Of allergies and flavour

On Sunday, I cooked for a dinner party. My brief for this dinner could have come from Iron Chef: one guest is gluten intolerant; another cannot digest any form of pepper, garlic and onion – that’s no onion, garlic, capsicum, shallots, chillies, spring onions, or anything from the family.

Rather than make a ‘special’ meal for these guests, I had a menu that (almost) could be shared by everyone. The flavours alternated between middle eastern and traditional American-autumnal, but most importantly there was flavour – sweet, creamy, savoury, spicy. Who needs garlic/onion/chilli/gluten anyway?

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Starters:

Popcorn with bacon fat, bacon, and maple syrup 
Cheeses with home-made baguette

Mains:

Maple-brined pork chops with pear chutney
Roasted sweet potatoes with Greek yoghurt and pomegranate molasses
Salad with tahini dressing and crisp chickpea topping

Dessert:

David Lebovitz’s chocolate sorbet

Popcorn

Say ‘popcorn’ and people begin to smile. Say ‘popping corn’ and the smile gets wider.

I got the same smiles from dinner guests when I announced the first course was .. popcorn, freshly popped in a big copper pan. Crank up the heat, listen for the corn hitting the sides of the pan with forcefulness if doubtful accuracy, and watch a trail of oil dribble down the side of the pan (antique ‘French’ pan, need a tight fitting lid, anyone know a coppersmith?) – it was one of the best ice breakers.

Plus, we had slightly sticky-sweet, slightly salty, popcorn to go with the hoity-toity cheese. Everyone’s inner child: 1; hoity-toity: 0.

Delicious fun from Leites Culinaria

Ingredients

4 slices bacon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more as needed
1/2 cup popping corn
1/4 cup maple syrup
Coarse salt, preferably smoked salt flakes, as needed

Directions

1. Heat a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over low heat and cook the bacon slowly until cooked through but not ridiculously crisp This should take about 15 minutes per side if the heat is low enough. Transfer the cooked bacon to a folded paper towel to drain, leaving the bacon drippings in the skillet. When the bacon is cool enough to handle, crumble it into a bowl.

2. Carefully pour the bacon drippings into a 3-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid. You’ll need at least 1 tablespoon bacon drippings; if you don’t have enough, melt a bit of butter to make up the difference. Heat the pot over medium-high heat and pour in the corn, clapping on the cover. Shake the pan and listen for the sound of the corn popping. Once it begins to pop furiously, lower the heat to medium and leave the pan alone until it’s quiet and the popped corn begins to push at the lid off the pot. Turn off the burner but let the pot remain where it is so the residual heat can pop the remaining kernels.

3. In the meantime, melt the butter. Measure the maple syrup. Grab your bowl of crumbled bacon. And find a ginormous bowl.

4. Pour the popped corn into the bowl. Immediately drizzle it with the maple syrup and melted butter, sprinkle it with the crumbled bacon, and quickly toss to combine. Taste for salt and correct the seasonings, tossing again. Serve at once with napkins aplenty.

Baguette

This was the only gluten-full part of the evening, but there was pumpernickel too.

I followed a transcript of Anis Bouabsa’s baguette technique that was popularised on the Fresh Loaf. All I need to say is the guests finished the bread so quickly that I didn’t have time to take a photo of the crumb. Even though it looked less than perfect, the guests were looking around for more (“Please, sir, can I have some more”).

For a brief moment, the hoity-toity won over the inner child.

Details here.

Maple-brined pork chops with pear chutney

Pork chops

When compiling this menu, my mantra was “cannot be bland, cannot be bland, cannot be bland.” Without my trusty helpers of sauteed garlic and caramelised onions, and cut off from bread (and pasta and … ), the only thing I could think of serving was some hunka meat with vegetables (hold the roasted garlic and chilli salt, thanks). And plain-Jane pork chops just doesn’t scream “eat me, eat me, eat me!!” – does it?

I was like the Ancient Mariner left adrift on the wide, bleak, salty sea.

Until I saw a recipe that takes the salty sea, bathes in it, and comes out after 6 hours with tender and flavourful pork. The secret was maple syrup, bay leaves (I used fresh rosemary, shhhhhh) and lots and lots of pepper (I used a mixture of black peppercorns and the fruity pink pepper from my favourite Indian grocer).

It was as if a faded aunt suddenly stepped out in a jazzy orange number. The maple syrup gave the meat a residual sweetness, while the salt and peppercorns did a kind of dance number with the chops. Like I said, as pork chops go, it was very showy, very impressive, very easy on the stove and easy on the plate. If I change anything the second time round, it may be to up the maple syrup and other seasonings, and slightly reduce the salt or reduce the marinading time.

My only grumble was … well, I prefer super-fresh pork as is. We’ve been having some pork fillets from porkers bred in the State’s pork capital.  While there was less immediate flavour than the maple-brined pork, the meat was firm, toothsome, yet tender and creamy in texture, just a little bit savoury, but most importantly, naturally delicate-sweet like the best pork should be. I think it’s hard to improve on this natural balance of savoury-sweet, creamy-firm. The maple-brine comes close, but I’ll be back to my so-very-exciting, simply grilled pork fillet – a jasmine flower that outshines the dashing birds of paradise in the end.

Recipe from Leite’s Culinaria.

Pear (and ginger, lots of ginger) chutney

Nom nom nom. I’m glad the guests did not have an allergy to ginger. In fact, they love ginger (and we can still be friends).

The chutney was thick, chunky, syrupy, savoury-sour, and packs a punch with the diced fresh ginger. Being an unrepentant improviser, I added a pinch of pach phoran in the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Its sweet intensity really balanced out the dominant salty note in the pork chops, and would complement many savoury dishes. A few days later, the last spoonfuls of chutney mingled with an improved bangers-and-crushed-potatoes plateful, and took everyone to a happy place.

I will be back for more, maybe armed with maple syrup or darkest of palm sugars.

Recipe below and at above link.

Ingredients

3 large, firm pears, peeled, quartered, cored, and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2/3 cup firmly packed golden brown sugar
1 1/4 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger

Method

Combine the pears and vinegar in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the pears begin to break down, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the brown sugar, stirring until dissolved. Add the ginger, return to low heat, and cook, stirring almost constantly, until the mixture is dark brown and very thick, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

Roasted sweet potatoes

Since I had brined pork on the plate, I wanted something rustic, simple, and heart warming to match. This was the perfect opportunity to make sweet potatoes that are in-your-face in flavour, yet so simple, they practically cook themselves.

The basic idea is: take a few hefty sweet potatoes, roast at low-medium temperature for a good couple of hours until the liquid has caramelised and seeped out of the skin, and the flesh has become meltingly tender. Top with a mix of Greek yoghurt and pomegranate molasses, and serve. The potatoes’ natural sweetness was highlighted by the toppings, and went very well with the maple syrup marinade for the brined pork chops.

This recipe can be found everywhere. The ideas for toppings came from my kitchen pantry.

Ingredients

Sweet potatoes
Sea salt, Greek yoghurt, pomegranate molasses 

Directions

1. Pre-heat oven to 150 degrees Celcius.
2. Prick or cut a few gashes in the sweet potatoes. Line a perforated pizza tray (the ones that have holes on the bottom to make the pizza crispy) with two or three layers of baking paper. Place sweet potatoes on the baking paper and roast for 1.5-2 hours, until they look slightly shrivelled, the skin is darker and the flesh has become so tender it can be scooped out with a spoon. 
3. Cut them into thick chunks, or split them, however you wish.
4. Mix together a cup of Greek yoghurt and a tablespoon full of pomegranate molasses. Drizzle over the sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with sea salt if you wish.

Salad

This was where my greengrocers, and my kitchen pantry, really took over. This salad was very improvised, yet surprisingly consistent with the flavour range of the evening.

1. Throw together mache (or lamb’s lettuce), crisp young cucumbers (the ones with tiny yellow flowers at the end), dry-sauteed kale, and coriander in a bowl.

2. Mix together tahini, lemon, powdered cumin, and enough water from a can of chickpeas to get to the desired consistency.  Add garlic if cooking for non-allergic friends.

3. Sprinkle besan (chickpea flour) over a drained can of chickpeas. Once generally mixed, pour the whole lot into a pan with lots of olive oil. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the besan has dried on the chickpeas. Increase heat to medium, and stir until the whole thing becomes slightly toasted and browned.

4. Mix dressing with salad greens, sprinkle with chickpea topping.

Chocolate sorbet

If I was a goat, I would be singing Sound of Music and frolicking with all my might after tasting this sorbet.

I first saw a recipe for a plain, dairy-free sorbet on fxcuisine.com, and ever since then, I think of fxcuisine whenever I see a back to basics chocolate sorbet. Fxcuisine is notable for its articles about cheese, particularly Swiss cheese that one may discover on the cow-breeding and goat-herding hills around Lake Geneva.

And that’s why I think of frolicking goats whenever I see chocolate sorbet.

This sorbet is a little more complex than melt-and-mix Evian, sugar and Valrhona. This also calls for the best cocoa powder. The resulting flavour was a mouthful of essence of chocolate, rich, intense in flavour, and each mouthful feels so decadent despite the absence of milk, cream or custard. 

I don’t have an ice cream maker, so I made this sorbet the old fashioned way. It hadn’t fully frozen by the time dessert o’clock rolled around, and was served in wine glasses. People half-spooned, half-drank the liquid chocolate, then, one guest went straight for the sorbet container. 

I guess if he was a goat, he’s be singing the Sound of Music and frolicking too. 

Here’s the recipe, as published on Epicurious:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups (555 ml) water
1 cup (200 g) sugar
3/4 cup (75 g) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
6 ounces (170 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

In a large saucepan, whisk together 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the water with the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Let it boil, continuing to whisk, for 45 seconds.

Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until it’s melted, then stir in the vanilla extract and the remaining 3/4 cup (180 ml) water. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend for 15 seconds. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If the mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.

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