Monday, 15 September 2008

A Charcoal Roasting Fire


Part of our family routine is a roast dinner every Sunday (or a barbeque during the warmer months). The forecast was warm and dry, perfect for firing up the Weber. I bought a 2kg rolled shoulder of pork at my local butcher on the Saturday morning in anticipation. I always roast pork outside. This saves the oven (and kitchen) from filling up with smoke from all that spitting in the baking dish.

Good quality lumpwood charcoal is my fuel of choice. I try to avoid petrochemical firelighters as I just can't align them with the idea of cooking quality food. I'd rather a bit of proper wood smoke at the start using paper and tinder as a base to start the charcoal fire. A few small softwood offcuts in the garage were split into pencil thick pieces using my favourite hatchet. Note the tongs holding the wood, just this spring this little axe gave me seven stitches in my left index finger when splitting kindling. Or was it the bottle of red I had consumed beforehand? I'm not sure.

Pile the tinder over the top of one tightly screwed up piece of newspaper per side in the barbeque and set alight. Just a minute or two later you can start to place pieces of charcoal over the small fires, about 2 litres each side (I measure it out in an ice cream container and use tongs to create a mound).

In about 30-40 minutes, there will be two white hot mounds of charcoal. Spread each one out and then place a further 5 or 6 pieces of fuel on top of each side to extend the life of the fire. This fire will be good for up to 3 hours, or even longer if extra fuel is added during cooking time (for cooking a turkey for example). The temperature will relax towards the end which is good for a tender roast.

I roasted the pork in a pyrex dish to retain the juices for basting. Separating the crackling about 3/4 way through the cooking time helps it to become soft and crunchy, and also makes sure the pork cooks all the way through.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Scallopini Milanese


My family love this. It's definitely a weekend only or special occasion meal for us, especially when making it for a lot of people. Whenever I consult the kids on what they might like to have on say a Saturday night, I get the begging big eyes and hands held in prayer position. Words need not be spoken.

I thought that it might make a nice homely Italian meal for my mother-in-law's birthday, as it would be something that she would have rarely had. The traditional side dishes of spaghetti with sugo al pomodoro, tomato and fresh oregano salad, rucola and parmesan salad and ricetta tipica are treats in themselves, and the combination is both aromatic and refreshing.

I work on one and a bit medium sized chicken breast fillets per person. Cutting the fillet 'butterfly' style, you should get four pieces from each fillet. Sprinkle some flour on a plate with salt and pepper, beat a couple of eggs into a large flat dish and put 6-7 slices of fresh bread into a food processor for the breadcrumbs. Since discovering the difference between fresh and packet breadcrumbs there is no comparison. Dried breadcrumbs burn quickly and will make the oil smokey far too soon.

In a wok or deep, wide saucepan, add a mixture of vegetable oil and light olive oil to a depth of 3-4cm. Pat each slice of chicken breast dry with kitchen paper, fully coat in seasoned plain flour, then dip in the beaten egg before pressing into the bowl of breadcrumbs for the final covering. Place 3 or 4 pieces at a time into the hot oil, turning once with tongs, until they become rigid and are golden in colour. Remove and place on a draining rack in a warm oven as the scallopini are ready. The frying can be done half and hour or more in advance to allow time to finish off the pasta, salads and veggies.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

A Middle Eastern Menu

This meal was prepared in honour of a visit from our fabulous friend from Perth, Tads. She was in the UK for a wedding and we were lucky enough to entice her and her friend Helen to come to Oxfordshire for a serious Saturday night.

Subconsciously willing warmer weather, I came up with a meal inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine.

Traditionally, a middle eastern feast starts with a mezze, or mixture of appetizers. There being only 4 of us, I thought a more European approach might be more managable in terms of how much food I should prepare (and how much time I had). I was pretty much fixed on a main course of slow cooked spiced shoulder of lamb, so I needed a starter and side dishes to complement. A bit of web research helped and I settled on chicken koftas as a way to begin the theme.


- Chicken and mint koftas with yogurt, cucumber and unleavened bread


- Slow roasted lamb shoulder with cumin
- Saffron cous cous
- Tabouleh
- Warm salad of slow roasted tomatoes (3 hours at 100 deg) and steamed asparagus


Le Colonel (not at all middle eastern but very popular in the south of France and very refreshing) - aka shop bought lemon sorbet served with a big dash of vodka garnished with fresh mint and lime. Brilliant.

I found a good recipe for the koftas and decided to add an egg white, a teaspoon of plain flour and a handful of mint to the listed ingredients before putting them in the food processor. I pre-prepared the kofta mix and divided it into balls so all that needed doing on the night was to grill them for 10-15 minutes before serving.

The lamb recipe is an original favourite. A few simple ingredients used in excess, but in no way overpowering. I bought a whole shoulder of lamb (about 1.8kg) and then ground up at least half a cup of cumin seeds in my mortar and pestle. I rubbed the lamb with some olive oil and then rolled it in the ground cumin to coat it completely. I put the shoulder in a baking dish, added about 250ml of liquid (stock, or in this case beer), covered it in foil and put it in a hot oven. The total cooking time was 4 hours, starting off at 200 deg for 15 mins, and then lowered to 130 deg for the remainder of the cooking time. By then, the only two bones almost fell out, making carving the shoulder really simple. During cooking, a further 250ml of stock (or beer) was needed to keep up the steam. A rich, thick, aromatic sauce was the reward which I spooned over the lamb as it was served.

The meal was a success and then 5 other friends turned up as planned for the dessert, cheeses and coffee. We devoured almost a litre of vodka between us just with les colonels, lit the outside fire in the brazier, danced, laughed, and enjoyed what was a mild, still September evening.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Paella On The Beach (A Fantasy)

Imagine my horror. I’d been fantasizing about a beach barbeque in the Var for months. When we arrived for our summer holiday in the south of France there was a total fire ban in the whole region.

My sister in law and brother in law (Ali and Jared) were there for some weeks before us and described the view from their elevated campsite. They saw a large section of forest ablaze less than a kilometre away and the fire appeared to have engulfed a house. The whole campsite had to be evacuated and they were lucky that the fire was controlled before it spread across the road.

We witnessed the charred scar on the hillside each time we drove in or out of the campsite. It was a sobering experience, even for a seasoned pyro like me.

I had planned to have at least one beach barbeque during our holiday and deliberated long and hard as to what it might be.

Eventually, I recalled yet another early 90’s Time Life cookbook (Spain this time) where I learned of the origins of paella. Originally cooked on embers in the fields by farm workers in Valencia, it contained simple local ingredients such as rabbit, snails, garlic, vegetables and of course rice and spices. Perfect before a long siesta in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

Enjoy this mixture of fact, fiction and fantasy, made almost real by these written words.

This is what I would have done.


I arose as usual around 8am, before the sun found its way to our side of the hill. I had become addicted to striding my way to the top each morning to enjoy the view from Gassin down toward St Tropez for a few minutes before running back down to arrive at the shaded campsite almost an hour later and before anyone else was awake.

Back in the coolness of the west side of our hill, I sat at the outside table and began to prepare my list of things to pack for the evening paella on the beach. The internationalised version; seafood, chicken, vegetables, spices and rice.

FOOD to pack

- 2 cups of paella rice
- 5 cups of water (1 litre)
- Some olive oil in a small jar
- 6 chicken pieces (thighs or legs)
- Chorizo sausage
- Bulb of garlic
- 1 large onion
- 2 capsicums
- 2 tomatoes
- Saffron
- Handful of small live mussels
- Handful of raw prawns
- 2 lemons

EQUIPMENT to pack:

- Paella pan (beloved)
- Grease proof paper
- Newspaper
- Kitchen paper
- Lumpwood Charcoal (about 2 litres of large pieces)
- Matches
- Opinel knife
- Small chopping board
- Spoon
- Forks

Each night, the sun was setting around 8:15, and by 8:45 it would be pretty much dark. Any wind, by this time, seemed to just conveniently disappear.

I added to my list:

- 7:15 – Light charcoal
- 7:35 – Add chicken, onions, chorizo and saffron
- 7:40 – Add tomatoes, capsicums, garlic and water
- 7:55 – Stir in rice and cover
- 8:10 - Lift cover to add mussels and prawns, cover again
- 8:20 – Remove cover and serve into grease proof paper cones

We spent the morning at the market at the nearby perched village of Ramatuelle, the perfect place for me to gather up the necessary bits to pack into the cool box back at the campsite before departing to the beach.

I had been waiting for this for so long. I wrapped the paella ingredients in foil parcels and carefully packed them in the cool box with the usual selection of bagettes and salads, a few little beers and a bottle of local rose.

We arrived at the beach at Pardigon at around two and set up camp for the day. While the kids mucked about in the sea and sand, my wife Sara and I lounged beneath the umbrellas with our books.

By six, we would normally be packing up after a 5 o’clock drink at the beach bar, but tonight would be different. We started noticing the usual casual exodus as the evening approached; my cue to set up the little domed barbeque that Ali let us use when we stayed in her caravan. It was about 12 cm in diameter, had tripod legs and a bright pink domed lid. The bowl made a perfect base for my steel paella pan.

I started by placing the charcoal over a pile of sticks and leaves the kids had collected earlier for tinder. The tinder caught instantly and before long the charcoal was crackling gently as it started to turn slowly from black to white.

With my Opinel I cut up the chicken (keeping the bones for the stock), onions, chorizo, garlic and vegetables on the chopping board on my lap while I waited for the charcoal to reach the right temperature.

A charcoal or wood fire is perfect for paella. The embers start off hot so you can cook the meat, onions and spices and prepare the stock. They then slowly die down which allows the other vegetables and the rice to cook more gently until the meal is ready to eat. For paella, it’s important not to use too much charcoal as it burns hot and can take a long time to reduce in temperature.

About 25 minutes later I started browning the chicken, chicken bones and chorizo chunks with the saffron and onions over the hot embers in the olive oil, then added the chopped tomatoes, garlic and capsicum, gradually adding water to prevent the food from sticking and to make the stock. I then removed the bones, added the rice and gave it a good stir.

To prevent the news print being in contact with the paella, I laid a few sheets of wet kitchen paper over the rice before soaking 5 or so sheets of newspaper in sea water and laying them on top, being careful to fold up the corners so they didn’t burn from the heat of the embers below.

The fire subsided gently as I had hoped. About 10 minutes later I lifted the paper cover and laid the mussels and prawns on top of the rice. Some time later I started to see lumps appear in the newspaper cover as the mussels steamed open. I lifted the wet paper cover and voila, perfectly cooked rice, vegetables and seafood. And, there was still enough light to savour both the look and taste of the meal.

I tore the grease proof paper into 30 x 30 cm pieces, folded each in half, and half again and then opened the folded paper into a cone in the same way I remembered making filters in chemistry at high school. A sheet of folded newspaper loosely wrapped around the outside added the necessary insulation before spooning the piping hot paella into each cone and topping off with a couple of slices of fresh lemon.

The smell was incredible. A steamy blend of saffron, chorizo, vegetables and sea food with freshly cut lemon.

I ate with my hands, savouring the texture, aroma and taste of each mouthful with sticky fingers that were later cleansed with the remains of the squeezed lemon slices.
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