Monday, 27 April 2009

The red hot crucible of culinary creativity

After all the excitement of Friday night, it proved a most relaxing weekend, with some valuable time spent in the kitchen.

And a culinary project that I’ve spent years mulling is finally coming to fruition. The final thing is not there quite yet, but it’s moved a lot nearer.

It must be at least four years ago that I first had the idea. A close friend of mine, with whom I share the passion for food and cooking (he’s helped enormously with my culinary education, incidentally), had been making a pepper jelly, which went particularly superbly with pork sausages.

It brought back memories of the crab apple jelly that my mother – and her mother before her – used to make, and which we used in the same way. I’ve made efforts to get hold of some crab apples, but to no avail thus far. Another traditional English crop that is disappearing.

However, partly with that in mind, I’ve long had the feeling that a rhubarb jelly would work in the same way – cutting through sweet meat or fish. And that some chilli in it would work really well.

Finally, after years of saying this – and even being laughed at by a young couple when discussing the idea with the aforementioned friend during a bus journey – I have finally put such words into action.

I had done little reading, but knew that I had to add approximately the same weight of sugar as fruit and that lemons contain pectin.

So I chopped up my rhubarb, popped it in a pan with the sugar, a chilli and some lemon juice and cooked it, before eventually decanting into a sterilised jar and waiting. It refused to set.

Attempt two saw me try again, but adding the whole of three chopped lemons – pips, pith and all. It refused to set.

At this juncture, I tried a bit more reading. Memo to self: research never goes amiss.

Attempt three came on Saturday, after I’d sat up in bed that morning with a coffee and Jane Grigson’s English Food, trying to see if she dispensed any clues in the section on preserves.

And sure enough, the final preserves recipe (an early one from her daughter, Sophie) was a pepper jelly – and gave me the most vital clue. For some reason or other, pectin is negated by peppers, including chillies.

Once you know that, you can deal with it. I’d picked up preserving sugar a few days earlier – it has added pectin – and deployed that. Plus a whole lemon and a whole apple.

But what I’d also learnt was that my single-cook efforts were not enough and that I hadn’t realised just how much preserves really need to boil. Not simmer – boil.

This time, I started with all the fruit – and the chilli – and cooked briskly for around 20 minutes, then left it to strain for over three hours.

After that, I added sugar and seriously boiled it (losing some over the edge of the pan in the process). And I deployed the old technique of chilling a saucer and then seeing if a drop of the mixture sets on contact with it.

It took around 40 minutes, but it worked. And, decanted into a jar, this time, it actually set!

I tasted a little yesterday. It’s a decent taste, but with not enough chilli. I want more heat to come through (chillies fascinate me, as the heat isn’t the first thing you taste; it develops). I know now that, if I can get hold of some liquid pectin, I can adjust the taste – adding some lemon juice, more chilli and cutting back a bit on the sugar.

But what’s in that jar is good enough to serve – and will be available tonight with some poached salmon (alongside garlic-roasted and roughly chopped new potatoes, and asparagus).

The first victory in my first real culinary experiment has been won.

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