A little eggsperiment

(Sorry! There’s no pun worse than a lazy pun but that was just too easy to pass up.)

Image 2Prep for our next underground dinner – April 27, Downtown Miami – is well underway and we’ve been having a play with some fun new dishes. The menu is, as always, a closely guarded secret but I thought I’d give you a hint and share a little of today’s experiments. The final product will be a riff on one of these – I’ll post pictures of the finished dish in the week after the dinner.

I love eggs as a starter and almost always have at least one course that highlights just how perfect they are. Perfect if left to shine on their own and perfect if fiddled with just a little.

Today: stained eggs.

Lavender, rooibos and black tea.

Aesthetically, the lavender was the least successful – I had hoped it would have prominent purple or blue veins but it turned out more of a pale puke-green. Not great to look at and probably not great to serve as a first course to people that have never eaten in my home. But it tasted amazing. Seriously. I don’t generally like lavender as a food flavor, I feel it’s more of a soap or potpourri ingredient but I decided to give it a go and I loved it. I paired it with charcoal salt from FalkSalt, in part because I had a mental picture of a blue veined egg on a board complimented by a pile of soot-black salt (failed there!) and in part because I thought the mineral notes in the salt would pair well with the floral lavender. I’m working on the aesthetics, better pictures to follow if I get it right – in the meantime, this is what I’ve got so far.

Image 4The second pairing was a rooibos tea egg with lemon salt from The Meadow in NYC . A great flavor combination. And so pretty. Overall a success, I thought. I won’t change a thing.

Image 3Last was the black tea – not just any black tea, Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend, the queen of teas. Actually, I didn’t really think that through. Any black tea would probably work so basically I just wasted some really good tea leaves trying to make a hen’s egg taste like tea. It was by far the prettiest and paired really well with Maldon’s smoked sea salt flakes. Also, the Maldon salt has the nicest texture of the three I used – if we decide to go with the rooibos and lemon for next week’s dinner I’ll probably make my own lemon infused salt using regular Maldon salt.

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Consommé: round two. This time we brought a Bloody Mary to the party.

Let me start by addressing the “that’s so 70s” accusation. Yes, it is. But in the 70s I was mostly eating pureed carrots and omelettes with ketchup smiley faces on them – my mom wasn’t whipping up a lot of consommés for my supper and serving it to me on elegant avocado-colored dinnerware. I missed the consommé dinner parties… so I’m bringing them back. I’m thinking of bringing back chicken Kiev and cocktail onions and little cubes of cheese on toothpicks as well. And building a sunken lounge with wall-to-wall brown shag carpeting. It’s going to be awesome.

So now that that’s out of the way, I’ll try keep this brief – though we all know I’m not very good at the follow-through on that sort of promise.

I wanted a beautiful, clear consommé with tiny jewels of olive oil floating on the top. I wanted the flavor to be bright and fresh, more “just-picked” tomato with a hint of garlic and herbs than cooked tomato. It only took a few tries and the final product took much less time to prepare than I thought it would.

Here’s how I did it…

For the consommé base

  • 1kg (or a little more) of ripe tomatoes roughly chopped into 2cm cubes . The best tomatoes I could find on the day were yellow ones, but any color will do. Buy the best you can afford, make sure they’re ripe, even a little overripe is good (but just a little).
  • 2 or 3 good sized fresh garlic cloves. Don’t use the manky old cloves that have been hanging out in the bottom of the veg rack for weeks. You want bright, fresh flavors and you won’t get those from old garlic cloves.
  • 1 tablespoon smoked salt. I really like the combination of smoked salt and tomatoes but it’s not essential, regular sea salt or kosher salt will do just as well (not table salt).
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar.
  • 2 sprigs of thyme.
  • A couple of glugs of good extra virgin olive oil

For the raft

  • 1 small handful fresh basil.
  • 6 large or 8 medium egg whites – pasteurized liquid egg whites should work (though I’ve not tried them), if you weigh them out you’ll need about 220g.

Sprinkle the salt and sugar over the tomatoes and let them stand for a few minutes.

Finely chop (not crush) the garlic and put it and the olive into a large saucepan on a low heat, you’re not cooking the garlic, just softening it a little and infusing the olive oil – I would not usually advocate cooking with good extra virgin olive oil but in this case you are not going to let it get hot enough to degrade the quality or alter the flavor.

When the oil has warmed and is fragrant from the garlic add the thyme and the tomatoes, stir to coat and put back on a low heat. Add enough warm water to just cover the tomatoes and simmer until the tomatoes are soft enough to squish with the back of a spoon – about 20 minutes or so. Obviously cooking this for longer will give you a more intense tomato flavor, so just do what works for you.

When the tomatoes have softened, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little then pour the whole mixture into a sieve over a clean glass bowl and push down on the flesh to release as much liquid and pulp as possible, leaving behind skins, seeds and any pithy bits. Cover with cling film pressed right down onto the surface** of the tomato puree and refrigerate until completely chilled then make the raft.

Finely chop the basil. Beat the egg whites until frothy and stir in the basil. (You an add other herbs as well if you wish, just don’t be too generous with your herbs – the consommé very quickly picks up the herb flavors and they can overpower your dish. Less is more).

For this next step it is best to use a pot that’s deep rather than wide. Put the chilled tomato into the pot on a medium/low heat and, using a whisk, gently stir in the egg whites, stop stirring as soon as it starts to simmer. Keep the heat low, don’t let it boil. As the raft forms, try make a ladle-sized hole in the middle of it. This helps you see when the consommé is clear and makes it easier to remove the liquid later on.

Meat consommés can take an hour or more to clarify but this is much quicker and will probably take less than 15 minutes. As soon as it looks clear remove it from the heat and gently ladle the liquid into a sieve lined with kitchen paper. Again, cover with film and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

It’ll keep for about a week in the fridge but keeps very well in the freezer so is a good make-ahead.

At an Underground a couple of weeks ago I served this tomato consommé as a palate cleanser between a fish starter and a rich meat main. I garnished it with a few deep fried basil leaves. The menu board said simply “tomato soup” – I loved the surprise on my guests’ faces when I served the “soup”, and again when they experienced the burst of flavor from what essentially looked like a glass of slightly discolored water. And again when they crushed the crispy basil leaves between their tongue and the roof of their mouths.

And for Geoff… a perfectly clear Bloody Mary

So I was in the swing of making consommés and really getting the hang of it and decided a perfectly clear Bloody Mary was in order – you’ve got to try this.

  • 1 kg tomatoes
  • 1 tsp celery salt
  • fresh chilli peppers, sliced or chopped, seeds removed (optional and to your own taste – you can even substitute your favorite hot sauce)
  • Worcestershire sauce (also optional and to your own taste)

For the raft

  • 4 large or 6 medium egg whites – this cooks for far less time and needs fewer egg whites than a regular consommé
  • 1/2 a stick of celery
  • A few celery leaves if your celery bunch has any

I chose to make my clear tomato juice into an actual Bloody Mary mix but if you prefer to keep the tomato juice pure and add your seasoning later you can.

Chop up the tomatoes into chunks, sprinkle with celery salt and leave to stand for a few minutes.

As Bloody Marys are made from tomato juice rather than cooked tomato I just tossed the tomatoes, chilli peppers and Worcestershire sauce into my blender and blitzed the whole lot down to a puree.

Press the puree through a sieve into a clean glass bowl to remove seeds and skins. As the mixture is already cool you can just pop it straight into a pot, again, choose a pot that is deep rather than wide.

Finely chop the celery and celery leaves, beat the egg whites until frothy and stir in the celery. Gently stir in the egg whites into the tomato. Keep the heat low, don’t let it boil and stop stirring as soon as it starts to simmer. As the raft forms, try make a ladle-sized hole in the middle of it. This helps you see when the consommé is clear and makes it easier to remove the liquid later on.

Clarifying this uncooked tomato mixture happened much quicker than it did with a cooked tomato mixture – less than four minutes (if I was a bit sciency I might know why – maybe it has something to do with the level of acid in the uncooked tomato? If you know or if you have a theory, I’d love to hear it), so don’t leave the pot alone, just watch it until it’s ready to come off the heat.

When it’s ready, ladle the juice into a sieve lined with kitchen paper and refrigerate in a jug or bottle until you’re ready for a bloody mary – will keep in the fridge for about a week or in the freezer for a few months.

Bloody Mary

  • 50 ml of your favorite good vodka
  • 200 ml clarified tomato juice
  • Freshly cracked black pepper

Garnish – I’m told (by the afore mentioned Geoff) that in the South, the garnish of choice for a Bloody Mary is pickled okra. Now I know that, despite its very southern location, Miami doesn’t really consider itself part of the South but we decided to give it a go. And goodness me, it was delicious. There’s no going back to celery garnish now. We picked up a jar of pickled okra from a farm stall in Alabama a few months ago but I’m sure you can get it at the supermarket (or pickle your own?).

I also tried one with a few hot pickled peppers…

The down side… 1 kg of tomatoes only yielded enough juice for four Bloody Marys. I still think it’s worth doing, buy maybe more so if it’s at the height of summer, you’re growing your own and you happen to have a glut of tomatoes.

** If there is any fat or oil in your soup (or anything really, a braise, a stew, a sauce, a stock) it will rise to the top as the dish cools – pressing the cling film onto the surface will help remove any excess fat.

I’d love your feedback if you give either of these recipes a try, and I’d also like to hear about your other consommé efforts. Thanks for stopping by.

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.”