Friday, 22 June 2012

A different approach

For cooks, ingredients are the building blocks of any dish. What we put in can seriously affect the end result, so we will scrutinise, debate, agonise and obsess over our ingredients. Some have majestic reputations and are heinously expensive (step forward, saffron), while others cost next to nothing yet taste like manna from heaven (pretty much anything very local and in season). But, whatever its beginnings, when we find something good - really, mouth-wateringly, undeniably marvellous - it gets under our skin and stays close to our heart, a well-loved element that we weave into the food we serve. Everyone has their own favourites and, once you start, the list can be never-ending, but here are some of mine: Madagascan vanilla pods (and pure extract), Maldon sea salt, Green & Black’s 70% chocolate, Colman’s English mustard (a condiment rather than an ingredient, but one I cannot be without), premium Canadian maple syrup, organic unwaxed lemons and limes (for their zest and juice, which I put in seemingly everything I make)… To me, these may feel like “essentials” but they are, I admit, luxury items. You could, let’s face it, cook perfectly adequately without them. It wouldn’t be like asking someone to cook without the real basics: butter, eggs, wheat, sugar, meat, milk…

Grilled Cornish mackerel on a bed of samphire
Yet these and many other ingredients are, of course, exactly what we are being asked to omit from our meals on an increasingly regular basis. The only allergies I was aware of as a child were few, far between and unintelligible. “I’m allergic to X, Y or Z” was usually a kid’s excuse for “I don’t like…” - for example one girl’s egg “allergy” that was very pronounced around omelettes and quiches, yet vanished as she scoffed ice cream (made with raw eggs), real mayonnaise or a rich chocolate mousse. But then I started to encounter the real thing - stories of tragic deaths from anaphylactic reactions to nuts, rampant eczema brought on by cow’s milk, debilitating stomach cramps after eating wheat. You can’t argue with the facts - if something is essentially poisoning you, stay the hell away from it. Then, after allergies, we learnt about food intolerances… and this is where things seemed to get out of control. Some people clearly learnt (or rather taught themselves) way too much. Self-diagnosed food intolerances are the bain of the medical community’s existence - and a real pain in the backside for the rest of us. If you can’t eat it, fine. Please don’t. And - as an omnivore and food-lover myself - you have my sympathy. But if you want us all to coo over how interesting and unusual your self-diagnosed intolerance to hula hoops is… well, as your personal chef, I will smile politely, make a note of it, ensure I work around it and - above all - keep hula hoops out of anything you eat. But, let’s face it, most normal people would just be thinking something along the lines of “shut up and get the hell out of my kitchen”.

Strawberries from the garden
But what about the bona-fide cases of food intolerances? Lethargic, bloated, pasty drips transformed into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed balls of perky zing after they have jettisoned something as basic - and previously considered so innocuous - as wheat or dairy (the two seemingly most common culprits)? Too bloody right you want to stick to the new-found way of eating, and all power to you.

To date, it’s mainly been professional necessity that’s driven me to learn more and more about diets, allergies and food intolerances - it’s unusual to cook for a group of people without at least two or three dietary requirements cropping up. But it’s the discovery of long-term health issues relating to certain foods that are really compelling me to delve deeper and start incorporating some fundamental changes into my own diet.

Crab, avocado & tomato salad with citrus & herb dressing
A recent set of requirements came through from a client prior to their stay that made me almost choke on my cappuccino. Due to a recent illness, her list of restrictions was daunting: no dairy, no white flour, no potatoes, no sugar, no red meat (and chicken only once a week), no oranges, no grapefruit, no mushrooms, no white rice… “Kill me now!” I cried. “What on earth am I going to feed this poor lady? Fresh air sautéed with a little spring water?” OK, I exaggerate, but things seemed pretty grim. Some alternatives were suggested: xylitol instead of sugar, coconut oil as a cooking fat, tofu as a protein. Plus I could include many staples that I love: red, brown and wild rice; lemons & limes; olive oil; fish; and heaps of fresh veggies, salad, herbs and fruit. Main courses and starters were going to be just fine - but what about desserts and tea-time baking? Many people with restricted diets just go without - but what’s the point of hiring a private chef if she can’t cook versions your favourite treats? So I trawled the internet and sent messages to friends asking for help. I found out quite a lot about xylitol and how to cook with it (substitute it in the same quantities for sugar, but don’t expect it to behave quite the same. One bit of advice: don’t bother with xylitol meringues. Total waste of time and resources. Trust me.) I discovered all kinds of things to do with coconut oil and bought about 10 kinds of alternative flours and almost as many alternative milks from a wonderful health food store nearby.

Chargrilled broccoli with garlic & red chilli
By the end of the week cooking for this lady and her family, I had discovered that - with a bit of experimenting and tweaking of recipes - it was possible to cook great food without the usual suspects, substituting all kinds of basic ingredients for things I’d previously never used (spelt, rye flour, coconut oil) or even heard of (xylitol). Most importantly, looking at the long-term health implications of ingredients like sugar and dairy, I have decided that it is definitely worth learning more about these new ingredients and moving away from some of my old faithfuls. I’m hopeful that change will spread far and wide - after all, food is a rapidly evolving culture; 30 years ago, vegetarians (not to mention vegans) were the dinner-party pariahs, provoking panic attacks in hostesses and scorn from fellow guests. But now, our herbivore friends are tolerated - and often admired. The more we learn about the ill effects of meat on our bodies and the environment, the more appealing a vegetarian or even vegan diet becomes (it’s just a deep-seated yearning for a juicy steak or crispy bacon that stops many of us from forsaking meat altogether). While there’s no denying that many have jumped on the food intolerance bandwagon with no proper diagnosis (and therefore questionable rationale), there’s much evidence to show that there are extremely good reasons for reducing our consumption of certain ingredients, or even eliminating them altogether, from our diets. Wholemeal loaves instead of white pappy bread, a drizzle of honey instead of spoonfuls of processed sugar, fresh fish instead of red meat. And, next time I spray my cappuccino all over the kitchen, it could well be made with almond milk.

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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Packing up and moving on


There's been a distinct lack of blogging over the past few months, but I can sum up the food side of things pretty quickly: the weekend meals for my Swiss family have been overwhelmingly Valaisan (of Valais, the canton we are in) usually involving terrifying quantities of Bagnes cheese, jambon cru, Gruyère, viande sechée, Fendant, Pinot Noir (the latter two aren't even food, but are very local, nonetheless) plus some comforting homemade lasagnes, pies and pizzas, too.  But there have also been a few seasonal highlights where I've been able to do something a bit different: roast leg of spring lamb from Savolèyres (one of the mountains that rise over Verbier) with garlic, lemon & herbs and capretto (kid goat) braised with tomatoes, black olives & thyme, served for Easter Sunday lunch (another family tradition from the Italian side) with griddled polenta and roasted Provençal vegetables.  For desserts, I've often chosen well-loved classics from all over the world that have now become firm family favourites: Pavlova with berries, apple or pear Tarte Tatin, crème brûlée, chocolate fondants with vanilla ice cream...  In the quest for new, it can be easy to forget the sheer brilliance and universal appeal of these wonderful dishes, so it has been good to spend the winter tweaking and perfecting a few of them.

Pear Tarte Tatin

Fresh snow up on Bâ Combe

On the glacier at Les Diablerets, 3000m up

We have just one week left in Verbier and yet, amazingly for late April, the snow still falls, giving us as much as 30cm of fresh powder overnight and huge grins on our faces as we continue to enjoy skiing conditions more typical of late January.  This has, on balance, been the most incredible season for skiing... yet already the Big Swede and I find ourselves yearning for Cornwall.  For the Swede, I know that the lure of the ocean and his quiver of surf boards are the main draw.  Yet, while I long to feel the rhythm of the waves and smell the sea air, it's the anticipation of the Cornish summer ingredients that is getting me going.  First of all, the seafood: bass, bream, mackerel, crab, oysters, squid, monkfish, sole... served with salty Samphire, the pure essence of the sea.  Endless possibilities for salads and side dishes, with a kitchen garden at my disposal and limitless combinations of ingredients, drawing inspiration from all over Europe and across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, even as far as south-east Asia.  There are also the fruits of last autumn's labours to enjoy: the 10 litres or so of damson gin (not just a good warmer for the colder months, but also delicious with tonic water in the summertime), chutneys and damson ketchup, which has spent the past few months maturing and mellowing, ready to enjoy with Cornish cheeses, sausages and local cured meats, not to mention the barbecues (thinking positive here: we WILL have plenty of sunshine this summer!)

Dreaming of Daymer Bay, Cornwall

But before we arrive in Cornwall mid-May, we have a few other treats to look forward to: a one-night stop in Épernay to enjoy Champagne's eponymous tipple, a few days at Mother Chef's in Dorset and then a long weekend in London, including a dinner at Jamie Oliver's restaurant Barbecoa, a celebration of wood-fuelled cooking in its many guises.  After five straight months of Alpine stodge, our tastebuds will think all their Christmases and birthdays have come at once.

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Friday, 6 January 2012

The Offal Truth

There are definite benefits to being a private chef over, say, working in a restaurant: cooking for many brilliant people and developing good relationships with them, better pay and working conditions and the opportunity to live and work in some amazing locations.

Champery, Swiss Alps - April 2009
Fochabers, Speyside - September 2008

As any good private chef knows, the client is usually right - you serve up what they want to eat, not what you want to cook.  This doesn't mean asking them to provide detailed meal requests - some guests want absolutely nothing to do with the menu planning, but that certainly doesn't mean they don't care what they eat.  This is where a private chef needs to be imaginative, a good listener, pragmatic, experienced, quick-thinking, patient and resourceful.  Female intuition has served me well, although I know some brilliant men who do this job.  I always say that a private chef is like a certain other ancient profession - work out as soon as possible what your client likes and provide it better than they've ever had it before (yes, this has raised a few eyebrows, smirks and even the odd false hope, but it's an analogy that I continue to stand by).  I'd love to say I've continually got it right, but I'd be outright lying... I can think of a handful of cringe-worthy situations where, with hindsight, I would have done things differently - therein lies the importance of experience.  I remember my first private job after graduating from Leiths, working for a lovely family during their holiday in the south of France.  By the end of the three weeks, I was happily and confidently knocking up lunches and suppers for up to 14 people, managing to fit in waterskiing and jet-skiing with the family in the afternoon and relaxing with them after dinner was over.  But the first few days... oh god, I was a mess.  I got lost trying to find my way around, the supermarket was baffling (even though I speak fluent French) and I was totally thrown by not being able to source many ingredients I had counted on for my meticulously-planned menu.  I made everything from scratch, from vanilla ice cream (the sugar-syrup method I learned at Leiths as there was no ice cream machine) to bread (in France, home of the baguette!) and all the cookies (and there were A LOT thanks to the hollow legs of the many teenagers lurking around).  Luckily, a tearful telephone conversation with my mother - a wonderful cook herself and infinitely more experienced - brought me to my senses.  Something along the lines of "Why the bloody hell are you making all that work for yourself?!  Just buy decent ice cream, fresh baguettes and some packets of biscuits to supplement the home-made ones!  Good grief, girl, you'll have a nervous breakdown at this rate, and they didn't employ a chef to add more stress!"  I'm so glad I had that wake-up call as I was able to really enjoy the whole experience and I continued to cook for the family back in London.

Jack the dog, my constant kitchen companion in Pyla sur Mer - August 2008

My ride in Pyla - a Wrangler Jeep

Going for an afternoon swim in the sea at the bottom of the hill from the house

Summertime in Cornwall is a real treat, both on a personal and a professional level, with amazing produce at hand and the freedom to cook interesting, enticing dishes for a variety of guests, most of them excited to try new dishes and make the most of the wonderful fresh fish and whatever the kitchen garden has to offer.  During the winter, I cook for a Swiss family spanning three generations - though a lovely bunch, the meal options and creative opportunities are rather more limited... suffice to say, I don't think I'll be voluntarily going anywhere near raclette, fondue or pizza for a while after this.  The head of the family, however, has a penchant for all things offal and so - being alone in his passion and thus finding it hard to indulge - he was over the moon when he discovered that, not only do I know how to cook the stuff, I also have a source here in Verbier.  From lamb's brain to kidneys, veal sweetbreads to testicles (haven't found the latter yet - not trying too hard to track them down, if I'm honest), he goes misty-eyed at the merest mention of offal.  While I fully applaud his attitude to nose-to-tail eating, I can't quite share his delight at the end result - apart from the sweetbreads, which I've learnt to appreciate, I am no offal-lover.  But sweetbreads, I do urge you to try.  They take a bit of time to prepare and they ain't pretty, but they are worth the effort and mild revulsion during the initial preparation... honest.  Mark Hix describes them as having "a delicate texture and taste... really well suited to all types of cooking, frying, roasting, braising and even mixing with such delicacies as lobster, langoustine tails and crayfish in either a stew or a salad."  Not bad for a lowly thymus gland...

Calves' sweetbreads with Madeira sauce or sauce Gribiche
If doing this for dinner, start the morning of the day before.
First, soak your sweetbreads in cold water for about 4 hours - this helps to remove the membrane and general gunk that coats them (I'm really selling this, aren't I?).  
Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then your sweetbreads - simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the sweetbreads and place in iced water until cold.
Using your hands, peel the membrane from the sweetbreads and lay them in a single layer in a dish.  Place a dish (an identical one, if you have it) on top and weigh it down with a few cans.  Put in the fridge for between 12 and 24 hours to flatten the sweetbreads.
Dry the sweetbreads with kitchen paper and slice them on a slant, about 1cm thick.
Set up three plates - one for flour (season with salt and pepper), one for egg (beaten) and one for breadcrumbs.  Coat each slice in flour (shake off excess), egg (again, shake off excess) and breadcrumbs, then lay on a plate until ready to fry (if you wish, you can do this a few hours in advance and leave them, covered, in the fridge).
Clarify some butter (melt in a pan and pour off the white curd, leaving just the yellow butter - this burns at a higher temperature, meaning you can get the pan nice and hot) and heat up your pan.  Add clarified butter and fry the breaded slices of sweetbread for a minute or two each side (in batches, if needs be), until the coating is crispy and golden brown, but not burnt.  When cooked, lay on a warmed plate and keep warm until ready to serve.
Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and a Madeira sauce, which I make simply by adding Madeira to some reduced veal stock in a warm pan, simmer for a couple of minutes and finish off by whisking in a few cubes off butter at the last minute.  Or you can serve the sweetbreads with a sauce Gribiche, which you make by mixing together the following ingredients to a texture like that of Tartare sauce - if it's too thick, you can add a few drops of water:
  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 4 gherkins, finely chopped 
  • 2 Tblspns capers 
  • 2 tspns Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tblspns mayonnaise 
  • Juice of half a lemon 
  • 2 eggs, hard boiled and grated or finely chopped 
  • ½ Tblspn tarragon leaves chopped
  • ½ Tblspn chervil, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To accompany, I like a salad of baby leaves or lamb's lettuce with a tangy vinaigrette dressing and some crusty bread on the side.

I'd add a photo, but I've never found this the most photogenic of dishes.  But trust me when I tell you that they really are delicious and they look a bit like chicken nuggets.  Instead, here's a nice photo of my view, taken a few days ago...

Sunet on New Year's Day 2012, Verbier

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