Pizza

We got a new toy…

It was a first try for our new wood-fired pizza oven this evening. On the whole it went pretty well – I learnt a lot, and we ate pizza.

There is more to learn, particularly about making and handling the dough, and getting it into the oven smoothly enough that you don’t have to back out of the endeavour and make a rescue calzone (see above left). I need to get the temperature up a bit in the oven (though at times it was a good fifty degrees or more hotter than our regular oven can manage)*. Giotto will be circling in his grave at the shape of my creations. The pizza shown below left should have been turned round a little sooner. The pizza shown below right should have been left in a little longer… But all in all, not bad for a first try.

The courgettes and the chard on the above pizzas are courtesy of our friend Kath who has an allotment nearby. The courgette slices were precooked on a griddle pan, and paired with a simple tomato sauce, taleggio and mozzarella. (And with tomato, mozzarella and cheddar in the unplanned calzone.) The chard was also precooked, the leaves with some smoked garlic and a hint of nutmeg and the stalks separately so they could sit atop the goat’s cheese and mozzarella to show off their colour.

Weather permitting, we have more pizza sessions planned over the next few weeks. Outdoor eating is enjoyable, especially now eased lockdown restrictions permit it to be done with friends. On the whole I can take or leave barbecues. Maybe I’d be more excited by them if I were a meat eater, but as a vegetarian they seem to just be a not-as-good-as-indoor way of cooking (though a week ago I ate some perfectly-cooked corn from our friend Mark’s barbecue that has suggested I might need a rethink…). Particularly if I can get the pizza oven running even hotter than it was this evening, I’ll have a way of cooking that is actively better than the non al fresco alternative.

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* A bit of reading on the internet suggests that the problem of oven temperature may be due to using softwood rather than hardwood. Given that my sense of humour is more smutty than the inside of the oven’s chimney, I’d best stop here.

Celery and seaweed

I got given some celery by my dad, who said he didn’t want it as this particular celery was rather strong and astringent. I’m a big fan of celery and have been making a lot of celery-heavy noodle soups recently. This one is light but flavoursome – the kombu (dried kelp used for making stock, especially in Japan) and celery bring real savoury depth. You could omit the spices if you wanted and still have a delicious soup. You could add a little bit of grated fresh ginger or, to really go for the theme of this post, some wakame seaweed.

Makes two good bowls full.

1 head unwanted, unloved celery
1 star anise
2 black cardamom
4 cloves
Salt
About a tablespoon of minced ginger
A sheet and a half of kombu (sheets are about 10″ x 4″)
1 teaspoon sugar
A bale of rice noodles
A couple of spring onions

Slice the celery, and fry it for a few minutes with the star anise, cardamom and cloves and a good pinch of salt.
Add the ginger and fry for a minute or so more.
Add about three mugs of boiling water, the kombu and the sugar. Cook over a medium heat for ten to fifteen minutes until the celery is just soft. Top up with boiling water as needed if it starts to get a bit dry. Add the noodles and cook for four or five minutes more. Top up the water again to the desired soupiness. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Finish with sliced spring onions.

 

Kimchi

I’ve been eating kimchi since 2011. I know the date because I’ve just searched my emails to try and find a long rant I had sent my friend Liz on the subject, and although the rant isn’t there – it may have been by text message, or maybe I went old school and sent an actual paper-based letter – there is a message to someone else from 2011 talking about my new-found love of Korean fermented cabbage.

(Kimchi, and other fermented foods, have acquired a distinct whiff of hipsterism along with the whiff of fermentation.* An internet search for “kimchi hipster” brings up assorted articles from the mid-2010s about hipsters loving kimchi. This is likely a few years after hipsters started to get excited about kimchi, meaning the timing of my discovery of it sits squarely in the ‘part of the problem’ column; my much more recent first attempt at making kimchi – see below – puts me in the ‘on the bandwagon, rather late’ column. As ever, it’s fun to write about this but it isn’t a solid base on which to make culinary decisions.)

The gist of the rant was that I had read about Kimchi in Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of the Far East, a book that I habitually browse whenever I visit my parents. Fermented vegetables (most iconically Chinese leaf, aka Napa cabbage), pungent with garlic, ginger and chilli? Yes, that sounds like something I want to try. Unfortunately, the pungency tends also to come from oysters, shrimp and other seafood sources. But worth a look to see what’s available…

I took a trip to Hang Sing, one of Leeds’ Chinese supermarkets. There in the fridge I found pots of kimchi, including the Chongga brand**. I read the ingredients, and to my delight there was no seafood nor fish included. Other brands, and other varieties of Chongga kimchi (such as radish kimchi) were not vegetarian, but this was.

On returning home, I opened the pot, and was hit with a most exciting smell: enticingly sour, rich with the aroma of garlic, a tingle of chilli heat. And the taste!… I ate my way through five or six pots over the next few weeks. Kimchi with rice. Kimchi in stir-fries. Kimchi in noodle soup. Kimchi on toast, for breakfast. My now-ex-wife, not a fan of pungent, strong foods at the best of times and especially not at breakfast, looked aghast for much of these weeks.

Stocking up on my fourth or fifth round of kimchi back at Hang Sing Hong, I paused on a whim to re-read the ingredients. And there it was. “Anchovy”.

The packaging was the same apart from this change to the ingredients. Whether Chongga have different recipes, some vegetarian and some not, I don’t know. (I’ve been unable to find a definitive answer to this question.) Dejected, I shut the fridge door – after reading the ingredients of every variety of kimchi in there, to no avail.

A few months later, I found a jar of vegetarian kimchi (again in Hang Sing Hong. It was on the shelf rather than in the fridge – perhaps indicating that the fermentation had been more thoroughly stopped rather than simply slowed right down as is the case with chilled kimchi). This kimchi was sour, pungent, hot, all the things that I was looking for, but just didn’t cut it. It lacked the umami depth that had made the refrigerated Chongga kimchi so addictive. The kind of depth that more easily comes from things like anchovies and oysters than from vegetables alone. Have Chongga discovered the secret to animal-free kimchi? Or was there a mix-up in the labelling department? (In writing this post, I’ve had another look on the internet and still been unable to find anything to confirm whether or not the recipe varies, or that there have been some mishaps with labelling. In the absence of any information, I’m happy to assume that their listed ingredients are accurate.)

Skipping ahead a year or two: I was again in Hang Sing Hong, and glanced at the kimchi section of the fridges on my way past. The same rows of kimchi – Chongga and others were there. But here was a slight difference… Chongga had added to the labels on the pots of regular kimchi the description “All Natural / Probiotic”. As if being addictively delicious isn’t enough, kimchi (like many fermented foods) is good for you. Could it be that this seeming move to tap into a different market was accompanied by the removal of fishy animals?

I ate my way through five or six pots of this indeed-seafood-free kimchi over the next few weeks. Kimchi with rice. Kimchi in stir-fries. Kimchi in noodle soup. Kimchi on toast, for breakfast. My ex-wife continued to look aghast.

Can you tell where this is going? Yes, the brand that stole and then broke my heart had got back together with me for a wild fling, only to turn its back on me once again and cavort with marine creatures. Other vegetarian brands of kimchi have been tried, and failed to live up to my hopes, though some get fairly close. At the time of writing I have an unopened pot of Chongga kimchi in the fridge that’s a year past its best before date, a pot from the third wave of seemingly vegetarian Chongga kimchi.

 

MAKING KIMCHI

Kimchi making and made

(left): Kimchi, prepared and in a jar ready to seal and ferment. There’s a food bag with water in to help keep the topmost layer of vegetables below the seasoning.
(right): Fermented for five days and then put in the fridge for a further day. 

Last week, I finally made my own kimchi. This was prompted by seeing Felicity Cloake’s recipe on The Guardian’s website, and also informed by reading a non-vegetarian recipe and a vegetarian one on koreanbapsang.com. I used a head of Chinese leaf, cut into thick strips, a medium-sized daikon cut into long strips around 5mm square cross-section, and a peeled and thinly sliced apple. To make the chilli, garlic and ginger seasoning I used kombu [kelp] stock, and added a dessertspoon each of dried wakame and dulse seaweeds. This 3-Hit Kombo [© Will Chalk – I can’t claim credit for this particular dodgy pun, unfortunately] would, I hoped, provide some of that marine umami that anchovies and their aquatic friends bring.

After five days fermenting, I gave it a try. It’s good stuff. Not quite as savoury-delicious as the Chongga brand, but for a first attempt I am mightily pleased, and will bump up the seaweed content a bit next time, perhaps sneaking in a bit of miso paste for added fermented umami goodness. And this time, my rantings will be saved for posterity, at least for as long as this blog is active.

 

AN UPDATE, A WEEK AFTER PUTTING THE JAR IN THE FRIDGE

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Well, that was fun while it lasted. The jar broke in the fridge. It’s possible this was due to a build-up of pressure I suppose, though being refrigerated is supposed to significantly reduce the rate of fermentation. There may have been a weakness in the jar (I think it’s a cheap off-brand jar from a discount store). New, hopefully stronger, jars are on order.

 

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* Bread, beer and wine are of course much better-established in this country than most fermented foods; but look to sourdough, craft beer, and wild yeast wines for examples of a resurgent interest in making versions of fermented staples.

** This blog has no affiliation to Chongga, nor is it intended as an endorsement nor criticism of the brand. I haven’t named other brands because I can’t remember any that I have tried. There is also no affiliation to Hang Sing Hong, though I’d like to note that they are always lovely in there and have lots of exciting things to buy.

Repeating myself again

Like a lot of people, I’ve been doing online ‘pub’ quizzes with friends. Last week, Cath and I were the setters, and for the introductory slide* of our food picture round I looked at the photos stored on my phone. I don’t take photos of everything I cook and/or eat, but if I think I might write about it or if I want to illustrate chat with friends on the subject of cooking – random “look what’s for tea” pictures – I’ll get some snaps.

REPEATING MYSELF, AGAIN

What struck me was that many of my recent pictures were of things that I have previously written about on this blog. Roast potato curry. Dhal. Peperoni alla suocera (aka mother-in-law peppers). Miso-based soup with dumplings. Several loaves of bread. Sure, there were novel dishes in there too [and bread-making is a very recent addition to my rotation of regulars], and to varying degrees the recipe for the repeat dishes is different each time according to whim and what needs using up; but, like pretty much everyone, there are things I come back to again and again.

It’s a rare post on this blog that doesn’t link back to a previous post** – I expand on earlier ideas, or find resonances between them and new thoughts. This is much like the above description of cooking: a series of themes and variations.

And I don’t claim that any dish I refer to nor recipe I include is wholly original nor especially innovative. People have been cooking for millennia, learning from each other, sharing ingredients and techniques, and have spent the last couple of decades putting far more of this on the internet than anybody really needs. Any idea that is new to me is bound to come up in one form or another from a quick internet search. And I certainly don’t have millennia available to me to discover anew all the techniques that have been honed in humanity’s trudge from caves and campfires to gas cookers and google.

A few years ago I was reading about the properties of agar, the seaweed-derived jellifying agent: on reading that liquid with agar sets when it cools to around 40ºC, but does not liquify again until reaching around 85ºC, I had the inspired idea of making ‘soup wontons’ – inside out wonton soup, where an agar-set piece of soup was wrapped in a wonton skin and then cooked so that it became liquid inside. I mentioned this to my friend Phil, who at the time was living in Hong Kong and learning all sorts of interesting things about Chinese cookery, and he referred me to Xiao Long Bao, which is the same idea but with a gelatine-set filling and a slightly different pastry.

REPEATING MYSELF. AGAIN.

Between starting and finishing this blog post, I’ve made my first ever batch of kimchi. This cries out for a blog post – cooking something I’ve never cooked before. But I know that somewhere in the depths of the last decade’s sent email there is a long piece about kimchi that I sent to someone, so I might have to dig that out and recycle it as the intro; if not, I’ll no doubt write something similar.

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* Yes, we had an introductory slide. I love PowerPoint and will take any excuse to fiddle around with pictures to make slides. It added nothing of value to the quiz, but amused me for half an hour on a Saturday afternoon.

** I’ve avoided linking back to previous posts in this one, as much as anything to avoid the time it would take finding all the old posts and inserting the hyperlinks given just how many cross-references there are.

Cheese and onion pakoras

I’ve been meaning to experiment with these shallow-fried fritters for a while. The relatively scant amount of batter and thin shape mean there is more surface area – especially if you don’t pack them down in the pan, leaving more room for the hot oil to get in and make golden crispy edges.

Black salt – also called kala namak – is in fact grey-pink, and while it is mostly just regular salt, there are sulphurous salts in there too that give it its colour and a distinctly pungent smell (it’s used in vegan recipes that mimic scrambled eggs). If you don’t have black salt, just use more regular salt. Vary the chilli according to taste.

 

PANEER AND SPRING ONION PAKORAS
Makes 6 pakoras around 10cm diameter

3 heaped dessertspoons gram flour [chick pea flour]
1 teaspoon ajwain seed
1 teaspoon kalonji [black onion seed]
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon black salt
1 good dessertspoon garam masala
1 dessertspoon Kashmiri chilli powder [or a bit less of regular chilli powder]

200g paneer
Spring onions – I used 8, most of which were around 1cm diameter… Around 1½ typical-sized bunches would do it

Lightly roast the ajwain and kalonji in a dry pan. Add to a bowl with the remaining spices, salts, and gram flour. Mix to a thick paste with half a mug of water. Leave the mix to stand for twenty minutes.

Cut the paneer into thin sticks – I’d say one edge should be around 2mm thick, but they can be wider on the other long faces. (Feel free to spend time on super-precise julienned strips, or to have the strips a bit thicker.) Cut the spring onions into long thin strips. Fold into the batter so everything is fairly evenly mixed.

Heat around 5mm oil over a medium-high heat, and drop in large spoons of the mix to make blobs around 10cm diameter and 1cm thick. Tuck any loose strands of paneer or onion in a bit but don’t pack the pakoras down. After three or four minutes, swirl the pan so the oil can get into any crevices better. After another couple of minutes turn the pakoras and repeat – adjust the timing if the first side is under- or overcooked, aiming for a rich golden crust. Flip and cook the first side again if needed once the second side is done.

You may get some darker crispy bits around the edges, but as long as they don’t burn these will be delicious.

Drain on kitchen paper, and serve. (We had them with dhal, green beans braised with garlic, tomato and spices, and roast potato curry, with a quick dip made of aubergine pickle mixed with yoghurt.)

Pakora process