Monday, 29 August 2011

Food for in-between days

It may still be August, but it's summer in name only. The early promise of sun and heat has not so much tapered out, but generally proved to be a damp squib.

And with the nights seeming to lurch rather than draw in, it's increasingly difficult to play the menu game.

Sat inside, watching rain and cloud dominate the shortening days, instinct seems to demand comfort.

But if simple salads are hardly the order of the day, it's not yet time for chunky soups and hearty stews.

I had Friday off and wandered up to Broadway Market while it was still quiet, sitting down for a latte under cover and debating the food question.

In the end, I tried a Provençal recipe for lunch – red mullet, cleaned but with the liver intact and the scales still on, dampened and then sprinkled with course salt that is patted into the fish.

It's fried (according to my book) in a hot pan for one and a half minutes on one side and then turned carefully and fried for a further two minutes on the other side.

After that, you can sit with it on a plate and use your fingers to pull off the skin, which comes away easy with the salt-encrusted scales. The point is also to eat the liver.

Served with a simple persillade on the side, it smells divine. Unfortunately, the timings were not enough and it wasn't cooked properly below the flesh nearest the surface, so I didn't get to the liver either. But you really can pull the skin right off, easily and cleanly with your fingers.

Remember that I said I'm far from an expert when it comes to cooking with fish? Well, ya lives and ya learns. This is certainly worth trying again sometime, remembering the timings.

Given plenty of time, for the evening I tried something new. Making a bread dough with a little olive oil, it formed the base of a Catalan-style pissaladiere.

In essence, pissaladiere is a form of pizza from Provence, with a topping of onions that have been cooked long and slow, then a lattice pattern of anchovies and olives.

But when we'd had a version of it in Collioure at the end of our trip a year ago, the onion had been replaced with tomato. Which makes regional sense, in that the Catalans on both sides of the Pyrenees eat pan tomate – toasted bread rubbed with a cut garlic clove and then a ripe tomato, seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil and good salt.

Here then was a combination. And I'm pleased to say that, although no recipe seems to exist, it was a success.

The weekend proper left me with further questions. In the end, I bought a chicken and decided that, instead of my usual way of cooking such a bird, à la River Café Easy Two, I'd used another recipe from the same book that the mullet had come from, Flavours of Provence by Clare Ferguson – chicken with 40 cloves.

Now I've done this before, in the past. But not quite like this.

Previously, it had involved a fairly standard roasting, with unpeeled cloves scattered around. Well, that's how I remember it.

This recipe involves scattering a few anchovies in a roasting dish, together with some rinsed/drained capers. The bird goes on top, stuffed with masses of thyme (in my case, with some rosemary too, plus the remains of a left-over lemon and a few loose garlic cloves).

Rub it with a little olive oil (I used that from the tin of anchovies – waste not, want not and so on), season and add a bulb of garlic per person to the roasting dish.

Now Ferguson instructs that you cut the base off each bulb and then pop it into the dish with the rest of the bulb on top. This is a fiddle – not least when the stem of the garlic in the centre is so difficult to cut through that you risk all the individual cloves coming loose.

I made a cut in each to facilitate exchanges of flavour, but didn't try to cut them through fully.

Roast at 200˚C (ordinary oven) for 30 minutes – at which point, Ferguson says to remove the garlic, as it should be cooked. In other words, soft enough to squeeze out and spread on a piece of bread. No chance – well, not in my oven. So after turning the oven down (180˚C) I left it for longer.

The bird – and the author is calculating on one of around 1.5kg here – should then need around 35-40 minutes further. Which seemed to work fine – I even checked the internal temperature just to be sure.

Remove the chicken and garlic to a warm place and, on a hob, add a good glug of robust red wine to the juices and stir well. Add a couple of cloves of the garlic, squeezed from their papery skins and then pulped into the jus.

There's no need to add extra seasoning, as you already have the anchovies and capers. Just skim or drain the fat off and you're ready to go.

Serve – rather obviously – with good bread and the jus on the side.

And very nice it is too. In case you think that that amount of garlic sounds overwhelming, it becomes gloriously sweet and much milder when roasted like this.

For afters, I'd made creme Catalan earlier in the day – a set custard that's lighter than crème brûlée and flavoured with lemon, before being given a burnt sugar topping.

Not quite summer – not quite autumn.

The perfect sort of food for such in-between days.

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