Sunday 19 February 2012

Low-Carb Snacking: Cottage Cheese, Herb & Olive Oil Smothering Dip

Professor Tim Noakes, arguably South Africa's most eminent and distinguished sports scientist, has recently made jaws drop (and ruffled some feathers) by entirely changing his mind about what sort of food we should be eating. In a nutshell, he's come out as a fervent supporter of a regime low in refined carbohydrates, and high (oh, joy!) in fat and protein. Read on, after this picture of my low-carb smothering sauce.

Not only has Professor Noakes lost 15 kg on this diet (and he was hardly a fatty to start with) but he also claims that he's never felt fitter, stronger and more convinced of anything in his life. I don't buy Noakes' argument that there's some sort of conspiracy on the part of Big Pharma or what he (tapping his nose, I imagine) calls 'Industry', but I do respect him as a scientist.

This isn't a diet blog, so you'll have to follow up the details on your own, but I can tell you that certain members *cough* of my household have been on a Noakes-style regime for 8 days, and that between them, in that time, three people have lost a satisfying total of 10 kg.

Postscript June 2014: I've lost almost 25 kg on a low carb diet, after having being diagnosed with Type II diabetes six months ago.

As someone who has spent many years dieting - starting, with no need to, at the age of 13, and with nothing at all to show for it at the age of almost 50 - I have lost interest in diets. They work, all right, for a while, but they're not really sustainable. Especially not if you're a food journalist and spend every waking moment thinking about food, cooking it and writing about it. (And, let me admit, tasting and eating it, and with great enthusiasm.)  I don't approve of diets in general, but I do try to accommodate the eating requirements of my family, so when two of them decided to try Professor Noakes' diet I thought I'd join in, and eagerly support them by cutting all carbs from family meals.

This has been a challenge, not least because two of my kids have no need for any sort of diet, the skinny devils they are.  Bread, pulses, pasta and potatoes have always been my best friends as I've tried to still the raging appetites of teenage children, so this transition hasn't been painless. However, after a week at the coal-face of low-carb cooking, I've come up with a few tactics that I think are going to work in the long term.

There isn't space here to explain the intricacies of a low-carb diet (or to debate its merits) but, in a nutshell, it involves cutting out all everything starchy and/or sugary, and that includes fruit, fruit juices and (sob) wine.  Bad news if you're a fan of fruit, puddings and processed starchy foods, but there is a big consolation prize: you can eat all the fat and protein you desire (within reason, of course, and you will have to discuss this with your doctor, or indeed Professor Noakes).

So, what do you eat? Eggs, cheese, chicken, beef, fish, milk and trolley-loads of low-carb vegetables. This may sound limited until you realise (with joy, on my part) that foods often forbidden on diets are actually encouraged on this regime: avocados, nuts, olive oil, olives, cheeses of all sorts, butter, bacon, eggs, steak, oily fish, roast chicken, and so on.

I've stopped making big pots of rice and pasta, turned my back on my beloved potatoes, and now offer for dinners a low-carb veggie stew or curry or stir-fry, or a salad cheesed up with feta or halloumi or gorgonzola, plus a nice bit of steak, or a roast, or some flash-fried chicken breasts. Breakfasts in this house (for the Noakes acolytes at least; the skinnies have cereal, fruit and yoghurt) are omelettes, boiled eggs or a few slices of ham. Lunches are crunchy salads containing  tuna or chicken or ham or more boiled eggs, and all with plenty of Hellmann's mayonnaise. There is a big lidded box of peeled carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and spring onions in the fridge at all times and, as an extra enticement, bowls of olives, capers, anchovies, chopped fresh garlic and so on.

The biggest problem with cutting out carbs is that you don't feel very full or satisfied after a starchless meal.  The answer, I think (and it is early days) is to make what you do eat so delicious and flavour-packed that you don't ever feel deprived.

This creamy dish of cottage cheese, garlic, herbs and olive oil perfectly fits the bill. I won't call it a dip, because that word implies that you delicately poke a celery stick in it. You do not: you spoon it lavishly over whatever you're eating. I've used chunky cottage cheese, which is so unfashionable these days that you never see it on menus or in recipes, but I'm addicted to its milky lumpiness and delicate blandness (probably because I ate so much of it as a dieting teen).  Give it a go - I think you'll love it.

I've made three batches of it this week, experimenting with various proportions, and this is the formula that pleases me (and my fellow marchers) most. Feel free to add more of whatever makes your tastebuds dance - more garlic, more herbs, more chilli, and so on.

Cottage Cheese, Herb & Olive Oil Smothering Dip

2 x 250g tubs chunky cottage cheese (I use low fat cheese, but full fat is permissable on this regime)
1/3 cup (80 ml) mayonnaise (Hellmann's Original, or home-made, but not salad cream)
1/3 cup (80 ml) thick natural Greek yoghurt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated or crushed
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh mint
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh coriander
2 Tbsp  (30 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and milled black pepper
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
dried chilli flakes, for dusting (optional)

Mix together the cottage cheese, mayonnaise, yoghurt, garlic, mint, coriander and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Tip the mixture into a shallow dish and pour the olive oil all over the top. Dust with some chilli flakes and some more freshly ground black pepper. Keep covered in the fridge.

Serve with raw or steamed vegetables, or with olives, boiled egg, chicken breasts, and so on.

Makes about 500 ml. 

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Thursday 16 February 2012

Omelette Arnold Bennett with Smoked Angelfish (or Snoek)

Smoked haddock is the shining ingredient in this classic recipe but (as I've bitterly complained on this blog before) this is not available in South Africa. The frozen pap we can buy in local supermarkets is ordinary hake, dyed orange and doused in synthetic smoke, and it's quite legally - and cheekily, if you ask me - sold under the name 'smoked haddock'. Consolingly, though, we have access to very good smoked snoek and angelfish, both of them sustainable local species. The best smoked snoek and angelfish fillets are produced by small smokehouses at my local harbour in Hout Bay - lucky me! - but you can order them from a good  local fishmonger. If you're not in South Africa, use a firm-textured smoked ocean fish.

This excellent dish, invented at London's Savoy Grill during the 1920s, and named after the British novelist Arnold Bennett, consists of an open omelette topped with an enticing mixture of smoked fish, grated Parmesan, and/or  Béchamel, and/or Hollandaise sauce.

The 'and/ors' at the end of that last sentence are squatting there like blinking, uncertain toads - uncertain, because I'm not sure which is the classic and correct version. I can't find an original Savoy Grill recipe for Omelette Arnold Bennett anywhere in my cookbooks or online, and in any case I'm baffled as to how these two sauces can be considered equivalents. I like homely white sauces, but they're just not in same league as golden, buttery Hollandaise and Béarnaise, are they?

Nigel Slater claims that his version - made with a white sauce, using the milk in which the haddock is poached, plus a scattering of Parmesan - is the 'classic interpretation'.  Delia Smith says in the introduction to her recipe that both  Béchamel and Hollandaise are used by restaurant chefs for the topping, and (after promising to simplify and quicken the recipe) gives us complicated instructions for poaching haddock in crème fraîche, adding egg and cornflour, then folding in stiff-beaten egg whites and Gruyère to make a soufflé topping. Margaret Fulton, the grande fromage of Australian cooking, warms haddock with butter and cream, then uses egg yolks, stiff egg whites and Parmesan to make one big, fluffy omelette, topped with more cream and Parmesan. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall makes a rich custard with Cheddar, folds in the fish and then pours this delectable mixture over his omelette.

All these suggestions appealed to me, but in the end I took what I best liked from the many recipes I consulted, and made my own convenient version. Hollandaise is the love of my life (at least when it comes to sauces), but I couldn't in all good conscience top a whopping six-egg omelette for two people with more egg and butter, so Béchamel it had to be. And souffléed, just like Delia's, because I so fancy the combination of a plain omelette with a billowing topping.

As is the case with all soufflés, this dish depends on perfect timing.  Not only do you need to whip it out of the oven when the soufflé is at the peak of its golden puffiness, but you must also make sure that the eggs in the omelette underneath the topping remain creamy, if not lightly trembling.

Omelette Arnold Bennett with Smoked Angelfish

150 g smoked angel fish or snoek (or a similar oily smoked fish)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
2 Tbsp (30 ml) flour
1 cup (250 ml) cold full-cream milk
2 Tbsp (30 ml) cream
½ tsp (2.5 ml) Dijon mustard
7 Tbsp (90 ml) finely grated Parmesan cheese
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
salt and milled black pepper
7 extra-large free-range eggs
2 tsp (10 ml) butter, for cooking the omelette
a handful of chopped fresh parsley

First prepare the smoked fish. Remove any skin, pull the fish into small flakes and, using your fingers, carefully sift through the flesh to remove any small bones. Set aside on a plate.

Now make the white sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and tip in the flour. Cook over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for a minute, without allowing the flour to brown. Pour in the milk, all in one go, and beat energetically with a wire whisk to disperse any lumps. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly. When it is bubbling, thick and smooth, turn down the heat and let it burble very gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cream, mustard and half the grated Parmesan. Stir until smooth, then mix in the reserved fish flakes and just enough lemon juice to give it a pleasant zing. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, heat your oven grill to its highest setting.

Now get ready to turn the white sauce/fish mixture into a soufflé. Take one egg and separate it. Beat the yolk into the saucepan containing the white sauce and fish.  Using a metal whisk or electric beater, beat the white to a firm - but not dry - peak. Set aside.

To make the omelette, lightly beat the remaining six eggs in a big bowl, and add half an eggshell of cold water. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat a few teaspoons of butter in an ovenproof frying pan, and when it just stops foaming - but is not anywhere near brown -  pour in the eggs. Using a fork, pull the cooked eggs towards the centre of the pan, shaking it gently and tilting the pan so any runny egg floods into the gaps. Turn the heat right down now, and cook the omelette until it is just set underneath, but still runny on top. Take it off the heat and set aside. Quickly and very gently fold the beaten egg white into the  Béchamel  sauce/fish mixture,  then pour this all over the top of the half-cooked omelette. Sprinkle the remaining grated Parmesan all over the top, and place the pan on the middle shelf of the oven, under the grill.

Grill the omelette for 2-4 minutes, or until its topping is puffy and golden. Scatter with chopped parsley and serve immediately, before the cloud on top has a chance to subside.

Serves 2 hungry people. 

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Friday 10 February 2012

Devilled Mushrooms on Toast, Downton Abbey, and devilish old recipes

With the second series of the smash-hit British costume drama Downton Abbey now showing in the United States, and the first about to start in South Africa, I won't be at all surprised to see a revival of interest in the dishes so well-loved at Edwardian and Victorian tables. The first series begins with a grand breakfast, the sort that featured kedgeree, devilled kidneys, kippers, bacon and all the delights once found on the tables of the landed gentry. I don't need any encouragement to eat kedgeree or devilled eggs (my mum often made these wonderful Ango-Indian foods for me as a child) but I draw the line at kidneys, which I have never been able to stomach.  Mushrooms are a good substitute because they soak up flavours so eagerly, and they even look a little like tiny kidneys.

Devilled Mushrooms on Toast
I enjoyed watching Downton Abbey on DVD and (although the life of the downstairs drudges and scullions is painted with a ludicrously rosy brush)  particularly enjoyed the closely observed period details of an Edwardian kitchen. The food excited me too (food always excites me) and I looked forward to every scene featuring the redoubtable Mrs Patmore, Downton Abbey's cook.

But back to the devilling. The word 'devil' - in the context of spicing up a dish with cayenne pepper or a similar heating agent - was first used in print in 1787,  when it appeared in The Lounger, a British periodical, but it was only in the 19th century that it become a commonplace term for describing food that had been grilled or fried, then highly seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, mustard, mushroom ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and so on.

Alan Davidson's The Oxford Companion to Food mentions that James Boswell, Dr Johnson's biographer, frequently refers to partaking of  'devilled bones' for supper. These sounded intriguing, but after an exhaustive search of Boswell's books - at least the ones that have been digitised - I couldn't find a single reference to the writer gnawing on spicy bones. I did discover with relief, though, that 'bone' in this context meant a devilled joint of meat, not a dry rib or femur or the like.

Besides meat, all sorts of other foods were devilled at the height of the craze: chicken, turkey, goose, game birds, almonds, walnuts, tomatoes, chestnuts, lobster, prawns, crab, and even ship's biscuits. In A New System of Domestic Cookery (1808), Maria Rundell offers this recipe:
'Butter captain's biscuits on both sides, and pepper them well; make a slice of cheese into a paste with made mustard, and lay it on upon one side; sprinkle cayenne pepper on the top, and send them to be grilled. This may be varied by the addition of chopped anchovies, or the essence, diavolo paste, or Chetney.'
(And this sent me off on another wild goose chase to find out how to make 'diavolo paste'. It's mentioned in several early cookbooks, but I couldn't find recipe for it. I assume it was a sort of hot chilli paste.) An 1825 description of devilled woodcock that delighted me was this one (not least because it contains all the ingredients for the dish!) :
'If I be inclined to be luxurious, give me devilled woodcock—cayenned—curry powdered—truffled—madeiraed—Seville-oranged—catsupped—soyed...  in a silver stew-pan, saturated with its piquant juice, and gently liquefied with the huile of Aix, a city of oil and amphitheatre. It is heavenly. '
(John Wilson, from Noctes Ambrosianæ
Add some sliced chorizo sausage to this dish to lift
it to another spicy level.
So: my devilled mushrooms.These are quite delicious on thin, crisp hot toast, which I  make by sizzling slices of baguette in a buttered sandwich press.

The mushrooms are not terribly hot, so feel free to spice them up with extra cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce, or even some chopped fresh chillies.

These is very good topped with a few slices of good chorizo that have been fried in a hot pan.

Devilled Mushrooms on Toast

500 g button or portabellini mushrooms
3 Tbsp (45 ml/45 g) butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
½ tsp (2.5 ml) chilli powder, or more, to taste
½ tsp (2.5 ml) paprika
4 tsp (20 ml) Dijon mustard
juice of a lemon
a few drops of Worcestershire sauce
milled black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) cream
chopped fresh parsley
1 chorizo sausage (optional)

Fry the mushrooms in the butter over a medium heat for 5-6 minutes, or until just golden. Stir in the garlic, chilli powder, paprika, mustard, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the cream and let the mushrooms bubble until the sauce has thickened slightly. Serve over hot toast with a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley.

If you're using chorizo, slice it and fry it in a little oil, in a separate pan, for a minute or two, or until lightly browned. Drain on kitchen paper.

Serves 4 as a snack.

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