The Samovar

Pinchy: the story of a gumbo
November 9, 2008, 3:31 am
Filed under: Cooking, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

So I had promised a friend that I would make her a gumbo since about a year ago, and now she’s leaving Paris in a week or so, so it seemed like if I was going to do this gumbo it had better be this weekend. After a year of build up this was going to have to be some pretty awesome gumbo. So I wrote my ideal list of ingredients from the most luxury gumbo recipe in my creole cook book, thinking I’d head to the shops and see which bits I could find:

  • crab
  • oysters
  • prawns
  • chicken
  • beef
  • bacon
  • cooked ham
  • ham bone
  • green peppers
  • onion
  • scallions
  • tomatoes
  • celery
  • parsley
  • thyme
  • (other things I already had: bay leaves, cayenne pepper, filé powder which someone had brought over from the US for me specifically for this gumbo, salt, pepper)

It was a little late in the day, too late to start trying to find a good fishmonger and anyway most of them are closed at that time, so I just went to the big supermarket near me. Well what do you know but this supermarket was selling live crabs and lobsters (and at not a bad price really, €5 for a crab, €12 for a lobster). So I picked up most of the ingredients above, leaving out the ham and substituting mussels for oysters because they were only selling oysters in boxes of 24 which would have been fine for the gumbo but the thought of shucking 24 oysters was not fine.

Well, I’ve never bought and cooked a live, scuttling animal before. Mussels don’t count – they’re alive but they don’t scuttle. Crabs scuttle. At the supermarket, they just pop the little guy into a bag and you take him off, meanwhile he’s trying to claw his way out and just generally acting agitated. I don’t think the girl at the checkout had ever seen anyone buying one of these before and was a little upset about having to pick up the bag. On my way home I decided to name him Pinchy after the lobster in the Simpsons. This was probably a mistake because I knew I was going to be pouring boiling water over him and boiling him to death soon. Here’s Pinchy preparing for his fate.


Turns out that having boiling water poured on them is quite agitating for a crab. Hopefully I won’t be having nasty dreams about the next moment. Twenty minutes later, here’s Pinchy again.


Well anyway, that’s really the exciting part of the story over. Then we got to cracking Pinchy open and teasing out his fat and flesh, etc. But boy, was he a damn tasty crab. Assuming the bad dreams don’t kick in, I think I’ll be buying some more of his kind, and maybe a lobster or two too. I won’t detail the long and rather laborious (approximately 4 hour) cooking process. Suffice it to say many things were chopped, complicated stocks were produced by boiling up various animals, carcasses, heads, etc.

End result: pretty damn good shit. I think I can improve on this gumbo, but I don’t see myself making it often. It’s pretty expensive and very time consuming. Plus, I ended up using pretty much every pot and pan in my apartment twice over. Fortunately, I had helpers to do the washing up.

Some more pics.

I actually ended up using quails rather than chicken because a whole chicken was too much and the little baby chicken was €8 compared to these two quails at €3. And they even came with their little heads still on. Making gumbo is not for the light hearted.


The mussels.


And the final product. Well, it doesn’t look that great but with gumbo it’s the taste that counts, not the appearance.


And here’s a bonus item, last week’s pumpkin:


Thai curry
November 4, 2007, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Today I finally got round to visiting Paris’ chinatown. It has taken me an inexcusably long time given that it’s only about 10 minutes walk from me, but my excuse is I’ve been busy. Didn’t take any photos, but here’s one from


Anyway, the good news is that this means I can now very easily buy the somewhat difficult to find ingredients for making a good Thai curry (recipe below).  I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the best ways to buy prawns is raw and frozen, in large boxes from Chinese supermarkets (at a very low price). Whenever I’ve done this in the past, they’ve invariably been really good quality, and today was no exception. Frozen prawns have a bad reputation, but perhaps that’s based on prawns frozen after being cooked, or ones that have been frozen, defrosted at the supermarket and sold to you looking as if they were fresh?

The recipe

This is how I make it, any thoughts?

  • Thai curry paste – you can make your own, but I never quite feel it’s worth the effort when there are quite decent ones available. I really should have a go some day though, it’s not that difficult. For the one I use, about 1 large teaspoon per person seems about right.
  • Coconut milk, about 200 ml per person (half a tin).
  • Garlic, chopped.
  • Some vegetables. I used mini-aubergines (I find the Thai green aubergines a little bitter for my tastes) and red pepper.
  • Some meat or fish (optional). I used prawns today. If using meat, chop it into bitesize pieces.
  • Fish sauce, to taste.
  • Lime leaves, finely chopped. These can be a killer to get hold of. Your best bet is in the frozen foods section of a Chinese supermarket. I used to live near a Thai supermarket that had them fresh, but apparently it’s no longer legal to import them unfrozen into the EU. I use about 2 leaves per person.
  • Thai basil, ripped or roughly chopped. The name is a bit confusing, as what one shop calls Thai basil another may call holy basil and a third may call sweet basil. The one I mean has an aniseedy smell to it. About 10-20 leaves per person.
  • Groundnut oil

Heat some groundnut oil in a wok or saucepan until the oil is hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to colour. Put in the curry paste, and cook it, stirring, for a minute or two. Add the coconut milk and bring it to a boil. If you’re using meat or fish other than prawns (which only take a couple of minutes to cook), add them now. Add the fish sauce and a little water depending on how thick you want the sauce. It’s actually quite nice to put quite a lot of water in and turn the Thai curry into more of a soup, and eat it the Thai way (with a bowl of rice which you pick up with your spoon and dip into the soup). Add the vegetables and or prawns in an order which means they’ll be cooked by the time your rice is cooked. It only take about 6-7 minutes for chicken or about 2-3 minutes for prawns. Finally, a minute before the end, put in the lime leaves and basil.

Make sure not to attempt to eat with chopsticks (a common faux pas in Thai restaurants is to ask for chopsticks).

September 15, 2007, 12:15 am
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I made this tonight (sea bass with chanterelles, trompettes de mort and a brunoise of ratatouille). Fantastic. Also looks an interesting blog for a foodie who has just moved to Paris…

Courgette risotto
July 14, 2007, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I asked for suggestions on courgette risotto a while ago, and tonight I finally got round to making it – delicious!


In the end, I stuck to the basic plan I already made, cut off the skins, put the flesh in the risotto early so that it partially dissolves, and cook the chopped skins separately. I cooked the skins until they were quite brown although I didn’t bother to get out my griddle pan in the end. I also toasted some pinenuts, and put in some chopped herbs (oregano and parsley) and a tiny squeeze of lemon. I served it with some homemade pesto.


I think there are a few things I would do differently if I was doing it again, so here is my recommended recipe (not quite how I did it):

Ingredients (for 2)

  • 2 courgettes, skins taken off and roughly chopped, flesh finely chopped (I only roughly chopped it, and I think it would have been better done fine)
  • Handful of pinenuts, toasted
  • Herbs, chopped (some combination of parsley, oregano, marjoram, basil, mint probably)
  • Lemon juice to taste (probably about 1/3 of a lemon’s worth)
  • Pesto (optional, it was quite nice but fine without)
  • Onion, risotto rice, parmesan, stock, wine, butter, oil, salt, pepper

Soften onions in olive oil, add risotto rice and toast for a minute or so. Pour in some wine or dry vermouth and boil until dry. Put in the finely chopped courgette flesh, some stock and half the herbs. Cook as a normal risotto.

Meanwhile, saute the courgette skins in butter on a high heat so they soften a bit (but not mushy) and brown. Add the lemon juice and herbs to this. Toast the pinenuts.

When the risotto is ready, stir in the pinenuts, parmesan, butter, salt and pepper and test for seasoning. Finally, lightly fold in the skins, herbs and lemon mixture.

Serve with the pesto on the side.

RFC: Courgette Risotto
July 7, 2007, 1:25 am
Filed under: Cooking, Food, Recipes

So I have this idea in mind that I want to make courgette risotto but I’ve not done it before and most of the recipes I’ve looked at don’t look that inspiring. I feel with courgettes you need to do something with them rather than just stick ’em in and hope it tastes nice.  Any thoughts?

Some of the ideas I’ve had so far:

  • Two ways of cooking them: slice off the skins and roughly chop them, and do the same with the insides. Cook the insides along with the rest of the risotto so they dissolve into the risotto. Meanwhile, saute the chopped skins on a high heat  for a short time so they retain some texture and stir into the risotto right at the end.
  • Herbs: I think the BBC recipe I looked at a few days ago had the right idea – lots of herbs. I was thinking about basil, parsley, maybe oregano, maybe mint.
  • Pesto: Never tried the combination of pesto and courgette but apparently it’s fantastic. I was thinking perhaps a small amount at the side rather than stirring it in.
  • Pine nuts: Thinking about pesto, the idea of toasting some pine nuts and stirring them into the risotto seemed a good one for taste and texture. What about other nuts?
  • Third way: a Raymond Blanc recipe I was looking at had courgette ribbons – very thin slices of courgette, marinated in oil, salt, pepper and (I think) lemon; then cooked for a very short time on a high heat, covered. They sound nice and could be used in various ways in a courgette risotto – perhaps as a base, on the side, or even stirred in.

There’s also another question – what would courgette risotto go with? I usually have risotto on its own, but perhaps in this case it would be nicer made in a smaller quantity with some sort of meaty or birdy thing.

While I’m here – any thoughts on aubergine risotto? Apparently it’s very good – also never tried it.

Seasonal pesto dish
June 14, 2007, 12:08 am
Filed under: Cooking, Food, Recipes

Mostly just an excuse for writing down my pesto recipe (below).

Last night I cooked tagliatelle with pesto, peeled asparagus, broad beans and fresh peas, with a decoration of tomato concasse (the final e should have an acute accent, it’s just raw tomatoes peeled, seeded and finely chopped). Damn good – I recommend it. The freshness of the uncooked tomato balances the rich cheesiness of the pesto.

Pesto (for 2)

  •  80g basil leaves, removed from the stalks and carefully washed and squeezed dry
  • 1-3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2-3 tbsp pine nuts
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 40-80g pecorino or parmesan, or a mixture of the two (use sardo, a Sardinian ewe’s milk cheese for maximal authenticity), grated
  • Salt and pepper

Blend the basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and pepper to a rough puree. Stir in the cheese. Add a few tbsp of the boiling pasta water just before draining and mixing them together to loosen it up a bit.

May 3, 2007, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I just had a brainwave on cooking asparagus.

Most people boil asparagus for varying lengths of time. There’s a trade-off between how flavoursome the end result is, and the texture. If you boil for 2 or 3 minutes, you keep much of the flavour but you end up with a texture which is too crunchy for many people. If you boil for longer, you lose a lot of flavour into the water. There is also a change in the quality of the flavour, boiling it for a short period of times gives it a much ‘grassier’ flavour.

Steaming asparagus is a great improvement as much less flavour is lost into the water. About 4 or 5 minutes works reasonably well.

One way to keep more of the flavour is to cook the asparagus in a small amount of oil or butter instead of a large amount of water. Sauteing, baking and roasting all produce lovely strongly flavoured asparagus. But there’s another problem here, which is that when you use these methods, it tends to colour the asparagus. At the extreme (cooking them in a frying pan with oil) you tend to get almost burnt bits by the time the asparagus is cooked through. This is worst at the tips, a problem you can alleviate by cutting off the very fine hairy bit at the very tip. This method of cooking them also tends to accentuate the dark, earthy qualities of the flavour, which is sometimes just what you want but not always.

The biggest breakthrough for me was seeing how Heston Blumenthal (one of the top chefs in the world) cooks asparagus. His method is to peel the stalks but leaves the tips as they are (see below), and then to cook them gently in a frying pan in butter. He also recommends serving them with very thin slices of button mushrooms, shavings of white truffle and finely chopped chervil – very luxurious but not very practical. Whenever I can be bothered I now use the peeling method which seems to bring out all the unique qualities of the asparagus flavour without the grassy or earthy flavours (which are presumably denser in the skin of the stalk than elsewhere). But, it’s a lot of work to individually peel asparagus stalks, especially if they are thin ones.


Before I get to the brainwave, here is how my godfather Mikey cooks them. He half boils them, but reserves some of the cooking liquid. Having done so, he puts butter, garlic, the boiled asparagus and the reserved liquid into a pan and finishes cooking them, whilst also reducing the liquid and making a delicious sauce to go with them. It’s a great method, but I thought that it might be possible to do better. First of all – you’re still losing lots of flavour into the water. Not as much because you’re not completely cooking them in the water, and you reserve some of the liquid (but only a small amount). Second – this method commits you to having a sauce to go with them. Usually that’s fine, but what if you wanted to use them as part of another recipe rather than serving on their own?

So at last, the brainwave…

I wanted a method for cooking asparagus which didn’t involve peeling, but retained as much flavour as possible, inspired by Mikey’s method. I tried my new method tonight (along with a Dorade stuffed with thyme and baked with tomatoes, olives, white wine, olive oil, bay leaves and slices of lemon), and it worked very well indeed.

In a frying pan large enough to hold all the asparagus you intend to cook in roughly one layer (a bit of overlap is fine, but not as much as two layers), melt a decent amount of butter. Maybe 20g of butter for a bunch of 15-20 spears. Enough to generously coat the base of the pan anyway. Throw in the asparagus, stir and cook for a short while. Now pour in a small amount of boiling water from a kettle, enough to come half way up the asparagus spears. Bring this to the boil and cook at a fast simmer or slow boil. You want to time it so that the water has all boiled off at the exact moment that the asparagus is cooked through. You should end up with a fairly dry pan and juicy, perfectly cooked asparagus.

It’s still not quite as good as the peeling method, but it’s the best I’ve managed so far without peeling. You still lose some flavour to the boiled off water, but not as much as simply boiling or steaming.

Gravy drinking zeitgeist
April 18, 2007, 12:00 am
Filed under: Food, Recipes

OK, this is the last food related post of the evening.

Over the last year or two I’ve been eating at some pretty darn posh restaurants, largely on online poker winnings, including the Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay. I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon.

At the Fat Duck, they serve their spectacular venison dish with a cup of ‘venison tea’ on the side. This is a sort of venison consomme (clear, thin liquid, intensely flavoured) with (oddly) frankincense. The idea being that you drink this ‘tea’ as you eat the main dish.

Another dish they serve there is lamb with a bowl of cold, jellied, lamb consomme with a ‘salad’ of thinly sliced lambs tongues on top. Again, the idea being that you dip into this cold soup / jelly as you eat the main dish.

When I recently went to Gordon Ramsay, they served the beef dish with a cup of beef consomme at the side. Same idea. They made the point explicitly that this was the same stuff as you were eating in your main dish by bringing an empty cup and a dry plate of food to the table, and then pouring the liquid into both your plate and the cup from the same glass jug.

I know someone (hi Mikey!) that used to – and probably still does – drink the remaining gravy from the gravy boat after a roast dinner. At the time I’m sure that nobody else in the world was drinking gravy, and it seemed a bit self-indulgent and gluttonous, even to me! These days though, it seems to be quite standard in all the best restaurants. 😉 Nice one Mikey, you were ahead of the game there.

Anyway, I bring this to your attention as an interesting (and fashionable) possibility you might like to consider next time you make a roast dinner. I had roast lamb the other day and made a sort of lamb consomme which we used as a gravy, but I couldn’t persuade anyone else to have it in a cup alongside their dinner and I couldn’t quite bring myself to be the only one doing it. It was only ‘sort of’ a lamb consomme because I didn’t go to all the effort of making the liquid clear using egg whites and multiple infusions of meat that seems pointlessly time consuming to me. In hindsight, I should have at least strained the liquid through kitchen paper or something so that it was clearer, and then there might have been more interest in having it in cups.

For reference, the gravy/consomme was made as follows:

Cut off a chunk of your roasting joint, or more sensibly buy a separate piece of cheaper meat, to make the gravy with. To make it strongly flavoured enough, you probably want to use a quarter of the amount of meat to make the gravy as you use for roasting.

Cut up the meat very finely and cook it in a lightly oiled pan at a very high heat until it goes quite dark but doesn’t burn. Now deglaze this pan with some liquid (i.e. pour the liquid in to the very hot pan and dissolve the almost burnt bits of meat in the bottom of the pan). I used red wine for the lamb. If you’re using wine or other alcohol, it will probably reduce and disappear fairly quickly. Now cover with water and bring to the boil. Add some finely chopped vegetables, herbs and maybe some spices. I used what I had to hand which was an onion, lots of rosemary and parsley and some bay leaves. Other good things to put in are carrots, leeks, celery and any appropriate herb. Putting a single star anise or clove in is also great.

Simmer this liquid for an hour or so, then strain it. If you want a thick gravy, you can reduce it further and thicken it by dropping a ball of butter and flour mixed into a paste into the liquid and stirring as it boils until the ball disappears and the gravy thickens. Or, use it as it is as a thin gravy or in a tea cup. Oh, also remember to season with salt and pepper.

It might seem like a lot of effort for gravy, but actually it’s not as much effort as it sounds. A lot of the first steps above can be carried out as you’re preparing the meat and vegetables for your roast dinner,then you can leave it to simmer as everything is cooking, straining it just before serving.

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Aubergine pasta sauce
April 17, 2007, 11:30 pm
Filed under: Food, Recipes

One of my most popular recipes at the moment is an aubergine pasta sauce. For a while, I had been making this dish for myself as a quick dinner when eating alone because whenever I suggested it to anyone they didn’t show any interest. Aubergines do not arouse any excitement it seems. Recently though, it seems to have caught on and I’m always being asked to make it.

The recipe below is mine, but adapted from three recipes. One is from the recipe book of the Walnut Tree Inn, from back when it was an excellent and highly regarded Italian restaurant, another from the River Cafe cook book, and the last is from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. I highly recommend all three.

Ingredients (for 2 hungry people)

  • 250g pasta – fettucine or other flat pasta is good, wholewheat works well
  • 1 aubergine, halved lengthwise and very thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 chillis or dried chilli flakes (these work really well actually)
  • 1 tin tomatoes, or equivalent amount of chopped fresh tomato
  • Parmesan
  • Olive oil, quite a lot
  • Salt, pepper
  • Optional: fresh basil or coriander
  • Optional: 1 ball of mozzarella, preferably buffalo mozzarella, torn or chopped into bite sized pieces

In a large saucepan heat the olive oil. The amount you use is at your discretion. At the very least, you need a good covering of the base of your pan, but considerably more is preferable. The reason is that later on the aubergine will soak a lot of it up. This is a good thing and a bad thing – it’s good because it’s delicious, but it’s bad because you run the risk of burning the aubergine if you’re not careful. More on that in a moment.

Soften the finely chopped onion in the oil. Now add the thinly sliced aubergine. It’s important to make these slices as thin as you can be bothered. I usually go for about pound coin thickness as a trade-off between effort and reward. At this point, you can also add the chilli or flakes. Cover this pan and cook, occasionally uncovering and stirring so it doesn’t stick and burn. You need to keep cooking until the aubergine is soft enough to eat. Taste it to check when you reach this point – it’s always important to do this at every stage of cooking anything actually.


Now add the tomatoes, turn up the heat and reduce until the sauce is thick and there is no loose liquid in the pan, but no further than this. Season to taste. Take it off the heat and add the herbs and cheeses and stir them in. Mix with the pasta and serve. You may have difficulty with the melted mozzarella going everywhere, but it’s all part of the fun.

Mashed sweet potatoes – any ideas?
April 17, 2007, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Food, Recipes

I’ve always had difficulty making really good mashed sweet potatoes. Can anyone help?

Usually when I try this I treat it like mashed potato – I peel and cut the sweet potato into fairly small cubes and boil them until they’re soft, then mash them with salt, pepper and butter. The problem is that although it’s quite tasty, they tend to be watery. I assume that this is due to some difference between ordinary and sweet potatoes so that the latter absorb water if they’re cooked in it.

Tonight I tried an alternative, peeling and baking them in the oven in a dish covered in aluminium foil. It was better – they weren’t quite so watery – but it was still not quite right. The texture was still not firm enough for my liking.

I haven’t yet tried steaming them, or baking them with their skins on and then scooping out the flesh, and maybe these will work, but tonight’s experiment suggests I’m missing something fundamental if I want to make them more solid and less watery.