Thursday 27 October 2011

Chicken soup casserole - souperole or cassoup?

Fresh carrot and leek for chicken soup or casserole

Perfection is a myth perpetuated to paralyse. Impossible expectations of symmetry. A signified sense of beauty. All this results in, is a self-loathing and an over critical expectation of a perceived beauty and we're not just talking vegetables here!

I'm still filled with the same sense of incredulity and indignation when I think of my first visit to New York and the high temple of food culture that is, Dean and Deluca. Carefully, precariously, sculpturally stacked fruit. Shiny, glossy, rosy, rosy red apples. Remember Snow White, and the poisoned one? Impossibly red and like the fairytale, so inviting. But the shock was maybe just as great - not coma inducing but a total non taste sensation. Tough, indigestible skin. Furry, fluffy flesh. No sign of crunch or juice dripping from your chin with this fellow.

These are the apples of interior designers - plenty of style but little soul. We are free to create our own sense of enchantment with the printed image - intoxicated by an imagined ideal. Truly feeding the eye is important but not at the expense of taste or flavour. Images are there to seduce us but buying fruit and veg is a multi sensorial practice not limited to the visual alone. 

Organic fruit and veg in the supermarket has suffered the same fate as all the others, homogeneity being the prerequisite of any self-respecting (i.e. clueless) buyer. There's a classic story my father tells of a chance encounter with such a person from the UK's biggest supermarket and a crate of oranges.

Being Sicilian and coming from a town know as paese delle aranci, land of oranges, and having connections in the airline industry he organised for a crate of his own oranges, fresh from the grove, to be air freighted over. The meeting with the supermarket was set up. The crate was carefully prized open and the delicious fruit revealed in all its individual glory. The buyer recoiled - "Why are these not individually wrapped? Why have they not been graded by size?" My father snatched away the crate and gave the man a withering stare "Are you not even going to taste them? Go to hell, I would rather let these oranges rot in the ground than do business with you." And with that he left.

We all fantasise about the fruit and veg we eat whilst away on holiday and bemoan the flavourless offerings that the supermarket has to offer. But if you have time on your hands you can source delicious highly individual specimens, like the ones photographed above. They were the base for a comforting and deeply satisfying chicken soup/casserole - is that a souperole or a cassoup?

Chicken soup is a panacea and maybe the most popular home remedy ever. Folklore and The Reader's Digest suggest that chicken soup can help prevent white blood cells from triggering inflammation and congestion in the upper airways. Rich steamy broth also helps loosen up congestion and garlic and onion have mild antiviral properties.

The whole veg make it a hearty meal as do some Cornish new potatoes on the side. Adding brandy towards the end of cooking gives the soup a clean, rich flavour.

Chicken soupy casserole
(Enough for 3)

2 whole organic chicken legs (drumstick and thigh)
2 shallots chopped roughly
1 large clove of garlic
300 grams button mushrooms cut in half
6 sage leaves
2 bay leaves
glass of white wine
2 leeks roughly chopped and washed
lots of carrots scrubbed
1 litre chicken stock
splosh of brandy

Season some plain flour and lightly coat the chicken with it.
Brown the chicken in 2tbl spoons of olive oil in casserole dish.
Remove chicken, add shallots and mushrooms and gently brown.
Deglaze the pan with the wine.
Add the bay and sage.
Add the carrots and leeks, best left in big chunks so they don't cook too quickly and still have some bite at the end.
Pour over enough stock to cover the chicken and vegetables.
Simmer with lid on for approx 40 mins or until chicken is cooked through.
Remove the chicken and most of the veg with a slotted spoon to a dish.
Turn up heat and reduce stock down by about a third.
Check the seasoning, add the brandy and cook for a few minutes.
Meanwhile discard the skin from the chicken and remove the meat from the bones and flake it bite size pieces.
Put all meat and veg back in the soup and heat through.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Autumn lunch

Mushroom, sage, and lardon quiche with beetroot and radish salad

Picnicking in the park in October is a rare and treasured experience. The slightly obtuse contradiction of crunchy leaves underfoot and warm, warm sun. Sensorial delights are further offset by melt in the mouth shortcrust pastry filled with mushrooms, sage and lardons and yet more earthy tones from a beetroot and radish salad.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Arancini - the taste of Sicily

Finally air borne, after a four hour delay spent not sampling the delights of Gatwick airport's culinary offerings, I happily tucked into the sandwiches I'd prepared at home almost half a day earlier. A curious combination of the English and Italian - provolone cheese with beetroot, lettuce and salad cream. I apologised to my neighbour who had not had the foresight to come prepared for the worst. His previously single minded focus on the short failings of budget airlines soon wavered and the conversation turned to food - what should he eat in Sicily...what a question! 

My mind began to drift and my taste buds tingled with anticipation. Delicious bread, crunchy green salad tomatoes, super salty pecorino cheese, firm cracked olives spiked with chilli, deep fried pastry ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips almost too sweet but a perfect counter balance to the eye watering bitterness of the shortest espresso in Italy. 

Pizza, pasta, fresh fish, ice cream these are global phenomena. The true tastes of Sicily are dictated by climate and geography. Sweet, salty, agrodolce - you automatically crave intensely flavoured food, it's a reflex. As you sweat in the heat, day and night, your body demands replenishment. Simple foods stuffed chockablock with three dimensional flavours. So back to the question - what should he eat in Sicily...well arancini of course.

Angela Hartnett serves a version of them as an appetiser at Murano - a sophisticated but ultimately a shadowy interpretation of the real thing. Arancini, literally means little oranges, but are a combination of spicy, herby meat ragu and peas, shrouded in sticky risotto rice, then covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. This is not a health food snack. This is messy food to be eaten with your fingers, letting the oil drip down your chin. There's a vegetarian option, shaped like a croquette, of spinach and mozzarella, or a conical one with ham and cheese. 

In Sicily arancini are eaten as an early evening snack, freshly prepared for 7pm when the pizzeria opens to tide you over until supper time. As we sat in the piazza under the watchful gaze of Padre Pio, with the church bells summoning believers to early evening mass, our repast was truly a joyful and blessed experience, a multi sensorial delight.