Wednesday, July 14, 2004

As Cooks Go ...

I've been hitting the books pretty hard lately. To be precise I've been hitting the recipe books, in particular The Essential Madhur Jaffrey, Italian Food by Elizabeth David (co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking) and Zeppo Bakunin's copy of the PWMU Cookey Book. This is what happens when you move in with someone who expects you to be a gourmet cook; you find yourself under pressure to deliver, and you spend a lot of time re-acquainting yourself with basic stuff that you used to take for granted, like how to crack an egg.

I'm not convinced that it's been paying off, particularly when it comes to cookery in the Indian style, which is what I'm looking to Madhur Jaffrey for. I know, this isn't the sort of acerbic comment on political events you came here looking for, nor is it particularly irascible, but give it time; I'm still warming up after a hiatus of more than 40 days, so bear with me. In any event, there's only so many jokes you can make about John Howard's prime ministership before you start repeating yourself and you'd be damn lucky if you end up having to take off at least one sock to count them.

Madhur Jaffrey has been high on the reading list because I've been looking for "interesting things to do with mince". I think you'll admit that this is a challenge; mince is inherently boring in the same way that ivy is inherently garden waste (since moving into our new place, Zeppo Bakunin and I have thrown out 1.25 cubic meters of the stuff; we think it was orginally planted as ground cover, but sometime during the past twelve to fifteen years (I counted the growth rings on one of the stems we cut down) it turned into a rampant fence and generic-shrub-with-orange-berries-that-give-birds-diorrhea cover as well). So far the results I've had following Ms Jaffrey's recipes have been a bit disappointing and I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth the effort. It's a bit like trying to convince yourself that John Howard has the quality of statesmanship, which I suppose makes him the political equivalent of mince and I may have to take that sock off after all.

I used to get perfectly acceptable results by grabbing a jar of Patak's Madras paste at the supermarket and tossing it in a pot with some chopped onions, garlic and tinned tomatoes. Which is a lot easier than the rigmarole of measuring out spices onto a saucer in at least two piles (one to go in with the browning mince, the other to go in when you add the tinned tomatoes), plus the intellectual effort of working out how many teaspoons of crushed garlic out of a jar of the same make up four cloves and how many teaspoons of crushed ginger amount to "1 piece fresh ginger 5 cm (2 inches) long and 2.5 cm (1 inch wide), peeled and coarsely chopped".

I don't think I really have the right attitude to get the best results from Madhur Jaffrey's recipes anyway. Take the recipe for kheema (minced meat) of which Ms Jaffrey says "This is the first Indian dish all Indian students abroad learn to make." It includes the following instruction:

... In about 10 seconds, when the peppers turn dark, add paste from blender, keeping your face averted.

I'd take that as a pretty clear indication that, despite the fact that in some of Ms Jaffrey's recipes various ingredients are identified as "optional" or "if available", when it comes down to putting the whole dish together, you have to approach the task with a proper sense of religious dedication. On that score, I'm afraid I'm an abject failure; I can't see any good reason why I should be restricted to seeing only the nether parts of what I'm cooking. In fact, I'd rather not see the nether parts of what I'm cooking at all, because I find the whole idea of cooking nether parts rather unappetising.

Even if I were inclined to follow a recipe with the sort of religious devotion Ms Jaffrey implicitly demands, I couldn't; I don't have a blender, so there's no way that I can turn two medium sized onions, four cloves of garlic and the aforesaid piece of ginger into a "paste from blender"; the best I can manage is a pile of finely diced onion (see Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the definitive approach to dicing onions; be sure that you use a very sharp knife and well refrigerated onions) topped with similarly diced ginger and garlic. Unless you really want to show off your knife technique, you might as well use the stuff in jars. I really don't have time for quasi-religious culinary rituals that require the use of electricity. Unless it's beating egg whites into stiff peaks; one of those electric beater things will spare you a lot of inflammation of the elbow and shoulder joints.

Elizabeth David's Italian Food got on the reading list because I was looking for good desserty/cakey things that I could whip up that would fit within budget. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a recipe for a killer chocolate cake but it takes about 800 grams of good quality dark cooking chocolate to do it justice (around 400 for the cake from memory, and another 400 for the ganache, (which you'll find in Jacques Pepin's La Technique - or Larousse, which has specific recipes for the essential stuff, and enough descriptive notes on obscure things like panade that you can figure something out for yourself). When you factor in the eggs and butter (but not the flour, which you should have in the larder already), it costs big time to produce a good quality chocolate cake. And I'd be working with a new, totally unfamiliar, oven, so I'm not going to spend all those ackers until I know how the bastard behaves. Nor until I have some occasion that warrants all the time, effort and money that I'd have to put in.

So I was looking for an alternative to cooking up elaborate and hideously expensive chocolate cakes, and I found a recipe for Torrone Molle, which requires no baking at all. You need 6 ounces each of cocoa, butter, sugar, ground almonds and plain biscuits such as "Petit Buerre or Osborne"; I'm not sure what that translates to in an Australian supermarket, I suppose you could see how you get on with Arnott's Scotch Fingers or Milk Arrowroot. You also need one whole egg and one egg yolk. If you don't know how to acquire an egg yolk, ask your granny; as long as you haven't ignored the proverbial advice, I'm sure you'll find her guidance useful. If you haven't, please don't invite me around to your place for coffee and Torrone Molle; I'm not confident that it will be hygienic. And if your idea of good coffee is that Vietnamese weasel coffee stuff, just forget the whole idea.

Basically, you combine the butter and cocoa into a soft paste, then stir in the ground almonds; melt the sugar in a saucepan with a little water and add it to the cocoa mixture (if you've got a good kitchen reference, like Larousse, check out the section on stock sugar syrups for guidance); stir in the eggs and finally the biscuits and turn the whole mixture into an oiled turban mould and put it in the fridge. I'm not sure waht a turban mould is, but Ms David provides the following informative footnote:

That [the turban mould] is what was used by Lina, the Tuscan cook who introduced me to this delicious recipe, rather different from the one usually known under this name in Italy. The torrone is easier to turn out from a rectangular loaf tin, or a cake tin with a removable base. The oil should be sweet almond oil (to be bought from the chemist) - E.D. 1963

If this all sounds too elaborate, you might prefer a simpler home grown equivalent. Particularly if your granny's advice on the egg yolk has left you with the impression that separating eggs involves considerable discomfort in the nether parts. According to Zeppo Bakunin's copy of the PMWU Cookery Book you'll need 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons cocoa, 1 egg and 250 gram biscuits.

You put the butter, sugar and cocoa in a saucepan over low heat and dissolve the sugar. Once it's dissolved, take it off the heat and add the egg. Then combine it with the crushed biscuits. If you have a turban mould coated with sweet almond oil from the chemist, you could toss the mixture in that and pass it off as Torrone Molle as found on page 277 of the Penguin edition of Italian Food by Elizabeth David. If, like the rest of us mere mortals, you don't, you'll just have to settle for pressing it into a flat tin, putting chocolate icing over it, cutting it into squares and calling it "Hedgehog". I think that it will probably taste more or less the same.