Sunday, 30 January 2011

Kitchen Conquests: I Love it When a Salsa Comes Together

I absolutely loathe organised diet companies. Even the word 'diet' fills me with rage. I know they work for a lot of people and each to their own, but I have a particular gripe with the big diet companies. You know the ones I mean. That rant is for another post on another day, but even I admit that after the heavy richness of Christmas food, a few lighter meals wouldn't go amiss in January. I always quite like that moment a few days after the big day where everyone thinks "Ooh I'd love a salad." When I say I want lighter meals, I don't necessarily mean traditional diet food. (There's that word again.) I just mean healthy, nutritious food that tastes great and provides the body with a little freshness after the festive scoff.

Nigella Lawson calls it 'Temple Food', for when you feel like being good. But I didn't turn to Nigella on this occasion. Mention her and I find it all too easy to navigate my way to her most wicked recipes. This January I turned to Gordon Ramsay's Healthy Appetite, filled with some of the most satisfyingly nutritious meals from The F Word.

I've had this book for a long time and look at it regularly, I just rarely get round to cooking from it. After a particularly decadent December, this book called to me. The two highlights for me were the Guinea Fowl (I used chicken) with pea and lettuce fricassee and the Glazed Gammon with Pineapple Salsa.

Lovely as I'm sure guinea fowl is, free range chicken breasts are pricey enough as it stands, so I opted to stick with chicken for this first recipe.  I began frying the oiled, seasoned chicken breasts in a cast-iron pan for colour, then transferred to the grill to finish cooking. This fricassee is so tasty I couldn't stop eating it while it cooked. Some butter is melted gently before adding the peas (thawed if frozen) with thyme sprigs, salt and pepper. I actually opted to add some sugar-snap peas to the garden peas. Why have peas at one stage of growth when you can have two? Actually, I just happened to have them in the fridge but they really added to the flavour and created a more interesting texture.

Once everything had begun to warm, I added chicken stock. There's something about the combination of peas, butter and chicken flavours that make my taste buds very happy. I distinctly remember going to an Italian restaurant in town and having an incredible tagiatelle dish with chicken, peas, garlic and a light cream sauce. If I close my eyes I can remember exactly how it tasted. If I hadn't been in public I would have licked the bowl clean.

Once the stock had reduced a little I added almost a full head of shredded iceberg lettuce. It doesn't have to be iceberg, but it needs to be a lettuce that's firm and has crunch to hold its form and flavour when warm.  Braised lettuce takes on a whole new flavour. It becomes almost nutty, especially if the sauce has butter in it. Once the lettuce begins to wilt it's time to serve. I finished mine with a side of buttered and slightly browned new potatoes.

The second meal I cooked from Healthy Appetite was probably a little too summery for a January evening, but the colours and freshness of the pineapple salsa were too good to resist.  After boiling a gammon joint with standard stock vegetables and seasoning, most of the fat is removed and studded with cloves. Clove-studded ham is pretty retro, but then gammon and pineapple is a retro dish. This recipe just gives it a modern spin. The glaze was a combination of marmalade, fresh ginger, soy sauce and a touch of oil. It's simply poured over the joint and put in a very hot oven to work its magic.

The salsa seemed like an unusual combination of ingredients and I got the feeling I'd be eating that and not much else for the next few days as a result of everyone else in the house refusing to eat it. It turned out that I was completely wrong. They loved it and everything worked perfectly together. It's made up of finely diced fresh pineapple, peeled and deseeded cucumber, red chilli, fresh mint, salt, lemon juice and sesame oil. I'm always slightly wary of sesame oil's ego. It has a tendency to overpower anything it's mixed with. But the sweetness of the pineapple seemed to balance it out. Ahhh I love it when a salsa comes together! By the time the salsa was done and back in the fridge, the gammon was ready to come out of the oven.

Yes, it was as incredible as it looks and it was totally worth it when I burnt my finger on the glaze, pulling at some of the burnished fat for a quick taste. I served with some fried gnocchi to finish the plate. The best summer dish I've ever eaten in the middle of winter.

N.B. If you're looking to use up leftover pineapple salsa, I would suggest adding it to a salad. Do not, as I did, add it to warm pasta and cream cheese. It's very rare that I can't eat something I've cooked but that went straight out for the birdies Bleurgh!

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