Monday, 31 October 2011

The Great Pumpkin

If you live, or have ever lived, in the United States, you'll probably have seen It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the Peanuts Halloween special, which features Linus waiting all night in a pumpkin patch for the fictitious Great Pumpkin (a kind Halloween version of Santa Claus) to appear.

Part of the humour is that the precocious Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will only rise from a "sincere" pumpkin patch. "Not a trace of hypocrisy as far as the eye can see", he tells Sally.

Well, what I wouldn't give for a sincere pumpkin patch now. Halloween has come and gone, so pumpkins will soon be scarce here in the UK. They only really setup them for jack o'lanterns anyway.

Which is an improvement in and of itself. My wife had to carve turnips when she was a kid.

The problem with the Halloween-orientated pumpkin market is that it only gives you about a month to cook all your pumpkin recipes. Do far I've done two.

On Friday night I chopped our pumpkin into wedges, measured out 200 grammes, and diced them for pumpkin risotto (Tom Kitchin recipe).

I wasn't nervous about this. Alison and I have made risotto millions of times. It's one of our favorite dishes, especially in cold weather. Our usual additions are prawn or (in Spring) asparagus.

However, I wasn't quite happy with the result. The first thing was the pumpkin itself. The recipe calls for sweating it in a pan, rather than roasting it. The texture gets nice and soft that way, but unroasted pumpkin is always a little on the bland side.

There was no garlic in the recipe either, only shallots. Obviously the flavouring of the dish was meant to be "subtle", but it's a fine line between subtle and bland if you're not a michelin-starred chef.

When tasting for seasoning, I kept finding it under-seasoned, even though I used a stock cube for the liquid. So I kept adding salt. But of course the final ingredient is 100 grammes of Parmesan cheese, to give it that unctuous texture, and Parmesan is quite salty too, so it ended up over-seasoned after all. (When we make risotto, we use creme fraiche, with just a handful of Parmesan for flavour.)

The recipe also called for the rice to be al dente, and mine was not, so I probably over-cooked it slightly as well, but Alison didn't mind, as she prefers risotto to have a softer, creamier texture.

There's a photo of the finished product included in this post. It's garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. That's an art I have yet to master, but I think the problem is I don't watch them closely enough. They seem to blacken very quickly.

Anyway, my second pumpkin experiment was pumpkin gnocchi. I have never made gnocchi in my life. Oddly enough, I've never been inspired to make my own traditional potato gnocchi, and I'm still not. It's quite a faff, and you can buy decent gnocchi from anywhere. Similarly, I'm in no hurry to make my own spaghetti, linguini, etc.

But pumpkin gnocchi? I don't know where to buy that apart from at The Kitchin.

I decided to make a half recipe and freeze it to use on Thursday. The good news is that the pumpkin was roasted, so it has more flavour. The bad news is that I forgot to halve the eggs when I halved everything else, shop at first the dough was much too wet (probably didn't help that I didn't really know what gnocchi dough should look and feel like). I ended up having to add the original, unhalved amount of flour to get the consistency right, so I've probably ended up with gnocchi that only slightly tastes of pumpkin. At least it's orange.

We used the rest of our roast pumpkin for a pumpkin, goat's cheese, and cranberry salad (you can use butternut squash if pumpkin is unavailable). Apart from the pie later this month, that's it for pumpkin season.

So why am I so obsessed with pumpkin? Because it's one of those ingredients we take for granted, but comes from Mexico. The earliest evidence of pumpkin cultivation comes from prehistoric Mexico, though it seems it was the seeds they were primarily interested in.

When the Spanish first arrived in Mexico, they wrote about a green sauce made of pumpkin seeds called pipián, an Aztec speciality. This sauce is still called pipián, and I made version of it earlier this year (with chicken) as filling for tamales, using a recipe from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. It's delicious, but very rich, even with the tomatillos to cut through it. Pumpkin, along with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chilies, chocolate, and vanilla, is one of the many ingredients the whole world takes for granted, but wouldn't be available without Central and South America, and the vast Empire that once ruled it. Oddly enough, another quintessential Mexican ingredient, cilantro (coriander) was introduced by the Spanish. Anyway, now I've got to source a can of cooked pumpkin for Thanksgiving, if the fucking Canadians haven't nicked it all.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Knives Out

One of the things I learned about on the road with the Spelling Bee (in my past working life) was Groupon, from which I recently purchased a set of Prestige kitchen knives. When I watch cooking shows, I love how the chefs chop things so effortlessly, and I have always wanted to see if I could do it as well.

After a three-week wait, the knives finally arrived yesterday. I haven't had an opportunity to try them out properly yet, though Alison reports they made light work of the orange bell peppers last night. The set includes a boning knife, so I may need to buy some kind of dead animal from a butcher soon.

Apart from the pumpkin risotto for Friday, that concludes this week's culinary experiments, so onto literary ones.

This protect represents a number of firsts for me. It's pretty much the first time I've written about someone other than myself (a few short stories aside). It's the first time I've done research for a work of fiction. And it's the first time I've kept a writing schedule.

When I was on high school and college I didn't need a schedule. I had loads of free time, energy, and ideas. Now I have none of those things, except the ideas. I have to write them down to avoid forgetting them all.

A schedule is one of the tips I got from the screenwriting books I read. When of read younger I rejected schedules. I wrote when inspiration hit, and you can't plan for that. But I have so little time now I have to manage it carefully or I'd never end up writing at all (something the past three years have illustrated clearly).

The thing is the schedule really works. I write before bed Sunday to Thursday for at least a half hour. Most nights I really wish I could put it off. I'm just not in the mood, too tired, whatever. But I force myself, and within a few minutes, the writing starts to get pretty good. I always end up feeling it was worth the effort.

The thing I'm working on now, I don't really have a name for. It's a kind of pre-writing (preparatory writing you do to flesh out plot, characters, etc, that will inform the story but not literally be part of it). It's too long to be a synopsis, but way too short to be a treatment. Basically it's a condensed version of the story so I can check to see if I have all the beats, plot points, character developments and such worked out before I start the actual writing. The last thing I want is to get a third of the way in and find I've literally lost the plot.

When this treatment-esque thing is finished, I plan to work out the three-act structure, the five plot points and eight sequences, just like I learned to do for screenplay. On addition, I want to do a complete chapter outline, firstly because I want every chapter to be named for an ingredient or dish that features prominently in the chapter, and also because I want every chapter to have a purpose. That's another thing I learned from screenwriting. When I tried to write my first book, I wrote when I was inspired and focused primarily on the writing style, never really giving a thought to how the chapter would fit in with the whole. The result read that a lot of chapters read beautifully but didn't go anywhere. In a screenplay, every scene has to have a purpose. There are several reasons for this. One is that most audiences won't sit through a scene where nothing happens. And script readers will bin the script anyway, so the film would never get made. Also, films are expensive to make so you can't afford to film dead air. Well, print is expensive too, and readers have a lot of other, more exciting options for their spare time, so are they really going to read a whole chapter if they're no further along at the end of it? Or will they put their Kindle down and play with their iPad 2? So in terms of progress, I'm nearing the end of Act 2. Of course, I still have to make up (and test) a lot of recipes. Next time: the results of my pumpkin risotto.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Jaws of Defeat

Following on from last weekend's triumph of Carrot and Star Anise soup from Tom Kitchin's book From Nature to Plate, I was anticipating another weekend of culinary success.

But I was mistaken.

The week started out promisingly enough, with leftover soup and roast chicken from last Sunday, reminding me how well we had cooked at the weekend and how much I had to look forward to.

The plan for Friday night was Smothered Poke (pork) Chops and Soul-Baked Macaroni from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. Ever since I had first read this book, I had wanted to cook the stodgy, soul-food macaroni recipe, not least because of the suggestion to chill some in the fridge, cut it into slices, dip it in egg and flour, and shallow-fry it the next day.

The poke chops were just the recipe the book suggested would go well with the macaroni.

So when we bought the seven tonnes of meat for £26 last week at Craigie Farm, I made sure the package included two pork chops.

Now, let me say I was a bit nervous about this recipe from the beginning. Firstly, though I joked about possibly having a heart attack from the high fat content, I was actually a little worried about it. I'm not used to eating food this...heavy. But more than that, I noticed the poke chops recipe was a little incomplete. The only listed ingredients were the chops themselves, and the components of the spice mixture (onion salt, salt, cayenne pepper, and mustard powder). The method part of the recipe, however, spoke of flour, (presumably) diced onions, and stock (probably chicken, but who knows). Clearly, these things had been left out of the ingredients by accident, so I had to guesstimate the amounts using previous experience.

I opted for 250 mL of stock, 125g of flour, and the equivalent of about half a diced onion (we've been using pre-chopped frozen onions since Abby was born, along with Very Lazy Garlic (pre-chopped and preserved in a jar), because having an under-5-year-old does not leave you lots of time for cooking).

Basically, I fell at the first hurdle. I had forgotten the chops were in the freezer, so they were still frozen solid when I got home on Friday evening. I did NOT want to defrost them in the microwave, as that would inevitably cook them a bit, and dry them out. (Microwaves function by heating the natural water content of food. The heated water in turn cooks the rest of the food product. The problem with this method is it tends to evaporate the water, leaving meat tough and dry.)

We solved this problem by putting the chops in a bath of room temperature tap water to defrost (Alison's idea). This worked so well that when I came down to the kitchen after putting Abby to bed, I found the chops cool and soft, with no trace of ice.

But it that wasn't the end of my problems. Usually when I cook at the weekend, we end up eating on "Spanish time", which basically means I serve dinner at 10 o'clock at night. This time I tried to avert this by making a tight schedule which would enable me to serve by 9 (I had tried to work out timings to serve by half 8, but it would have involved cooking during Abby's bath time).

My schedule required me to have the prep started by 7:45, but it was 7:55 by the time I left Abby's room. I raced downstairs thinking if I could start by 8:00 I would only be fifteen minutes behind schedule. But I was so flustered I made really stupid errors like hammering the chops with the handle of our wooden rolling pin without first covering them with clingfilm. I also forgot to turn the oven on. At one point I got so frustrated I actually threw a dish towel across the room, although the nadir was probably when I screamed so loud Alison came downstairs, thinking I had cut my finger off or something.

Though my schedule was quite a bit off by now, I did manage to get it together and get the macaroni cooked and in the oven, though I chose too small a bowl to beat the eggs and evaporated milk in, so I don't think they were fully combined in the end.

With the macaroni in the oven and the chops fried for 5 minutes on each side and in a baking dish, it was time to make the gravy. The first step was to add the mysterious flour to the oil and pork drippings and make a roux (my first ever roux, by the way). The recipe said to stir the flower constantly over a low heat for 10 minutes, then add the onions, then the stock, slowly, once the onions were soft. 10 minutes is a long wait, and as the flour got darker and darker, I really began to doubt this recipe, but I hung in there, because the authors spoke about a "creole roux" which is apparently much darker than a French roux.

I never made it the full ten minutes, because I started to smell burning. I went ahead and added the onions, but somehow that only increased the burning smell, probably because the water released from the onions loosened more burnt flour from the bottom of the pan.

When the onions were soft, I added the stock, slowly as directed. When there was enough "gravy", I tasted it with a spoon. It tasted of burnt salt. I asked Alison's opinion. She said she couldn't taste the burning so much as the salt, but we both agreed it was disgusting, so down the drain it went. Instead, I put a bit of sherry into the baking dish with the chops, to keep them moist, covered the dish in foil, and put them in the oven.

The rest of the timings worked out. Everything was finished at about the same time (even allowing the chops time to rest), and I managed not to overcook the brocoli which was using as our sole healthy component of the meal (I added habenero sauce to mine, but Alison ate hers as they come).

The final disappointment, though, was a macaroni. You'd think something with that much evaporated milk in it would taste decadent, but the 40 minute baking time prescribed by the recipe seemed to have robbed it of all moisture. Worse, it didn't even taste that cheesy.

The chops, however, were delicious: moist and tender and very savoury. We usually just put pork chops under a grill, and they always come out dry, but I'll definitely be using this method again (searing on a high heat, then finishing in the oven).

The next day was supposed to be smoother. The dish on the menu was  celeriac, turnip, and beetroot gratin, from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate. I was feeling confident because the carrot and star anise soup had turned out so beautifully. I was also very excited to be cooking with two ingredients I had never used before: celeriac and beetroot (beets to Americans).

On the BBC food website I learned that celeriac is in fact the root of the celery plant, and when I began peeling the celeriac, I was instantly struck by the strong smell of celery, though it looked like typical root veg flesh. The other surprise was that the beetroot didn't bleed as much as I had expected.

This is a really simple dish: simply slice the veg thinly (Tom recommends using a mandolin, but I don't have one; nevertheless I did get the slices much thinner and more uniform than I would have expected). Simmer some whipping cream with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Then butter a 20 cm baking dish, lay the veg out in layers, and cover with the cream. Then bake at 150 degrees (C) for an hour and a half.

The problem is I used way too much veg, so the cream I had couldn't cover it all. I also may have misunderstood what Tom meant by "cover generously". I thought he meant fill up the dish, but perhaps what he meant was just make sure the top layer was wet, so it wouldn't dry out. I was out of cream, so what I did was fill up the rest of the dish with full fat milk (seasoned like the cream).

Even after two hours' cooking, that liquid was never going to reduce, so instead of a gratin, I had some root veg slowly poaching in seasoned milk. Worse, because the milk and cream didn't mix, it looked like it had split (curdled to Americans).

The sauce was unusable, so I lifted the veg out with a slotted spoon and served it. The flavours were nice, but the texture was a bit soggy, except for the top layer.

In the end, the beetroot was my favourite. The turnip was far too watery, and the celeriac tasted like a slightly less sweet parsnip (parsnip being my favourite root vegetable).

So, though no victory to be snatched from this weekend's fiascos, at least I've learned some lessons. On the one hand, trust my instincts more. If I'd departed from the poke chops recipe and done what I thought was right, I may have ended up with a nice gravy. On the other hand, I should do more preparation. I had never worked with celeriac or beetroot, or made a gratin, so perhaps I needed a bit more than just the recipe to guide me. Then I could have estimated how much veg to prep, or how much cream to use. (It also wouldn't have hurt to have added a little cornflour to the milk, to keep the consistency thick).

This has not, however, put me off either of the books. I still have many more dishes from Two Cooks to make, and next weekend I'm attempting the pumpkin risotto from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate.

And on the plus side, I learned that I know how to make an omlette!


I have crazy idea: to write a book -- a novel, though I hate that word -- about a Mexican chef.
It's crazy because I'm not a chef and I'm not Mexican*.
This idea started when I first moved to Edinburgh ten years ago. I found that, contrary to my expectations, Mexican food was available (there was once even a Mexican restaurant across the street from my flat). But it was very different from the cuisine I grew up with in Southern California.
I had always thought of burritos as the prime Mexican dish, but in Britain they are rarely on the menu. Instead, the country is obsessed with fajitas, which I don't remember eating until I was a teenager.
My first thought was "This is not real Mexican food." Then, of course, I realized the food we eat in SoCal may not be authentic either.
Not long after that I discovered a brilliant Mexican deli at Tollcross called Lupe Pintos. They seem to have everything, including homemade tortillas (both corn and flour). I stocked up with provisions and started making my own Mexican food.
Alison, my wife, became very fond of burritos; however as that was all I ever made, it did get to be a bit same-y. I started wondering what else I could cook. Lupe Pintos have their own cookbook, called Two Cooks and a Suitcase (actually I believe they have more than one now). So one year for my birthday, Alison got me the book, and I began broadening my culinary horizons.
They idea for the novel, though came much more recently.
Last summer I was sitting in the Ivory and Willow in Corstorphine with Alison and our daugher Abby. I noticed they had nachos on the menu. A lot of British cafes and pubs serve nachos now (of greatly varying quality). I guess it's an easy dish to make, especially if you don't make your own tortilla chips, and it doesn't require any fancy presentation.
I started thinking about how most Mexican food in Britain is still pretty humble, and not very authentic. And basically, I came up with the plot -- about Mexican chef who seeks to elevate his national cuisine to Michelin-star quality -- by the time we finished our lunch.
But as I said, I'm not a chef, and I'm not Mexican. All my previous writing had been about me, more or less, but this project would require serious research.
So that's what this journey is about: learning how to cook real Mexican food and learning how to elevate it to fine dining. Along the way I'll report on how the book is going and any other culinary experimentations I attempt.
*Actually I do have some Mexican ancestry, but no more than many other Americans from the southwest are likely to have