Conserve Conundrum: Jam from the mysterious yangmei fruit

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It’s not often you come across a new fruit. I’ve lived in Asia for 12 years and thought I knew pretty much all the fruits available. But, walking through Graham Street Market, I saw something I’d never seen before. About the size of a large strawberry but almost perfectly spherical, a dark red verging on black colour and the look of a berry, a bit like a very large round raspberry. What is it, I asked but my language skills and those of the stall holder were not sufficiently in sync. Try one, he suggested. They were deliciously sweet to my taste and had a stone in the middle (a bit like a lychee) so not a berry. Another stallholder told me it was a blackberry which it definitely wasn’t – I ate plenty of those as a kid and they certainly don’t have stones.

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Well a bit of research showed what fruit it was and explained why I hadn’t come across it before. It goes under various names – the Mandarin name seems to be yangmei. The late Pam Shookman renders it as yeung4 mui4 in her useful guide to the wet markets of Hong Kong. The only English name is bayberry but there seems to be some confusion with some other similar western berries of that name. Other names include yamamomo in Japan and Chinese strawberry although, again, there’s some confusion with other plants there. The botanical name is myrica rubra.

I think pretty much all the Asian fruits have gravitated to UK markets by now. I remember reading the produce manager of Sainsbury’s supermarkets in the UK a few years ago saying that he had successfully sold all exotic fruits with the single exception of durian – the pungently-aromaed fruit from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia which was a step too far for English nostrils apparently, despite its actually rather creamy taste. I’m pretty sure they’ve never sold yangmei though.

So why not the yangmei? Well it seems to have a very short growing season (as short as a couple of weeks according to some sources) and it doesn’t keep well – maybe only a day or two. I suspect that all that could change with some attention from breeders but it’s not currently an attractive proposition commercially in the west despite its very pretty appearance. Supermarkets favour selling fruits under-ripe that stay in “good” condition for weeks. There are though attempts to market the juice in the US under the trademarked name Yumberry – good luck with that!

I said that I found it sweet but it seems to get mixed opinions on that – some people describe it as sour-sweet – I think it depends how much of a sweet tooth you have as to how far the sourness comes through. They have a consistency which is weirdly reminiscent of citrus fruits when you bite into them – slightly fibrous but in a pleasant way. Apparently the dark coloured ones are sweeter than the redder varieties. it’s supposed to have all sorts of health benefits.

They are quite cheap – in the Graham Street market they were running for around HK$12 a punnet and I’ve seen them since for $10 but I have yet to see them in our local Park n Shop supermarket and only a few market stalls seem to have them. The season is right now – late May to early June.

So what to do with them? You can just eat them raw or juice them. But I like making jam so here goes with an almost novel form of jam. There’s not much to go on on the internet about making jam with yangmeis so I took a punt and used the standard benchmark of equal weights of fruit and sugar with just a little less sugar because they seemed so sweet.

The tricky thing is how to handle the stones and the flesh. I de-stoned the fruits by hand which was not too difficult – I guess something like a cherry pitter might help if you wanted to cut down on the hassle. One approach then would be to just use the juice and strain the fruit at some point to get rid of all the fibres. But I like some bite to my jam and figured the citrus-like fruit might make something a little like a coarse marmalade so I didn’t strain it at all. Some people say that you need to wash the fruits thoroughly because of the possibility of bugs although I didn’t see any.

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I used four punnets and after de-stoning the fruit had about 1.2 kg to which I added 1kg of jam sugar. The results are a wonderful colour but the jam is quite thick – I’m not sure if that’s because of high pectin content in the fruit or because I left in all the flesh. If I we remaking it again I think I would boil the fruit for slightly less time and use ordinary sugar to achieve more of a soft set.

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Yangmei Jam
 
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A lovely deep red jam made with the unusual short-seasoned Chinese fruit the yangmei or bayberry
Author:
Ingredients
  • About 1.2 kg yangmeis, after de-stoning (approximately 4 punnets)
  • 1kg ordinary white sugar
  • Juice of half a lemon
Method
  1. Mix together yangmei flesh and sugar and leave for 2 hours or overnight to infuse.
  2. Sterilise jars for 30 mins at 130C fan.
  3. Heat yangmei flesh and sugar over low heat for 5 mins to melt sugar, stirring.
  4. Raise heat to high heat for 20 mins stirring.
  5. Add lemon juice.
  6. If there is a lot of scum on the top of the jam, either remove it with a slotted spoon or add a knob of butter which will naturally disperse it.
  7. Decant the hot mixture into the sterilised jars almost to the top. Seal and briefly invert the jars to sterilise the tops. Take care with the hot liquid.
Notes
This made 3 jars.
If you want a smoother jam without the flesh then strain the mixture after step 3.
These should keep for several months unopened and then several weeks in the fridge.
Read the guidance in tropical jam session for some general tips on jam making.

 

 

 

 

Getting in hock: Ham hock and broad bean slow-cooked soup

 

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Our favoured local value meat supplier at Mui Wo Meats has a classic budget cut on their lists. A mere HK$40 gets you a tasty Spanish ham hock – the part of the leg below the ham itself. As with most budget cuts, this doesn’t look that promising – it’s got skin, fat and bone and not that much meat. But with hours of slow cooking it turns into something magical. The skin and bone add a rich flavour (you get rid of the actual skin and bone before serving after they relinquished all their goodness) and it’s actually not that fatty after all.

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The classic soup combination for hock is with peas – the saltiness of the hock combining with the sweetness of peas. Niki Segnit is the queen of flavour pairings and in her wonderful Flavour Thesaurus she reports that Swedish institutions use to favour a thick pea and ham soup called arstoppa on Thursday evenings to ward off the hunger pangs during Friday fasts.

We’re going for a slight variation with broad beans whose chunkier nature I think suits the dish and the other vegetables we’re adding in. Broad beans are available frozen from many local supermarkets. Some people peel broad beans – the skins do have a slight grey drabness about them and supposedly are bitter. But I just throw them straight in frozen – either broad beans are getting less bitter through cultivation or the savouriness of the ham is working to counteract it.

The choice of vegetables is up to you but you do need beans or peas or something close in there to get the classic flavour combination.

Soup is something of a misnomer for this recipe- it’s more of a stew although I suppose you could put everything bar the meat through the blender if you want a smoother result.

It’s actually a very easy recipe with the only slight faff being the need to skin and bone the hock towards the end of cooking. I used a slow cooker and cooked for about six hours – as you can see, this made the hock very tender and the skin came away easily in one piece with the meat easy to shred from the bone.

 

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If you don’t have a slow cooker (or a rice cooker or something similar with a low setting) then you could cook this, covered, on the stove-top in a heavy bottomed pan or in the oven on a low heat. In both cases it would need less cooking time and you would probably need to add a little more liquid – the slow cooker keeps the liquid in.

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Watch out for the seasoning – the ham hock is already salted so go light on added salt until you’ve tasted the final result.

Getting in hock: Ham hock and broad bean slow-cooked soup
 
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A slow cooked delicious soup using a budget cut.
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 ham hock – about 550 – 600g (defrosted if it comes frozen)
  • 1 onion – finely diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed
  • 1 carrot – diced
  • 2 sticks celery - diced
  • 2 medium potatoes – diced
  • Broad beans 125g (frozen)
  • Stock – about 750ml (from a cube is fine; water makes an adequate substitute)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
  • I small leek or 2 large spring onions, thinly sliced (optional for garnish)
  • Oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Method
  1. Heat a glug of oil and add the onion. Cook gently for about 15-20 minutes until it starts to take on some colour. You can do this in the container you are eventually going to do the main cooking in if it will go on the stove-top or alternatively in a frying pan or wok.
  2. Add the garlic, carrots, celery, potatoes and ham hock and heat gently for a few minutes.
  3. If you’re using a different container to the main cooker (like a slow cooker), transfer all the ingredients from the pan to that. Add the stock and some ground pepper. You want the liquid to almost cover the ham hock. Don’t add any salt at this stage
  4. Cook slowly, covered, for about 4 hours in a slow cooker; about 2-3 hours on the stove top or in the oven. If the stove=top or oven, check periodically whether you need to add liquid if it is going dry.
  5. Add the broad beans and return to the heat for about one hour more.
  6. Check the meat is tender. If not, cook for a little longer.
  7. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary.
  8. Remove the ham hock to a chopping board and use two forks to strip the skin. Then shred the meat away from the bones. Return the shredded meat to the soup.
  9. Serve, garnished with the optional thinly sliced spring onion or leek if desired.
Notes
Serves 4 generously.
It’s great served with some crusty bread or you could serve with rice if you’d prefer.
Extra can be frozen. If freezing, re-heat thoroughly before serving.

 

 

 

 

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking

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There’s something very satisfying about making your own bread…when it works. My sole childhood memory of my mother baking bread was during one of the numerous bakery strikes that happened in the 1970s in the UK. Sadly, her effort was pretty unpalatable. As for me and Mrs CookWithNoName, we’ve had quite a few disappointing attempts between us. However we’ve both found saviours espousing very different baking techniques and from very different backgrounds.

Mrs CWNN has had success with the methods of the English-based Breton baker Richard Bertinet. He favours the French “slap and fold” method of kneading. His book Dough is excellent and comes with a short DVD which you can watch on YouTube. (The kneading demonstration starts at around 4.30.) This produced a great loaf and only one complaint – from our neighbour upstairs, annoyed about the noise of the slapping on a Saturday morning.

Bertinet is a classically trained artisan baker and his books demonstrate a great variety of loaves. His kneading method is quite a bit of work however and there’s been a trend to no-knead bread that is allowed to develop over a much longer time period than conventional modern baking. As well as saving on effort, the long ferment allows superior flavours to emerge.

The baker I’ve found whose guidance is the most reliable and easy to follow is the American, Ken Forkish, whose book Flour Water Salt Yeast gives very precise, detailed instructions. He is unusual in a number of respects – his breads mainly use all purpose (or plain) flour rather than the strong bread flour normally favoured for its higher gluten content which supposedly gives a better rise. And he bakes his bread inside a container – by preference, a large cast iron Dutch oven – which helps keep the shape and keeps in moisture allowing the bread to rise more before forming a crust. His sole book has essentially one basic method which he then develops into a variety of different recipes around a common theme.

Forkish’s recipes generally make two large loaves – each roughly a 2lb loaf as a traditional British baker would have seen it. But you could easily halve the recipe and produce one of these large loaves or even two smaller loaves. Below, to keep things simple, we’ll make one (roughly) 2lb loaf (or two smaller 1lb loaves).

You need to do quite a bit of planning around the timetable – his method does not need much active work but it does require being there to do things at a few key moments. In his book, he discusses how to vary the timetables and gives alternative recipes like an overnight loaf but again, we’ll keep things simple here.

He is very precise about the temperatures before the actual baking. This is something of a dilemma in Hong Kong where our ambient temperatures in the summer months are significantly higher than he is working with. Perhaps even more importantly, we have very high humidity. I’ve adjusted his recipe to slightly reduce the amount of water to allow for our higher humidity and not warmed the water as well as slightly reducing the time to reflect the temperature. If your kitchen is air-conditioned, that will lower both the temperature and humidity to closer to his assumptions.

Forkish’s method requires no kneading – neither the conventional British way (of pushing with the heel of the hand) nor the French slap and fold. Instead there is a brief mixing of just the flour and water to “autolyse” the mixture and later a very quick folding two or three times after adding the yeast and salt. He has posted videos on YouTube which are very useful

One thing I’ve found is that the shaping phase is very important and perhaps the most neglected element of getting a good rise. Both Bertinet and Forkish demonstrate in their videos how you can build strength into the dough before it goes into the oven so it rises well. .
Forkish bakes longer than most to achieve a very dark crust. Mrs CookWithNoName prefers a slightly less thick crust so we don’t go as far as him.

Equipment
You need a container to mix the ingredients. Forkish recommends very specific large plastic tubs which are great if you plan to do a lot of baking. I bought some of these via Amazon US. But really anything roughly bucket shaped (or quite a bit smaller for the quantity below) would do. Ideally they’d have a lid or you could substitute cling film I guess. I used a very large Tupperware-type container when I first did this. Round ones are better than square ones because you don’t want corners that bits can get stuck in.

You also need something in which to do the final proofing. This will help in the shaping and contribute to the rise. The classic container is a specialised “banetton” or proofing dish. Traditionally made from cane or basket-weave, they help to dry out the surface of the dough which might assist in forming the crust. But these are hard to locate in Hong Kong and, messy to clean if your dough turns out too sticky as it may do sometimes when you experiment. So you can substitute anything which is roughly bowl shaped – a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl will do fine

It is possible to bake these directly on a baking tray on the shelf of the oven but Forkish’s method is big on using a lidded cast iron container and I’m sure that contributes significantly to the result. Sogo sell a range of nice but expensive American Lodge cast iron ware and I use one of their large Dutch ovens. One disadvantage of this is that, unless you have a range of different shapes and sizes, all your loaves will come out pretty much the same shape. I have a couple of largish cast iron enamelled casserole dishes which I have also used for 1ln loaves and that gives a bit of variety

Forkish recommends baking at a high temperature of 240C. Our previous oven would only go to around 220C and, even if yours says it goes higher, it may be lying to you. But it seems, as long as you can get it above 200C, you’ll be OK although you may need to bake a little longer. If you’re using the cast iron container, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fan oven or gas or electric or whatever because the bread is going to be within in its own hot little world. A fan oven will get hotter quicker however and recover the right temperature more quickly after you open the door.

You’ll need some accurate scales. Other optional extras are a baker’s knife to make a nick or two in the top of the dough to help it break open for a nice finish. (Forkish doesn’t use this, relying instead on it happening naturally in his method.) A cooling rack would help. But you can turn the loaf upside down to cool on a worktop if you don’t have one. A dough scraper helps – these are available cheaply in lots of stores like City Super and the specialist baking stores like Twins.

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking
 
A 2lb white boule loaf recipe adapted for Hong Kong from Ken Forkish;s Flour Water, Salt Yeast
Author:
Ingredients
  • 500 grams all purpose (plain) flour
  • 360 grams of water
  • 11 g salt
  • 2g instant yeast
Method
  1. Mix the flour and water in your large plastic container. You are simply incorporating the water into the flour. Don’t worry about kneading or anything like that. See Ken Forkish’s video of this stage (but note he is using double the quantity here and a different recipe. The principle is the same though.)
  2. Leave covered in a warmish place for about 25 minutes. (The ambient temperature in Hong Kong will be fine.)
  3. Add the yeast and the salt and mix these into the flour and water by repeatedly folding over the dough and cutting through the mixture with your hand. See Ken Forkish’s method. Cover and store
  4. After about twenty minutes, fold the dough. You need to give a few folds of the dough. This means grasping about a third of the dough from underneath and folding it over itself. You will do this three or four times using a hand that is dipped in a little water to stop the dough sticking to your hand. Ken Forkish’s video shows the method well.
  5. Repeat the folding once more, after about an hour.
  6. After about five and a half hours from when you started, remove the dough from the plastic container onto a lightly floured surface.
  7. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into as tight a ball as possible. You do this by folding the dough repeatedly in on itself from underneath to the top. Then with your hand underneath the ball you spin it around a little to finish the shaping and place into your proving container. Again Ken’s video shows this very well.
  8. Depending on how long your oven needs to heat up, you’ll need to start pre-heating the oven with the cast iron container inside. Heat to 240C if your oven will go that hot, otherwise, as hot as it will go. (You may get a little bit of smoke coming off the container when you remove it, especially if, like me, you oil the container for storage to avoid rust.)
  9. The dough needs to prove for around one hour in Hong Kong summer temperatures (up to 15 minutes longer in the winter or if your kitchen is air-conditioned). Test the proof by pressing with a floured finger – it should go indented and slowly recover its shape when you remove your finger. If it springs back almost immediately then it still has some proving to do; if it doesn’t spring back at all, then it’s over-proved – you should bake right away but the rise won’t be optimal.
  10. When ready, remove the cast iron container with oven gloves; take the lid off and drop in the dough gently, the other way up from how it has been proving. Take care – this is very hot.
  11. Bake for around 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Again, take care.
  12. Take the loaf out of the container and put it back directly onto the oven shelf for a final development of the crust. I just do this for 5-10 minutes depending in how pale the bread is when it comes out but Forkish goes longer. Test the bake by tapping on the base of the loaf – it should give a nice hollow sound, if not it needs longer.
  13. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a cooling rack before trying.
Notes
The crust sadly goes soft quite quickly in Hong Kong’s humidity. You can re-fresh the crust by putting it back in a hot oven (say 200C) for 10 minutes.
The loaf keeps well inside a sealed plastic bag – we’ve happily kept this for a week or so.
Alternatively you can freeze it inside a plastic bag. Either defrost and then re-heat the whole loaf or, if you are only going to use a slice or two at a time, you can slice it before freezing and then defrost individual slices in a toaster.

 

Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the Fickle

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So here’s the problem. Mrs. CookWithNoName loves nibbling savoury biscuits but she’s fickle. She’ll find a new type in the shops, like it, try it a couple of times but then get bored. On our travels, we spend ages looking at shelves of biscuits. There are too many sweet ones that she’s not interested in and then we’ll find a nice savoury one but she’ll get bored again after a packet or two.

So clearly we have to do some home-made ones but they need that savoury bite and be not-too-difficult to make.

The current favoured solution is a savoury shortbread recipe. Shortbread turns out to be a very forgiving recipe that’s pretty easy to bake and it gives great scope for adding savoury oomph. Below we look at two variations.

It’s got to beeeeeee perfect….
The basic recipe I’ve been using is a savoury version adapted from the sweet recipe developed by the wonderful Felicity Cloake. If you’re not familiar with her, she runs a weekly feature in the Guardian where she takes a standard dish and tests out various cookbook versions with the aim of developing the “perfect” version. She’s got a couple of books that bring together some of her classic articles but I actually prefer the online version because there’s usually a lively interchange in the comments from readers with their own ideas. The Guardian is generous enough to host the entire archive with no paywall. – 268 perfect recipes at last count.

The neat thing is that you can read her reasoning but don’t have to follow her final recipe – you can adapt it to your taste but informed by her research. Her perfect sweet shortbread recipe uses a mixture of plain and rice flour to achieve the right sandy texture.

From sweet to savoury
We now need to convert the basic shortbread idea into something savoury that Mrs. CookWithNoName will like.

A bunch of experimenting here shows that replacing the sugar with grated cheese works well to give a strong savoury back note. And it needs to be cheese with a powerful flavour. I’ve tried it with a French blue cheese but the result was nice yet a little under-powered. The best results come from parmesan – not surprising when you see how much umami flavour a matured parmesan has. The quality of parmesan available here in Hong Kong is pretty variable – ideally you want to avoid anything too rubbery-looking and find a version that’s relatively dry and crumbly with little crystals in it. Those crystals are apparently solid natural glutamates which carry the umami effect.

Once you have that savoury back note, you can add further flavours and textures to keep up the interest of your nearest and dearest. I add some cayenne pepper and black pepper to make the basic savoury shortbread recipe. You might add a little salt but the parmesan already has a fair amount of salt in it. Two further variations follow.

Variation 1: Parmesan, Fennel and Sea Salt Shortbread
In the first option we brush a little olive oil on the surface of the biscuits and then spread slightly crushed fennel seeds and sea salt on before baking. These ones seem to benefit from being rolled a little more thinly and baked a little higher or a little longer than is typical. I got the idea for this from Bon Appetit magazine.

Variation 2: Parmesan and Pistachio Shortbread
Adding crushed pistachios to the mixture gives you the great flavour of those nuts together with a nice bit of textural and colour variation

Mix, chill, roll, shape, chill
As I said, shortbread is a fairly forgiving basic recipe. You need the butter to be at room temperature and then cream it with a fork. Mix in the flour, black pepper and cayenne. You can add the nuts at this stage if you are going for variation 2. I mix this using the dough hook of our KitchenAid mixer but you could do it by hand with a spatula. The recipes tend to say mix until it “comes together” in a ball. I find that it does not quite come together in a mixer but that if you mix it well and then shape it into a ball by hand, that works fine.

This mixture makes enough for somewhere between 15 and 24 biscuits depending on how thin you make them. The dough mixture keeps well in the freezer so if you’re only going to be nibbling the occasional biscuit or want to remove too much instant temptation from your larder, you can freeze half of this mixture wrapped in a little cling film or inside a plastic freezer bag.

The baking seems to work best if you chill the dough for half an hour before rolling it. Felicity Cloake argues that you don’t want to work this mixture too much when shaping and goes for shaping by hand. That’s a bit of a faff and in my clumsy hands would produce a pretty uneven result. So I find the best way is to lay one sheet of baking parchment on the board; put the dough on that and then put another sheet of baking parchment on top. Then you can roll out the dough easily to whatever thickness you like without having to worry about it sticking or needing to spread extra flour around.

If you’ve got cookie cutters, you can use them to cut out neat rounds or you can cut by hand into little rhomboids or whatever shape takes your fancy. Put these onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (or a silicon liner if you have one) spaced out to allow a little spreading. You may need two baking sheets depending on whether you are baking the whole batch in one go and on how thick you make them. At this stage you put the biscuits on their baking sheet into the fridge for a few minutes to chill a little.

Bake
Shortbread recipes vary a lot on what temperature to bake and for how long. Partly this is a matter of how you like your shortbread. Classic sweet shortbread is baked quite lightly so that the colour remains very pale and is quite a soft texture. But you may like something that is a bit crispier and that maybe is truer of the savoury ones. I suggest 160C and check after about 20 minutes. Don’t let them go too dark whatever you do.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes and then transfer to cooling rack. Store in an airtight tin once completely cooled. They’ll be at their best for a few days. If lightly baked, they can last a couple of weeks but the crispier ones need eating quickly.

Results
Mrs. CookWithNoName is very happy. But it won’t last. I’ll need to develop some more flavours to retain her love. O woman, thy name is fickle!

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Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the fickle
 
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Author:
Ingredients
  • Basic Savoury Shortbread Dough
  • 130g plain flour
  • 40g rice flour
  • 115g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 60 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Variation 1: Parmesan and and Fennel Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 1 tbs fennel
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • Olive oil for brushing

Variation 2: Parmesan and and Pistachio Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 75g shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
Method
  1. Cream the butter in a large bowl.
  2. Add both lots of flour, cayenne and pepper (and the pistachio nuts for variation 2)
  3. Mix by hand with a spatula or in a mixer until it starts coming together.
  4. Form into a ball, wrap and chill in the refrigerator for half an hour. (You can freeze all or half at this stage for later defrosting and baking.)
  5. Place a sheet of baking parchment on a board and place the ball on that. Put another sheet of parchment on top and roll out the dough to the required thickness. Between an eighth of an inch and a quarter of an inch. I find option 1 works best thinner and crispier whilst option 2 is better slightly thicker.
  6. Cut out the biscuits with a cookie cutter or a knife and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment or a silicon liner. You may need two sheets.
  7. Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour
  8. Pre-heat oven to around 160C. Slightly hotter if you prefer crispier biscuits.
  9. Remove from fridge.
  10. For variation 1: brush the biscuits with a little olive oil. Slightly crush the fennel seeds with sea salt and spread on the biscuits
  11. Place the baking sheet in the oven.
  12. Rotate to ensure even cooking after about ten minutes.
  13. Check after about 20 minutes from the start of baking. For a classic bake, take out just as they start taking on some colour. For a crispier result, especially for variation 1, leave a little longer.
  14. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  15. After about ten minutes, move to cooling rack and, when they have completed cooling, store in an airtight tin.
Notes
Makes about 15-24 biscuits depending on size and thickness.
Should keep for a week or so in an air-tight tin.

 

 

Lining Up all Your Ducks in a Row: Duck Confit

DSC02265Roast Duck is one of the great triumphs of Chinese cookery – all those lovely bronzed birds hanging up in the windows of local restaurants. But it’s one of those dishes which is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at home – certainly not something where the payoff matches the effort compared with just buying a takeout from the local.

Despite this, western cook books are full of attempts to re-create the Chinese roast duck in a form that can be attempted at home. I have fond memories of seeing Ken Hom on the BBC in the 1980s demonstrating his method for a roast Peking duck. But they were never as good as you can get from a restaurant.

Rather than follow this forlorn path, we return to one of the classics of western duck cooking: the South West France dish of duck confit. Confit is really a method of preserving rather than a conventional recipe but it can give the twin delights of very tender flesh allied to wonderfully crispy skin. For a period, people were worried about the fattiness of ducks and the possible health implications. But the type of fat in ducks seems to be have been rehabilitated and, in moderation, this is a wonderfully tasty dish.

Note confit takes some time – a minimum of one day to prepare although the actual time you’ll be working won’t be very long. And the taste is better if you can leave the duck for longer, once preserved.

You can buy in your own duck legs and duck fat but that’s not as easy as it might be here in Hong Kong and it’s certainly not cheap. For the more economical approach, for which you can also pat yourself on the back and say it’s more holistic, look at the separate post on Duck Butchery.

In this recipe we are going to confit 6 legs, the yield from three ducks together with the fat we rendered – see the duck butchery post for how to do this, a discussion of how to source the duck and alternatives for the fat.

You can do the recipe with as many or as few legs as you like but there is a certain amount of effort involved in the confit process and, as a preserving method, it works best when you make a good batch and then use what you need, keeping the rest preserved. Also the logistics of making sure there is enough duck fat to cover the legs during the confit process means that it seems to work better with more rather than fewer legs although that partly depends on the shape of your cooking container.

The confit process is actually quite simple once you’ve sourced your legs and fat. Essentially there is a curing phase followed by the cooking itself and then storing. You’ll want some flavorings to add to the curing salt and that’s about it until you’re ready to re-heat and serve.

Some cautions

Remember you are working with raw poultry so need to be scrupulously clean in dealing with knives, cutting boards and anything else that comes into contact with the raw duck. Later, the hot fat is dangerous and there’s a lot of it so, again, be careful handling it.

If you are going to keep the duck confit for some time, you need to be careful with the storing phase. You have to use scrupulously clean equipment, avoid any contact between the legs and the air or any dirt and make sure they are completely covered in fat. If you are going to eat them within a few days, you don’t need to be quite so paranoid – they will keep well in the fridge. I used an oven-proof glass storage container which I sterilized in a low oven (110C) for 20 minutes.

Duck Confit
 
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Author:
Serves: 6 servings
Ingredients
  • 6 legs (see duck butchery for sourcing)
  • About 1 litre of duck fat (or alternatives – see duck butchery)
  • Salt – about a tablespoon
  • Pepper
  • Five spice powder (optional)
  • 6 Garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 whole star anise (optional)
Method
Curing
  1. In a non-reactive container (e.g. glass, stainless steel or plastic – I used the non-stick container I would later use for cooking) lay the duck legs in as few layers as possible, covering each layer with a good sprinkling of salt and fresh pepper.
  2. I like the taste of five spice powder with duck so added some of that. Traditional recipes would add thyme leaves or maybe bay leaves or nutmeg here.
  3. You then need to cover the container and store in the fridge. Recipes vary on how long – anywhere from about three hours to a couple of days. In my case, I left the legs for a day and a half – longer than I originally planned because if got waylaid by something else. Longer is probably better.
  4. You then need to wash off the curing salt and dry the legs to reduce the amount of moisture going into the confit process. Some cooks (like the Stellar guys) leave the legs uncovered in the fridge for a while to accentuate the drying process but I didn’t bother with this.

Cooking
  1. Lay the legs in a cooking container and throw in the crushed garlic cloves and the star anise if you are using it.
  2. The norm would be a heavy based saucepan that is big enough to contain the legs and enough fat to cover the legs or in an oven tin but it’s difficult to sustain the right low temperature, especially in the oven.
  3. The legs are going to be cooked slowly and I find this is one of those recipes which benefits from a specialised slow cooker (or a rice cooker with a slow cook function) which can achieve a fairly consistent temperature some way below boiling point. If you have one of these, you want to cook the legs for at least three hours. I did it for 5 hours on the low setting and they were very tender at the end, possibly even too tender as the skin broke very easily. I’d do it for 4 hours next time.
  4. If you don’t have a slow cooker, then about an hour and a quarter just barely simmering on the stove-top should be fine - check the legs are cooked through and tender with a knife in the thickest part of the thigh.
  5. Remember the skin at this stage will be soft – it will only get crispy when we do the final re-heat.

Storing
  1. Transfer the duck legs to your sterlised container being as delicate you can, not to break the skin.
  2. Carefully filter the hot fat into a heatproof jug and pour the filtered hot fat over the legs once again to cover them. It’s important to cover all the legs fully.
  3. Allow that to cool, cover and store in the fridge.

Re-heating and Serving
  1. Remove from the fat – you can take out as many as you need but be careful to leave the remaining legs covered with fat.
  2. Scrape off any excess fat and then heat. You can either do this in the oven or in a frying pan. I prefer the latter.
  3. Get a heavy-based pan and heat the legs, skin-side down, on a medium-to-high heat until golden.
  4. Heat a little on the other side.
  5. Serve with a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Remember, these are already cooked; you are applying just enough heat to crisp the skin up and warm the meat through.
Notes
The duck legs are very rich in flavour so you don’t need more than one per person accompanied maybe by a light salad. And possibly a little crusty bread to mop up any of that delicious fat.

And the final bonus?
When you’ve finished the last of the duck, you can still use the fat for cooking – the best ever medium for roasting potatoes and the trendy choice for french fries.

Tropical Jam Session: A Soft-Set Mango and Passion Fruit Jam

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One of my earliest cooking memories is making jam from wild fruit that we had picked as a family. This was in the years before the ubiquitous “pick your own farms”. Instead we picked fruit that was growing free and wild near our home on land that no one seemed to own. Mostly it was blackberries which don’t make the best jam to be honest because the pips tend to get stuck in your teeth. You could avoid that by making blackberry jelly but the straining involved was quite a faff. Or you could you could add some apple to reduce the amount of pips and improve the flavour.

But my favourite was always raspberry jam. We could only get enough free raspberries to make this in a bumper year and provided that others hadn’t got to the raspberry bushes first. It was so nice to eat and a lot of the joy came from knowing that you had made it. I remember the big pot foaming and my mum teaching me about the need for a rolling boil and how to test for a set.

Here in Hong Kong, there are no local raspberries; the imported ones seem to be lacking in flavour and they’re a bit expensive for jam-making. Anyway, you can buy the definitive English raspberry jam in the shops here – Tiptree’s near-legendary ‘Sweet Tip’ Raspberry Conserve. You can’t really beat that so, without the economic incentive we had to make our own when I was a kid, there’s not much point in raspberry jam-making whilst you’re in Hong Kong.

But that opens up new opportunities for tropical fruit jam. Passion fruit is my favourite. They have a wonderful scented aroma nothing like any other fruit. They’re small and a little expensive and, although that aroma goes a long way, you really need something to bulk out the jam. Mango makes the ideal companion.

Sourcing
It turns out to be surprisingly hard to find passion fruit in Hong Kong. I’ve found the most reliable place to be the Graham Street market in Central. There are a few stalls between Gage Street and Queens Road that usually have a box or two of passion fruit. My economics training can’t fail to notice that there is a weird thing going on with the prices: the nearer the top of the hill, the more expensive they are. On my last visit: HK$7 for one near the top, by Gage Street, and HK$10 for four, nearest the bottom. I guess more people start at the top and, once they see what they want, they buy because they don’t want to walk all the way down and then have to climb back up to get them.

For ripe passion fruit, you want ones that are going wrinkly. Ironically, if you do see them in supermarkets, this is just when the supermarkets reduce the price so you may be able to get a bargain. Try to get relatively heavier ones for more flesh and avoid ones that are broken or badly mis-shaped

Mangoes are obviously more widely available. I would suggest buying larger ones because you need quite a volume and bigger ones are less hassle to skin and get the flesh from. For jam, you actually want slightly under-ripe fruit if anything because it contains more of the natural setting agent, pectin. You don’t really need the very best fruit for this so keep your expensive Alphonse mangos for another time.

You needn’t bother too much about pectin with the passion fruit – I think you want the maximum aroma and flavour from them which means using them when they are really ripe. If the passion fruit are still shiny and smooth, store them (not in the fridge) and they will ripen naturally in a few days.

The only other ingredients you need are some lemon juice and sugar. The lemon juice adds a little tartness which helps give a fresher taste. It also adds some further pectin.

For the sugar, you can use plain white granulated sugar which is fine. But you might want to look out for specialised jam sugar which has some pectin added. I’ve bought this sometimes from Wellcome or GREAT here in Hong Kong and it is worth using, especially if you are using fruit with a lowish pectin content like mango.

There are other tricks for adding natural pectin but, unless you plan on keeping your jam for months, you can ignore these. In the UK, we used to buy bottled pectin (Certo brand if I remember correctly) and in the US they sell pectin derived from apples for the same purpose. But I’ve never seen that or anything similar in Hong Kong so we’ll make do without.

There is another type of sugar called, confusingly, preserving sugar. This has no added pectin but has larger crystals which supposedly reduce the possibility of burning and the amount of impurities in the jam that rise to the surface as scum. But there are other ways of dealing with both those problems so it’s no big deal.

Too set in your ways?
Classic jam has a firm set. Some people like the flavour this gives and the way it spreads on bread. A good set gives you the best possible preserving effect so, if you are planning to keep the jams for months, this is the way to go. However some people think that the heat needed to get jam to this stage and the volume of sugar needed relative to the fruit makes for a less fresh tasting jam. If I understand the science involved, you need to boil the fruit and sugar mixture for long enough for moisture to evaporate leaving a concentration that is 65% sugar and it needs to reach a temperature of around 104C. That needs a quite a lot of sugar and quite a lot of boiling – hence those “rolling boils” I remember from my childhood.

So there is a bit of a trend for softer-set jams. At the extreme, these can be like a fruit compote. We are going to go for something in-between – less set than a traditional jam but still recognisably a jam-type spread. We are going to use a low sugar recipe which will produce a good consistency but it won’t get to the magic 104C setting point. The classic mix for a set jam is equal weights of sugar to fruit but we are going to go for only a quarter as much sugar as fruit although mangoes are themselves obviously very sweet and add a lot of natural sugar.

A sterile argument?
These jams are going to be hanging around for a few weeks at least though so we do need to sterilise the jars we will use to store them in. My mother used to use a rag-bag selection of jars that we had saved during the year for our summer and early autumn jam-making sessions. You’d find yourself eating blackberry and apple jam from a Branston pickle jar. Some of these jars were a bit iffy to be honest and we learned that, when we eventually opened the jar, there might be a layer of mould at the top which we would carefully remove before starting to scoff the jam below. That’s a bit frowned on nowadays although I can pronounce the immortal words: it never did me any harm. So we are going to use jars in good condition – it’s especially important that the tops still give a good seal. If you need to buy jars, there’s a variety of stuff out there in Hong Kong for preserving– Wing On has a several different types of jars in masses of different sizes for reasonable prices. I use the Italian jars seen in the photo above which have an ordinary screw top. And I don’t use wax covers or anything else. But I do sterilise these in an oven whilst the jam is cooking including the tops. I just put them on a large baking tray with the tops removed and at the side
More than a bit of a jam
The basic method is to steep the fruit and the sugar for a period and then heat at an increasing temperature. You’ll need to do this in large container. There are specialist jam making pans but the most easily available option is likely to be something like a large stockpot, preferably with a heavy bottom. You can do more or less than the quantities here according to your taste. If you’re new to jam-making, I would start with small quantities. Once it starts cooking, you need to keep stirring to avoid it burning on the bottom of the pot. A long wooden spatula is handy because it’s going to get hot.

Because we’re going for a soft-set, we are not going to bother too much about temperatures or testing for the set but just cook for a defined period of time.

I like the pips of the passion fruit which add a gentle crunch to the jam as well as a little visual interest. If you don’t like them, you can strain them out – ideally after the jam has made because the pips probably contain some extra pectin.

You’ll find a jam funnel useful for pouring or just about any funnel that has a reasonably wide neck that will fit in your jars. You want to fill the jars as close to the top as possible – less air means less possibility of spoilage. I seal the jars with their screw tops immediately and invert them for a few seconds – this means the still-hot jam does some sterilising on the top of the jar and the inside of the lid.

Remember in all this, you are dealing with a lot of hot sugary liquid which you don’t want to get on your skin, so be careful and use protective gloves.

A Soft-Set Mango and Passion Fruit Jam
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Serves: 5 jars
Ingredients
  • 2 kg mango flesh (about 8 large mangos) diced small
  • 8 passion fruit
  • 2 lemons - juice only
  • 500g sugar – ideally jam sugar or white granulated sugar
Method
  1. Mix together mango flesh and sugar and leave for 2 hours or overnight to infuse.
  2. Sterilise jars for 30 mins at 130C fan.
  3. Heat mango flesh and sugar over low heat for 5 mins to melt sugar, stirring.
  4. Add flesh of passion fruit.
  5. Raise heat to high heat for 20 mins stirring.
  6. Add lemon juice.
  7. If there is a lot of scum on the top of the jam, either remove it with a slotted spoon or add a knob of butter which will naturally disperse it.
  8. Decant the hot mixture into the sterilised jars almost to the top. Seal and briefly invert the jars to sterilise the tops. Take care with the hot liquid.
Notes
These will keep in the cupboard until opened for at least a few weeks and probably longer. Once opened, it’s advisable to keep in the refrigerator although the jam will taste better at room temperature.