Old friends, new adventures

lock on Canal St MartinTwo of our good friends from the Isle of Man came to visit us a few days go. This is not Penny or Steve’s first trip to Paris by a long way, so Marie-Danielle and I scratched our heads as to what we could find that would amuse them. Then it came to us… Steve and Penny both like boats and have enjoyed several barge holidays on British canals so what better than to discover a different aspect of Paris in an unusual way, idling down the Canal St Martin through a series of nine locks, two swing bridges, and a 2 mile long tunnel that passes under the Bastille. Problem solved. For 2½ hours, we lazed our way through an almost unknown Paris without a care in the world.

Parmentier de CanardWe’ve wined and dined with Steve and Penny on many occasions, so wanted to come up with something a little different. On their arrival on the Sunday, we did a simple Parmentier de Canard (a shepherd’s pie using duck instead of lamb). In fact, this is a bit of a cheat because we use Confit de Canard which we can obtain easily here in France. All I needed to do was drain the fat from the duck, remove the skin, and pull the flesh with a fork. I peeled and chopped some shallots, browned them gently in some of the duck fat, added some chopped parsley and a little seasoning, then covered with mashed potatoes. A bit of oven time and we ate like kings and queens!

2002 Chateau MartetSteve is a big fan of red wine (so are we!) and duck demands a decent full-bodied red. A few weeks ago, we celebrated some family birthdays and discovered half-a-dozen bottles of dusty but interesting-looking 2002 Chateau Martet. The wine was truly wonderful and, since there remained a few more bottles, we grabbed hold of some to go with the Parmentier de Canard. An excellent choice. A marriage made in heaven even!

Monk Fish Steak with SaffronOn the Monday, when we had our day out on the Canal St. Martin, we ate in a little restaurant in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Tuesday, we dined at home and I prepared Monk Fish Steaks with Saffron, a delightful feast of colour, taste and smell. In addition to creamed potatoes, I braised some fennel which complemented the fish. And to help the meal down, we pulled some bottles of Pouilly Fumé from the cellar.

A great few days with some great friends.

That wondrous baguette

French BaguettesToday wasn’t the first time I’ve done it… bought a fresh baguette, still warm from the local boulangerie, cut a bit off ‘just to try it’, smeared it well with butter and, half-an-hour later, looked at the pile of crumbs on the worktop where the baguette used to be. There’s something about genuine French baguettes that brings out the food devil in me.

If I asked you to name the five most iconic foods of France, I could virtually guarantee you’d include the humble baguette. They’re one of the most instantly recognisable foods around the world, and usually the best part of any trip to France. They’re also so dangerously tasty that you might like to do what I do and buy an extra one, since you’re probably going to eat one on the walk home from the boulangerie!

It might surprise you to know that, until just a few years ago, boulangers in Paris had to stagger their summer vacations. The idea of all of the bakeries closing at the same time is the stuff of nightmares to your average French citizen. So, the law stated that each year, half the bakers could go on vacation in July, and the other half in August. French people take their bread VERY seriously, and the baguette is the king of the baker’s jungle.

The baguette’s shape comes from a one hundred-year-old law to reduce working hours. To help keep boulangers from overworking (as if they would, in France!), in 1920 the government passed a law forbidding them from starting their shifts before 4am, or from working past 10pm at night.

But dough takes time to rise, and bread takes time to bake, so if you’re only allowed to start your day at 4am, what do you do? You create the baguette! The long, thin shape of the loaf exposes as much of the dough to heat as possible, meaning it bakes faster. This way, your bakery can pump out the same number of loaves in less time. Now that is French ingenuity at its finest.

There are even strict laws about the length and weight of a baguette! If it’s not 55cm-65cm long and doesn’t weight 250g-300g it’s doesn’t qualify to be called a baguette. Also, the boulangers are only allowed to use four ingredients – flour, yeast, salt, and water. Naturally, they can vary the quantities of each, and they can use different flours to achieve different tastes. And if they are claiming to be an ‘artesanal bakery’ they must sell their baguettes in the same place where they bake them.

France is even trying to get the baguette recognised by UNESCO as part of their cultural heritage. The French people love bread, dammit. In fact, one of my early memories after I moved to France to be with Marie-Danielle, was of getting up on a Sunday morning and going to a boulangerie in the small village where we were staying. Imagine my surprise when I saw a long queue outside the shop. It was as though the whole village had turned out to buy bread.

French BaguettesIn 1900, the average French person ate more than three baguettes every day. By 1970, that number had fallen to just one baguette per day. And these days, people eat just half a baguette on a daily basis. Now, half a loaf of bread every day might still seem like a lot of white bread to consume. But for the French of the early 20th century, that would be heresy!

The baguette is probably safe from ever dying out, though. It’s one of the most loved and easily recognisable breads from around the world, and still at the top of every traveller’s bucket list when they go to France! Just one small tip; ask for ‘une baguette tradition’, or simply ‘une tradition’ and you’ll get a nice country baguette, full of taste.

Jasmine’s Journey

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll be aware that I mix personal interest with purely food and culinary content. One of my hobbies is writing and my sixteenth book called ‘Jasmine’s Journey’ has been released. The story is the third in ‘The French Collection’ series. Here’s a bit about it

Jasmine’s Journey

Jasmine's JourneyJasmine Guichard didn’t want Father Barbier touching her. She’s a plucky eight-year-old and she makes a run for it, but finds herself deep under the streets of Paris and lost in a maze of dark tunnels. But for a chance glimpse of her whilst visiting the catacombs, Harry and Tristan would have been none the wiser. Yet what can they do about it? They are eventually helped in their efforts by a young nun who is not at all what she seems. There’s more going on behind the closed doors of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Isabelle of France than meets the eye – a lot more.

Meanwhile, The Vicar is in Paris to complete a contract to terminate a paedophile. His chance meeting with Harry and Tristan could be the trigger they need to dig deeper into Jasmine’s disappearance. D.S. Robbie Allen and D.C. Benedict Blewett have been dispatched from Liverpool to find The Vicar before he strikes again.

Who will win the race?

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JASMINE’S JOURNEY

Jasmine continued downwards, moving her torch from side to side and up and down. She had discovered that thirty seconds winding the handle gave her about 15 minutes of light. The younf girl shivered with the cold. She was wearing only a light summer tunic and the temperature down here seemed to be no more than about 10°C or 12°C. The passageway twisted and turned. The floor of the passage was limestone, the same as the walls, but loose stones and lumps of rock had fallen over time and walking wasn’t easy. In places the roof of the passage was over four metres high. Elsewhere it dropped down to not much more than one metre and Jasmine had to bend low to pass through. It was, she felt, like being in an Indiana Jones movie. Any minute now, she expected to see a great, unstoppable ball of stone rolling down the passage towards her.

And then the passage opened up and she found herself in a cavern that was so vast, her torch beam couldn’t reach the furthest walls. She walked on, touching the walls and examining the marks of tools in the stone. Here and there on the walls were men’s initials, like ancient street tags. It was clear that the space had been hacked out of the rock: there was nothing natural about it. The roof was, she estimated, about five metres high, and several huge columns of limestone had been left intact to support the weight of rock above. As she approached one of the walls, she could see that enormous lumps of limestone had fallen to the floor. There would be a moment in the future when the crushing weight above would collapse the whole gallery, filling it with millions of tons of bedrock. She hoped it wouldn’t happen in the next few minutes.

LOST IN THE CATACOMBS


Walking round the periphery, her torch illuminated several incoming passages, radiating out all directions. And then Jasmine spotted the bent and rusted remains of a narrow train track. This time, her mind filled with images from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy, Shorty, and Willie were involved in a mine cart chase to escape the temple. But it occurred to her that in reality this is how the miners would have transported the stone to the surface. Following the tracks would maybe lead her to an exit. If the men who created these caves tunnelled their way in, then there had to be a way out.

But what if there wasn’t? What would she do if the tunnel went nowhere? Jasmine felt the panic begin to rise again like a cluster of weasel teeth in her abdomen. She sensed the tension grow in her face and limbs. Jasmine closed her eyes, her mind replaying her panic attack when the lights first went out. She didn’t want it to happen again, but couldn’t stop what was happening to her in this wretched blackness. Her breathing became more rapid, more shallow. It was like her thoughts were living in a personal hurricane of fear. She gulped. Anything to stop the primal urge to just flee and try to get away from the darkness that surrounded her and suffocated her.

Frozen to the spot, large salty tears darkened her face. She wasn’t crying; they simply rolled out of her closed eyes unbidden. There she stayed, unaware of the passing of time until she realised that the feelings of panic had subsided. She opened her eyes. Though she could still hear each of her breaths, rasping just the same as when she had the flu, she’d made it. She was back in control. Almost.

Book cover design by Bruno Cavellec, Copyright © Bruno Cavellec 2019.
Image used and published according to the licence granted by the artist

A new Duck Discovery

If you have followed this blog, you’ll know that my wife, Marie-Danielle, is French and that we live in France for half of the year. So I am ‘exposed’ to the delights of French cuisine more than most people.

Recently, Marie-Danielle’s daughter and her family came up from near Orleans to celebrate two birthdays (both of which had already passed!). So what do you give to five French foodies? M-D came up with the answer and it was something I had never heard of before… a Pithiviers de Canard (or what I christened, a Luxury Duck Pie). This is a pie that includes such gastronomic delights as duck breast and foie gras. But add to that a little sausage meat, some cream, whisky, onions and parsley, and suddenly you have a whole new delight on your taste buds.

Pithiviers de CanardThe recipe for this tasty treat is at Pithiviers de Canard and it’s ridiculously easy to make. Until you try it, you’ll never understand the stunning combination of flavours that make this ‘pie’ something rather special.

2002 Chateau MartetAnd what do you drink with a Pithiviers de Canard? Good question, and we raided the wine cellar to find some dusty but interesting-looking bottles of 2002 Chateau Martet – a cheeky little Merlot that complimented our ‘Luxury Duck Pie’ perfectly.

We had to let it breath for well over an hour before it became drinkable, but once it had oxygenated, it was a truly stunning accompaniment to the Pithiviers de Canard

Summer Pudding RecipeAfter a nibble of various cheeses, we ended up with something light and refreshing – one of our old favourites – Summer Pudding

A pleasant evening of good food, good wine and good company. What more can you ask for?


Birthday Veal and Booze

Fortunately, we only have birthdays once a year, otherwise I’d be even older than I am… and that’s quite old! Last weekend saw me hit another of those awful ‘big birthdays’ with a zero at the end. Though I would have been happy to have let the day pass quietly, my wife, Marie-Danielle, decided otherwise. Unknown to me, she had invited the whole tribe to celebrate. In the end, one son couldn’t make it, and my other son’s wife and little boy were ill, so he had to come on his own. But M-D’s daughter, Muriel, and her family drove up from Orleans, so there were still seven of us sat round the table

Veal MarengoNormally, it is me who does the cooking, both on a daily basis and for special events. This time, because I was getting even older, Muriel had prepeared a Veal Marengo which she brought with her in a large Le Creuset and served along with fresh tagliatelle (that’s after the foie gras and before the home-made Black Forest Gateau). We made sure to wsh it all down wth copious amounts of a rather welcome 1989 Chass Spleen.

The Norfolk SelectionHowever, I must be getting some sort of reputation for boozing (or have I had that for a while?) because my birthday gifts included three bottles of excellent ‘liquid refreshment’. My son, Ian, brought an exquisite bottle of mixed spirits from English Whisky Co Ltd – the only English distillery of whisky. And what a great distillery it is. It’s situated at Harling Road, Roudham, about 7 or 8 miles north-east of Thetford in Norfolk. If you get a chance to visit – don’t hesitate (they’ve recently opened a café/restaurant which has already gained an enviable reputation for quality.) The ‘Mixed Spirits’ bottle is a combination of Perdo Ximenez sherry and their own single malt whisky. They use sherry casks to mature some of their whiskys, so I guess they ship the casks over full!

Château Cardinal Villemaurine and Château D'YquemContinuing with the alcohol theme, My other son, Justin, sent over a Magnum (1.5 litres) of 1982 Chateau Cardinal Villemaurine, a rather splendid Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. I suspect I shall end up taking it over the the Isle of Man when we go in May. I know just the neighbours who would help me dispose of that!

And to make my birthday complete, my lovely wife, gave me an excellent bottle of 2007 Château D’Yquem. This wine is the crème de la crème of Sauternes. Wines from Château d’Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness, which is balanced by relatively high acidity. With proper care, a bottle will keep for a century or more, and the fruity overtones will gradually fade and integrate with more complex secondary and tertiary flavours. In a poor vintage, the entire crop is deemed unworthy of bearing the Château’s name and sold anonymously; this happened nine times in the 20th century! On the other hand, in July 2011, an 1811 bottle of Château d’Yquem sold for £75,000 ($117,000) at the Ritz in London to a private collector, to become the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold. Looks like we’ll have to choose our moment carefully before we open that one.

Maybe I should have another birthday next year after all!

Christmas 2018

Florence, Damien, Marie-Danielle and GrahamWe spent an informal Christmas Day this year in the company of two good friends, Florence and her son, Damien. We also decided to keep it simple, so we kicked off with smoked wild salmon from Olsen Bornholm, a specialist smoke house and curers, just a mile from where we live. But we dressed it up a bit and turned it into Julie’s Salmon and Prawn with Lime. This is such an easy recipe and it’s been a huge success every time we’ve done it. Damien was more impressed with Marie-Danielle’s hat. And a mighty fine hat it was too!Florence, Damien, Marie-Danielle and Graham

For the main course, we cooked Chicken in a Salt Crust (or Poulet a l’ail en Croute de Sel if you want me to be pedantic). It’s a simple, straightforward recipe and I know from experience that the salt crust takes a bit of breaking. In fact, I often employ the help of a hammer. So it was a racing certainty that Damien would find this amusing. Nothing like getting someone involved in the kitchen at an early age – even if it is only with a hammer!

Happy 2019 from Marie-Danielle and GrahamFlorence lives in the heart of Paris and she had brought with her some truly wonderful cheeses that we took our time over. She also brought the deserts – delicious hand-made cakes from one of the best patisseries in the capital. We would have been happy if she had just brought herself and Damien, but the cheese and desserts were an added bonus.

Incidentally, I used Florence (with her permission) as a model for one of the characters in my book Web of Tangled Blood. It’s the story of a couple struggling to understand their past as they search for their long lost son.

So, finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed following this blog. I leave you at the end of 2018 with all my best wishes for the year ahead. May you enjoy health and happiness. Everything else will follow from there.

Travellers

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll be aware that I mix personal interest with purely food and culinary content. One of my hobbies is writing and my fourteenth book called ‘Travellers’ has been released. It’s the tenth book in ‘The Island Connection’ series. Here’s a bit about it.

Travellers

Travellers by Graham Hamer
Travellers arrive unseen and stay hidden for millions of years until their accidental discovery revives their chances of survival. But what will they do with their new-found freedom, if indeed they can escape their prison? The discovery of a mysterious pod that glistens black during the day and glows red at night sets people’s imaginations running wild. Soon, the mysterious object becomes the focus of attention for the world’s media. But does the pod contain anything? And if so, what? What are Travellers? Some people know the facts, but they dare not speak out. “I wonder what people would think if they knew what we were enabling?” she said. “I think they would string us up quicker than you could say ‘traitor’,” the tall man replied. “I don’t suppose that many would realise that we are gambling with the future of the planet.”

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TRAVELLERS

After a further five minutes of digging, Jimmy raised one eyebrow, causing his brow to pucker. Something didn’t sit right. Every time he dragged his bucket back, it scraped on something which, at a glance, didn’t look like metal or plastic, but wasn’t sandstone either. An experienced digger driver like Jimmy was like an artist. He could feel the soil and the rock and the obstructions through the hydraulic levers that he manipulated with just the tips of his fingers. He couldn’t see what was causing the blockage because each time he scooped out sandstone, a stream of crumbled soil ran back into the hole to cover the obstruction. Jimmy jumped down from his cab, grabbed a shovel, and dropped down into the hole. He scraped at the loose earth and shovelled it to one side.

What he found was something with a smooth surface that looked like some sort of plastic, but which shimmered and flashed a little in the sunlight. A bit like glittery unicorn dust when his six-year-old daughter had finished playing with her make-up kit. The only trouble was that this unicorn dust held no bright colours. It was black as night, yet reflected the sunlight. Jimmy rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands. Flashing black light wasn’t something his brain could unscramble. And whatever the object was, it was rounded. Not a small pipe like a standard 100mm or 150mm uPVC drain. If it was something circular, it was far bigger than that, judging from the slow radius.

“Everything alright, Jimmy?”

The voice belonged to Stitcher, the site foreman. Not many knew his real name, but everyone called him Stitcher on account of the fact that a surgeon had thrown his heart away and given him a new one from a donor in Manchester. When sewing him back up, the surgeon had left Cecil English with a considerable scar and a new nickname.

“Yeah, I guess everything’s okay,” Jimmy said, “but damned if I know what this is, and close up it’s got these dark flashes bouncing round on it to it. There’s some weird shit going on here.”

Stitcher peered down into the hole. He had been a digger driver himself in his day, so knew that there was nothing unusual about getting out of the cab to take a closer look at the dig. “It looks like it’s plastic from here.”

“True, but I’m now four feet down in virgin sandstone. How would something plastic get here?”

“You mean it’s not old backfill that you’ve been digging out?”

“No. Apart from a bit of topsoil, I’ve pulled out nothing but unspoiled sandstone so far. There’s no signs of any previous digging and filling. But that doesn’t make sense since plastic has only been used in the building trade for the last fifty years. How does something big and plastic turn up under four feet of virgin sandstone? And what the hell are these flashes of black light?”

“Damned if I know, old son. Black light doesn’t make sense. It was just public toilets here before we began digging, wasn’t it?”

“Toilets, sailors’ shelter, the yacht club, some old garages and a storage yard. Demolition team got rid of them all in a week flat. The sailors’ shelter and the yacht club have been relocated down the side of the marina and they plan building new public loos when this new treatment plant is finished. The demolition guys cleared all the rubble away and left us with a clean site. One of the easiest to work on too, being right next to the promenade. I’ve already ripped out all the drains that served the old buildings. They were less than a couple of feet down.”

“Could it be a septic tank or cesspit?”

“No. Like I say, I’m pulling out virgin rock. Stitcher. Whatever it is, it wasn’t buried here and covered over again. It sort of grew here!”

“You sure of that?”

“Positive. Come take a look yourself.”

“No, I trust your judgment, Jimmy. Why not dig round the thing for the moment? See how far it goes and how deep. That way we’ll get some idea of size and can decide what to do with it.”

Jimmy knelt down and slowly moved his hand towards the object, expecting to get an electric shock at any moment. But his hand passed through the layer of black flashes with nothing more than a slight tingle. He tapped on the plastic. “Sounds hollow. There’s a sort of echo. Do we need to call anyone?”

“No, let’s expose it a bit first, then we can decide.”

“I’ve banged it a few times with the bucket. What happens if I damage it?”

Stitcher laughed. “I’ve seen you get your bucket to within a centimetre of an object, Jimmy. The only reason you’d damage something is if you meant to. Perhaps best we take a bit of care now we know it’s there, eh?”

 

Book cover design by Bruno Cavellec, Copyright © Bruno Cavellec 2018.
Image used and published according to the licence granted by the artist

The truth about Cast-Iron pans

Cast Iron PansThere’s a load of misinformation when it comes to cast iron pans. On the one hand there are people who claim you’ve got to treat your cast iron cookware like a new born babe. And on the other hand, there are the macho types who treat their pans like space junk! In fact, in the world of cast iron, there are several unfounded, untested claims and it’s time to put a few of those myths to rest.

Myth #1: Cast iron is difficult to maintain.

The Theory: Cast iron is a material that can rust, chip, or crack easily. Buying a cast iron skillet is like adopting a puppy. You’re going to have to pamper it through the early stages of its life, and be gentle when you store it because that seasoning can chip off!

The Reality: Cast iron is tough as nails! There’s a reason why there are 75-year-old cast iron pans kicking around at yard sales and antique shops. The stuff is built to last and it’s very difficult to completely ruin it. Most new pans even come pre-seasoned, which means that the hard part is already done for you and you’re ready to start cooking right away.

And as for storing them? If your seasoning is built up in a nice thin, even layer like it should be, then don’t worry. It isn’t going to chip off. I store my regular non-stick frying pans with kitchen tissue between each to protect the non-stick coting. My cast iron pans are nested directly in each other and the seasoning is just fine.

Myth #2: Cast iron heats evenly.

The Theory: Searing steaks and frying potatoes requires high, even heat. Cast iron is great at searing steaks, so it must be great at heating evenly.

The Reality: Actually, cast iron is terrible at heating evenly. The thermal conductivity is around ⅓ to ¼ that of a material like aluminum. Which means that when you place a cast iron skillet on a burner, you end up forming very obvious hot spots right on top of where the flames are, while the rest of the pan remains relatively cool.

The real advantage of cast iron is that once it’s hot, it stays hot. This is vitally important when searing meat. To really heat cast iron evenly, place it over a burner and let it preheat for at least 5 minutes or so, rotating it every once in a while. Alternatively, heat it up in a hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes (but remember to use a oven gloves when you take it out)

The other advantage of cast iron is its high emissivity – that is, its tendency to expel a lot of heat energy from its surface in the form of radiation. You can put your hand close to stainless steel when it’s extremely hot and hardly feel a thing. Only the food directly in contact with it is getting any significant heat.

When you are cooking on cast iron, you’re not just cooking the surface in contact with the metal, you’re also cooking a good deal of food further away as well. This makes it ideal for things like making hash or pan roasting chicken and vegetables.

Myth #3: A well-seasoned cast iron pan is totally non-stick.

The Theory: The better you season your cast iron, the more non-stick it becomes. Perfectly well-seasoned cast iron is perfectly non-stick.

The Reality: Your cast iron pan is nowhere near as non-stick as Teflon, a material so non-stick that they had to develop new technologies just to get it to bond to the pan. Can you dump a load of cold eggs into your cast iron pan, slowly heat it up with no oil, then slide those cooked eggs right back out without a spot left behind? Because you can do that with Teflon-coated kitchenware.

That said, as long as your cast iron pan is well seasoned and you make sure to pre-heat it well before adding any food, you shouldn’t have too many problems with sticking.

Myth #4: You should never wash a cast iron pan with soap.

Cast Iron GriddleThe Theory: Seasoning is a thin layer of oil that coats the inside of your skillet. Soap is designed to remove oil, therefore soap will damage your seasoning.

The Reality: Seasoning is actually not a thin layer of oil, it’s a thin layer of polymerized oil, a key distinction. In a properly seasoned cast iron pan, one that has been rubbed with oil and heated repeatedly, the oil has already broken down into a plastic-like substance that has bonded to the surface of the metal. This is what gives well-seasoned cast iron its non-stick properties and, as the material is no longer actually an oil, soap should not affect it. Go ahead and soap it and scrub it.

The one thing you should avoid is letting it soak in the sink. Try to minimize the time it takes from when you start cleaning to when you dry and re-season your pan. If that means letting it sit on the stovetop until dinner is done, so be it.

Myth #5: Don’t use metal utensils on a cast iron pan.

The Theory: The seasoning in cast iron pans is delicate and can easily flake out or chip if you use metal. Stick to wood or nylon utensils.

The Reality: The seasoning in cast iron is actually remarkably resilient. It’s not just stuck to the surface; it’s chemically bonded to the metal. Scrape away with a metal spatula and unless you’re actually gouging out the surface of the metal, you should be able to continue cooking in it with no issue.

If you occasionally see flakes of black stuff chip out of the pan as you cook in it, it’s possible that it’s seasoning, but most unlikely. More likely, those flakes of black stuff are carbonized bits of food that were stuck to the surface of the pan because you refused to scrub them out with soap last time you cooked.

Myth #6: Modern cast iron is just as good as old cast iron.

The Theory: Metal is metal, cast iron is cast iron, the new stuff is no different than the old cast iron pans from early 20th century that people cherish and rave over.

The Reality: The material may be the same, but the production methods have changed. In the old days, cast iron pans were produced by casting in sand-based moulds, then polishing the resulting pebbly surfaces until smooth. Vintage cast iron tends to have a satiny smooth finish. By the 1950s, as production scaled up and was streamlined, this final polishing step was dropped from the process. The result? Modern cast iron retains that slightly bumpy, pebbly surface.

But that difference is minor. As long as you’ve seasoned your pan properly, both vintage and modern cast iron should take on a nice non-stick surface. However, your modern cast iron will never be quite as non-stick as the vintage stuff.

Myth #7: Never cook acidic foods in cast iron.

The Theory: Acidic food can react with the metal, causing it to leech into your food, giving you an off-flavor with potential health risks.

The Reality: In a well-seasoned cast iron pan, the food in the pan should only be coming in contact with the layer of polymerized oil in the pan, not the metal itself. So in a perfect world, this should not be a problem. But none of us are perfect and neither are our pans. No matter how well you season, there’s still a good chance that there are spots of bare metal and these can indeed interact with acidic ingredients in your food.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to avoid long-simmered acidic things, particularly tomato sauce. On the other hand, a little acid is not going to hurt it. I deglaze my pan with wine after pan-roasting chicken all the time. A short simmer won’t harm your food, your pan, or your health in any way.

These are the only rules you need to know to have a successful lifelong relationship with your cast iron.

**** Season it when you get it. Even pre-seasoned cast iron can do with some extra protection. To season your pan, heat it up on the stovetop until its smoking hot, then rub a little oil into it and let it cool. Repeat this process a few times and you’re good to go.

**** Clean your pan thoroughly after each use by washing it with soap and water and scrubbing out any gunk or debris from the bottom. I use the scrubby side of a sponge for this.

Cleaning and Seasoning Cast Iron Pans**** Re-season it. Rinse out any excess soap with water, then place the skillet over a burner set to high heat. When most of the water inside the skillet has dried out, add a half teaspoon of a neutral oil like vegetable, canola, flaxseed, or shortening. Rub it around with a paper towel. Continue heating the pan until it just starts to smoke then give it one more good rub. Let it cool and you’re done.

**** Fry and Sear in it. The best way to keep your seasoning maintained? Just use your pan a lot! The more you fry, sear, or bake in it, the better that seasoning will become.

**** Don’t let it stay wet. Water is the natural enemy of iron and letting even a drop of water sit in your pan when you put it away can lead to a rust spot. Not the end of the world, but rust will require a little scrubbing and reseasoning. I always dry out my pan with a paper towel and coat it with a tiny amount of oil before storage.

There now, was that so hard? Now get out there and start cooking!

The best of burgers

We could debate forever about grilled versus griddled burgers. And, while we’re at it, about charcoal versus gas grills. But let’s say you don’t have a grill. Or mabe it’s below-freezing outside. How do you make a great burger without leaving your kitchen?

Beef BurgerFirst, I need to explain the difference between English-English and American-English. In American-English, grilling is a form of cooking that involves dry heat applied to the surface of food, commonly from above or below. Grilling usually involves a significant amount of direct, radiant heat, and tends to be used for cooking meat and vegetables quickly. Food to be grilled is cooked on a grill, a grill pan, or griddle. Broiling is like grilling, only turned on its head. Broiling is when the heat is applied from above the food. In English-English, grilling is like American broiling. It’s also used for barbeques etcetera when the food rests on a metal grill. The other stuff is ‘pan fried’ or simply ‘fried’. So far; so complicated. So I shall try and explain as I go.

It seems to me that there are three basic cooking methods you can adopt to cook a burger indoors. The first is to broil your burger under the oven grill (that’s grilling in English-English). The second is to ‘grill’ it in a ridged grill pan (that’s pan-fried in English-English). And the third is on the stove top in a flat-bottomed skillet or frying pan (that’s also pan-fried in English-English).

The good news is that all three methods produce tasty burgers. But there are some tips and tricks that apply to every method. In other words, whether you want to griddle or broil is your call. Just don’t forget to follow these rules for success.

1. Don’t skimp on the fat.

Ground beef (minced beef) is classified according to its fat content. This is important in all ground beef recipes, from meatloaf to meatballs, but especially so when it comes to burgers. My own preference is for a burger with 20 percent fat and 80% meat. That may sound like a lot of fat, but if you’re making burgers, make them right! This fat content yields a juicy, full-flavoured result. Leaner options flirt with blandness and dryness. And a higher fat content risks a greasy burger.

2. Season immediately before cooking.

After you form the burger patty and you are ready to cook it, season the heck out of it with kosher salt (or rock salt) and freshly ground black pepper. But don’t season it before you’re ready to cook. Mixing the ground beef with salt (like you would with meatloaf or meatballs) affects the texture of the meat, making it tougher. By seasoning the outside just before you cook, you get a fabulous, full-flavour, super-tender beef patty.

3. Get the pan (or broiler) crazy hot.

What’s so great about grilling burgers? The smoky char you get from a blazing-hot grill. So by fully heating your pan or broiler, you’re treating your burger to the intense heat it deserves. That’s what creates the crustiest crust, which is as much about textural contrast as it is about big-time flavour. For bonus points, you can heat your pan under the broiler before adding the burger to the pan. That allows you to have a rare burger with a deep rich crust.

Italian Style BurgerFor a burger with a difference, why not try Italian Style Burger? The addition of a little Pecorino Romano to the burger mix and then the melted Provolone cheese on top really does make it feel like Tuscany on a sunny day.

Fresh for September

OystersIt’s September and there’s an ‘r’ in the months, so the oysters are good. They’ve had all summer to grow and fatten, and now they are truly at their best – fresh and tasting of the sea. Traditionally, in France, oysters are eaten raw and in the shell, freshly delivered from the Atlantic ocean. The best way is to eat them with thin slices of rye bread, salted butter, and lemon juice. Some people add shallot vinegar, and that’s just fine too.

You may feel that oysters are a luxury food, but many poducts have come down in price over the years as producers improve their techniques and their efficiency. It used to be that people only ate foie gras on high days and holidays. It was a luxury item, produced traditionally, with care and respect for the animals, and appreciated with reverence. Nowadays, people want it year-round and they want it cheap. This has spawned an industry of mistreated, factory-farmed animals yielding tasteless, fatty foie gras.

Whole Duck Foie Gras from the South-West Half-Cooked My recommendation is to avoid foie gras altogether if you can’t be sure it has been produced artisanally and ethically. If, however, you get to visit an independent producer on your travels, or have a solid recommendation for one from a chef or discerning cook, buy a terrine de foie gras entier mi-cuit (half-cooked) in a jar and savour every bite. We always buy from Godard in the Dordogne region of France. They will ship direct to anywhere in the world.

Serve your terrine de foie gras cold, but not too cold, with sourdough bread, which complements the sweetness of good foie gras. The proper way to eat foie gras is to slice a bite-size piece with your knife and place it carefully on the bread. Don’t you dare try spreading it! Take a bite and let your taste buds take over.

Cold Smoked SalmonAnother luxury food item that has been ruined by the consumer’s insistence to eat it any old day of the year, but no willingness to pay the proper price for it, is smoked salmon. The consequence is factory-farmed salmon that are pumped full of drugs and chemicals to make them grow more quickly. They are destroying the environment, and the result is oily smoked salmon with little firm texture, that just tastes of fish and smoke.

*** Farm-raised salmon have more dangerous contaminants than wild salmon

*** Wild salmon has a better ratio of good-to-bad fats than farmed salmon

*** Farmed salmon isn’t as nutritious as wild salmon overall

*** Farmed salmon is more likely to be affected by pollution, parasites, and disease

*** Farmed-raised salmon are bad for the environment

I would much rather buy wild salmon and indulge just once a year, buying a couple of thin slices per person and savoring every bite with my eyes closed. (And if that falls outside the budget, organic smoked trout is a delicious, lower-cost, ethical option.)

Smoked salmon is typically served with warmed blinis, crème fraîche (sour cream will do), and a gentle squeeze of lemon juice.

Mind you, I guess we are spoiled when we are in France. Less than one mile away is an establishment called Olsen Bornholm which smoke their own wild salmon and Scandinavian and festive specialties. That suits me just fine!

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