Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paste of Success

THE MOTHER of invention has several names. Some identify her as necessity, others war. I have just added another moniker to her list – stupidity, or more specifically, forgetfulness.

My wife wanted to make a tarte Tatin, the wonderful upside-down fruit pie so justifiably a staple French dessert. Happy to speed the arrival of what would be a lunchtime treat, I trundled down to the corner shop to buy the butter it demanded. While there I spotted a pack of pork liver paté, reduced in price to just 60 pence.

I adore meat paté. It has everything on its side, being portable, spreadable and usually tasty. It’s a fantastic core element in sandwich-making, but is equally good at packing flavour and texture into a meat sauce, casserole or stew. If you throw some into the soffrito stage and heat it gently along with whatever combination of onions, carrot and celery your vegetable drawer throws up, the paté will render down into nothing but richness and underlying flavour. Finely-diced chorizo and salami has a similar effect, by the way.

The redoubtable Elizabeth David writes rather sniffily back in 1960 that “with the excepton of the incomparable pâté de foie gras, bought pâtés in England are seldom very satisfactory, and it is not difficult to make your own”. Indeed it isn’t, and I predict further publication on this matter very soon, pending some experiments to be carried out in conjunction with my ex-butcher-and-obsessive-cook mate Lee. But in the half century since David compiled the first edition of her seminal French Provincial Cooking there has been a bought paté revolution in the UK. Both delicatessens and supermarkets have brought us an array of mass-produced-but-delicious patés and terrines, which for me have firmly laid the ghost of the borderline-revolting ‘sandwich spread’ that for a while (during the early 1980s, I think) featured in my school-years packed lunches. You can even find decent, basic pork liver paté on offer in Sheffield corner shops. For 60 pence.

My surprise bonus lunch, however, threw up two issues as I trudged the snowy length of my street. Pretty quickly I realised that what was really required in wintry weather was something warm to eat. I was almost home when I also recalled that we were out of bread, which really is far and away the best stodge I have ever paired with paté. I had two choices: ditch the whole idea and put some leftovers in the microwave or think on my feet. Situational analysis, a military type might call it. There is a saying in our household inspired by Jack Reacher, the leading character in author Lee Child’s excellent range of thrillers. A former military investigator turned drifter, Reacher finds himself in situations that require accurate assessment of situations, and swift action. Usually involving the demise of a character on the wrong side of his faultless moral compass. “What would Jack do?” we ask ourselves when something arises that requires us to act.

My survey threw up several key factors: the shop was a long way away (I’m not turning all fat and lazy – it is a distinctly long street); it was cold; my wife was about to fire up the oven to create her tarte tatin; I might have lacked actual bread at home, but I did have flour, bicarbonate of soda and yoghurt. The plan dictated by these was simple but beautifully efficient: wait for her pie to cook, use the hot oven to bake a loaf of soda bread, and while that heated through, invent a way to serve a large slice of smooth pork liver paté piping hot. Chuck the whole lot on the table with a pot of fresh tea, and gorge. Mrs White and I could be in lunchtime Nirvana within the hour.

Soda bread is a lazy or disorganized cook’s very best friend. Done right, it has lovely flavour and texture, is best eaten straight from the oven, and can be brought together within half an hour. It involves no leavening, so one needs not engage in the faff of raising, knocking back and general loafing around while yeasts have sugar-fuelled orgies of not-quite sex. I have for years used the no-nonsense recipe given in Delia Smith’s Cookery Course for sour cream soda bread, adapted to use live yoghurt instead of soured cream because that’s what we generally have a pot of malingering on a fridge shelf. Reaching for it, I realised with horror that this was the one cookbook I left in our old kitchen in Italy, when we returned recently to make Sheffield our main home. What would Jack do? Assess. And recall that thankfully my friend Simon gave me Delia’s recessionary cash-in of a recompilation, Frugal Food, a couple of Christmases ago. Such a book would surely contain a soda bread recipe.

As it turned out it features one better than the original. Acceding to the request of my friend and regular reader Duncan, I will from today include recipes in this blog. Listed below is my adaption of Delia’s fine work. Reading through it, I became a little worried that there was nothing biological in it to help the bicarbonate of soda create air bubbles. So I substituted yoghurt, water and a dash of full-fat milk for the semi-skimmed milk Ms Smith stipulates. She also called for a little cream of tartar to be added, but I had none. So I added a little olive oil and extra salt for flavour instead.

Creating the loaf couldn’t be easier: simply throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, mix it into a dough, knead it for a short while and shape it into a flat, rounded form of your choosing. I favour a circle for use at table, but you can do what you like. Years ago I worked in an Italian restaurant where the chef would cook bread in the shape of male genitalia, to amuse lady customers on their birthdays. Once placed on a baking sheet, there are a few formalities required. It isn’t strictly necessary, but I like a loaf to have a little colour. So I put a little milk in the now-empty yoghurt container and mixed it with any remaining yoghurt using a brush. I painted the top of the loaf with this ad-hoc glaze. I happened to have both black and white sesame seeds in stock, so I sprinkled some over the loaf. You can use sesame, sunflower, hemp, pumpkin or pretty much any seeds to top a loaf, if you like. Then I cut the top with a sharp knife. This lets heat into the centre while baking, but can also prove functional once baking is complete. I wanted to plop the loaf onto the table, tear off chunks of it and spread them with paté. So I cut halfway through the loaf in a close grid pattern. After ten minutes or so the loaf was risen enough to open out these cuts. Half an hour of baking later, it was ready.

During that half hour I thought fast. My paté was made of pork, so the obvious accompaniment would be an apple flavour. Thankfully I had a bottle of cider brandy lurking on the kitchen top. I resolved to sear the paté in a little very hot fat, then pour on some brandy. The alcohol would evaporate rapidly, leaving a lingering cidery, brandyish aroma to complement the meat. At least, it would had not some unnamed, accursed drunkard drained the bottle previously. Assessment time again. Jack, I decided, would check the larder, which in a Sheffield terraced house is known as the ‘cellar head’ – the shelves at the top of the basement steps. A swift reconnaissance of this yielded some cherry vodka I made last year. I swept the fruit bowl and discovered an orange. Working on the logic that it gets very hot and so makes great roast potatoes, I heated goose fat in a thick-bottomed frying pan. I added a little vegetable oil too, in case my logic proved flawed. The paté would have to cook fast, and without sticking to the bottom, for this to work. Once the fat began to smoke I turned the block of paté into the pan and seared it on both sides, keeping it moving. Then I squeezed orange juice on and around it, followed by a decent amount of cherry vodka. The result was wonderful – a nicely-browned piece of paté, and a deep-fruity reduction with a bit of bite. I guess a chef might call this a jus, but I feel more comfortable with the term sauce, for such a quotidian dish.

Tea was poured, bread was pulled from the oven and the table set. We simply yanked lumps of it from the loaf, spread them with paté, swept them through the sauce and consumed. The combination of savoury meat flavour, fruit sweetness, warmth, melt-in-mouth texture and sturdy soda bread was fantastic – real winter food. And by the time we had finished the tarte tatin was at a perfect temperature for devouring. It’s a dish that needs to cool for a little before being attacked, to avoid sustaining oral burns from red-hot caramelised sugar. By chance, we had happened upon a wonderful combination for a two-course meal, so I shall include a recipe below. There are many versions of this, but the one we use is to be found in the exquisite France, the beautiful cookbook, published by Merehurst Press in 1989.

Seared paté

    Pork liver paté, sliced into portions or just straight from the pack
    4 tablespoons cherry vodka (damson vodka or sloe gin would possibly work well, too)
    Juice of one orange
    About a dessert spoon of goose fat, and/or vegetable oil

Heat the fat and/or oil until smoking slightly in a thick-bottomed skillet or frying pan. Place the block of paté in as gently as possible to avoid setting the fat off spitting. Sear quickly on both sides, then allow to heat most of the way through, which should take about three minutes. The outside should brown, and the paté change colour. When there is a line of pink left in the centre, pour the orange juice and cherry vodka over the paté. Cook both sides to let some of the flavour seep in. Turn off the heat before the sugars in the liqueur start to burn. Turn onto a plate and serve.

Irish soda bread

    225g/8oz wholemeal flour
    225g/8oz plain flour
    1 tsp salt
    1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
    1 tsp sugar
    50g/2oz butter
    275ml/½pint live yoghurt mixed with water, slightly more water than yoghurt
    A dash of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/gas mark 5. Sift the flours, salt, bicarbonate of soda and sugar into a large bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until thoroughly blended. Mix in the olive oil. Gradually mix in the milk, first with a spoon and then with your hands, to make a soft dough. Knead this for a minute or two, either in the bowl or on a flour-dusted surface. Shape it neatly into a shape of your choice. Place on a greased or floured baking sheet or wide, flat tin. Glaze with milk or yoghurt if you fancy and sprinkle on some seeds if you fancy. Score the top of the loaf in a pattern that suits your purposes, then leave the loaf to rise a little for 10 minutes. Place in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Serve as soon as it is cool enough to eat. Soda bread rarely keeps long, but to give it a fighting chance store it wrapped in tinfoil. If you have any left, that is.

Tarte Tatin

    90g/3oz butter
    90g/3oz sugar
    1.5kg/3lb apples. Eating apples give a better flavour.
    Block of puff pastry. You could bother making your own, but the bought stuff is just fine

Preheat the oven to 215˚C/425˚F. Grease a skillet, if you have one, or a round cake tin if not, with ⅔ of the butter, then sprinkle over ⅔ of the sugar. Core and peel the apples, then cut in two. Set the halves upright, tightly-packed in the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar and butter (cut into small pieces). Place the pan over medium heat and cook for 20 minutes or so, or until a light caramel forms on the bottom.

Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for five minutes in order to cook the top of the apples. Then remove from the oven. Roll out the pastry dough and place it on top of the pan. Run the rolling pin round the pan rim to remove any overmatter. The dough will drop onto the tops of the apples. Return to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned. Remove from the oven. Place a plate on top of the pan and press it there. Gently tip the pan to pour any excessive juice into a mug or bowl. Then turn the whole lot over. The tarte should drop obediently onto the plate. If any fruit sticks to the pan, don’t panic. Just work it free and put it into place on the pie. If any juice did come out before, pour it onto the top of the tarte. Let it cool for a short while. Serve hot or cold, on its own or with cream.

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