Thursday, 11 March 2010

Artichoke Hearts - Easy when you know how

Each Spring, piles of spiky purple and green artichokes appear in Carcassonne market and they disappear just as quickly as the locals snap them up.

The smaller purple ones are sold in bunches (bouquets) of five, each bunch secured with an elastic band at the base to hold them together. The larger globe artichokes, looking like ornate green railing tops, are sold by the piece.

When living in the UK I would buy jars of artichoke hearts from delis and supermarkets but I had never thought about preparing them myself - maybe because they weren't as obviously on sale with the other fresh vegetables. But in France there they are, in all their purple majesty, piled high on the market stalls and being eagerly snapped up by one and all.

Their hard spiky outer leaves and thistle like appearance make them a little daunting to tackle without knowing how to deal with them. I have read many cookbooks that simply state "take your prepared artichokes" or "after you have removed the outer leaves and the choke" - all of which still left me feeling uncertain that I was doing the right thing.

As with everything in life, it all becomes crystal clear when someone shows you how to do it and so it was for me - it's also an interesting story.

One of my very first guests when 42rvh opened in March 2008 turned out to be a chef - not just any old chef, but a Michelin trained chef (under Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo followed by stints at Bibendum and Quaglino's in London) and I had to cook for him having never cooked professionally for anyone else before. It was hardly a gentle introduction. I was nervous anyway. I was on my own because Debrah was tied up in London that weekend ... and then I made things a whole lot worse.

The chef came back from the fabulous Saturday market with an array of food that he wanted to prepare for his girlfriend. He asked if he could borrow this and that and I said he could borrow my kitchen - so he invited me to dinner. He was now going to cook for me before I cooked for him the next day.

The big plus for me though was that I had an impromptu masterclass in my own kitchen which included how to prepare artichoke hearts and I have never looked back since. Here is how I bottle them up.

Look for small tight firm artichokes because they have very little or no choke in the centre. Remove the hard outer leaves using a small paring knife until you get to the lighter green softer inner ones - the heart. Trim off the stem at the base and cut across the top of the artichoke to remove the spiky tips. Cut the heart in half and remove the soft fluffy choke, if there is one. Rub the peeled hearts all over with lemon and drop into a pan containing water, lemon juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar and a couple of bayleaves. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the hearts are cooked (20 to 30 minutes). Leave to cool before transferring to sterilised jars and keep in the fridge.

It is a bit of a labour of love that produces a mound of waste compared to final product but they are delicious as a canape or as a starter with local cured ham or in a salad. One thing is certain - they don't last beyond a week and the next batch will be in the pan the following Saturday.

In case you were wondering, I am relieved to say that the dinner was a success. Phew!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Strawberry Compote

When I drew back the curtains on Saturday morning the sun shone brightly from a cloudless blue sky - a perfect market day. Well, not totally perfect because the temperature was only just above freezing. However, the sun promised warmth later in the day and reinforced the feeling that we are on the cusp of the end of Winter and the start of Spring.

And the start of Spring heralds the arrival of much anticipated new seasons produce. I use the local market as the source of all our fresh food at 42rvh, which means that the menus are completely governed by what is in season. There is an almost exhilarating feeling of anticipation about the arrival in the market of something that you have been denied for the last nine months.

So it is with asparagus, strawberries, broad beans and artichokes - all of which appeared in the market this weekend for the first time this year. I eagerly bought some of each, with my mind already racing ahead to how I would use each one back in the kitchen.

More of the others later but today is all about the early strawberries.

Actually they are not grown locally - they are imported from Spain and are no doubt grown in polytunnels. They are large and have a pithy core that needs to be cut out and, on their own, without the addition of sugar, are a little bitter - but their bright scarlet colour nestled in their wooden boxes marks a sea change from the dark greens and whites of winter vegetables that have dominated the market stalls for the last four months and heralds the promise of sweet juicy fruit to come.

These strawberries are perfect for jam or for compote, both of which we use on our breakfast trays at 42rvh - the compote with yoghurt and granola or in smoothies and it is the simplest thing in the world to make.

Simply cut the strawberries in half and cut out the pithy middles. Pop them in a pan with a jolly good sprinkling of caster sugar. Bring it to the boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes, skimming off any froth as it rises to the top. Put into sterilised jam jars and keep in the fridge for up to three weeks.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Cooking for pleasure

Today's cooking day was called off at the last minute because of client illness - which left me with a free day and a cooking urge to satisfy.

One trip to the market later and I was stood in my kitchen with some calves kidneys (rognons de genisse) and a lamb shank (jarret d'agneau) resting on the worktop in front of me. Both came from M Campaci in the meat market, in my view the purveyor of the best beef, veal and lamb in Carcassonne.

The kidneys had been beautifully prepared by the butcher and needed just the minimum of final trimming and cutting to size. I decided on a very simple pan fried treatment. I melted some butter over a medium high heat and gently fried the kidneys on both sides so they were still pink in the middle. Just before they were cooked, I added a dash of marsala, some grainy French mustard, some cream and seasoning which deglazed the pan whilst amalgamating into an unctuous dressing for the kidneys. Tip them onto a plate, sprinkle liberally with finelly chopped parsley and some more seasoning and eat with fresh buttered baguette. That is a top lunch.

Lamb shank, of course, demands a slow not a fast approach and rather than the traditional mashed potato that might be served with it in the UK I wanted something more French and more local and nothing could be more French and more local than the haricots blancs or lingots of Castelnaudary, the staple ingredient of the world famous dish of this region - cassoulet.

Brown or caramelise the lamb shank in melted butter and oil on all sides. Add chopped onion and garlic and cook without colouring until soft. Add a glass of white wine and reduce by half followed by some lamb or veal stock, a bay leaf, a couple of sprigs of rosemary or thyme (or both or whatever you have to hand) and the beans. Put the lid on and cook in the oven at a lowish temperature of 160 degrees for 2 hours. Then add some halved cherry tomatoes and some seasoning and put back in the oven for another hour with the lid off - you want the liquid to be absorbed by the beans but you don't want it to dry out so keep an eye on it.

The lamb should fall off the bone and the wine, stock and meat and tomato juices will have made a delicious sauce for the beans. Serve with a crisp dressed green salad, some baguette for mopping up those juices and a good Minervois or Corbieres red wine. Fabulous.