Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Eating raw oysters is a uniquely invigorating experience; a bit like battery-licking for grown-ups. It seems that we can taste the elements they contain: zinc, calcium, copper, iodine, magnesium. And no other food conjures up a physical feature of the Earth as strongly as a bracing, salty, tangy oyster: the essence of the sea in edible form.
Oysters can now be obtained throughout the year but are usually better outside of their spawning period (when the waters are colder).
Shells found on archaeological sites indicate that people were eating oysters 6,000 years ago (how did they open them without an oyster knife?).
For much of recorded history they have been regarded a simple form of sustenance, punctuated by occasional periods in which they reached the status of delicacy. In Britain they shifted from stomach-filler to luxury food with the arrival of the Romans, largely disappeared from the diet after they left, before returning to favour sometime around the eight century.
By Victorian times, pickled oysters were a common food of the poor in London (and in the American South in the early twentieth century the Po-Boy, a type of sandwich featuring oysters in a baguette, fuelled blue collar workers). The era of cheap oysters came to an end quite abruptly after oyster beds became exhausted due to overfishing and pollution.
Oysters are members of the family Ostreidae and the common European oyster is named Ostrea edulis. Oysters are bivalve molluscs found near the bottom of the sea in coastal areas. The upper shell (valve) is flattish and is attached by an elastic ligament hinge to the lower, bowl-shaped shell. Oysters become sexually mature at around three years old and may switch between male and female several times during their life span.
Oysters are high in protein and low in fat. They are rich in zinc and contain many other minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, iodine, magnesium and selenium.
Oysters should be stored at a low temperature and smell briny-fresh. The shells should be clean, bright, tightly-closed and unbroken.
Size, shape and flavour vary considerably. The best from British and Irish waters are considered to be those from Colchester, Whitstable, the Helford and Galway. Natives are pricier and generally thought of as the superior oyster - don't bother using them for cooked dishes. Pacific or rock oysters tend to have a frillier shell and smaller, milder meat.
Unopened (live) oysters can be kept in the fridge, covered in wet kitchen towels, for two or three days - keep a check on them and discard any that open. Do not store in an airtight container, or under fresh water, as this will cause them to die.
Shucked oysters can be kept refrigerated in a sealed container for four or five days. They can also be frozen (previously frozen oysters are better for cooking than eating raw).
Ask your fish seller to open your oysters, retaining the shells (if required) and liquor. If you really want to shuck your own, hold an oyster (deeper shell down) in a hand protected with a work glove or wrapped tea towel. Insert an oyster knife (or wide, short screwdriver) between the two halves of the shell and gradually prise apart, working your way around to the hinge and saving as much liquor as possible. Discard any oysters that are dry or do not smell fresh.
Raw oysters are best with a squeeze of lemon and a pint of Guinness. A drop of Tabasco sauce can be added if desired. Cooking oysters can temper the salty tang and intensify the creaminess of the flavour. Grilling or poaching produce great results in many recipes (see below).
"You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed."
- Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
Oysters Au Gratin - http://www.seafish.org/plate/details.asp?c
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
You may need to look beyond the supermarket shelves to find them, but there's an exciting variety of apples from orchards - sharp apples, sweet apples, crunchy apples, softer-fleshed apples, red apples, yellow apples, green apples and everything in between. Many are perfect for enjoying on their own as a delicious, healthy, energy-boosting snack. And when used as an ingredient they can be transformed into some of THE great desserts, combining magically with flavours such as caramel, cinnamon or blackberries.
Although the origins of the apple are not clear, it is almost certainly one of the first fruits to have been cultivated. Apples were a favourite of the ancient Greeks and considered a luxury fruit by the Romans.
The apples familiar to us are a cultivated product, far removed from the small, sour crab apples that were the wild ancestors. Today apples are grown across the globe outside of tropical regions. China is by far the largest apple producing country, responsible for over 40% of the world's output.
The apple (Malus pumila) is a member of the Rosaceae family, which includes roses, strawberries, raspberries, apricots, plums and pears. There are thought to be over 7,000 varieties of apple.
Apples are rich in sugars (glucose, fructose, and sucrose). They contain useful amounts of fibre, vitamin C and potassium. Guercetin, a flavonoid that may help protect against heart disease, is also present.
The apples sold in supermarkets are varieties developed for good disease resistance or storage properties, often at the expense of flavour. As Elspeth Huxley (author of The Flame Trees of Thika and other books) wrote: "You cannot sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright." For more interesting and flavoursome varieties, look out for growers' stalls in farmers' markets or visit a pick your own orchard.
Apples should be firm with taught unbroken skins. Many varieties have naturally freckled or dull matt surfaces - don't shy away from those without the high-sheen finish supermarkets have led us to expect. The odd blemish on apples grown with low/no pesticides is nothing to be afraid of. The fragrance of an apple is a good indicator of freshness and quality.
All 'eating' apples can be used in cooking but the opposite is not the case. Bramley is the definitive English cooking apple and it bakes to a wonderful fluffy texture. For cooked dishes requiring a firmer texture (such as apple tarts), Cox or Granny Smith are a reliable choice.
Other main UK varieties include:
Egremont Russet (sweet, crisp and nutty - fantastic with a cheese board or when cooked with warm spice flavours)
Elstar (juicy, sweet and honeyed - makes a great tarte tatin)
Spartan (well balanced flavour - enjoy on its own)
Worcester Pearmain (our top choice for juicing)
There are dozens of other varieties that are less widely available but often excellent; if you see a type you've never heard of, give it a try.
Apples should be kept cool, in a plastic bag, in the fridge (or larder or garage) rather than the fruit bowl - the rate at which apples lose flavour and juiciness is proportional to the temperature at which they are stored. Apples are much less perishable than most fruit and many varieties will keep for a month or longer if bought fresh (those sold in shops may have been in storage for some time) and kept cool.
Give apples a thorough scrub and rinse - apple trees are often treated with an aggressive program of chemical sprays.
If peeling or slicing apples, drop the pieces in water acidulated with lemon juice to help prevent them oxidising (and so discolouring). Apple seeds contain amygdalin, a naturally occurring cyanide and sugar compound that degrades into hydrogen cyanide, so are best avoided.
Between 1987 and 2003 the number of commercially-active UK apple growers declined from around 1,500 to 500 and production fell from over 250,000 tonnes to less than 150,000 tonnes a year. Demand for apples over this period remained relatively stable and we're now importing more and more apples from South Africa, Chile, the USA and New Zealand, and even France and Italy where the growing season is basically the same as here.
The decline of apple growing in this country leaves us with impoverished choices, in terms of variety and quality, at a higher cost to the environment. Whilst big supermarkets' obsession with uniform, easy-store produce may be partly to blame, as consumers we all play a part. There's no real excuse for buying any apples grown outside the UK between late September and the end of the year.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Guinea fowl makes a great alternative to chicken for a warming dinner on an autumn night. It has a lovely flavour that is slightly gamey but very subtle (much less assertive than pheasant or grouse). It can be magnificent when cooked simply or when combined with more robust flavours.
The guinea fowl is native to West Africa and is known to have been a part of the diet of the ancient Egyptians. It appears in Roman mosaics but did not become widely eaten in Europe until the Portuguese began importing the birds from Guinea (their colony) in the sixteenth century. Guinea fowl then spread quickly across western and northern Europe and have been reared for the table in this country since Elizabethan times.
Guinea fowl are an important food throughout much of Africa, south of the Sahara, and are found in every region of the world. France, Belgium and Italy are amongst the largest producers in Europe.
A small bird related to the chicken and partridge, guinea fowl include four or five species, the most common being Numida meleagris.
Guinea fowl are hardy birds that forage for food and so are often farmed in free-range or semi-wild facilities where they also perform a valuable pest control function. They have an acute awareness of predators and so are valued for their role as a 'watchdog', alerting farmers to any henhouse intrusions. It is reported that they have the ability to distinguish between farmers' family members and strangers.
Guinea fowl meat is high in protein and low in cholesterol. It is a good source of vitamin B6, selenium and niacin.
Look for free-range guinea fowl, rather than intensively-reared birds. Many butchers sell free-range guinea fowl imported from France.
Guinea fowl eggs are excellent and worth buying if you see some.
With giblets removed, a whole guinea fowl will keep in the fridge for 3 or 4 days.
Guinea fowl is prepared in much the same way as chicken. As it is generally a smaller bird, cooking methods that help retain moistness are recommended (e.g. pot roasting or casseroling). Barding or regular basting are advisable when roasting guinea fowl. Legs and wings are also excellent if marinated for a few hours before grilling.
The name of the common species of guinea fowl, meleagris, comes from a story in Greek mythology. Meleager, prince of Macedon, was killed by his mother after murdering his uncles. Meleager's sisters, weeping in grief, are turned into guinea-hens and their tears form the pearl-shaped markings found on the bird's feathers.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Leeks are related to garlic and onions but have a much subtler, sweeter and more sophisticated flavour. They can be used to enrich soups or stews and they partner brilliantly with potato and with cheese to form tasty side-dishes and suppers that comfort and satisfy throughout the autumn and winter.
Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C as well as iron and fibre. They provide many of the health-giving benefits associated with garlic and onions, such as promoting the functioning of the blood and the heart.
Go for small or medium size leeks; large leeks (more than about an inch in diameter) are likely to be tough and woody. Leaf tops should be fresh and green, the root end should be unblemished and yield very slightly to pressure. Buy more than needed (around double by weight) to allow for losses due to trimming.
Stored loosely wrapped in plastic (to keep them from drying out and to contain their smell) they will keep in the fridge for a week.
Remove any tired or damaged outer leaves. Trim the rootlets at the base and cut off around a half to two thirds of the dark green tops. Partially cut the leeks in half lengthwise, starting at the middle and running the knife up to the green tops. Make a second lengthwise cut perpendicular to the first, allowing you to fan out the leaves. Give them a good rinse to remove the dirt that can get trapped inside as the leek grows. If you’re not cooking the leeks whole then give them another wash after chopping them.
Undercooked leeks are tough and chewy and overcooked leeks can take on an undesirable squidgy texture. Cook until just tender, testing by piercing the base with a knife. Braising in a moderate oven will take anything from 10 to 30 minutes depending on size. They can also be boiled or steamed.
Legend has it that the Welsh adopted the vegetable as a national emblem in the seventh century when a Welsh army triumphed against the Saxons after wearing leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their enemy.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
Plums come in many guises - tart or very sweet; for cooking or for eating; and in a range of rich hues from light greens and yellows to dark reds and purples.
The oldest of the numerous plum varieties is thought to be Prunus salicina, known as Japanese plum although it was originally introduced to Japan from its native China. The European plum has been cultivated since ancient times and probably originated in central or south-eastern Europe. The Greeks imported plums from Syria and they were later introduced to northern Europe by the Romans.
Plums have been eaten in England for centuries. They were grown in the gardens of medieval monasteries and are referred to in the writings of Chaucer from the fourteenth century. The ever popular Victoria plum was first cultivated in Sussex in the 1840s.
There are now more than 300 varieties of plum in Britain and they grow in temperate regions across the globe.
Plums are a good source of potassium, fibre and vitamins A and C. They are rich in antioxidants and also contain the amino acid tryptophan which is used by the body to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Plums should be plump, smooth and well coloured. Ripe plums yield to gentle pressure and have an inviting aroma. Firmer plums will ripen and soften at home. If you are going to be using plums in cooking, choose ones that are just on the firm side of ripe.
Keep unripe plums at room temperature to ripen. Ripe plums can be refrigerated for a few days (allow them to reach room temperature before eating). Plums freeze well; halve and remove the stones first to prevent the flavour from being impaired.
Plums should be washed before use. The skin is generally sharper than the flesh and it is often best to leave it on but, for a mellower, sweeter flavour, plums can be easily skinned as you would a tomato (cut a small cross in the skin and blanch in boiling water for 10 seconds before peeling).
Roasting, stewing or poaching are all excellent cooking methods.
Certain types of plum are dried to make prunes. The best prunes are generally acknowledged to be prunes d'Agen from south-west France, which feature in a number of meat and game dishes of the region such as Lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes).
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