Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What's in the box

Well guess what I did tonight...

Yes I unpacked the big box and put it together. Now Weber boast about stopwatch engineering, it claims 40 minutes. Now I am normally pretty quick at putting things together, but it took more than an hour. There was a lot in that big box.

Unfortunately there were a few missing parts. There are no doors, and the little red button for the ignition is missing.

Other than that I am a happy man, but am a little sad about the incomplete state of my new toy.

That's a big box

Monday, June 26, 2006

Blackened Catfish

A problem that faces many foreign cooks when overseas, is the names for ingredients. It is pretty easy to figure out that Eggplant and Aubergine is the same thing, and that Zucchini and Courgette have the same roots, but how well do you know your fish? Even if you recognize them by their eyes and scales, can you recognize any fillet except salmon on a market stall? I know I struggle. The Albert Cuypstraat market in Amsterdam boasts such beasts as tonijn(tuna), zeeduivel(monkfish) and zeebrasem(sea bream). Others are easier to guess like makreel(mackerel), zeebaars(sea bass) , and heek (hake). One that has stumped me for a few years is meerval. Meerval is the catfish, something I must say I have never cooked before living in Holland.

For more information on fish names click here.

To me, catfish is a Creole/Cajun thing, it should be blackened, and spicy. The first time I heard of Creole, was when my friend Jeff told me about Tony Chachere's seasoning. He didn't use it in food, but kept it in his fishing box in case he was stung by a jellyfish. Now, I can find no reference to this on the web, but by all accounts meat tenderizer is a good solution for the gelatinous monsters, and it shares some ingredients with Tony's. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt Jeff.

So tonight is catfish night, and instead of using Tony’s, I thought I would start from scratch. Of course the web has plenty to offer for catfish recipes, but most were American and contained things like onion powder, garlic powder, and lemon pepper (none of which are readily available in Amsterdam).

Using the following created a spicy wow dish:

  • 1 x clove of garlic

  • 1 x dried chilli

  • 1 x tablespoon of fresh thyme

  • 10 leaves of fresh basil

  • Some sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper

  • 1 x teaspoon of paprika

  • 1 x teaspoon of cayenne

  • Grind it together and rub it all over the fish, and cook on a high heat for 3 minutes each side

Be prepared to smoke the house out, and serve with really cold beer, a green salad and a slice of lemon, Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Pan fried Sea Bass on a bed of spicy steamed fennel

Something light for dinner after England’s 1-0 win over Ecuador. A fresh light sea fish with a delicate vegetable, steamed over a broth of sweet vermouth.

Not sure how to approach this idea, I decided to pan fry the bass in olive oil to give it a crispy skin and serve it on the steamed fennel instead of steaming it all together. An idea spawned from the Great British Menu was to cook the fish skin side down until the top side started to turn opaque, and then remove it from the heat to rest. This worked really well, one of the nicest pieces of home cooked Bass I have tasted.

Removing the seeds from a red chili and finely slicing its flesh added a needed splash of color, and a fresh bite to the steamed fennel. Adding sweet vermouth to the broth also sweetened the fennel adding to its aromatic flavor.

I tried making a lemon sauce for this dish, but it really didn’t go, so it was left out. Something like a sweet chili sauce would be much better, but it was fresh and tasty with just a drizzle of sesame oil.

Tarte Tatin

About ten years ago I worked as a waiter in a French bistro style restaurant Pierre Victoire. The best desert on the menu was the Tart Tatin, and was one of the few dished I ever helped prepare in the kitchen. Until this week, I have never tried to replicate the dish (I have tried twice this week). Whilst they were both tasty, neither was really up to par. Perhaps it was the frozen pastry, and the apples could have been more caramelized.

A recipe will follow when the perfect tart has been produced . Wish me luck... I think I will have to try making my own pastry.

A plan for Sunday

Well the new grill has not arrived yet, so with no new toys to play with, I am trying something new. I made a grocery list, and a plan for some dishes to make this week. I have not got as far as actually finding recipes, but the main ingredients are in the house, so this week you can look forward to:
  • Steamed Sea Bass on a bed of spicy fennel, served with organic new potatoes (read more)
  • Asian smoked fillet of salmon, with a sweet sauce of ginger, coriander leaves and chili and watercress salad.
  • Blackened Cajun Catfish on bed of jasmin rice, served with fresh green tomato salsa.
  • Tart Tatin, served with organic vanilla ice cream and fresh cherries (read more)
  • Chicken Piri Piri witch a rucola salad and barbecued vegetables
  • Garlic and herb Lamb cutlets, with minted carrots and a sweet potato mash
Off to experiment with Tart Tatin.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The art of marinate

My friend Anders has always told me that the only time it was worth adding flavors to meat for the grill was when it was actually cooking. Now Anders is my inspiration for barbeque cooking, so I have believed him for many years, and I think I agree. Most flavors from a marinate don’t really sink into the food, and often burn off with the cooking.

But recently I have tried buying some pre-marinated dishes from my local Albert Hein and they have mostly been packed with flavor. The best two are the Chicken Piri Piri and the Chicken with Thyme and Lemon. Neither of them tastes great if cooked in the oven, but on the grill they really come alive. Perhaps it is time to try making a Piri Piri sauce from scratch.

Harvest time

My mother loves fresh strawberries on her muesli for breakfast. Lucky for her she is blessed with one of the best suburban strawberry patches I know. Yesterday's harvest was the same as the day before, and I have been assured that they are lovely and sweet.

Presented here in our friend Rogers hand made wicker basket they look great. I wish I could pop round for breakfast Mum... Thanks for the pictures.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Not mushroom on the grill

In my article about buying a new grill, I mentioned that my grill was too small. Part of that reason was due to cooking more than the meat element. Most of my friends are also a barbecue enthusiasts’ nightmare, they are vegetarians. Rather than excluding the veggie eaters from the party, I see this as a challenge, and it’s one of the reasons I have invested so much time into the vegetable barbecue.

On Monday night, unquestionably the star feature of the main course what the grilled Portobello mushroom with blue cheese. Two of my guests won’t eat cheese, and it works equally well without the cheese. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures, so I made them again with a goal of taking some photos.

The dish is a very suitable starter or side dish, but equally a really large (or two smaller Portobellos) could be presented as a main course. Wash the outside of the mushroom, being careful not to get the gills too soggy, and place the mushroom cup side up on a plate. Sprinkle it with some olive oil, salt and pepper and drop a few knobs of butter on the top. Today I topped it with a few blobs of Brie and a sprinkle of fresh thyme instead of the butter. Other alternatives could be blue cheese or finely chopped garlic and other herbs.

For best effect these are cooked very slowly, away from the direct heat. This allows the juices of the mushroom to slowly come out and make it really soft. I normally put them on the top shelf of my grill before I put the meat on and cook them for about 40 minutes. They also work just fine in the oven (about 180 degrees C for 25 minutes). They can be a bit greasy, and if you use cheese they can be very rich, so I tend to serve them with a strong tasting salad of something like rucola or watercress. I hope they bring you as much joy as they have my guests.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

How many grills can one man have?

Some people have a barbeque for special occasions, for others it is a way of life. I fall into the later category; it must be something in my South African blood. It surprises many people when I invite them for a BBQ at my gardenless house in Amsterdam. “Where?” they always say. Well that answer depends on the day in question. If the weather is good, the answer is always “On the roof terrace” which is where we had our company dinner on Monday. If it is raining, the answer is “On my balcony”. It know it sounds decadent, but I have 2 gas grills. I used to have a charcoal grill too, but the neighbors called the fire brigade to often thinking the whole place was on fire. So now I only have 2 grills, one for fair weather, and one basically for cooking fish outside so as not to stink up the house.

Now I like to have a good dinner party, and the barbecue is my preferred method of cooking for guests. Why? Well it must be the most social form of food preparation. How often have you seen a bunch of guys standing around the stove asking “Ooooh, how do you get your béchamel sauce so creamy and full of flavor”. Plus it involves so little preparation. The problem with my grill is that it is too small to cook for more than 4 people. If I just cooked the meat on the grill I would survive, but to me the best grilled meals have everything cooked on the fire. That means the bread, the starter, the vegetables, and even the desert if possible. My terrace grill is about 50 cm x 50cm, and is a western plate. I really bought it so I could cook bacon and eggs for weekend breakfasts. The balcony grill is about half that size, but has a top shelf and a lid. All too often I have to call them both into action, which means running up and down the stairs which kind of destroys the social aspect of the BBQ.

They both have their pros and cons. The balcony grill with its lid, is great for roasting stuff, and is better in winter as the food does not get cold as quickly. I can use it to make a beer can chicken, and it does a good job of smoking a piece of fish. The terrace grill has a griddle on one side, and is good for bacon, vegetables and even fried eggs, but it could never be the only grill in the house due to the lack of lid.

The grills were cheap, and one is 5 years old, the other 3. The glass on the balcony grill shattered, (I am not sure of the point of the glass anyway, as it went black in a week, and I have never been able to see through it), and has been replaced with some wood and aluminum foil which is starting to present itself as a serious fire hazard. The terrace grill is useable, but the lava rocks are really greasy, and it has lots of cold spots due to the uneven flames.

So I decided to reduce the number of grills in the house. I am about to become a “one grill” man, but that means getting a new one which will serve the purpose of the current two. I have decided to put one on the roof terrace. It won’t be great in the rain, but I have been known to grill outside in the snow. So I have spent the last 3 months trying to choose a grill. In truth I chose my grill on the first day, it just took a long time and two attempts to actually buy it.

But what makes the perfect grill? I guess I had a feature list, it must have: A smoker box, a side burner (for cooking in a pan), storage underneath, enough space on the grill to cook for 8 or 10, a warming shelf, durable grates, and no flare inducing lava rocks, and finally be able to survive outside all year round.

So down to the choices, fist the brand. After research it really had to be a Weber, it seems they really do make the best grills, and they back that with a 5 year (lifetime on some parts) guarantee. The range was limited to those with a side burner, and I am a sucker for stainless steel, so I was immediately drawn to the Genesis Platinum C grill. I ordered one on Saturday, with a Steam & Chips smoker kit. I got home and I was thrilled.

Now for the problem, on Monday I had 4 guests for dinner, and my current (terrace) grill was just too small. I started to compare the specs, and I figured there was only 30% more grilling space on the Genesis, and it would never serve a part of 8. Today I upgraded, and went the whole hog (an the new beast really will grill a small pig). This won’t surprise my friends who know I never do things by halves. I chose the big Weber grill, with a built in smoker and rotisserie. It has solid stainless steel grates, 6 burners plus a smoker burner and an infrared burner. Wow, is all I can say. I have wanted it for almost a year, and today I finally order it instead of the Genesis from barbequeshop.nl. My Weber Summit Platinum D6 should arrive tomorrow. Anyone in Amsterdam who wants one of my crappy old BBQ’s just let me know. May the grilling commence!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The breakfast club

Each lunch here in The Netherlands pretty much consists of a sandwich. Now I have lived in the US for a while, and in America “sandwich” means choosing a bread (and a sub-type of bread, and which kind of seed is on the bread), a spread, a cheese, a green, a dressing and a whole lot of other personalization’s. To be honest it was really daunting and I always order the special, which was typically a Reuben.

Then I moved to Norway, where lunch was provided by my employer, but you had to pay income tax on the lunch if you had more than two toppings on your bread (that may not be true, but it sums up my lunches in Oslo, bread, butter and really brown cheese). Yes, butter plus brown cheese makes 2 toppings!

Here in Holland, we don't pay a "topping tax", but we pretty much only eat bread and cheese. Occasionally Pindakaas (Literally Peanut Cheese… gross!…, but actually normal peanut butter)is on the menu. If you are really on a roll, you can have bread with chocolate sprinkles. None of these options seem like a traditional sandwich to me, so what is the perfect sandwich? To me there are three classics which have survived the test of time, the Tuna Melt, the BLT, and the Club

Now I love the BLT, but I also love the towering structure of the Club. Then I look at the ingredients for a classic club sandwich, and it really is a BLT with an extra slice of toasted bread and a bit of turkey.

My step-son was very disturbed by the introduction of a third slice of bread during Sunday brunch, insisting that the classic Dutch toastie was the only way to go. But he has been converted; The Club is the greatest sandwich in the world.

Insalata Caprese

It is such an easy classic to make; it amazes me how bad this dish can be when I eat it in restaurants. I was first introduced to this dish by my friend Max when I was about 12 years old. I went on vacation to Italy with him and my Uncle in 1986. As a fellow vegetarian at the time, he introduced me to what he described as the “greatest salad in the world” in his flamboyant Italian accent. Meanwhile my uncle was chomping down on some unsightly piece of cow, which I am sure I would love now.

Anyway, Max took me to a market in Milan where we bought a heap of fresh produce, in particular some Buffalo mozzarella, and some huge tomatoes. The resulting salad with basil from a window box with a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper won me over. Looking back, it really was the fresh ingredients that did it justice. All too often, I have ordered this dish in a pizza joint, only to find very firm and tasteless cheese, with unripe tomatoes, and a sprinkle of white pepper and salt and a drizzle of vegetable oil. If done well, this is truly a wonderful dish. Make it at home with the very best ingredients you can find, and avoid the imitations which end up like plastic airplane food. Avoid the dish in winter, grow your own tomatoes and basil, and pick them 5 minutes before you eat. You will be rewarded with a dish which you can absorb over and over again.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

It’s not just black and white

Some people think I am nuts, but I place huge importance on the quality of the seasoning I use in my food. I prefer to grow my own herbs, and if possible I grind my spices myself just before I need to cook with them. They just taste better, and keep stronger flavors that way.

So when seasoning, like most people I use salt and pepper the most. After having been parted from my sea salt flakes for a week, I realized just what a difference the specific salt and pepper makes to the taste of the food, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

We’ll start with the salt. This seems to be a hot topic today; I woke up to BBC news saying “Salt is killing our kids…”. So I started looking at my salt boxes, and tried to look into the health issues surrounding them. Jozo (my chosen brand) make no efforts to cover up the health issues surrounding salt, one of the main navigation entries is called “Salt and your health”.

But health is not really the point of this article, I am interested in flavor. What I missed in the last week was the crucial little something which comes with the sea salt flakes that I normally use. They really add a zing and a crunch to my food. Sprinkled on salads with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grind or two of pepper brings the salad alive. This just doesn’t work with regular table salt, it just tastes salty.

So I got thinking about how I use the salt, and I have really changed my habits over the years. I almost never add salt when I am cooking; I just add it at the end or when I server. I guess it was instinct which made me change my methods, because until today I have never read about the science of using salt. I found a great article about using different types of gourmet salt. There is a fantastic quote which sums up my whole feeling on the issue

“Flavor is not only taste, smell and texture. Wolke added a fourth dimension, time. The difference in taste between sea salt and table salt is a matter of texture and time.”

It seems that chemically, the structure of sea salt flakes makes them dissolve a lot more quickly in liquids; as such you loose the flavor very quickly (which makes a more powerful zing!). Whereas table salt breaks down so slowly that it tastes harsh in your mouth when sprinkled on a salad.

I still use table salt when I am baking (which happens very rarely), but I use two kinds of sea salt in my day to day food preparation. I use the flakes sprinkled on my food at serving time, and just the process of crushing the little pyramid crystals and flakes between my fingers brings a little giggle of joy to me. I also use coarse grains for salmon dish I learnt from my late wife (which turns out to be called ‘Saumon a l'unilateral’, and not a traditional Swedish dish at all). It really is the tastiest way to prepare a side of salmon that I know. Just take a fillet of salmon (with or without skin, up to you). Cover the base of an appropriate sized baking pan with coarse sea salt about 1cm deep, put the salmon flesh side down on the salt, and bake in a hot oven until done. The result is that some of the juices run into the salt turning it into a solid cake of salt, and the salmon ends up as a beautiful firm, flavorful and moist piece of fish. The fillet can be lifted off its salty bed, leaving all the salt in the pan. It really feels and looks like a weird thing to do, and seems like a complete waste of salt, but it really is worth a try. Go for it, it’s really not as salty as it looks.

So now for the pepper. I think the thing that scares me most if I go to dinner at someone’s house, is a clogged up pepper shaker filled with white pepper standing on the table begging me to add its flavor to my upcoming meal. If you ask me that stuff is only good for stopping cats from crapping in you garden.

Like salt, I have two methods of getting pepper in my food. I have an over the top 20” white Peugeot pepper mill, which if I am honest looks ridiculous on a small table, but it is so much fun grinding pepper over a bowl of leek and potato soup. I learnt today that Peugeot invented the pepper mill in 1842. My mill has a 20 year guarantee, and delivers some of the best sized ground pepper I have tasted. I really understand why you see these big mills in restaurants around the world.

But even the Peugeot is not my favorite way to get pepper on my plate, I now keep a pestle and mortar by my stove and on the table at all times, filled with a mix of peppercorns. The mix of colors is mostly cosmetic, but the subtle flavors of the green and pink corns add a distinct colorful touch to a plate of food. I just grind the corns when I need them and sprinkle them on the food. The result is a very uneven crushed pepper with some big black chunks which deliver a powerful punch to the taste buds in random bites of food.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fishy fingers

This evening Gareth requested Salmon for dinner. It has also been an evening for trying out a new kitchen gizmo (the Stainless steel bar of soap). So given it is his bath night anyway, I saw no harm in letting his 8 year old hands prepare the fish, and test whether the stink removing bar of metal could do it’s job.

To start we had two fillets of wild salmon (300 grams each), which we seasoned with salt, pepper, slices of lemon and fresh dill. These were then sandwiched together in the BBQ fish cage, brushed with olive oil, and grilled for 10 minutes on each side.

Served with barbequed potatoes (micro waved for 5 minutes first to pre cook them), and a salad of rucola and stripy tomatoes (not sure what they are called, but they look good), we had a good meal. Gareth did me proud, finished half the salmon, and ate a good sized portion of salad and potatoes, with a running commentary of which items contained vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.

The only down side is that his hands don’t smell like fish, so he thinks he can avoid having a shower tonight.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Steak and chips

A classic combo, but you know what, it is just too greasy. Today the temperature dropped from 30 degrees C to just about 15. Yesterday was a hot fish and Rosé day, today is a cold and rainy, red meat and Shiraz day. So I have opted for a Rib Eye steak, which remains my favorite cut of beef. Simply griddled (I am still undecided whether I prefer stripes of checks, you choose), with some starch. Wanting something more than boiled potatoes, I chose to make some Sweet potato crisps. They turned out well, but with the marbled fattiness of the Rib Eye, a steamed or boiled potato would have been enough.

The crisps which were not too crispy were the best. To accompany it I had a salad of Lambs lettuce and grated beetroot (store bought “in a bag” salad), this would have been better with something sharper to dissolve the fat, something like watercress.

In an attempt to add color to the plate (which turnedout to be unnecessary, due to my overly garish plates), I decided to griddle some long sweet red peppers. They really weren’t needed, and could have done with a stronger flavor. I think one or two of Jamie Oliver’s spicey Suriname peppers would be perfect.

Accompanied by the wine, it was a good meal, but a little too greasy. Time to buy some more good olive oil and sea salt.

Fontaine Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2002

Give this wine 30 minutes to breathe, and it’s worth the wait. I was recommended this by the ever helpful owner at Ton Overmars. I am a fan of both South African and Australian reds. For the price (6.95 euro) it holds up pretty well.

The blurb on their website boasts of “Red berry fruit aromas”, I must say I can't taste or smell the berries, just a traditional grape. The wine smells like a classic French Cabernet, which apparently makes up the bulk of the wine, and there is a distinct peppery-ness of the Shiraz in there. But it is a soft easy wine, which I guess is due to the addition of the Merlot.

I like it, and I will buy it again. I think it would be best served with a strong red meat, perhaps a peppered steak, venison or lamb.

I can still taste the last swig in my mouth from 5 minutes ago…That’s a good thing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Red, White, Green, Yellow and Blue

So it has been a busy evening. Being June 2006, the world cup is on. Not that I am a great football fan, but as an expat overseas, the world cup is a chance to feel proud of ones nation. As an Englishman, living in Holland, with South African parents, having Swedish in-laws, having an American step-family, I have plenty of teams to support should England get knocked out. Some may call that being fickle, but it makes for a good summer.

Anyway, tonight is Brazil vs. Croatia. Brazil with the Green and Yellow, Croatia in Red and White checks (which look pink on my TV), I look in my fridge for inspiration for a really quick meal before the game. It is 8.53pm, the game starts in 7 minutes.

So for Red and White (that makes pink) I pick a bottle of Lindemans Cawarra Rose (2005) and a pack of precooked shrimp (300 gray) and a tomato. For the green, all the green I could fine, some coriander leave, basil, rucola. For the yellow lemon. Other ingredients are a couple of chunks of garlic, fresh black pepper, sea salt, sesame oil (I have run out of olive), sea salt, and a dried red chili.

I roughly chopped the coriander leaves, garlic, and the tomato. Mix the chopped stuff in a pestle and mortar with a splash of oil and a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. In a bowl mix the herb mixture with the shrimp and barbecue on skewers.

For the plate I just mixed some Rucola(or Rocket) with some fresh basil leaves and put them on a plate. As a dressing I just pored the remaining herb mix over the leaves. The grilled shrimp were then just plonked on top with a slice of lemon.

9.46pm, the meal was yummy, and the score is 0 - 1 to Brazil. Yum

Boschendal Pinot Noir \ Chardonnay 2005

I had this with a grilled fillet of sea bass served on a bed of fennel which had been sauteed in the fish juices and a splash of this wine. It was 30 degrees centigrade outside, so I served the wine quite chilled.

It was perfect with the fish, with the unusual color it made the perfect talking point for our meal

A fishy dinner

Tuna steak with a salsa verde, lambs lettuce and rucolla.