimes wonder what happens to the rest of the chicken - does the carcass get used to make a warm homely stock? I doubt it. And stock costs an extra £2.50, by the way, if you were to buy it.

So I propose that you can make three meals for two people with one 1.5kg chicken. I’m not the biggest fan of the freezer, it's a place to store peas and vodka, but in this case - as a way to avoid eating chicken every day whilst still using the whole bird - I salute it. It’s just about being resourceful and knowing how to joint (for first timers I recommend Shaun Hill's jointing demonstration in The Cook’s Book - lots of pictures).

Once I have my chicken I start by taking off the breasts off the bone and slicing them into thin strips for a stir fry. I tend to freeze the strips immediately so I can use them for a supper the next week, taking them out to defrost in the morning on the day I want to cook them before I go to work.

Then, I take off the legs and thighs. These will be used for something like a Nigel Slater-type Chicken Supper (recipe below).

Finally you are left with a carcass – which is just begging to be used for stock and can be the base of a whole meal. I generally use the golden liquid for things like Chinese meatball soup called Lion’s Heads (will post that recipe up soon), or an onion gravy for sausages.

I urge everyone to reward themselves with what a whole bird yields, not just for roast chickens but for your everyday meals.

Chicken with Ginger Wine
(My version of A really good simple chicken supper from Real Food)
Rich, buttery and warming. Absolutely deelish.

2 chicken thighs and 2 chicken legs
Big big knob of butter
Three glugs of olive oil
A small glass of ginger wine (or dry white wine if you don’t have ginger wine)
4 large garlic cloves chopped in half
Handful of chopped parsley
Lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Rub the chicken pieces with salt and pepper whilst warming the butter and olive oil in a lidded cast iron casserole dish over a medium heat. When the butter is foaming, lay the chicken pieces skin side down. Brown well for about 10 – 15 minutes– the skin should look gorgeously crispy and golden-brown before turning over. Let the chicken cook gently in the butter (about 35 minutes) until the chicken is just cooked.

Remove the chicken, and tip out most of the oil from the dish. Return the dish to a high heat, and add the ginger wine. Bring to the boil whilst stirring vigorously so that all the chickeny goodness at the bottom of the pan is mixed in the sauce. Return the chicken to the pan, add the garlic and simmer with the lid on for 10 more minutes.

Add chopped parsley, and generous squeeze of lemon and serve with crushed new potatoes mixed with fruity olive oil and a sprinkling of chives and sea salt.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Will you eschew the new instant brew?

My mate Barry loves coffee.

He loves coffee so much that when he grows up he wants to be a Starbucks barista. Never mind that he’s grafting for his MBA in New York - that’s just the first step to becoming top barista aka CEO.

So when I was invited to smell, slurp and savour Starbuck’s instant brew with a couple of other bloggers, Barry’s Glaswegian lilt popped into my head. After all, he would wrinkle his nose up at instant in an instant. And as I’m not a particular Starbucks-lover, I asked myself - would he love this? Would he give up his ritualistic brewing ways for a gratifying quick-fix caffeine hit? In fact would it be gratifying at all?

What Starbucks doesn’t really have to do is convince on taste. Yes I’ve had the odd burnt coffee in-house now and then, but I blame that on a barista’s slip of the hand rather than the basic quality of coffee. I had absolutely no doubt that the new Starbucks VIA would taste anything less than marvellous when pitched against another brand of instant brew. And indeed it did.

I’m sure Barry would know the real thing from the instant, as I did when tested. But half the room of bloggers didn’t. So instant-brew kind-of-almost wins against the freshly brewed stuff by getting a mixed response.

Now don’t get me wrong - Barry’s not a purist by any means. He jams frozen potato waffles into toasters and loves shortcuts as much as the next person. But for him, coffee is so much more than just a taste.

It’s the backbone of his working day - his guilty pleasure, his fag break.

For him the ceremony is as enjoyable as the slurping – the scoop of the grounds, the warming smell that fills the house followed by that reward of exotic black liquor in a beloved mug.

And clever ol’ Starbucks has caught onto this. The feelings that coffee evokes, that is. They’ve engaged the heavyweights from the food world – Kevin Gould, of Guardian and Waitrose Food Illustrated fame, and Professor Charles Spence – a pioneer of ‘neurogastronomy’ (how environment influences our interpretation of food and drink) who’s worked with Heston Blumenthal on the menu and atmosphere of certain Fat Duck dishes (like ‘sound of the sea’, for which you plug in iPod earphones while you eat).

Gould telling us we live in the age of sophistication

Composers commissioned to devise music that increases your coffee-drinking pleasure, formulas cracked by Prof Spence that tell us the perfect time to quaff (11am for those who are curious. Most of us, including Winnie-the-Pooh, were already familiar with the joy of elevenses), Starbucks certainly has been busy. And Gould tells us that he personally does serve his unwitting guests VIA after dinner, followed by a ‘ta da’ moment when he reveals the cheat.

All this is admirable to say the least. But does this enhance the instant coffee? Only as much as it would enhance a filter coffee - it's not quite foie-gras to the sound of trumpets. My advice to Starbucks would be to upgrade those who swear by other instants. Wow them with your jazzy technology.

Yes it is better than the nearest instant brew and no it isn’t the same as my lovingly filtered cup of joe. I will be using VIA in cakes. Delia’s coffee and walnut to be precise. And I doubt the Barrys of this world will be turned.

Well, not until he becomes CEO.