Friday, February 26, 2010

Pistachios, yoghurt soup and unchartered territory

Kitchen-wise, there are things I am good at. And there are areas in which I have, shall we say, room for improvement. Deep frying. Pastry making. Knife sharpening.

There are cuisines I am unfamiliar with, things I have never eaten before, ingredients I don’t use, techniques I haven’t mastered. For example: Turkish food, yoghurt soup, fresh pistachios, frying.

Cooking within the realm of the known creates a freedom to take risks. The basic flavours, structures, techniques are given. Garlic and olive oil for Italian, fish sauce and mint for Vietnamese, soy sauce and five spice for Chinese, butter and tarragon for French, paprika and tomatoes for Spanish. For me, comfortable innovation takes place within those pre-existing and familiar confines, like a variation on a theme.

The key is, of course, knowing what the parameters are. Being familiar enough with something to be able to define it, without slavishly recreating it.

I’d eaten a lot of Vietnamese food and never really enjoyed it and certainly never attempted to cook any at home. Until I took a holiday to Vietnam. And was utterly astounded by the flavours, the variety, the freshness. In situ, the food suddenly made sense. And tasted phenomenal. In Hanoi I took four days of cooking classes. I ate and actually enjoyed fried rice, of all things. I explored the produce markets with the teaching chef. I tasted, I questioned, I understood. I came home and cooked nothing but Vietnamese food for months.

Tonight I made what I think was perfectly acceptable yoghurt soup. I’m not sure that I enjoyed it. I am sure that I don’t understand it. I have no context for it, no benchmark, no sense of how it is supposed be consumed, what accompanies it. Despite a familiarity with the cuisines at the boarders of Turkey, I was surprised at how lost I felt.

The only things I know about Turkish food: eggplants, pistachios and orange blossom water.

Perhaps, a little ambitious then, to think I could just invent, out of this exceedingly low knowledge base, another little snack to bulk out the soup. And a little naive to expect that every new idea will always arrive, perfect and whole

I started with eggplant. Egg shaped striped pale mauve and cream and banana shaped dark purple eggplants. Originally I just planned to split them in halt, brush with oil and char grill. Then, I thought, stuffed eggplant. Genius. Which is where things started to unravel.

Genuine fresh pistachios, just picked from the tree, fleshy outer skin still soft and attached. Saffron. Orange rind. Mint. Dill. Fresh chilli. Toasted and ground fennel seeds. And shellfish – scallops and crayfish. Oh, I could have used ground lamb or goat. But the delicacy of the seafood to match the lightness of the yoghurt soup appealed.

This turned into a fiddly, messy and ultimately less than satisfying meal. Sticky filling that crumbled in the fry pan. Rounds of eggplant that started to burn before cooking through. The floral taste of saffron too sweet for the fresh sea water taste of the shellfish.

But in the remnants and debris spread across my kitchen is the possibility of improvement. I know now, a little more than I knew before. Bind the mince seafood with egg yoke. Where I shallow fried, I probably should have deep fried – this would have kept the parcels intact better, letting them float in bubbling oil whist they firmed. Eggplant takes longer than shellfish to cook – maybe slice the eggplant more thinly? Better next time, perhaps, to make little cigar shaped filo pasty rolls with the filling, and serve a separate plate of char grilled eggplant (which I adore with sea salt sprinkled over). Or stuff the eggplants with lamb, and cook in the oven until the lamb is cooked and the eggplant is soft?

I know more now than I did then.

Next time, however, I might follow a recipe. Just until I get the hang of it.

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