The one with all the brackets. Or the one about the bacon salt.

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” Winnie the Pooh

About me: there’s not a lot to know (and frankly, do you care?) but it can be useful to know this … and before I tell you the ‘this’ I should qualify ‘useful’. The following information is useful only if a) you’re a booker for Jeopardy and are desperate for a contestant and someone inexplicably gave you my number – DON’T CALL ME! You’ll lose your job and b) if you find yourself having to order for me in a restaurant and don’t really know where to start with that (don’t worry,  it’ll probably never happen). So as information goes, not really useful at all …

Have you ever been at a dinner party where the hostess has called for quiet and then asked the room which celebrity, fictional character, historical figure (whatever) they most identify with? I have. Yes, really, I have. An excruciating silence befalls the room, everyone shifts slightly uncomfortably and wishes they could get back to the not uninteresting conversation with the handsome (read: available and fiscally viable) optometrist and then the hostess launches into her, “I’m like Angelina Jolie” speech. It takes you a little while to realize it’s not because she (your hostess) is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador (she’s not) or because she’s adopted 11 children from 13 different countries (she hasn’t) or because she was once married to Tommy Lee Jones (she wasn’t) but because she owns a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage. The question is a bit of a death knell at parties but makes for interesting thinking in the cab on the way home (especially as you’re alone in the cab because it turned out the optometrist wasn’t actually available, his girlfriend was just running late). Where was I? Oh yes, in the cab, thinking (if only the hapless hostess knew that secretly were all dying to play her party game). So mine is Winnie The Pooh. And here’s why:

First, like Winnie, I am of little brain. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough – it’s the worst kind of brain to have. Better to not know that you don’t know, I think.

Winnie the Pooh, “When you are a bear of very little brain and you think of things, you find sometimes that a thing which seemed very thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it,” (a bit like this post)

Secondly, like our friend Winnie, I am almost single mindedly obsessed with one type of food. Pig though, not honey. To the point of distraction sometimes. I mean, I can spend a lot of hours thinking about pork and pork products.

Which leads me to the point of this post. Bacon salt. A couple of months ago a very clever chef friend (Ian Leckie*, Sam’s Brasserie, also a pork lover) and I ate at a restaurant that claimed to dust its fries in bacon salt. I had a difficult time imagining a more glorious side dish than thick, home-cut fries glistening with hot oil and then dusted in what must surely be a masterpiece of kitchen engineering. Anyway, they weren’t. There was little chance of the real thing living up to the fantasy I managed to create in the ten or so minutes between ordering and the food arriving but these didn’t even try. Not so much “bacon salt” as just little bits of overcooked bacon sprinkled over the fries – they weren’t even salted with regular salt!

Ian and I spent the rest of lunch discussing the possibility of bacon salt. Could this be a real thing? Or is it just a cruel tease? Like summer in England? We both vowed to try. Ian had to get back to real life and running a busy kitchen in London, so probably forgot our solemn “vow” the second he got on the plane and headed home. I didn’t though, I continued living my fantasy life in Miami. The one in which I lunch with the girls, do Pilates, attend book club and figure out how to make bacon salt.

And so here it is… I tried several variations of this before getting a finished product I was completely happy with, and once I’d found a recipe/method I liked I tested it a lot (it is bacon, after all) so I’m confident this works. It’s simple, really really simple, only two ingredients but requires a bit of patience.

250g (8 or 9 oz) of good bacon, regular cut, not thick-cut. Smoked or unsmoked – I tried both and preferred the smoked. Get it from the butcher counter if you can and buy the best quality you can afford. With only two ingredients there is nowhere for bad quality to hide.

1 teaspoon of sea salt. Again, use the best quality salt you can.

Pre-heat the oven to 200f (90c)

Trim absolutely all the fat** off the bacon, use scissors if it makes it a bit easier.

Spread the trimmed bacon out on a baking rack set over a baking tray and bake for three hours (see edit March 5, 2013) then switch off the oven and let the bacon cool completely. Place the now dried bacon between a couple of sheets of kitchen paper to absorb any remaining fat – let it stand for a bit to be sure.

Blitz the bacon with a stick blender (mine is called a Ninja, it’s lethal. If yours is not called a Ninja it might not work quite as well).

Add the salt and blizt again until you have a pretty fine powder – you don’t want to be biting down on pieces of bacon, it is meant to be a seasoning, not a side dish. (This will keep for a week to ten days in an airtight container.)

And once you’ve made it, what on earth do you do with it? Absolutely anything you like. We’ve had it on fries, on roast potatoes, on a bagel with cream cheese, on mac ‘n cheese, on canapés, on popcorn… the possibilities are endless.

*If you’d like to eat something cooked by the very talented Ian Leckie, you’ll need to visit him here – it’s unlikely you’ll find bacon salt on the menu, but Ian is a very good cooker of fish. And if you’d like to know what Ian has to say on Twitter, you need to click here.

**Don’t throw the bacon fat away, you can render it down on a low heat in a frying pan, pass it through a sieve and use it for any number of delicious things… like bacon mayo.

EDIT, March 5, 2013 – I’ve been making this a lot recently and have found that lowering the temperature a little and drying the bacon for longer, say four to five hours, yields a better textural result. Be sure not to let the bacon char, however, you don’t want a burnt bacon flavor in your salt.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully. 

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.” 

“And he has Brain.” 

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.” 

There was a long silence. 

“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

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It’s cauliflower, but not as we know it – seared cauliflower “steaks” with almond and sultana butter

Cauliflower cheese, you say? Bored, bored, bored*! I know it’s an old favorite and on a chilly Sunday afternoon with a roast dinner, maybe it has a place.

However, on a balmy evening in Miami, with a 24 oz, grass-fed, naturally-raised beef porterhouse sizzling on the grill we have no business with the often overcooked cauli. Its sometimes floury sauce and its fat-oozing cheese do not belong on our dinner plates. With a bit of special treatment though, the humble, pale cauliflower can come into its own.

Some years ago Ian Leckie, head chef at Sam’s Brasserie did something very similar with roast cauliflower as an accompaniment to sea bass and last year I had an appetizer at a Miami local that was similar to what I’m going to show you here. So it’s not a totally new idea, but hopefully it is new to you.

Feeds four as an appetizer or more as a side dish

  • 1 whole head of cauliflower, washed
  • 1 small handful of raisins or sultanas, soaked in a little warm water for about 1/2 an hour and then drained (I like the colour-match of the sultanas in this dish so that’s what I used but remember they are sweeter than raisins).
  • 1 small handful of whole, blanched almonds. If you’ve had almonds sitting in your pantry for months, please taste them before using them. Nuts go rancid, especially in warm store cupboards.
  • 175g unsalted butter, fridge cold and cubed (you can use salted, just allow for it when you season later)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill or fennel tops (I don’t like dill so never use it and happened to have a fennel bulb in the fridge from which I was able to scavenge the delicate, fragrant fronds)
  • salt and freshly ground white pepper (you can, of course, use black but I don’t like the black specks in my beautiful, shiny yellow sauce)

Cubed butter

Wine reduction

  • 1 cup of dry white wine
  • 2 thick slices of onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 or 4 black peppercorns
  • pinch of salt

Wine reduction: you need this for your butter emulsion. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan, bring to the boil and reduce until you have about two table spoons of liquid. Remove or strain out all the bits, reserve the liquid and set aside until you need it.

Almonds: toast in a preheated oven at 180 c for ten minutes, more or less. Keep a close eye on them, you want them brown but not burnt. Let them cool and then crack using a pestle and mortar or chop them up with a sharp knife – not too finely though.

Cauliflower: While the almonds are toasting you can prepare the cauliflower. Cut a little off the base of the cauliflower to give it a flat side that you can stand it on. Using the longest knife you’ve got, slice the cauliflower into “steaks” – I like them about 1.5 to 2 cm thick but whatever suits you is fine. Remember though that if the slices are too thin the florets may break off.

In a shallow pan, bring enough salted water to the boil to cover the cauliflower slices  – it’s hard to find a pan that will hold four slices of cauliflower so do this in batches, it only takes a few minutes. Blanch each slice just long enough to ensure you no longer have raw cauliflower. You still want it quite firm. Drain and set aside. Tip the water out of your pan, give it a wipe down, toss in one or two of your cubes of butter and return the pan to the heat.

BlancheBlanche

Once the butter has melted and started to foam, swirl it around the pan to cover the base, return the cauliflower to the pan, reduce heat to medium and sauté each side until you have a good caramelization over the cauliflower.

SautéSauté

Butter sauce: While the cauliflower is browning in the sauté pan you can prepare the butter emulsion. Emulsions can be a bit precious and tend to split if not treated with love so go slowly, use very very cold butter and keep whisking.

Put your reserved wine reduction into a small saucepan and place over a high heat. It will only take a few seconds for the reduction to heat up and when it has, reduce the stove temp and start adding your butter, one cube at a time, whisking all the time. Don’t add more butter until the cube in the pan has completely melted. You may need to remove the pan from the heat from time to time, you don’t want this to boil.

Adding butter

Keep a jug of boiling water nearby and if you see your emulsion starting to split, add a few drops (and I do mean a few drops – like a teaspoon full) of boiling water and keep whisking, it will come together again. Once all your butter is incorporated, stir in your fennel fronds or dill and remove from the heat.

Thicker

Fennel fronds

Add the roughly chopped almonds and the drained sultanas to the butter sauce and season with salt and white pepper. Put the cauliflower slices on a serving plate/plates and spoon over the sauce.

Notes: 

Cauliflower “steaks”  – great for presentation but can be finicky to prepare and is not really necessary. The same awesome flavor is achieved by simply breaking the cauliflower into florets, blanching them and sautéing them.

Butter emulsion – regardless of the quantity of sauce you are making, you will not need more than two tablespoons of the wine reduction. If you prefer not to use wine, the same effect can be achieved (with obvious flavor differences) by using a wine vinegar reduction or simply using water.

This type of butter sauce is a good one to have in your repertoire – it does not contain egg, is quick to prepare, can be flavored with just about any herb and can be used on any number of dishes – grilled/steamed/poached fish, as a dipper for asparagus, as a garnish on other veggies.   

* Apologies to any cauliflower cheese I may have offended with my cries of boredom, it is in fact, still one of my favorites.

I love clams!

This is delicious. And easy. And versatile. I know the recipe looks long but this is because I’m a bit wordy today – it’s really quite quick.

Chickpeas are very much de rigueur at the moment – really inexpensive and irritatingly good for you.

So this is a little chickpea something something. Barrafina in Soho in London had a similar offering on its menu last summer (not sure if it is still there) – more as a side dish and without the chilli but the idea is the same. This works as a starter or main course in a number of guises – skip the clams and serve as a side with just about anything from roast pork belly or roast chicken to a pork chop or sausages. Or don’t skip the clams and toss in some mussels as well. I’m not doing that here, we had it with clams so that’s what I’m going to show you.

This served two as a generous main course.

Ingredients

For the clams

As many clams as you’d like per person, I used about 20 in the recipe – scrubbed and purged in salt water to remove any sand

Enough dry white wine to steam the clams (a bit of chicken stock works too, if you prefer) – you shouldn’t need more than a cup

About 1/2  a large shallot, finely chopped (save the other half for the chickpeas)

2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 table spoons olive oil

For the chickpeas

About 450g chickpeas at their cooked weight – so about a can if you’re using canned or about 200g dried if you’re using dried. The dried variety gives a better result and makes you feel a more virtuous chef, but they do have to soak for at least 12 hours and then cook for about 40 minutes (or more if they’ve been hanging around in your pantry for ages). Using canned makes this a pretty quick dish to prepare. (I won’t bore you with the details of preparing dried chickpeas, I’m sure you all know how but if you don’t and you’d like to, let me know and I’ll be happy to send you the method. Or just Google it. Or read the instructions on the bag).

250g smoked bacon cut into about 1/2cm pieces – thick-cut lardons give a better, meatier result but when I prepared this dish I could not find any uncut or thick-cut bacon so made-do with a good applewood-smoked bacon from our local deli.

3 large chipotles, chopped (or fewer if you want less of a kick) – if you can’t find chipotles, you can substitute the chipotle paste you find in the supermarket or regular, fresh jalapeños. I have recently read much about preparing chipotles for cooking. Some say dry fry first, others say it is not necessary. I have tried both and think the texture is much nicer if fried before soaking. They only need to soak for about ten minutes in very little water, just enough to cover. Save the soaking liquid as you may want to add it to your stock

1 and a half large shallots, finely chopped

4 to 6 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 large kale leaves (or more if you’d like)

600ml chicken stock (liquid is best but cubes will work)

Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredient notes

Kale can be replaced with a different leafy-green – savoy cabbage would work well. At Barrafina they use spinach but I prefer the flavour and texture of a more robust leaf (not that I think I know better than Barrafina’s Nieves Barragán Mohacho, because let’s face it, she is awesome. Her recipe for this dish is in the Barrafina book).

Chipotles and bacon – I was going for a bit of a South American twist so used smoked bacon and chipotles for extra smokiness but I have made this dish with cured, unsmoked lardons and fresh red chillis and loved that too. Toss through a handful of roughly chopped coriander leaves to change it up a bit if you like.

Prepare the chickpeas

Heat your saucepan over a medium heat and add the bacon (you can add a splash of olive oil to the pan if you think you need it but it should be okay without) and reduce the heat slightly, stirring regularly for 10 to 15 minutes. You don’t want crispy bacon but you do want good colour and as much fat rendered out of the bacon as possible.

If the bacon is colouring or crisping too much at this stage, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add your chopped shallots and garlic.

Add the chopped chipotles and season lightly. Sweat until soft. Replace the bacon and add the stock (not fridge-cold) and chipotle liquid if needed. Bring to a gentle boil and reduce by a third.

Add the chopped kale and reduce by another third. Add the chickpeas, simmer for about 7 or 8 minutes and set aside. If you’re serving this as a side dish you can stop reading now, you’re done.

Prepare the clams

Warm the oil in a lidded pot big enough to easily accommodate the clams without crowding them. Add your shallots and garlic, do not colour, you just want them soft. Add your wine (or stock) and bring to the boil. You don’t want the clams submerged in liquid so reduce until you have just enough to create a good, steamy pot – the liquid should be no more than about 1/2cm deep. Add the clams and steam until they open, removing the open ones from the pot as you go – this shouldn’t take more than five minutes.

Return your chickpeas to the heat, add some (or all) of the clam liquor if you like, stir through the clams and serve.

I served this with thick slices of ciabatta, rubbed with a clove of garlic, drizzled with olive oil and grilled on the bbq.