In search of the perfect...paella

On a recent trip to Spain, I found time to visit Valencia, the spiritual home of one of my favourite dishes. Over the 48hrs we were there - just in case there were any doubts over my commitment to gastronomic research - I visited five of the more famous paella eateries. This gluttonous adventure finally culminated, together with several large glasses of rioja, at the hundred year old La Pepica restaurant overlooking the white sands of Playa de Malvarossa.

There is definitely something to be said for eating paella under the Spanish sun, but I think that the warming spice and comforting carbs are even more effective as an antidote to a grey English winter.   

Origins

Often described as the Spanish national dish, paella is actually the signature cuisine of the Valencia region.  Developed in the 19th century as a cheap and nutritious way to feed local workers, it used the local Calasparra rice and whatever protein was in season -  water vole and eel were particular favourites.  Thankfully though, a "traditional" paella nowadays is more likely to contain chicken, chorizo, rabbit or snail than trapped rodents from the local river.

The secrets

130121_PaellaValenciana.jpg

Whilst every recipe is different, whether valenciana (meat), de marisco (seafood) or mixta, the best paella are based on the same time-honoured basics:

  1. The pan: the word "paella" means "pan" and most afficionados would insist that you cannot make a great paella in anything other than a traditional paelleras.  I have to say that this is not quite true, the key is to ensure that as much rice remains in contact with the pan as possible, so that the socarrat (see below) can be created.  This means a good wide-bottomed frying pan will do the job, although I do concede that nothing beats a real paella pan for that authentic touch when serving.
  2. The rice: short grained Calasparra rice is really the only choice, with Bomba being the most famous.  These varieties absorb up to 3 times their own volume in liquid, ensuring the paella is packed with flavour from the saffron and paprika infused stock.  It also ensures that the paella remains moist, despite the lack of sauce in the dish.
  3. The cooking: despite some of the versions I have eaten, paella should not resemble risotto. Luckily, this also means that it doesn't need the same constant stirring and attention. When cooking a paella it should be left alone to do its thing.
  4. The socorrat: the layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan created by not stirring is considered a delicacy and is the paella holy grail.  If cooking on the hob, rather than an open fire, you can create this by covering the pan with foil and giving a blast of heat at the end of cooking,

If you want to create your own taste of Spain, try my delicious Paella Valenciana recipe.

This post first appeared in the Ashburton Cookery School online newsletter.

Sunny days and buffalo wings

I have to confess that "global warming" sometimes confuses me. This week, it was blamed for a decade of upcoming summer washouts at the same time as warnings that Death Valley is to exceed the hottest ever recorded temperature on Earth!

The clear message is that any good weather must be savoured because it will soon be either too hot or too wet to spend any serious time outdoors. This weekend was particularly gorgeous, so I decided to give in to the urge to break out the buffalo wings, a real guilty pleasure for me and as close to barbecue food as I can achieve in a 2-bedroom London flat with no garden. 

I should warn you that these little beauties are addictive, but there are a couple of key tips (1) add a little honey to the sauce (it adds another flavour and helps the sauce stick to the chicken), and (2) turn the wings into "lollipops" to make the eating less messy - take a look at this video to see how.

Other than that try my ultimate buffalo wings, crack open a beer and enjoy. 

 

buffalowings.jpg

Dawwat: a Pakistani feast

The latest Guild of Food Writers workshop, hosted by the fabulous Sumayya Usmani, was an introduction to Pakistan’s food heritage, history and evolution. After moving to the UK eight years ago, Sumayya was shocked to find such a poor appreciation of her native cuisine - something she’s worked hard, through her writing and cookery teaching, to address ever since.

 
 

The workshop began with an insight into the sheer variety of food eaten in different regions of the country, reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity. The history of invasions, its geographical borders, diverse landscapes and extremes of climate have created a culinary melting pot. Pakastani dishes range from Mughlai cuisine developed in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal Empire, to street food and the Indian mainstays more often associated with the subcontinent.

Sumayya described a day typically starting with a breakfast of spiced chickpeas and meat "curry" – although she explained that there is actually no such word in the Pakistani language. Due to the climate lunch is usually fairly light, unless of course it's “biryani day” - the cultural equivalent of fish and chip friday in the UK. The main meal, normally taken late in the evening, is more substantial and followed by seasonal fruits, with desserts eaten at any time of day alongside a cup of Chai. To be honest, this calorific description didn't quite tally with our svelte host, but the point was made - Pakistani's enjoy their food.

The conservative nature of the country, which is alcohol-free for the muslim majority, is one of the key reasons that food is so culturally important. It is, explained Sumayya, the most accessible form of entertainment and plays a central part in every major celebration from birth to death. No-one would be invited to a Pakistani home without an offer of food and when people wish to give thanks they will often do so by cooking up a feast for the poor.

After the talk, it was time to sample the food. One of the defining themes of Pakistani cookery is the use of techniques to build layers of flavour. A simple lamb chop, Sumayya explained, might be treated with an overnight marinade of garlic, ginger, fried onions, lemon and garam masala, grilled on the barbecue for a smokey umami flavour and then served with a light sprinkling of lemon juice, garam masala and fresh coriander. She then demonstrated some examples of these age-old cooking methods through a traditional tasting menu, or Dawwat (“Feast”).    

To get everybody in the mood, a Sindhi-style welcome drink of spice-infused almond milk was followed by a starter of paneer and pomegranate samosas with chillied black chickpeas.    

Beef Haleem, often eaten during Ramadan, was slow cooked until the spices, meat, lentils and wheat had melted into a delicious homogenous paste. Along with green daal, this was used to demonstrate tempering (tarka) where whole spices are infused in hot oil and mixed in to a dish at the start or end of cooking.

After cooking a classic Keema, ghee was poured over a lit charcoal briquette to lightly smoke the meat. Sumayya explained that this simple technique, "dhunai", is often used to impart a BBQ flavour to Pakistani food – although, she admitted, it should probably not be practised in close proximity to a smoke alarm. 

Finally, dumm, the traditional Persian method of cooking under steam, was demonstrated through a delicious green chicken biryani. This resulted in a fantastically moist and flavoursome main course, served with an extra helping of useful tips – wash and soak your rice to remove excess starch; infuse the dish with aromatics such as lemon, mint leaves and whole chillies; and drizzle over saffron water, melted ghee and kewra (screw-pine water) for a really authentic flavour.

To ensure everyone went home happy we were all treated to Qawwami Seviyan, a sweet vermicelli dessert made with sugar, milk, saffron, fruit and nuts infused with cardamom and topped with rose petals. Judging by the smiles, this seemed to do the trick and capped off a fascinating, and extremely tasty, introduction to Pakistani cuisine. 

 

*A massive thank you to Joanna Yee for all of the pictures in this post. Enjoy Noma!

In search of the perfect...pizza margherita

As my wife will happily attest, I am a man with many failings - including my unrequited love for great pizza. We once interrupted a perfectly romantic holiday just so that I could taste the legendary offerings of Pizzeria Da Michele - the home of the world's greatest pizza according to experts such as Heston Blumenthal and Diego Maradonna (and I am guessing that he knows his pizza...).

DaMichele1.jpg

We dragged our huge suitcases along Naples' Comorra-controlled side streets - dodging the piles of stinking rubbish created by the latest refuse collectors strike - to find a run down cafe with a queue of scruffy looking locals snaking out of the door. There are no reservations here, you just take a ticket and share a table as soon as a seat becomes available. The restaurant only has two things on the menu: margherita and marinara but they are as good as any pizza I have ever tasted - that Maradonna really knows his stuff.

So, what can you do to reach similar levels of perfection if you are not lucky enough to live in Naples and fancy making a pizza at home?

  1. Size
    • The pizzas in Naples are man-sized, but they have the benefit of cooking in an oven that reaches 500C (your domestic oven will get to about half that). For this reason I would recommend reducing the size of your pizzas to about 8" to lessen the chances of a soggy bottom. Tozi, one of my favourite restaurants, serves 4 inch "pizette" as part of its cicchetti (small plates) menu and they are as good as you'll find anywhere in London. Just remember, two great small ones always beats one soggy big one...
  2. The base
    • The main rule is that a pizza must be thin and it must be crispy. Pizza Hut may have made millions from deep pan, cheese filled crusts but when I become Prime Minister I am afraid they will be banned.
    • A pizza base is a simple thing - just water, flour, yeast and salt - so use finely ground "00" flour, maybe with some semolina flour to add colour and flavour, and the best Cornish sea salt. You will taste the difference.
    • Finally, give it time - use less yeast but allow it more time to work. This will create a much more flavoursome dough.
  3. The sauce
    • The pizza sauce at Da Michele is little more than cooked san marzano tomatoes, but I like the more complex flavours of a New York pizza with its herbs and long slow cooking. It's not difficult to make and freezes well, so you only need to make it a couple of times a year, even if you have a Maradonna-esque pizza appetite.
  4. The toppings
    • A recent survey showed that 37% of all pizzas bought are of the plain cheese and tomato variety. This means that your ingredients need to be good: a light dusting of parmigiano reggiano, some torn buffalo mozzarella and a few fresh basil leaves should do - just don't be tempted by that pre-grated supermarket nonsense.
    • If you do need meat on your pizza, and I can understand that, ask your delicatessen to slice some prosciutto until it is paper thin and then drape it over the pizza after cooking so that it melts in the roof of your mouth. Top with some fresh rocket leaves dressed in lemon and olive oil. Simple.
  5. The cooking
    • As I have said, getting a thin, crispy base is always going to be a struggle without a wood-burning oven. However, you can achieve the impossible with the help of the "frying pan method" espoused by the Pizza Pilgrims in their book "Recipes from the backstreets of Italy". This simply involves getting a dry frying pan screamingly hot, cooking the pizza for 2 minutes on the hob and then putting it under a hot grill for another 2-3 minutes until charred and blistered.
pizza.jpg

If travelling to Naples to try a cheese and tomato pizza seems a little excessive, which I suppose could be excused, try my ultimate homemade pizza recipe.




Treating crabs with respect

Animal welfare has been back in the news with recent research by Queens University adding to the growing body of evidence that crabs feel distress when killed by certain methods.  Some experts, however, believe that crustaceans cannot feel pain due to their physiology - they have multiple nerve centres rather than a brain - and any twitching during cooking is simply a mechanical reaction. 

crab.jpg

Whilst scientists continue to argue, most people would agree that any animal destined for the plate deserves our best efforts to minimise suffering.  According to the RSPCA, the most humane approach is electrocution.  This kills the crab within seconds, leading to sweeter meat - as distressed animals can release an acrid tasting hormone - and stops legs or claws being shed during cooking.  It is this method that is used in many top class restaurants.

Of course, this doesn't really help if you don’t have a Crustastun in your kitchen.  So follow this simple two stage process to limit any unnecessary distress*:

Step 1: put the crab into the freezer for an hour.  This will put it into a “coma” and desensitise it to the next stage.  
Step 2: disable the nerve centres: lift back the flap on the stomach and drive a skewer or pointed screwdriver hard into the cone shaped indentation beneath, then do the same through the roof of the mouth.  This will kill the crab, allowing it to be cooked without any further distress.

Shellfish dishes are amongst the tastiest there are and understanding how to dispatch them humanely and confidently opens up a world of delicious possibilities.

*as a general precaution always ask your fishmonger to clip the crab's claw membranes so that there is no chance of being nipped during handling.