My toolbox

My toolbox

By
Skye Gyngell
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781844003372

The toolbox is the ‘nuts and bolts’ of my cooking. As the seasons change and new ingredients present themselves, it is the toolbox I turn to for inspiration. Over the years, I have found that these tools enable me to bring out the full natural flavours of seasonal ingredients and inspire me to create new dishes.

Every item in the toolbox works as a component to be added to something else – the ‘tools’ act as conductors or enhancers of flavour and they come alive when they are added to another dish. They work without masking or overpowering the ingredients that I most want to highlight in a dish. Ultimately, they help me to achieve the balancing of flavours that is so critical to the way I cook. This toolbox really works for me and I hope it will for you too!

Base notes & top notes

In every dish that I cook, I am looking for the purest possible taste – an entirety. I think of it like the notes of the scale – beginning with the earthy base note flavours and finishing with the top notes that add freshness and make the dish ‘sing’. In the way that I cook I am constantly seeking harmony – a balance of sweet, sour and salty tastes. This isn’t a new concept, it is the way people have cooked in the East forever.

Base note herbs

I cannot imagine cooking without herbs, as I find them so essential to the taste of food. Base note herbs are the ones that help lay the foundations of a dish. They include bay, thyme, rosemary, sage, summer savory and lovage. Parsley, when added to bay and thyme, forms the trinity that we call a bouquet garni, which is an essential part of soups, stocks and slow-cooked dishes. Base note herbs endure the burden of long, slow cooking incredibly well, continuing to add their flavour as long as they are cooking.

Fresh herbs in season lend dishes an exceptional vibrancy and freshness. I really think that dried herbs (possibly with the exception of mint) are not worth using – they only contribute a musty staleness to a dish.

Toasted nuts

Nuts lend texture and flavour, giving dishes a rustic quality that I find irresistible. Many are at their peak in the autumn, the season when English cobnuts become available and French walnuts arrive from Périgord. I use good quality nut oils too, preferably cold-pressed as these are more subtle than toasted or heated nut oils.

Apart from scattering toasted nuts on to dishes, I also use them in sauces, such as the one I make using walnuts, anchovy, garlic and sourdough breadcrumbs to serve with grilled veal chops or roasted white fish. Another favourite is the Spanish sauce, Romesco – a pungent rough-textured mix of toasted almonds, dried roasted chillies, garlic and virgin olive oil. I also use ground toasted almonds to thicken some dishes, such as fish and chicken stews.

Freshness is of the utmost importance. Buy nuts in their shells if you can and use them soon after purchasing, as they turn rancid fairly quickly. Nuts in shells need air, so they should be turned, while shelled nuts should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. Nuts, like spices, need to be gently warmed through before you use them, in order to release their flavour. There is no specific method to this and individual recipes will tell you how to prepare them. But, as a general guide, you can spread the nuts out on a baking tray and put them in a preheated oven at 180°C for 3–4 minutes to warm and release their flavour, or allow a little longer for a deeper colour.

Agra-dolce

The principle of agra-dolce is essentially about achieving balance and harmony from contrasting tastes – salty (or savoury) and sweet pulling against each other, yet complementing each other completely. It belongs in the toolbox because it is a concept that I love and one I find myself using time and time again.

You will come across agra-dolce in most of my recipes, using the balance of tamari and maple syrup, or fish sauce and palm sugar, or pickled fruits and salty pungent cheeses like feta, or young lemony goat’s cheese with tomato and chilli jam or pickled figs, for example. It takes a while to perfect the principle. Like a set of old-fashioned scales, the ideal balance lies in the middle, yet it takes very little (in the way of sweet or salty) to tilt it out of kilter in either direction. When it is well achieved agra-dolce creates a strong, clear, harmonious flavour that is deeply satisfying – notably in slow-cooked dishes, like Lamb with prunes, chilli, coriander and spice mix. The relishes on the following pages use the agra-dolce principle to perfection.

Lemon zest

The zesting of a lemon could never be described as a recipe, but this is an ingredient I use so often that it warrants a mention here in the toolbox. Its citrusy sharpness adds a dimension to so much of my food and I often use it as a garnish. For example, it partners finely chopped raw garlic and chopped parsley brilliantly to create gremolata, the classic osso bucco garnish that I use to finish many slow-cooked dishes.

Lemon zest works beautifully when tossed into a simple salad whose leaves include basil, mint, chervil and rocket. The addition of grated Parmesan, lemon juice and good olive oil is all that is needed, in my mind, to create a perfect green salad.

The tangy zest also cleans up the flavour of many desserts that would otherwise seem a fraction too sweet. Similarly, it works well to counteract the potentially cloying flavour of pickled fruits. In essence, lemon zest is a simple, quick way to add freshness to your cooking. There is no real secret, just be sure to use the finest holes on your grater and only use the yellow part of the skin. The white pith tends to taste very bitter. Grate your zest as close as possible to the time that you are going to use it, as it will dry out fairly quickly if left out uncovered, or indeed even covered in the fridge overnight.

Top note herbs

While base note herbs form the beginning of many dishes on which you layer other flavours, top note herbs are like the icing on the cake – they complete the dish. My top note herbs are largely summer herbs – basil, parsley, coriander, mint, chervil and rocket – with their sharp clean flavours. These herbs don’t tend to hold their flavour through vigorous cooking but must be added very close to the end of a dish, even if only as a garnish, to maintain their clarity and vibrancy.

A few herbs fall into both base and top note categories – parsley (flat leaf and curly) is one, while tarragon is another. Also, coriander roots and stalks can lend base flavour to long-cooked dishes, whereas their leaves lose their character almost the moment they are exposed to high heat. I would rarely use woody, earthy base note herbs to finish a dish. A garnish to my mind should always be light and sing the high notes with its flavours.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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