Taste and Flavour tips for fabulous festive cooking.

Creating delicious Christmas dishes can be fun and exciting – the opportunity to be creative and extravagant perhaps, and to cook with some well-earned indulgence.

Dinebox_Gourmet_Xmas_Seasoning_mulled_wine3For some it can also be a little daunting and confusing when you have to bear the weight of tradition, advertising, family history, expectation and not least a never-ending, well marketed supply of cook books and magazines that promise the ‘best Christmas Dinner / cake / buffet… Ever’.

So here’s my tips to help you navigate your own path to a successful, creative and relaxed Christmas Culinary Experience making delicious dishes from scratch.

  1. Embrace traditional, festive flavours.

Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, caraway and cloves are the essence of traditional Christmas seasoning.

These lovely, warm spices have been Christmas favourites for a long time, and for good reason. They add warmth, sweetness, aroma and ‘zing’ to winter fruit and vegetables. They complement sweet and sour dried fruits like raisins and currants, as well as fresh seasonal fruits like pears and apples.

Use nutmeg and cloves in small quantities – they’re very pungent so you only need a little. Cinnamon and ginger are milder so you can use more of these, and add ground coriander to your mixed spice mix – it’s a lovely, mild, warm and sweet spice that blends beautifully with the others.

2. Refresh your spice cupboard

If your spice cupboard is a little out of date, then this the perfect time to refresh it.

Christmas cooking is all about big flavour, and you won’t get that from a jar of old nutmeg that’s been in your cupboard since 1985…

Buy fresh supplies in small amounts from a good source and you’ll be delighted with the flavours and aromas from your festive cooking.

Good cooking starts with good ingredients – whether that means vegetables, meat, herbs or spices.

3. Balance sweet with salty.

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There is always an unlimited supply of cakes, mince pies, chocolate and biscuits at Christmas, but the very best baking considers our salty palate as well as our need for sweet.

Biscuits, pastry and cakes benefit from a salty note to provide a bit of depth and balance to the sweetness. So if you’re making mince pies, make sure you’ve added a pinch of salt to the pastry; if you’re making Christmas shortbread, add some rosemary and salt and pepper to the dough. The same applies for cookies, brownies and fruit pies.

Use a ‘finishing’ salt like Fleur de Sel or Maldon Sea Salt if you’re sprinkling salt on the top of dishes – its looks lovely and provides a wonderful salty crunch.

4. Add a sweet note to a savoury plate.

As the previous tip illustrates, providing great dishes is all about balancing tastes and flavours and accepting that your guests all have different palates.

This goes for a savoury course or meal too.

Here’s a couple of examples:

A cheese board is very salty, with some sour notes if blue cheese is included, and so it’s no wonder that a sweet chutney or fruit such as grapes goes so well as it complements the plate.

A traditional roast turkey dinner is dominated by very savoury / umami elements in the meat and the gravy, with salty potatoes, sweet vegetables like carrots and parsnips and bitter vegetables like brussels sprouts and cabbage. Add a cranberry jelly, and you have a meal that will satisfy the whole palate.

Whether it’s a chutney, plum sauce or cranberry jelly, including a sweet element to your savoury dishes means that your cooking will satisfy everyone’s tastes.

5. Build on your basic cooking knowledge and enhance it, don’t think you need to start from scratch.

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Not everyone has the confidence or experience to try out totally new dishes for a dinner party. So unless you like the adrenaline rush of preparing lobster for the first time for your discerning guests, or you’ve been practising a fiddly dish for the previous month, cook dishes that you know work well, and make them special with herb garnishes, sprinkling of spices, pretty presentation and well-balanced combinations of dishes.

And I’m speaking from experience of sobbing over a should-have-been salmon en croute – it looked so lovely in the cookbook…..

  1. Get the most out of fresh herbs.

hyssop

Have a good variety of fresh herbs (keep fresh in a plastic tub in the fridge if you’re not picking them from the garden).

If you’re using woody herbs like rosemary, sage, bay and thyme, you can add these at the beginning of cooking for maximum flavour. They’re robust and their flavour will develop during cooking.

With delicate herbs like parsley, coriander, basil and mint, add towards the end of cooking to ensure they pack a flavourful punch. If you add them at the beginning, their delicate flavour and textures will diminish into the background.

Fresh herbs are fabulous for adding extra flavour. If you’re using a ready – mixed packet of sage and onion stuffing, for example, add some chopped fresh sage too. Make sausage rolls extra special by adding sage / thyme/ oregano and pepper to the sausage mixture (and sprinkle caraway seeds on the pastry before you bake them).

sausage rolls

Herbs can also be used to create gourmet sweet dishes too. Add some chopped rosemary into shortbread mixture; a bay leaf into your mulled wine or some basil or lemon balm in a fruit salad.

  1. And finally…

If you find yourself with surplus bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon sticks and star anise – scatter them around the dining table and use them as very pretty, natural and aromatic decoration!

Exploring salt making in the French Marais

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The salt pans near Bouin. 

Fleur de Sel is widely regarded as amongst the best salt in the world.

It’s a sea salt harvested in the ‘Marais’ – an area by the coast of the Vendee, in the Loire region of France.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Marais, to discover more about this valuable ingredient, and what makes it so special.

salt pan me

Some of the salt pans, like this one that I’m stood in front of, have intricate patterns that reflect the names of the salt producers.

 

As you first drive the long, straight roads through this flat landscape punctuated with the occasional house, tree, gate or wooden post sticking out from the ground, you can be forgiven for thinking that ‘there’s not much here’.

But if you drive slowly, or better still stop, and look out across the landscape, you start to see it is a friendly wilderness – teaming with birds and water-loving animals who have the perfect, undisturbed playground of marshland to enjoy and thrive.

With the privilege of a guided tour by friends living in this extraordinary place, I’ve begun to discover the richness and diversity of life going on here.

The area is home to a small number of oyster and mussel fishermen, who continue a long tradition of families farming this abundant coastline.

It also has a handful of salt producers (Palaudiers) who continue the tradition of harvesting sea salt by hand, with a little help from the wind, sun and sea.

salt pan pattern

A large salt pan near Bouin

Natural sea salt harvesting takes effort, skill, knowledge and patience.

Precisely shaped pools are hand-cut from the flat marshland, creating a pattern of shallow ‘pans’ , separated by narrow earth walkways (vettes), that are then filled and drained in sequence, allowing the salt to collect above the water.

The salt is then raked by hand onto the vette, where wider circles known as ‘ladures’ have been made to allow the salt to dry out. The salt is then just bagged up.

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The ‘ladure’ circles where the salt is collected. All these pans are cut by hand. The incredible orange colour is caused by the build up of algae before the salinity of water becomes too great.

And that’s about it – no heavy machinery, no technology, no factory, no big business, no marketing strategy, no secrecy. Just a generation of specialist knowledge and a commitment to continuing a local industry that makes great use of its environment without harming it.

Using Fleur de Sel in cooking.

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fleur de sel

Because such minimal processing is involved in the harvesting of Fleur de Sel, the salt retains all the micro-nutrients from the sea and nothing is added to it, which is what makes it such a valuable seasoning ingredient.

The salt has a naturally coarse texture, so it works particularly well as a ‘finishing’ salt – sprinkled over home made breads or a roasting chicken for that lovely salty crunch.

But don’t limit your use to the occasional sprinkle. Salt is one of our fundamental seasoning ingredients, so if you use a wonderful, natural salt like Fleur de Sel, your cooking already has a nutritional and natural head start.

I’ll be posting up a future article with some different ideas for cooking with salt using Fleur de Sel.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your salty ideas..

Tamarind – the sour star

tamarind pods2Great seasoning is all about satisfying our taste senses.

One of our 5 main tastes is sour, and usually we offset this ‘pure’ taste with sweet to create great tasting dishes.

As well as classic British dishes like apple pie (made with tart Granny Smiths), Chinese sweet and sour sauce and Indian chutneys are famed for their sophisticated blend of sweet and sour.

Fruits like lemon and lime are classic examples of a pure sour flavour, but tamarind blends sour with a hint of sweet. It’s a brilliant natural seasoning ingredient.

The tamarind tree (native to Africa and India) produces dark bean-shaped pods that yield a sticky, sour/sweet fruit. It looks a little like a date but is much more sour.

You can buy tamarind in a few different forms – as a ready-made paste in a jar (sold in most supermarkets); as a compressed block (from good wholefood shops), or whole pods (from Asian supermarkets).

If you’re using a compressed block, tear off a segment, pour a little hot water over it and leave to soak for about 20 minutes, mixing the pulp to ensure that the water has absorbed the citrussy flavours.

tamarind pasteYou can then either just use the liquid, in the same way you would lemon juice, or use the pulp, removing any hard threads or seeds. A little goes a long way.

As well as curries, Tom Yum soup and chutney, tamarind works really well with ginger – try these flavourful biscuits that mix tamarind, ginger and garam masala!

Ginger and Tamarind biscuits

tamarind biscuites

 

125g butter

1 large egg

225g sugar

35g tamarind concentrate (or tamarind block soaked in a little water and mashed)

2 tsp garam masala

3 tsp ground ginger

200g chopped glace ginger

250g plain flour

¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Mix together the butter, sugar, tamarind and egg till creamy.

Add all the rest of the ingredients.

Make into balls, place a few cm apart on a greased baking tray, then cook at 170oC for 15 mins.

 

And if you’ve any favourite tamarind recipes please let me know!

So how does seasoning work?

 “Wow that tastes amazing!”

It’s great when a dish really hits our individual palette.

We all have our favourite tastes – I particularly love really savoury, salty, herby flavours such as sage and rosemary and hot, peppery flavours of watercress, chili and crushed black peppercorns.

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Think about your ‘comfort dish’ and it may give you an inkling of your own palette.

For me, a really peppery cheese and potato pie always hits the spot!

What about you? Maybe you love the comfort of sweet chocolate or apple pie; the saltiness of fish and chips; the umami of a steak.

Seasoning, herbs and spices play a crucial role in creating lovely food that appeals to our tastes.

Everyone’s different – I’ve had people tell me how they really can’t stand the smell of cinnamon and others who add cinnamon to everything. I’m not too fond of really sweet spices like vanilla, and that probably sounds crazy to some.

Why we like some flavours and not others is a combination of our brain’s hard-wiring and our own experience.  Take coriander leaf for example. Some love its aroma and taste, whilst others think it tastes like soap. The reason for this is that some people don’t taste the pleasant aromatic elements but are super-sensitive to the unpleasant ones.

Other preferences develop through experience – positive and negative. We all have memories of foods we hated as children, and those memories can be incredibly strong so we immediately associate a particular flavour with an experience, before we allow ourselves to taste it afresh.

There are some flavour combinations that have a natural affinity, for example lemon and ginger or garlic and chili and others that may have just minority appeal – basil with cinnamon for example, would be fighting it out I think!

My Seasoning Works blog draws on all of these things and more. It’s great fun to try out new tastes, and learn what works well together. You can transform the blandest of ingredients with a sprinkling of herbs from your windowsill,  and enhance rather than overpower the most delicate of dishes with a bit of knowledge and experimentation.

So please join me on my journey to learn how Seasoning Works.

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Three really useful things about salt

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Salt is a unique, useful and sometimes misunderstood seasoning ingredient.

Here’s a few reasons to take it with more than a pinch..

 

  1. Not all salt has the same nutritional value.

The best salt is the least refined. The genuine French Fleur de Sel is still hand-harvested on the central Western French coast and widely regarded as one of the best salts to use in the kitchen. Because of its minimal processing, all its valuable minerals are retained.

‘Table’ salt is the most processed. The heavy processing eliminates all the minerals, and often other chemicals are added as ‘anti-caking’ agents to provide a very white, free-flowing substance.

A little bit of natural salt is way better than a lot of processed salt.

Maldon sea salt and Celtic sea salts are both good alternatives if you can’t get any Fleur de Sel. The large flakes of salt provide a lovely, salty crunch when sprinkled, and their processing is minimal.

2. Salt is a magical flavour enhancer.

There’s good reason why salt and pepper pots are on every dining table in cafes, homes and restaurants in Britain and beyond.

Salt is one of our five fundamental tastes (and an essential nutrient of our bodies), so it’s no wonder that is has such a special place in our eating habits.

Salt’s unique culinary quality is to enhance sweet and pleasant tastes, and mask musty, bitter ones.

Take tomatoes for instance. They have a natural mustiness that is transformed into a sweet fruit with the addition of a sprinkling of salt.

Vegetables with a bitter edge such as kale, cabbage and spinach also become sweeter with a little salt.

3. Salt tenderises and preserves

If you want a tender, moist pork chop, place it in a bag of water with a teaspoon of natural salt. Leave it in the fridge for two or three hours, then cook. This ‘wet brine’ has a magical effect on the meat, giving you a delicious, tender dish. This works just as well with other meats too. The salt’s reaction with the meat’s proteins help the tenderising process.

Salt’s preserving qualities are also legendary for good reason.

Before fridges, jars and tins were available, salt was essential for preserving meat and vegetables throughout the season as it draws out moisture (in dry salt brines) and kills bacteria.

Our love of pickles and salted and cured meats are all testament to the historical role that salt has played, and continues to play, in our cooking, and its dual qualities of masking bitterness and preserving give it a role that no other ingredient can play.

 

Do you have a favourite use for salt? I’d love to hear from you.