….tales of taste and food wisdom, for modern times

Food Heros: More on Fish Sauce! November 23, 2011

Filed under: My Food Heros — Isabel @ 11:49 pm
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In Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines, fish sauce is an ingredient which always close to a cook’s hand.   We may know it as nam pla or nuoc mam. 

But fish sauce has a long pedigree in western cuisine – the Romans were particularly fond of a fermented fish sauce derived from anchovies and it represented an important trade product.

If you are struggling to get something to taste ” just right” – soups, sauces, casseroles, stews, dressings, marinades – then fish sauce will often be the ingredient you need.  It’s like a liquid anchovy – a deeply pungent and salty reddish-brown liquid which adds a savoury depth of flavour and magically brings a dish together like nothing else (honestly…. I’ve done blind taste tests with cynical and deeply suspicious family members).

On the tongue, as it were, fish sauce is not pleasant and almost unbearably salty so never use it “straight”. It needs tempering with water or other liquids, lime juice, sugar so use it as you might an intelligent seasoning and go easy on additional salt.

Remember, though, that there are fish sauces and fish sauces.  The little bottles that appear on supermarket shelves tend to be a bit wishy-washy and expensive. Source yours from an Asian grocery store and you’ll gain flavour and save money.

Didier Corlou, the French chef at the Sofitel Metropole hotel in Hanoi and author of a charming booklet about nuoc mam, writes that for him it is almost a drug, a seductive seasoning that he relies on every day. (Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer 2005).  Well….I haven’t (yet) started hiding bottles of around the house, but I do worry when I’m down to that last inch!

Say what you will, but I say this:Reach for your reach for your fish sauce boys!”


Sweating Vegetables

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 5:19 pm
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What’s in a name?

The French call it “mirepoix“, the Spanish call it “sofrito“.  Italians refer to “soffritto“, as indeed they would, since the term comes from their verb “soffriggere” meaning “to fry lightly“.

Somewhat unromantically, the English call it “sweating“.  No surprises there.

Whatever the term, sweating your veg matters.  This really simple, but important process, which softens the vegetables to prepare them for use in a variety of recipes, is the basis to getting flavour into your cooking by applying gentle heat and seasoning to release the natural moisture and sugars in the vegetable so that it softens but doesn’t brown.

The Holy Trinity

You can sweat any veg, but the classic combination, known as the “holy trinity”, is a mixture of 2 parts carrot, 1 part onion and 1 part celery and is a basis for a variety of sauces, soups, stews and stocks.  Garlic is frequently involved.

Depending on what the recipe calls for, typically you will finely dice the veg, cut it into larger dice, or chop it into small chunks, before sauteing it in wide-ish lidded saute/frypan with a little olive oil and butter and seasoning it with salt (to draw out moisture and so prevent browning) and pepper.  It’s crucial to season the veg from the outset, so that it really gets into the “body” of the veg, rather than sitting on the surface.

You then cover everything with a “cartouche” and the pan lid and cook it over a gentle heat until softened and translucent.  There’s nothing clever about a “cartouche” – it’s a French term which refers to a circle of greaseproof paper cut to fit directly over your vegetables, before you put the lid on the pan.

What’s the point?

The whole purpose is retain maximum flavour by preventing natural moisture loss  – add additional liquids and ingredients only after the veg is properly softened.

Et voila!    Y listo!    E voila!   There you go!  Get sweating!


Food Hero: Fish Sauce!

Filed under: My Food Heros — Isabel @ 5:18 pm



Stock Tomato Sauce for Wintry Days (and Balmy Nights)

Think about it, making a good, basic tomato sauce from scratch is simple,  healthy and so cheap.  It’s a no-brainer!  You can incorporate it into virtually all cuisines, either on it’s own or with any variety of  added ingredients: classically, in delicious pasta sauces or with meatballs; as the basis of meat, fish or vegetable ragus, casseroles, stews or curries; as the basis of soups, seasoned with fresh herbs, served over rice, or spiced up with red peppers or warming lentils), for topping fresh pizzas or “tarting-up” ready made ones; and serve it cold in pasta salads or, well spiced and reduced, as a ketchup.  Phew!

So, tempting as it is to reach for the apparently wonderful range of commercially processed options, don’t do it!  If they’re any good, they’ll be expensive.  And, no matter how good they are, at the end of the day they are all processed; despite what it might say on the label, this is Not a Good Thing. Although everyone is busy, busy, busy, believe it – once you’ve got the hang of making-your-own (and maybe have developed a couple of “favourite” basic versions) you, your creativity, your gratefully salivating recipients, and your housekeeping budget won’t look back!

So come on, show willing and  get into the habit of making up a batch and freezing it in useful portions. Various sizes of re-cycled yoghurt/cream/ creme fraiche cartons are great – just dunk them in hot water for 10 minutes or so to start defrosting, before transferring to a saucepan over a medium-ish heat and attacking the contents with a fork whilst uttering a few kind words of encouragement.

You don’t need to use fresh tomatoes to make tomato sauce all year round.  Indeed, fresh tomatoes might well disappoint – have a look at these links:

So, unless you have a glut of properly ripe fresh tomatoes, you’ll get a better and more consistent result by choosing a good quality Italian tinned variety, which will yield a more intense superior flavour.

Wintry Days and Balmy Nights

This particular recipe  is for a “wintry” version of a stock tomato sauce – that is to say I’ve incorporated dark brown sugar,  paprika, cinnamon, chili and red wine for a rich sauce to kick off a variety of warming, wintry dishes.  Omit these ingredients and add in unrefined caster sugar, majoram, lemon thyme, rosemary and lemon juice for a lighter  herby, aromatic “summer” stock sauce.  Above all, experiment.  And when you get the flavours you really love  – make sure you write down the recipe!


(Makes approx 300mls thick sauce)

What You’ll Need:

Quantity of mirepoix*

  • 1 red/white medium onion (finely diced)
  • 1 medium carrot (finely diced)
  • 1 medium stick celery (finely
1 tbsp virgin olive oil
15g unsalted butter
Quantity of mirepoix*
15g sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2tsp dark brown sugar (or 3tsp unrefined castor sugar)
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (or 1 tbsp chopped marjoram)
1/4 tsp dried red chili flakes (or 1 tsp each of chopped lemon thyme & rosemary)
2 bay leaves
150ml red wine (or juice  1/2 lemon)
250g good quality Italian tinned tomatoes
1 – 1/2 tsp good quality fish sauce**
1tsp tomato ketchup
What You’ll Do:
1.  Gently heat the olive oil and butter in a lidded saute or fry pan.  Add the mirepoix (*see Techniques: Sweating Vegetables) and season with half the sea salt and ground black pepper.

2.  Place a cartouche (*see Techniques: Sweating Vegetables) over the mirepoix and cover the pan with the lid and sweat on a low heat, stirring occasionally until the onion is opaque and the vegetables have softened.
3. Remove the cartouche and add the sugar, paprika, cinnamon (or marjoram), chili flakes (or lemon thyme & rosemary) and bay leaves, stirring well to combine everything.
4.  Stir in the wine (or lemon juice), tinned tomatoes (rinsing out the can with a little water), fish sauce  and tomato ketchup and the rest of the salt and pepper.
5. Cover the pan with the lid and cook the sauce on the lowest heat for at least 60 mins, stirring from time to time to prevent it from sticking as it thickens, adding a little more water if necessary.

6.  When the sauce has thickened and darkened in colour, taste to check the seasoning adding a little more fish sauce to enhance the depth of flavour.
**Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is wonderful and natural flavour enhancer and can be used in a variety of recipes.  See My Food Heros

Food Hero: Clonakilty Black Pudding November 4, 2011

Clonakilty Blackpudding

Clonakilty Blackpudding.  Please, try this seriously good stuff because once you’ve tasted it you’ll be hooked.  Even if you think, know, you don’t like black pudding, I promise you will like this.

Rich, savoury, spicy, it’s utterly, utterly delicious. A thing of beauty.

Clonakilty Blackpudding takes its name from a town in West Cork, Ireland, home of this delicacy, where it’s been made since the 18oo’s.

Here’s a delightful little bit of  the black pudding’s history taken from the website.


“Ireland is extremeHistory Picturely rich in its traditions and one of the finest is Clonakilty Black Pudding.  In the small farmhouses of rural Ireland the modest income of the household was subsidised by the making of blackpudding.  It was sold to the butchers of the nearby market towns along with eggs, butter and other farm produce.

One such farmhouse was that of Johanna O’Brien at Sam’s Cross near Clonakilty. Her blackpudding was sold to Philip Harrington, whose butcher’s shop was at 16, Sovereign Street (now Pearse Street) in Clonakilty. When Johanna eventually retired from the onerous task of making the very popular blackpudding, she passed her precious recipe onto Mr. Harrington. On the occasion of that momentous event,  Johanna had her photograph taken while holding the recipe in her hand. In the late 1880’s Philip Harrington began the production of the blackpudding to satisfy the great demand.  The blackpudding was also send overseas to emigrants who longed for the taste of home.  The precious recipe was faithfully handed down to Philip’s family and their valued employees.   

The 1960’s saw the transfer of the business and staff to Patrick McSweeny, who in 1976 sold the shop and unknown asset of the secret recipe to his nephew Edward Twomey.”  

Sadly for the UK, Clonakilty Blackpudding’s not yet widely available here, but there are about 40 independent stockists scattered around the country, many of which have online ordering (try:www.youririshshop.com ) and it’s also recently been launched in Budgens’ stores.  The nearest to me is Aubery Allen Butcher, 108 Warwick Street, Leamington Spa, who are “Food Heros” in their own right! (more of which, later).

Meanwhile, we must celebrate this deliciousness.  I feel a recipe coming on…..watch this space!

Clonakilty Blackpudding and Smoked Bacon Tart

Food Hero: Charlecote Plants and Flowers

Charlecote Plants and Flowers (www.charlecoteplants.co.uk)

A charmingly rustic semi-open barn,  next to the National Trust car park for Charlecote Park near Warwick (CV35 9EU, J15 M40)

A family business, they grow and sell many of their own cottage garden plants and herbs, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and fresh and dried flowers, and what they don’t grow on site is sourced from growers in neighbouring villages.

The staff are lovely: chatty, knowledgeable and interested. Shopping here makes you want to eat  fruit and veg – lots and lots of it.

This is a proper world away from the sterile, uninspiring and expensive supermarket environment we’ve all got trapped into.


Away with soggy bottoms! Lining a tart tin and baking blind November 3, 2011

Filed under: Techniques — Isabel @ 11:28 pm
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No cook wants a soggy bottom.  It means that the bottom crust of the lovely pastry tart or pie, that you’ve just spent a couple of hours slaving and fretting over, is undercooked, soft or still raw because the filling has prevented the dough from cooking properly.  Soggy Bottom Syndrome (SBS).  Not a good thing.

“Baking blind” is a process where you pre-cook and seal the pastry before adding the filling, to ensure your creation has a nice crisp bottom, which is a very good thing.

This process is a must for pastry goods with custard-based fillings, but you’ll probably notice that many recipes involving for drier fillings (e.g. sponge, frangipane, lemon curd, etc) don’t call for baking blind.  However, my OCD gets the better of me and I always do it to make sure the base is crisp.   SBS is also a risk in double crust fruit pies, with fruit which has a high water content. Sprinkling ground almonds or fine semolina over the base before adding the fruit soaks up the fruit juices and saves the day.

You may be tempted to save time by cutting out the process, but be strong!  You won’t regret it!  Like all good things, a good tart’s worth waiting for.


  • Loose-bottomed tart tin
  • Circle of greasproof paper or foil 3-5 cms larger than your tin
  • A couple of handfuls of baking beans or any dried beans (but don’t use dried kidney beans)
  • Pre-heated oven set at: fan 180 degs, conventional 180 degs, Gas Mark 4
  1. Roll out your dough on a floured pastry mat (Lakeland’s are fab) or a clean floured worktop, until you get a round big enough to line the bottom and sides of your tin with about 0.5 – 1.0 cm to spare
  2. Press the dough firmly but gently into your tin without stretching it, pushing it down evenly around the sides to give you a slightly raised, even edge.  If you stretch the dough, it’s likely to shrink back during cooking. Prick the base all over with a fork
  3. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 mins or, even better, 20 mins in the freezer
  4. To bake the case blind, crumple the paper/foil disc and line the pastry case so the the paper comes well up the sides of the case. Fill at least half full with beans
  5. Bake smaller, individual cases for 10-15 mins, and larger ones for 20 mins, until the bottom of the case (i.e. under the paper/foil) looks dry but not coloured
  6. If your filling is fairly dry, (e.g. sponge or frangipane) remove the paper and beans and leave to cool slightly before proceeding
  7. If your filling is wet (e.g. custard-based) then paint the base and sides with a little beaten egg (you can use just yolk or white if you have some spare). The egg will set and seal the pastry and you’ll avoid the dreaded SBS
  8. Return the case to the oven for a further 5-10 mins (depending on size) until the egg has set, before removing it from the oven and proceeding.