I was amazed when I started to look at ingredients for N. I hadn’t really thought about it much before. It was then that I realized there are very few ingredients that start with the letter N. There are lots of products such as Nacho, Nutella (Oh how I wish it was an ingredient), Nougat to name a few. But the ingredient list was rather sparse. In fact I could only find Nutmeg, Nettles, Nectarine and Nori. I realized that I didn’t really love any of these ingredients. I couldn’t really wax lyrical on any of them. I also ruled out Nibbed Almonds, Nuts (too generalized) and New Potatoes (Not really a proper N in my opinion). So what should I do? Nashi pear appeared in my search, but I’ve probably only ever used this twice so can’t really shout about how amazing it is! So I’m left with a culinary conundrum. No ingredient to go with the letter of the alphabet. I figured this wouldn’t happen until X.
I was going to then look for a cooking technique beginning with N. And nothing struck out at me. So I decided, with a heavy heart, that I would move onto O. Why not? There is an absolute abundance of great ingredients beginning with O. Oranges, Oxtail, Oregano and Oats. But I know for a fact that my favorite O is Oyster. This, like my most of my previous ingredients, wasn’t always a favourite. I had a bad experience with a fried oyster in my teens – and I learned (the hard way) that certain types of restaurant that include oysters on their menu, should be avoided! Fast forward a few years and I was given the opportunity to try again. My apprehension was audible. However, I sucked it up; chugged it down and have never looked back.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend 6 months in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. There was a plethora of fresh seafood available. The restaurant I worked in regularly got shipments of fresh oysters from a local boat. We would serve them raw as well as in the cooked dish ‘Oyster Kilpatrick’. The location was blessed with cleaner than average waters and as yet, nothing can replicate the freshness of these oysters and the flavour of the sea that came along with them.
Oysters can be found everywhere in the world and in years gone by, they were much more readily available. However, they are now considered very much a luxury item. In Victorian times, the Oyster was considered a poor man’s foo. It was also at this point that Britain used to have a thriving Oyster industry. However, cold weather, overfishing, pollution and a parasite have made it a shadow of its former self. Currently, the 2 types of Oyster that are grown / grow in British waters are the Native Oyster as well as the Pacific Rock Oyster. The latter was introduced to boost stocks and also is available to eat year round. The former is not as easy to farm but can be easily managed offshore.
The difference between the 2 varieties is more than just the taste and texture. Native Oysters take twice as long as the Rock Oyster to grow. They take about 5 years from spawning to be ready for us to consume. They are also a protected species in certain months of the year. The Native will spawn between the months of May and August. At this point they are not allowed to be taken from their beds. It is only at the start of the months containing “R” that they can be consumed. There was myth in Victorian times that Oysters were not good in the summer months. This was probably more related to the fact that there would have been poor storage back then.
Being a fresh seafood, oysters don’t have a particularly long shelf life. So, if you are choosing to use them in your own kitchen, try and find them as close to the source as possible. Buying them from a reputable fish supplier is also a good idea. So how do you know if an oyster is fresh or not? A fresh oyster will be shut closed. If you find an oyster shell that is open, tap it. If it doesn’t slam shut then it’s not fresh. It will be dead and have already started going off. If the shell is closed, then a good way to tell is by knocking the shell together. Once living things die, they begin to lose moisture. An oyster that has died will slowly start losing moisture and will leave a gap in the shell. A hollow noise will indicate a high likelihood that the oyster is already dead. The moisture will also affect the weight. A full plump oyster will feel heavy in the hand.
After opening the oyster, you should also be able to tell whether it is fresh or not. A fresh oyster will have a light salty smell. A bad oyster will have a strong fishy / sea smell. Of course, with many things – you can never be 100% sure. There is a small possibility that, even though it appears to be fresh, there may be bacteria living in the oyster that could make you ill. There is a train of thought that all oyster meat should be cooked above a certain temperature. This would kill all the bacteria. However, you should not avoid having fresh oysters because of this. You can break your leg by falling out of bed, but you still go to sleep there. You can severely reduce the likelihood of getting ill by always buying ‘fresh in the shell’ oysters from as close to the source as you can.
Here in Dorset we are lucky enough to get fresh oysters, which is definitely one of the great advantages of living in a county with such an expansive shoreline. I considered leaving you with a recipe, but I know that oysters are best served raw and straight from the shell. So if you have never tried one, go out and find them and be prepared to enjoy a unique culinary experience.
This has been a lot more factual than normal. There is also a lack of pictures which will be rectified in next weeks P blog. Summer is slowly drawing to a close and Autumn is knocking on the door. P has a few great ingredients that can be eaten properly in the Autumn. I look forward to sharing it with you.
Have a really good week
One of my favourite cooking shows is the American version of Iron Chef. A concept originally from Japan, it sees a well-known Chef battle one of the program’s “Iron Chefs” in a 1 hour cook off. They normally have to produce 5 dishes from one “secret” ingredient. Normally it’s 4 savory and 1 sweet, depending on how they play it. I’ve seen everything on there from easier ingredients like Bacon, Beef and Cheese, through to the obscure such as Pacu (check it out!), Snails (not as obscure but imagine making 5 dishes from them!) and Halloween Candy. It was on this show that I was blown away at how many dishes could be made from my chosen ingredient - 10 dishes all produced from the same ingredient yet all so different.
As with the ‘H’ ingredient of honey, it is great in its natural form, yet is sadly often sold in a modified fashion. It goes best with dessert but can be just as easily used in a savory environment. It is taken straight from the tree and is primarily from Canada (although it's also produced in the North of the US)…. It is of course, Maple Syrup.
Although it is not really a local ingredient or one that is used a lot in British cooking, it is one that I love and really enjoy cooking with. Having eaten genuine Maple Syrup in Canada, I can vouch for the genuine article over the ‘Maple flavoured’ syrup that can be found on many supermarket shelves.
For those of you who are unfamiliar in the way this ingredient is produced, allow me to give you a brief insight. Maple syrup is derived from the sap of the maple tree (a tree predominantly found in the Northern Hemisphere but not exclusively). The tree stores starch in their roots before Winter. This starch is then converted to sugar and at the start of Spring, it begins to force its way up the tree. When it reaches a certain point in this journey, it becomes optimal for extraction. However, during the extraction season, only 10% of a trees sap is taken from the tree which means it will not affect its health.
Once the maple liquid is removed, it requires a bit of manipulation to transform it into the finished food product. However, it’s not altered to such an extent that it is unrecognizable. The basic idea is to reduce the liquid down until enough moisture has been removed to make the syrup a sugar consistency. The amount of sap liquid required to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup is, on average, 40 gallons. It may be quite a long process but it is definitely worth it in the end.
Looking back, no one is entirely sure when it was decided that consuming tree sap was a good idea. It is thought that maybe the Native Americans had begun using maple sap as a food source prior to the arrival of the Europeans. There are words in old Native American language that refer to the food ‘drawn from wood’.
There are different grades of maple syrup as well. Some are considered only good enough for cooking and not eating straight. These differ by countries as well, which can make it a confusing process. A lot of the grading depends on the level of evaporation; the time of the season the sap was harvested and where it originates from. Unfortunately, this too would be a long process to explain, so I will leave you to look it up if you feel so inclined!
As for my love of the ingredient, it stems back to my own childhood. My dad brought some maple syrup home from Canada when I was younger and I remember the sweet taste so clearly. I was surprised that for all its sweetness, it also had a rich, deep, almost caramel flavour to it. I hadn’t ever tasted anything quite like it before. We had it with pancakes and words cannot bring back how amazing I found this. Unlike my wife, I was a ‘savory over sweet’ kind of child (still am as an adult / chef) but I loved this taste. I really enjoyed Lyle’s Golden Syrup, but this new Maple syrup was something else.
As a chef, I have also seen how it can be used as a versatile ingredient as well. Real Maple Syrup with smoked Bacon is a combination which once tasted, will stay with you forever! It can be rubbed on the side of bacon and the added caramelization plays off the smokiness amazingly. Maple syrup mixed with soy, ginger and chilli can elevate a flavourless piece of salmon left over in the fridge. It has found its way on to several of my menus in desserts. Maple Syrup and Roasted Pecans have to be one of the best food combinations that I know. So, with this in mind, I decided that I would give you a recipe for a Maple, Banana and Roasted Pecan Iced Parfait. Not to be confused with Liver Parfait, Iced Parfaits are a light, iced cream desert. They can be flavoured with any number of different alternatives. Often, in commercial kitchens, we will set and freeze them in terrine moulds, enabling us to take slices of them. However, if you don’t have any silicon moulds or the like to hand, then you can simply put it into a container and spoon it from there.
3 Egg Yolks
2 Whole Eggs
500ml Whipped Cream
75g Roasted Pecans
2 Bananas (Preferably over-ripe)
100g Maple Syrup (Make sure it is a pure maple syrup and not a cheap corn syrup based alternative)
1. Warm the banana with the maple syrup and mash up as much as possible.
2. Next, using an Electric mixer, begin to whisk the egg yolks and whole eggs.
3. Carefully add in the sugar and set the mixer to high. Whisk for at least 6/7 minutes until the mix is light and fluffy.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream to soft peak (when you lift the whisk from the cream it will form peaks that will droop but still be present)
5. Add the banana mix to the egg mixture and mix thoroughly – be careful and avoid over mixing.
6. Fold the cream into this mixture using a spatula. Again, avoid over mixing which would result in the air being removed and making the finished product crumbly.
7. Place into the mould and freeze for at least 12 hours before serving.
You can serve this on its own simply with a tuile biscuit or shortbread. Alternatively, if you want to pair it with something a little more extravagant, then is a great accompaniment to a spiced poached pear or a rum based dessert.
In researching for this blog, I have learnt a lot about Maple Syrup that I never knew. Hopefully I have been able to pass this knowledge on to you. Take the time to try the recipe and I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed.