Smoky Chipotle Paella – Warming Autumnal Fare

smoky chipotle paella

After a summer trip to Valencia, and a rather beautiful Paella Valenciana, I’ve been inspired to come up with my own alternative interpretation.  Paella was traditionally cooked over wood from orange trees which gave it a smoky aroma, so I’ve used smoked ‘Chipotle Meco’ chillies to try and reproduce this effect.  Chipotle Meco are Jalapeno chillies that have been smoked for long periods of time (often several days) to impart a really smoky and rich flavour that can do incredible things to a dish.  They’re quite rare, and most of them don’t get outside Mexico (the chipotle more often seen in the UK are the smaller and cheaper ‘Chipotle Morita’ variety).  Handily I have a small store that I sell them through on ebay, so I always have plenty to hand!!

The dish is medium hot, a mild version can be made by using only 1 chipotle meco chilli.  This version contains no meat, but is richly flavoured thanks to the chipotle chilli – feel free to use chicken stock and add meat if you like, I’d recommend rabbit or hare in the spirit of the original recipe (they’re also at their best in Autumn), duck is also an option.  Use seasonal greens, and add green beans or runner beans if they’re still in season.  Remember – whatever you think the authentic paella is, it probably isn’t, so experiment!

RICE

1 shallot
2 carrots
1 long red pepper
1 small chilli pepper, deseeded
olive oil
1-2 chipotle meco chillies
1 pint (568ml) vegetable stock
1 tsp tumeric
1tsp paprika
250g short grain rice (paella rice or
arborio)

GREENS

1 handful sliced kale (cavolo nero if in season)
1 handful sliced pointed cabbage or savoy cabbage
small handful frozen green peas
juice of 1 lemon

CHIPOTLE FINISHING SAUCE

1 tsp fennel seeds
9 black peppercorns
1-2 tsp sea salt crystals
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tsp red wine vinegar
soaked reserved chipotle from
above

1. Put the chipotle meco chillies into a pan with the hot vegetable stock and turmeric and keep on a low heat.

2. Meanwhile, dice the shallots, carrots, peppers and chillies and fry in olive oil with the paprika over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

3. Add the rice, stir for 5 minutes until coated.

4. Remove the chipotle chillies and reserve, then add the vegetable stock to the rice mixture. Put the lid on and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, slice the greens and place in a bowl with frozen peas and the lemon juice. Set aside.

6. Grind the dry dressing ingredients then add the reserved chipotle chillies, olive oil and vinegar and puree.

7. Add the greens to the rice mixture and cook for a further 5 minutes.

8. Take the rice mixture off the heat, stir through the finishing sauce, serve and enjoy!

Food Sourcing – Smartphones to Tell You Where Your Meat has Been…

Cow and QR Code

This is the kind of information that should really be appearing on the pack already, but at least this is a step closer.  A recent initiative in the USA involves putting QR codes on food packaging that when scanned with a compatible smartphone give you detailed information on where it came from – including farmers, slaughterhouses and processing plants.

This food sourcing program could really inform buying decisions – such as whether the eggs in your mayonnaise were free range or from battery hens, or whether your organic meat had been humanely reared but slaughtered in a poor welfare abattoir.

If this was coupled with honest and openly available information about all the stages in food processing (e.g. RSPCA ratings for farms, slaughterhouses etc), shoppers would really then be able to vote with their feet and continue to force improved welfare standards.

Valencia Mercado Central – A Market for Seafood Lovers

Jamones, Valencia Mercado Central
  Jamon, and on and on…

I’ve just come back from a holiday in Valencia, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Mercado Central‘ market in the city, one of the largest and longest running markets in Europe.  The food market is divided into sections, with areas for vegetables, fish and meat.  It’s great to see so many things that you just don’t see in British markets, from unusual cuts of meat (sheeps head anyone?) to fish stalls that resemble alien invasions.  The seafood really is the star of the show too – the Spanish allegedly eat more seafood per person than anyone else at the world, and the range is really startling.  I draw the line at the rather bloody live eel executions though…

razor clams
Razor Clams – thhpppthpth

Razor clams are generally available at larger fishmongers and markets in the UK, though they can be quite expensive.  Cook as you would mussels – butter, garlic or shallots,  white wine, parsley. Now for something completely different…

Clams, Murex and Percebe Tellina, Canailla and Percebe.

Admittedly these are the spanish names for these little chaps, but the English translations won’t help you much either:

Tellina: As far as I can make out, Tellina is a type of clam, but many English recipes just refer to it as a Tellina.  Widely used in Italy, they are sweet tasting and can be eaten raw, or cooked in a tomato sauce.

Canailla: This is definitely the spanish term – the English term is ‘Murex’.  Which doesn’t help much… It is a type of whelk, widely used in Malaysia – it can be boiled and served with chilli sauce.  Apparently they used to be harvested to make purple dye.

Percebe: Known to the English speaking world as goose or gooseneck barnacle, I know of these from my childhood rockpooling days, though I had no idea they were edible.  And if I knew how expensive they were (£100+ per kilo), I would have gathered up the 200 or so of them that were dumped on Summerleaze beach in Bude about a month ago.  They have a similar taste to Lobster and are becoming rare, hence the expense. Boil them, strip the skin from the stalk, and eat the flesh.

Red Prawns
 Prawnography

The langoustines in the foreground seem like the standard fare we get in the UK, but of particular interest are the huge red prawns just behind them.  I can’t find anything about them online (they were labelled ‘Rojos Frescoes Especiales’), and I was already too laden down with food to buy them,  but if anyone knows what they are, please leave a comment! (EDIT: I think they are rose shrimp, Aristeus Antennatus, who knew there were so many kinds of prawn…)

 Mojama Time

This is another Spanish speciality – Mojama, or salt cured tuna fillets.  It takes like a cured ham, with slight fish undertones.  Not unpleasant, more surprising than anything else, it should be eaten finely sliced with good olive oil.

I’ve only included a sample of the food available at the market, round every corner there was something new and unusual, but hopefully this shows how you can really discover a lot about country and regional food from a visit to their markets.  And although we often think that we already get the best of a countries offering in our own supermarkets and markets, there really is a lot more to be discovered.

Mint Sauce

mintAugust and September is the best time to harvest summer mint leaves for mint sauce – a versatile ingredient that is great in salad dressings as well as roast lamb.

Mint is an amazingly versatile herb equally at home in both sweet and savoury dishes, able to lift new potatoes or fresh peas to new levels of flavour or cut through rich curry dishes in raita.  Summer always brings a glut of mint to our garden, and the leaves are strewn extravangantly over even the most unlikely of meals (‘Any mint with your beans on toast?’).  But in these happy times the memory of winter lurks menacingly in the distance, and the time comes to squirrel away some of the leaves to secure the bright flavour for the coming seasons.

Mint Sauce

Ingredients
A handful of fresh mint leaves, stalks removed
Cider vinegar (enough to cover)
1tsp sugar

1. Chop the mint leaves finely.
2. Place in a ‘Kilner’ type jar as in the above photo.
3. Press down and pour in enough cider vinegar to cover.
4. Add sugar and mix thoroughly.

The sauce is ready after a few hours, but you’ll find the flavour will improve after a few weeks.  As well as the usual uses with roast lamb, mint sauce is great in salad dressings – mix a few tablespoons with honey, cracked black pepper and olive oil for a fantastic summer salad dressing.  Maybe not this summer though – looking out of my window it’s starting to feel distinctly wintery already…

Jamón Ibérico – Fine Food with No Bitter After Taste

Jamón Ibérico, an artisan product that is not only renowned for its flavour, but also shows the benefits of good animal welfare.

On a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, a work colleague described with great enthusiasm a Spanish ham made from the meat of black pigs left to roam free in the mountains and eat acorns.  Beyond my surprise that pigs ate acorns (though of course Piglet was very keen on them), the idea seemed very romantic, and a far cry from the questionable animal welfare practices that plague most mass-produced meat products.

Jamón Ibérico is becoming well-known across the world, and is an artisan product of such a standard to be mentioned in the same breath as caviar and champagne.  The hams come from the black Ibérico pig or ‘pata negra’, a pig with layers of fat running through the muscle which allows the hams to be cured for much longer (two years or more).

Despite my delight at the image of all these pigs running through the mountains, gorging on acorns, this is not the case for all Jamón Ibérico – only the pigs designated for ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ status (literally, Acorn Ibérico Ham) enjoy this winter ‘montenara’ period of immense gluttony for 3-4 months.  And as gluttony goes, it’s impressive – each pig can gain up to 2 lbs per day, doubling their weight over the period.  It’s little wonder that the Spanish refer to the pigs as ‘olives on legs’.

In addition to the bellota PDO variety, the range of products produced under the moniker is as confusing as balsamic vinegar, and not always from free range animals.  Simon Majumdar wrote an excellent article in the guardian last year on the different types – look for the aforementioned Jamón Ibérico de bellota, Jamón Ibérico de recebo or Jamón Ibérico cebo de campo which are all outdoor reared.

As easy as that sounds, it may not always be possible.  I bought the ham in the photo above from the excellent Darts Farm in Topsham, Devon. At the time, I knew nothing of these variations, and it was described simply as ‘Iberico Ham’.  I called them to ask if there were any more details on the label for the ham, but it apparently simply says ‘Jamón Ibérico’.

The price was comparable to the bellota variety (compared to the online price from bellota.co.uk), and the taste was incredible, nutty and sweet, similar to a mature cheddar, but with a flavour that kept on changing and developing. It’s something that any meat-eater should taste at least once in their life – a true example of an artisan food with characteristics that elevate it far above mass-produced fair. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I could detect a flavour reminiscent of acorns (now I just need to eat an acorn to make sure).

Crucially, despite the price this is not an elitist food. You don’t have to have a ‘sophisticated pallet’ to appreciate it, pure and simple it is just very, very tasty.  Open your mouth, pop it in, close your eyes and enjoy.

I bought about 50g for £5, and it was well worth it even for those few slices.  If I had one complaint, it was that the standard of carving was not up to much (see that chunky looking wad at the front of the plate), so I ended up with scraps and chunks rather than neat wafer thin slices. Next time I plan to glare at the carver throughout the slicing process, and maybe wail dramatically if the slices come out too thick.

I should probably apologise now for making reference to Piglet in a post about ham. Sorry about that.

Early Sloes

Sloes in Cornwall
First sloes of the year?

 

Early August sloes abound in the South West of England, but if you’re looking to make sloe gin, you’ll need to wait until September or ideally after the first frost…

 

 

No-one can forget their first taste of sloe gin – glistening scarlet, sweet and sticky, usually proferred with great ceremony by a proud host or hostess and rarely limited to a single glass…

Traditional wisdom states that sloes should be only be picked in October or November, after they have been softened by the first frost and are truly ‘ripe’ (though I defy anyone to eat one straight from the tree without pulling a face like an angry baby and spitooning it skywards after the first bite).

But this is something of a cache 22 – to wait for the best fruit results in the smallest harvest, as the birds and squirrels are less particular about the sourness of these plump little berries. The Cottage Smallholder tried an excellent experiment a few years ago (article here), and found that although the post-frost October berries produced the best, a compromise can be had by picking in September and freezing overnight to simulate the effects of a frost.  Alternatively, pick them at different times, and treat yourself to the ‘Finest Reserve’ sloe gin some time in early December (go on, it never lasts beyond Christmas anyway).

 

Balsamic Vinegar – How to Spend Less & Get More…

Trying to choose from the army of balsamic vinegars now available in supermarkets can be a confusing experience – but can you get a better quality product without breaking the bank?

During my early childhood, my parents try to disguise the fact that I was a generally unpleasant child with the fashionable new-age diagnosis of an ‘e-numbers allergy’.  All of the brightly coloured psychadelic delights that peppered my friends lives were gathered up and disposed of, and I was put on a restricted diet that would make a puritan seem indulgent.

Given that I grew up in the 1980s, a time when food manufactures were enthusiastically heaping mountains of exotically named chemicals into anything that stayed still long enough, this resulted in my mother having to prepare almost every item of food herself and maintain close relationships with all health food shop owners in a 30 mile radius.

Aside from the shopping and cooking requirements, my diet was an administrative nightmare  – elaborate packed lunches in advance of any trips, pre-emptive phone calls were made to bewildered parents hosting birthday parties, and my mother would painstakingly explain at great length to blank faced waitresses that any remotely unnatural ingredient would cause me to turn scarlet and ascend the curtains at speed.  The real low point was when a stony faced B&B owner in North Wales took my colour allergy a little too literally and served me a pallid plate of cod and cauliflower…

But despite my ambitions to make up for such a chemically deprived youth, my initial adulthood enthusiasm for unnaturally coloured goodies of all kinds gradually dimmed, and I developed a snooty disdain for the few foods that still contain artificial colourants today.  I will obsessively study the ingredient lists of even the most innocuous products, and while the usual suspects have mostly been brought into line (think smarties and party rings – the bain of any e-number restricted birthday party attending 7-yr old), those that remain are an somewhat unexpected.

Gherkins with ‘Tartrazine’ yellow food colouring? Horseradish sauce with ‘Titanium Dioxide’ (also in paint and sunscreen in case you’re running low)? But one of the real surprises is an ingredient that most of us have in our store cupboard, and would consider a traditional and natural product.

Balsamic vinegar is a relative newcomer as a staple larder ingredient – helped along in no small part by the liberal glugs dolled out by Jamie Oliver over anything from roasted tomatoes to barbecue sauce, it now has an ever growing section of the supermarket dedicated to it, and enjoys a place in cupboards across the land.  It has gone beyond being a simple alternative vinegar in salad dressings, and many of us will now happily bring it out to enliven summer strawberries or as a foil to garlic and rosemary in lamb marinades.

But despite the history and traditional place in Italian cuisine of ‘Aceto Balsamico’, the version we are most likely to be using is a recently developed commercially produced version which is a far cry from the aged artisan product produced for centuries in Reggio Emilia and Modena.  The massive increase in demand for balsamic vinegar through the 1980s and 90s led to development of products that could be produced quickly and at low cost, and this is reflected in the standard of many of the vinegars sold today – many (in fact the majority) are no more than wine vinegar with sulphur caramel colouring (that’s right, the same colouring that goes into Coca Cola).

So should we all go out and demand ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’, the DOP term guaranteeing the original product, aged to a minimum of 12 years?  Er, not so fast.  The time and effort required to produce such an ingredient commands a hefty price tag – melburyandappleton.co.uk offers 100ml of 12 year old Balsamico Tradizionale for £77.25, the same amount of a 25 yr old is almost double that.  This is an ingredient to be dripped, not glugged!

But there’s no need to resign ourselves to buying poor quality imitations of the real thing.  A little bit of label reading can make a big difference – and contrary to what you’d expect, spending more does not always guarantee better quality.

Andy Appleton, head chef at Fifteen Cornwall, is a man who knows about balsamic vinegar.  It’s an ingredient central to the simple Italian inspired food they serve up every day.

“We don’t used the traditional product as it’s too expensive, but we still use an aged balsamic made in Modena that retails at around £25 for 250ml.  We’ll use the high end balsamic for finishing dishes with a small amount, and use a cheaper product for cooking dishes like our slow roasted pork.  We apply the same principles to balsamic vinegar that we do to the various grades of olive oil we use.”

And it looks like it’s not just the UK that suffers from poor quality balsamic pretenders.  Even in Italy, there are expensive, elaborately packaged products that are nothing more than the usual wine vinegar/caramel/sugar mix.  So how do you choose the best one for your budget? Here’s how.

1. There are now numerous accreditation labels that give an idea of the quality of commercially produced balsamic vinegars. The ‘vine leaves’ system runs from 1 to 4 leaves, with 1 leaf recommended for everyday use and 4 leaves reserved for dripping over desserts and use in small quantities.  Balsamicvinegarguide.com gives a great breakdown of the rating system and how to use each type.

balsamic vinegar leaves

2. The Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) symbol gives assurance that the balsamic vinegar has been produced in the original regions of Italy responsible for traditional balsamic vinegar, namely Modena and Reggio Emilia:

 3. The Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Di Modena (CABM) controls the production of both traditional and commerical products (and were responsible for applying for the PGI status). I can recommend their website – it looks like it was made by a graffiti enthusiast… The label is often around the neck of the bottle:

4. Arguably more important than the above features, use your eyes.  Even with all of the above symbols and labels, you will still find that some balsamic vinegars contain artificial caramel colouring – even organic products can contain added sugar and natural caramel colouring, so check the ingredients carefully. And you may also find great vinegars without these accreditations – Belazu make a great balsamic vinegar used in many professional kitchens.  Aged balsamic vinegars will be thicker than the non-aged variety, so if you’re buying a more expensive vinegar, swill it around the bottle to check the thickness.

5. Most importantly of all – when you get it home, taste it.  If you like it, stick to it, if not, choose a different one next time.  

Using this guide you’ll find that you can get decent quality balsamic vinegar without spending an arm and a leg.  My every day balsamic is a colour and sugar free, 2 vine leaf, PGI, CABM labelled balsamic that costs only 99p for 250ml from a major UK supermarket.

So, when you have finally chosen your vinegar, what do you do with it?  Let’s give the final word to Andy Appleton: “Keep it simple, use it on a rocket salad,  the balsamic will cut through the peppery rocket.  But don’t use olive oil and balsamic vinegar together – you’ve got two quality ingredients that will stand out much better on their own.”

 

P.S. Given that my mother may read this post, at this point I need to say that it is only now I can appreciate how lucky I was to enjoy freshly made blackcurrant jelly, crisp golden wiener schnitzel, salads fresh from the garden and home made pizzas.  But not stewed apple…  

© Dan Main, 2011