Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Thai

“TO ACCUSE us of racism is outrageous,” declared councillor Filippo Candelise. “All we are doing is protecting the culinary patrimony of the town.” Mr Candelise is a councillor in the Tuscan town of Lucca, which early in 2009 became the epicentre of a small gastronomic earthquake when it declared a ban on new ethnic food outlets opening within its ancient city walls. As reported in the Sunday Times, this was the head-above-the-parapet moment for a growing movement within Italy to resist the increasing influence of global immigration on its most sacred institution, the kitchen. According to the newspaper this comes from the very top, “backed by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi” and underpinned by the rather further-right North-South separatist party Lega Nord. This latter supplies the then Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, who is reported as declaring that he had never consumed a kebab. “I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto,” he spits. “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”

Our Northern champion tragically ignores the glaring fact that the Italian cuisine so under threat is an ever-evolving thing of beauty, adorned with exotic foodstuffs brought here over milennia, by adventurers, conquerers, traders and immigrants of every hue. Once sown in Latin soil these somehow become Italian products, and with such profusion of wonderful home-grown ingredients who indeed would need to look beyond this nation’s 9226km of coast for inspiration?

Me, that’s who. The brilliant autumn sunshine has recently been elbowed rudely aside by strong northerly winds and squally rain. It is hardly October UK-style, but I felt cold and miserable, suffused with the kind of heaviness best blown away by a good, warm Thai curry. Thanks to a recent UK visit there were pots of green and red curry paste in the fridge, while a recent forage round a budget German supermarket yielded a good supply of creamed coconut. None of these can be found in my local shops, because they are simply not Italian. There are of course Thais in Italy, and people originating from many other parts of what used to be called quaintly ‘the Orient’. These enterprising souls open food shops to deal with the local lack of what they deem essentials. They do have an annoying tendency to stick to large cities though, and my food hunting has yet to turn up a supply near to home.

I was faced with two choices: put up or shut up. Italy itself hardly lacks for ‘native’ warm, spiced comfort food. Its 1185km length puts its toes in Africa and its hoary head in Alpine territory, and this has a direct impact on cuisine. But the embers of obsession were swiftly being fanned into a raging inferno, the kind that only a Massaman curry would quench. This is a good candidate for Thai pretenders, being a bit of a mongrel. It hails from the southern end of Thailand but draws on influences brought to the region by traders from India and the Middle East. Bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg are cumin are all things found on my spice shelf, thanks to the excellent Asian-run shops in the UK. I got them out, along with a couple of onions, some garlic and some pickled sushi ginger which I thought would substitute for the fresh root variety.

What lovers of Thai cuisine are drawn to is its mingling of heat, sweet and sour, notes given depth by the richness of coconut yet sharp enough not to come over all lardy and indistinct. This balance of opposites is the secret of its global success. Thai cooks achieve the collection of flavour by a combination of fast cooking and careful, if unsubtle preparation. It is not uncommon for me to visit my friends Andy and Kannika at their UK home, finding the latter and Thai half of the couple sat on the kitchen floor, bashing ingredients into submission with a massive pestle and huge stone mortar. Apparently known as a kruk, this combination is a key part of the Thai kitchen and was imported by Kannika with catastrophic consequences for her baggage allowance. Scents of chilli, lemongrass, ginger and – sometimes but not always – garlic, float around the room, transporting it briefly to a patch of cleared jungle somewhere near the Thai border with Cambodia. Fortunately I once stayed for several months with this couple. I learned much, and every bit of the resource would be deployed now as I improvised. In painting terms I was aiming for impressionism rather than realism, but there lurked the ever-present danger of the whole enterprise taking a turn for the cubist.

This being a cold-weather dish, I sliced potatoes and set them to par-boil. Starch was called for. Then I set up my kruk. I haven’t got one of these stone-age marvels yet, so I settled for second-best and plugged in a liquidizer. The onions, garlic, sushi ginger, dried red Italian chilli (plus some of Kannika’s mother’s home-grown version for good luck) were reduced to a paste in short order. Normally I would add some Thai fish sauce, but one of the evening’s diners was to be a fish-hating vegetarian. So instead I added some vegetable stock. In a moment of inspiration, after wondering what to do about the sullen lump of grease that a block of coconut cream presents as, I threw that into the liquidiser, too. I also grated a lemon in, then added the juice. I didn’t have that delicate beauty lemongrass to hand, so this would have to do.

Actually making the curry from this point on was child’s play. I stir-fried finely-sliced bell peppers, carrot and green beans for a short while, then tipped in the curryish gloop from the electric kruk. The potatoes followed, with the assortment of sub-continental spices listed before. Once the vegetables were soft, my Massaman was ready to eat. Rice made an ideal accompaniment, steamed with some caraway seed to give it an aniseed tone.

In a land far, far away, a person sat on their kitchen floor. As monkeys screamed in tall trees outside they worked spices into a paste with hard wood on stone. They created something beautiful and literally reeking of authenticity, which was both nourishing and a huge pleasure to eat. In an Italian kitchen recently several people gathered to enjoy a translation of this, a warm, complex dish which brought cheer despite the downturn in the weather. Culinary patrimony remained outside in the cold.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I had a little nut tree

WALNUTS LOOK like rotting crab apples. Or at least, ours do. For this reason and because of a mental image of huge, spreading branches and elephant-hide bark, we had no idea that the little tree along the garden fence line was Juglans regia, as those of a horticultural persuasion might greet it.

Thinking back to long car journeys up Interstate 5 in California however and I recall acre upon acre of 15-foot-high trees around the Bakersfield area, which locals identified as walnuts. No massive spreading branches there, but the region produces nearly all the walnuts sold in the USA and a good proportion of the world export market.

Our corner of the Le Marche landscape is far from going head to head with central California, but the tree did produce half a bucket of walnuts. The nut itself has a fleshy outer cover, which had blackened and cracked. Within this is the shell, which must be cracked to reveal the flesh within. In truth, some of our crop was a tad past it, but we managed to end up with a reasonable mound of brain-like nuts on the kitchen worktop. At this point all we had to do was come up with something to do with the damn things.

Procrastination is always a good idea, so I fired up a popular Internet search engine and keyed in “preserving walnuts”. You can do all sorts of things to this nut, including freezing, drying it and pickling it in spiced white vinegar. None of these appealed particularly, sounding either bland, weird or plain unpleasant. Then a vague and distant memory surfaced, of somebody many years ago telling of the pleasure to be found from walnuts preserved in honey. The Internet backed this up, in terms so glowing my mouth began to water. This would be, I reflected, the perfect local treat to set before my parents should they venture over here at Christmas.

Of course, yuletide is a few months off, while lunch should by rights be but minutes away. It was no good – some of the crop would have to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate gratification. I selected about eight nuts as victims and squirreled the rest away.  Quite what to do next, I had no real idea. I keyed the search engine once more, this time pulling out the nutritional virtues of walnut. It’s a bit of a powerhouse, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B1, 2, 3 and 6, the antioxidant ellagic acid and minerals such as manganese, copper, magnesium and phosphorous. You could weigh walnuts in for money at a scrapyard. You’d be better to eat them however, as it seems they are low in cholesterol, good for cardiovascular function and can help control fluctuations in blood sugar.

All this gave me plenty of leeway, so I pulled a mixture of vice and virtue from the fridge. On a plate went a healthy slew of sliced beetroot, balanced by a large bunch of rocket (iron, yet more metals, lots of antioxidant caratenoids, dietary fibre, vitamin C). Warm, sliced potatoes would accompany this nicely, I reckoned. Especially after boiling, frying up in olive oil and passing through the oven coated in salt, Parmesan and the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes (dietary starch, lard). The unhealthy slacker team still needed bolstering, so once the skillet was empty of spuds it received more olive oil. In this I soft-fried onion and thin slices of red pepper. I turned up the heat for a while and threw in balsamic vinegar (antioxidants, apparently), to boil quickly and sweeten the vegetables.

Because it was there, I added a little Hendersons Relish to this. There is an awful lot of hot air blown forth, especially in its home city of Sheffield (UK), about the unassailable superiority of this spicy sauce. Steel City bigots take note: Hendo’s is neither better nor worse than its rival Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It’s just a little different – a little heavier and less spicy, to be precise. As I grew up in Worcestershire and then transferred to Sheffield for quite some time, I have both on the shelf. I used the northern relish today because it was nearer to me on the shelf.

Besides, I was too busy considering what music to play as I cooked. Low-fi and laid-back would suit the mood, I decided, firing up the excellent It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water by The Microphones (K Records, Washington DC, USA). Perfect.

The balsamic and relish left a little moisture, so I threw in just a spoonful of tomato passata to enrich things. Then I cut the rind from a tag end of a sweet Gorgonzola that’s plentifully available here (sodium, protein, more lard) to leave the tangy inner. Any soft blue cheese would do just fine. It melted into the pan to turn the pepper and onion into a luscious, creamy sauce which I added chopped walnuts to, then lobbed onto the plate between the saladstuffs to remind them not to be so smug.

All in all this was an excellent lunch and a fine way to begin a tour of ways to enjoy walnuts. Once the shops open late this afternoon I shall take a much-needed constitutional in the direction of the supermarket, and buy a few jars of honey.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wild Fig Hunt

THIS IS a year of discoveries in Italy, and one of my most recent is the local superabundance of the fig. Ficus, cursory research tells me, is a genus of trees and shrubs with a good 850 species within it. What is of interest to me here is the common fig. With its distinctive big, waxy leaves and stems, it is a common sight in southern and central Italy. The fruit turns up in the UK in grocery shops, especially those run by people with their roots in sunnier latitudes.

These canny shopkeepers have a point. Dried figs may look as though they once hung from miniature billy goats, but their interior is a delight. Lots of seeds are surrounded by an amazing, sweet-and-sour flesh. Removing the moisture from the fruit only concentrates the flavours and sugars. We all should want, as the Christmas carol reminds us, some figgy pudding.

In my Internet quest for pub quiz fodder I discover that the fig is actually a multitude of inverted flower heads, each creating a seed in the damp darkness of the fruit. Far from the show and tell of normal fruit trees in flower, the ficus relies on the stealthy burrowings of egg-laden wasps to pollinate it. This seems to explain the extraordinary short life of fruit on the tree. Our garden contains several figs and I was dismayed by the narrow gap between nice, soft fruit and flabby, rotten, downward-falling one.

Figgy pudding was never my goal. Rather I had my sights set on that elusive delicacy, the fig roll. For some reason this peculiarly appetising biscuit is unavailable in Italy through regular shops. We can find a slightly odd French version for €2.50 a packet, in motorway service stations. Surrounded by fecund figs, I fancied making my own.

The Internet yielded a couple of promising-seeming recepies for fig paste, and feeling terribly scientific I decided to try them both. Having beaten the wasps to a bucket full of figs I divided my spoils into two piles and set to. Method one involved gently heating lemon juice, figs, sugar and cinnamon, until the resulting gloop becomes glazed. Alas, the only thing that glazed was my eyes, as fig soup bubbled discretely away for what seemed like hours. Only then did I notice that this recipe specifies dried figs as a starting point. Damn. A couple of fruitier expletives later I popped to the shop to buy vast quantities of sugar, turned up the heat and added some apple. The resulting jam is lovely.

Method number two was much more successful. For one thing it sounded exciting – ‘pecorino Toscano stagionato with fig paste’ sounds almost like a poem. I have one Rick Tramonto to thank for it, and a reference to it and his surely excellent book, Osteria. Pecorino could be set aside however – it was Rick’s spiced fig paste that I craved. Creation of it was utter simplicity. The figs are baked for a while until “dried and shrunk by about a quarter”. For my version, read: “shrunk and a smidge cremated due to the completely unregulated furnace that is our ancient, rescued-from-the-scrapman Smeg cooker”. A cup of port is boiled with rosemary to kill off the alcohol, reduce and season, then added to the baked figs, anointed with olive oil, salt, pepper and orange zest. A food processor reduces the lot to paste in short order. My version employed red wine and balsamic vinegar in the absence of port, plus a bit of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg to add Eastern mystique. A hand-held blender did the pasting perfectly well.

Rick advises rolling the paste into parchment paper and refrigerating, so I stuffed the lot into a clean jar. It comes out occasionally to accompany cheese, to be spread on toast or to be used like a pickle alongside savoury dishes. I haven’t quite got round to making fig rolls yet, because a friend derailed the express train of ficusian zeal by bringing a dozen packets back from the UK very recently. However, figs seem to fruit for ages and another crop is teetering on the branches, about to be nabbed by hymenoptera. I’m on a roll, and could be about to make one.