Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Slaughterhouse (Gail A. Eisnitz)

A lot of people have asked me why I refuse to eat US meat, whatever its origin (i.e. including US organic meat) – the answer is very simple. It lies between the pages of Ms Eisnitz’ excellent book, and a few others I have previously reviewed here.
It is no coincidence if the book bears the same name as a (famous?) horror movie. Or that a horror movie producer would want to name its latest release after one of these grisly places. Reading on, one forgets which of the book or the movie came first... I have read quite a few books and articles, and seen quite a few documentaries, on the dire state of the US cattle, swine and poultry farming businesses and other related industries, but I would say that nothing can quite prepare you to the appallingly long list of absolute horrors and abhorrent practices Ms Eisnitz describes in her book. The writing is compassionate enough so that one clearly feels that she is not trying to report her findings in too much gory detail, but what she recounts in this book is beyond imagination and will make your toes curl on more than one occasion. Yet it is a very necessary book, as the delegation of the killing process in our modern societies allows us to comfortably distance ourselves from the square pieces of raw flesh in these impeccably white, almost medical, cellophaned packs that line up the refrigerated shelves of our supermarkets. The (ex)employees of some major US slaughtering and rendering plants that she interviewed all report the same facts, which they have individually witnessed hundreds, if not thousands of times: cattle improperly stunned, stuck, de-hooved and sometimes skinned alive while suspended on meat hooks, hogs drowning in their own blood, or drowning in a scalding tank they should never have reached alive in the first place, and the absolute indignity of the treatment reserved to rabbits and poultry which, under current USDA standards, are exempt from the application of the Humane Slaughtering Act (which, as Ms Eisnitz demonstrates, is not enforced actively by USDA inspectors anyway). The book presents factual and incriminating evidence on the role of the said USDA, its collusion with the industry it is supposed to regulate and its failure to protect the public from its excesses. Not only is the treatment of these animals abhorrent and unethical, but the handling of the meat, and the widespread various contaminants found on it, make it unsafe and unfit for human consumption. The statistics on e-coli and other foodborne illnesses in the US are properly astonishing; that no one seems to be able (or willing) to fix this major public health issue is even more. As for the workers themselves, they do not fare better in terms of treatment; bullied into submission, exploited and humiliated, those unskilled, often immigrant labourers have a risk of workplace injury six times that of a coal miner. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer in his excellent book Eating Animals [on slaughterhouse work] “It’s the most perfect workplace alienation in the world right now”, and a significant number of these workers resort to alcoholism or domestic violence to express the immense distress caused by their jobs. Having just turned the last page of the book, it leaves me filled with disgust. As a result of demographic pressures and economic growth in emerging countries, the world demand for meat is expected to double by 2020 - is this the growth model the developing world is supposed to emulate? Or is there an elephant in the room? Your USDA 35-day dry-aged NY strip will never taste the same after reading this book… if you can still stomach it at all.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I ♥ sweets - rum flavoured chocolate truffles

Even if is it now a bit late in the year, I could not resist sharing this recipe which I love and have been making for a very long time... Chocolate truffles are a traditional Christmas sweet in France, and even if store-bought versions can sometimes be surprisingly good (especially if you hit the likes of Maison du Chocolat), I have always liked to make my own, if only just to smell this wonderful aroma of warm melted chocolate that fills the house every time... and lick the bowl, obviously ;-)

Rum flavoured chocolate truffles

Truffles are a lot easier to make than one would think and do not require any particular cooking or pastry skills - just be careful with the temperature of the chocolate (which can be easily checked by dipping your pinkie into it - and licking it clean ... but no double-dipping!!).


Rum flavoured chocolate truffles

200gr chocolate (Valrhona 68% or Nestlé Dessert 55%)
100gr unsalted butter, at room temperature
60gr confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp crème fraîche
1 tbsp extra old dark rum
Unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

·       Chop the chocolate in small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Add the rum.
·       In a saucepan, melt the butter with the crème fraîche on very low heat; add to the chocolate.
·       In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, then carefully place the bowl with the chocolate and butter on top of the boiling water until it melts (this is called a “bain-marie” in French cuisine). Remove the bowl from the bain-marie as soon as the chocolate mixture is sufficiently melted (at this stage, you should still see quite a few chunks of chocolate in the bowl, they will melt as you keep stirring – the key point here is not to over-melt the chocolate) and keep stirring until it is about lukewarm, then add the sugar and egg yolk. Stir well and clean the edges of the bowl with a silicon spatula.
·       Leave to cool completely in the fridge for about 2 hours. Using 2 teaspoons, form small balls of the chocolate mixture and roll in cocoa. Place in paper cups.
·       The truffles will keep in the fridge for a maximum of 3 to 4 days and can also be frozen for up to a couple of months.

I normally use a specialty rum from the French Antilles for this recipe (“Rhum Negrita”) which is also great to make waffles and pancakes. If you cannot find it, any aged rum will do; cognac, whisky, armagnac or calvados can also be substituted.

Rhum Negrita - a big thank you to P. for bringing me this bottle all the way back from my home swamp :-)

Froggie does Nam - Part 2: Phở

If Vietnam has a national dish, then it might well be Phở. A true Vietnamese could not face starting the day at work without first tucking into a huge steaming bowl of the famous beef noodle soup. It is a staple of street food stalls, available everywhere and at any time of day or night, and specialised restaurant chains selling only a few versions of the dish (usually, a beef and a chicken option with various sorts of noodles) have sprouted all over the country. Frankly, given the chance, I would be slurping this for breakfast every day myself, and it is certainly what I do everytime I go back to Vietnam. I love this light, flavourful and nutritious dish and make it very often at home; it is pretty easy to make and can be conveniently prepared in advance and reheated at the last minute.

Spices for Phở broth: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, black peppercorns

Fresh herbs to garnish: mint, Thai basil, coriander

Preparing the fish sauce dip

Vietnamese fish sauce dip
3 chillies
3 cloves garlic
150ml water
4 tbsp fish sauce
50gr sugar
1 tbsp vinegar
Juice of 2 limes
½ tsp salt

·       Peel and roughly chop the garlic, slice the chillies and grind with a pestle and mortar. Add the salt and sugar, and grind until a paste forms.
·       In an airtight container, mix the water, fish sauce, vinegar and lime juice. Stir well.
·       Add the paste from the mortar, close the container and shake well.
·       Keep refrigerated until use. This sauce can be used to dip spring rolls, salad rolls, grilled meat skewers, prawn paste on sugarcane, etc… and will keep in the fridge for a good couple of weeks.

Phở, ready for slurping

Phở (serves 4)


2 liters beef stock (home-made or store bought)
500gr beef (shank, brisket or shin)
1 large onion, peeled and bruised
2 shallots, peeled and bruised
5cm ginger root, peeled and bruised
3 star anise pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1 tsp crushed black peppercorns
4 tbsp fish sauce

Thai basil, mint and coriander leaves
Lime sections
Chopped red chillies

350gr rice noodles (flat, vermicelli or rice sticks)
500gr thinly sliced beef (type shabu-shabu)
250gr bean sprouts, blanched

·       In a large soup pot, dry-fry the shallots, onion and ginger until browned on all sides.
·       Add the beef broth, fish sauce, spices and meat, bring to a boil and let simmer over low heat for 1.5 to 2 hours, skimming off the surface regularly to remove any fat or any foam that may form on the surface.
·       Rinse the rice noodles under running water and cook them in boiling water for 3mn (vermicelli), 5mn (rice sticks) or 8mn (flat noodles).
·       Drain and cool under running water, to remove any remaining starch that would make the noodles sticky as they cool down. Place in 4 individual serving bowls.
·       When the beef is cooked, remove it from the broth, slice it and place it on top of the noodles.
·       Add the thin beef slices (still raw), a handful of bean sprouts and garnishes to taste.
·       Ladle the boiling soup over the noodles and meat (this will partially cook the raw beef) and serve immediately with individual portions of fish sauce dip.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Froggie does Nam - Part 1: Catfish fillets in caramel sauce

I am lucky enough to have been to Vietnam a mere 3 times, and each time the experience was amazing; rich and fascinating culture, helpful and friendly people who would make the country rival Thailand for the title of "Land of smiles" and, of course, awesome food, and probably some of the very best street food in Asia as well. I have said it enough, I like my spice, and the Vietnamese know spicy... I particularly enjoy how the food is always bursting with clean, fresh flavours and makes a very liberal use of fresh herbs. Vietnamese food is probably the best example that healthy food can be (very) tasty as well. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of my favourite Vietnamese recipes, starting today with one of the very few non-spicy ones I know: Catfish Fillets in Caramel Sauce.

Catfish fillets in caramel sauce
Catfish is a staple of Vietnamese diet but may be hard to come by outside of Asia - you can substitute any firm, white fleshed fish for this recipe (such as cod). In Hong Kong, CitySuper in IFC stocks chilled Vietnamese catfish fillets pretty much all year round.

First, make the caramel sauce.

Ingredients for caramel sauce: sugar, fish sauce, shallots and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the sugar and half of the water in a saucepan over medium heat, until the sugar caramelizes. Depending on your taste, you can cook it clear or dark brown but make sure to keep an eye on it at all times, as caramel burns in a second...

Some of my foodie friends say that making caramel is a matter of nerves... Well, it is!

Turn off the heat and carefully add the fish sauce and the rest of the water, very slowly at the beginning so that the hot caramel does not overboil. Put the saucepan back on the stove on low heat, bring to a boil, add the shallots and let simmer until the sauce has the consistency of syrup.

This sauce is one of the base sauces of Vietnamese cuisine, and can be used to make a variety of meat and fish dishes; it needs to be made fresh every time.

Heat up the oil in a pan, add the catfish fillets and fry until the fish looks almost cooked, turning over only once. Sieve the shallots out of the caramel sauce, add to the pan with the fish, sprinkle with the minced ginger and let boil gently until the fish is cooked thoroughly. Sprinkle with fresh coriander leaves and serve on plain steamed rice.

Catfish fillets in caramel sauce (serves 2)

For the caramel sauce
65gr caster sugar
65ml fish sauce
65ml water
4 small shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

For the fish
1tbsp peanut oil
300gr catfish fillets, cut into thick squares
1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated
fresh coriander leaves, to garnish

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A voyage for madmen (Peter Nichols)

This gripping book recounts the extraordinary story of the first single-handed non-stop round the world race. In 1968, British newspaper The Sunday Times sponsored the event – this was before the advent of the GPS, autopilots and radars on sailing yachts. Nine men set out for this mad adventure – not all of them came back and, for those who did, the experience certainly changed them forever. Their epic voyage had them sail in raging seas and wild storms, faced with the ultimate and ever-present terror of single-handed sailors: falling overboard. At times dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away from any hope of rescue, these valiant yachtsmen endured months of cramped living conditions and sleep deprivation while experiencing what is probably the most extreme and absolute form of isolation. Their heroic endeavour is a truly extraordinary feat of courage and bravery and a celebration of the human spirit – inspiring.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers (Don George)

Sponsored by Lonely Planet and prefaced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this collective book gathers travel stories of authors, known and unknown, having as a common theme the random manifestations of kindness they have experienced from total strangers while on the road. In turn funny and toe-curling, these accounts make for a wonderful read, even though some of these travellers should be severely berated for their imprudence and, sometimes, downright stupidity. The real value of this book resides, in my opinion, in that it reminds us of one essential principle – no matter the race, language, religion, skin colour, we are one and the same. It seems urgent, in these troubled times, where people are ready to blow themselves and innocent others up for chimerical theologies, to remind human beings of what brings them together rather than what separates them. This book takes one step in the right direction.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Froggie Potter & the Alchemical Larder

I just came back from holidays today and finally got to open a Xmas pressie I was given just before leaving - "No peeking before the 24th!", said the cute wrapping, so I resisted an urge to strip it off and (im)patiently complied. Under the wrapping was a rather cryptic box, which didn't give me much of a hint as to what treasure may lie inside...

I opened the box to find the 16 cutest spice pots I have ever seen... I was already familiar with Laura Santtini's most popular product, umami, which I have become a great fan of, but was unaware of the rest of the company's product range, which is apparently quite fancy.

This set contains an assortment of various spices (Persian rose petals, Mediterranean lavender, nutmeg, devil's penis chillies, grains of paradise, saffron, smoked paprika, cacao nibs, sun dried bitter orange peel, pink peppercorn and sumac) and some interesting spices blends:

Carnal sin - Persian rose, magenta beets, sumac and pink peppercorn
White mischief - smoked China tea, jasmine and orange blossoms, chillies and Sichuan peppercorn
Salt of the Earth - salt from "faraway oceans" and flower petals
Renaissance stardust - salt, sugar and cinnamon
Furikake - black and white sesame seeds, shiso, nori seaweed

Each spice or mix comes with its own suggestions for use, and I will certainly report asap on my experiments.

A big hug to T. & J. for sourcing this wonderful and inspired gift - be prepared to come over for dinner more often ;-)