Messing with Tradition

The main problem with snacks is that the best tend to be regional, which is all well and good if you still happen to live about twenty miles from where you grew up and formed your first impressions of the world, but heartbreaking when you live three orders of magnitude further away, as I do. Every now and then I get such a yearning for good old Australian junk food I can’t stand it. By which I mean traditional, dyed-in-the-wool, fair dinkum Aussie cuisine such as Greek souvlaki, British fish and chips, or Chinese dim sum. Or of course, sausage rolls, a food which is so trashy it’s actually best bought at railway station cafeterias.

A sausage roll is just another version of the great Australian tradition of wrapping meat in pastry. This recipe runs the risk of missing the point by jazzing things up a bit, but I think the risk is worth it. If elk is hard to come by in your neighbourhood, beef or lamb are fair substitutes.


Elk Sausage Rolls

250g ground elk

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

2 tablespoons blue cheese, crumbled

1 sheet frozen puff pastry

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 egg

In a mixing bowl, combine the ground elk, jalapeno, blue cheese and salt and pepper. Mix well by hand. Meanwhile, thaw out the puff pastry until just soft enough to handle. Make an egg wash by beating together egg and a couple of tablespoons of water.


Cut the puff pastry into two rectangular strips and brush with egg wash. Using your hands, make two long sausages of the elk mixture and place one on each strip of pastry. Roll up and press to seal the edges. Cut each one into three (or more) sausage rolls. Brush with egg wash, place on a baking paper lined tray, and bake at 350 F for 25-30 minutes, or until puffed and golden.


Tapas Delight, or Living in a Catalan Paradise

An average small tapas selection

An average small tapas selection

Although 10am is a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking in Spain, God help you if you try to get a drink at 4pm. That’s because Spain shuts down in the afternoon, or at least the eating and drinking part of it, in preparation for the nightly phantasmagorical sensory onslaught and debauch known as ‘dinner.’ Dinner can be pretty much anything you want, but for my part, the chief reason to eat in Spain is tapas, also known as pintxos in Basque country.

The rules of tapas are delightful and elegant. After around 8pm you enter a tapas bar and select a bunch of bite-sized morsels from the arsenal of choices spread across the bar (or written up on the chalkboard), and then you order a glass of wine. Not ordering a glass of wine will earn you frowns. You eat tapas and drink your wine, leave, and enter the next tapas bar down the street. Repeat until insensate, which occurs around midnight. At that point, the nightclubs start to open…

I never really had true tapas before. I have eaten at tapas restaurants in Australia and the US (Toro Bravo, in Portland, being the most notable) but there the experience is slightly different, since you tend to be sitting down and ordering from a menu. In other words, not really any different from any other restaurant except the portions are smaller. Also, tapas can be staggeringly simple, such as a piece of Iberian ham on a slice of baguette, which I suspect would not fly in the US. Jamon iberic0, of course, is so good you can buy it in little French fry-style cartons to eat by itself, but you have to go to Spain to discover that, because that’s where they sell it.


Boquerones, chorizo sausage, and mini-gazpacho

Boquerones are a very tender white anchovy, locally caught, that has been marinated in vinegar. The Basques are fiercely proud of their anchovies (but then the Basques are fiercely proud of pretty much anything remotely Basque). Like jamon, you really can just eat them on their own. And I must work on a gazpacho recipe next, because it’s so good it’s brutal.

chicken drum

Jamon served wrapped around sausage, and jamon served on its own. To repeat myself, Jamon iberico really is the finest ham in the world, made from black pigs fed only acorns, salted and dried by the winds of the Spanish sierra and all the rest. It does not bear much resemblance to other forms of ham, so I suppose it should not be compared. I will miss it. A lot. That’s a boquerone under the egg slice, by the way. Like jamon, they go with anything.

ham market

An example of how seriously the Spanish take their jamon. Honestly, jamon-tasting bars were a common sight.


A fried quail’s egg on top of a slice of morcilla (blood sausage) on top of a slice of jamon on top of baguette. At the back, boquerones on top of jamon. Do you like anchovies and ham? Yes I like them, Sam I am!

razor clams

How’s this for breakfast? Pimentos Padron (fried green peppers), razor clams, patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy red sauce) and, of course, cafe con leche.


Getting a bit fancier here – veal cheeks in wine, pig ears in chimichurri, and foie gras terrine. Hey, you only live once.

pan con tomate

And the opposite of fancy, what to my mind is one of the finest breakfasts in the world, pan con tomate.

Pan con Tomate

1 large tomato

2 slices good crusty bread

1 clove garlic, halved

good extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

salt, to taste

  1. Puree the tomato in a food processor or blender until mostly smooth. I don’t bother peeling it but I suppose you could.
  2. Toast the bread until browned and rub each slice with a garlic half (it’s easier if you don’t peel the garlic first).
  3. Top with tomato, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

A Pressing Matter


Gnerally, I’m a sucker for any dish that takes three days to make. To my mind, cooking is often far too efficient. Getting dinner on the table with minimum fuss, though often a sad necessity, is seldom a rewarding experience. It’s just another chore to be done. Spending time on a meal, real time, feels more like gardening. It’s rewarding in and of itself. So I like dishes that take three days to make.

It makes sense, too, when you consider how long it took to produce the ingredients you are using – months or years to grow the vegetables and raise the animals, dry the raisins, cure the ham, age the wine. Seems a bit neglectful of all that effort to just throw them together and chow down as the last step of the process.

And speaking of curing ham, here’s a Chinese recipe I found for making a hunk of pork shoulder taste like ham after only three days, instead of the usual two years. The Chinese are masters of this kind of transformation.

Shanghai Pressed Pork

1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns

1 tablespoon salt

1 ½ lbs fresh boneless pork shoulder or butt

4 cups boiling water

2 slices fresh ginger

2 spring onions (halved and lightly squashed)

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

Dipping Sauce

4 ½ teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 ½ teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon chopped spring onion

Dry fry the Szechuan peppercorns until browning. In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder pulverize with the salt.

Place the pork in a glass bowl and coat each side with the peppersalt. Refrigerate 3 days, turning each day.


Place pork in a saucepan with the boiling water (add more if needed to cover), the ginger, spring onions and the Shaoxing wine. Simmer for an hour or until juices are no longer red when the meat is pierced.

Drain the pork and place on a cutting board. Place another cutting board on top and add weights – bricks, a cast iron pot full of water, or, in my case, dumbbells. Let stand an hour at room temperature. A fair amount of the sticky gelatin will squeeze out.


under pressure

pressed above

Combine ingredients for dipping sauce in a small bowl and mix well.

The Secret of Soffritto

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Every year during the clam tides, diggers flock to the clam beds near Ocean Shores, Washington, to dig their limit of 15 tender, succulent razor clams. The determination of these people is admirable because there can’t be a much more miserable thing to do at 2am than stand in freezing water and rain getting covered in mud up to your armpits. Of course the prize is arguably great – razor clams are delicious. But this display of obsession has surprised me in the past because there isn’t that much you can do with clams, that I know of, other than deep fry them into clam strips or make clam chowder, neither of which hold a world title for most sophisticated dish.

It’s also hard to find a ‘master’ recipe for clam chowder. Perhaps because there really isn’t that much to it no great chef has troubled to put their name to a recipe. All recipes are essentially the same – fry some onions, add some stock and potatoes, simmer, add chopped clams. Simmer again and eat. To this there are countless variations of preference. Add cream or don’t. Add some herbs. Add garlic. If you are in Manhattan, add tomatoes. I even saw a recipe that required the soup be thickened with instant mashed potato flakes. When my wife decided the time had come to make some truly great clam chowder, I wondered if there was any way to really elevate the dish and make it worthy of exhaustion and hypothermia. My theory: soffritto.

Soffritto is a mirepoix of finely chopped vegetables which forms the basis of soups, stews and sauces in Tuscan cuisine. This was more like it – a bit of research into mirepoix revealed a delightful wealth of argument and invective through the ages, a bit like when I tried to track down an authentic recipe for gravlax. Soffritto, the Tuscan version, contains carrots, celery and onion in a 1:1:2 ratio, and is not to be confused with the Spanish sofrito (tomatoes, onions, garlic, green bell pepper), Portuguese refogado (onions, garlic, tomatoes), Dutch soepgroente (leek, carrot, celeraic) or the Cajun ‘holy trinity’ (onion, celery, green bell pepper). As you can see, these are all variants on the same idea. Mince some aromatics, saute them. However, get the region wrong, and you are no longer considered a real chef. This tiny first step of humble vegetables is what lets you know you are doing authentic Tuscan (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Cajun) cookery.

I picked Tuscan. I mostly did this because nobody adds carrots to clam chowder, and I can never resist the opportunity to do something wrong.

The recipe… well, my wife did all the rest, because she was searching for “a certain flavour idea” as she put it. This is what she says when she knows what she wants to taste in her imagination, and she sets about inventing it. She doesn’t seem to need a recipe to do it, which baffles me. But from what I observed, here is what she did for her simply spectacular, worthy of the rain-and-mud razor clam chowder:

Leslie’s Clam Chowder (for two)


1 leek

1 carrot, peeled

1 celery stalk

Mince the vegetables into very fine dice – take your time. In a heavy, cast iron pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add the aromatics and saute gently for a long time until they are thoroughly softened, but don’t let them burn. (Incidentally, I read recently that the reason celery is essential in soup bases is not because of its inherent flavour, but because it contains a compound that accentuates the taste of other flavours, a bit like the way MSG works. I wondered.) Pretty soon you will be a soffritto convert – the kitchen will fill with amazing smells, and the little toasty bits of vegetables taste delicious off a wooden spoon. Now for the real fire!


Chowder, stage one

2 rashers bacon

4 small red potatoes

1 (8 oz) bottle clam juice

2 cups chicken stock

Dice the bacon and crisp it up nicely in a frypan. Reserve the bacon and add the drippings to your softened soffritto. Peel and dice three of the potatoes. To the soffritto, add the clam juice, chicken stock and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are well and truly soft, then mash them in the pot. You may want to add more stock if it is getting too thick. Dice the last potato (unpeeled) and add it to the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon.

Chowder, stage two

1/2 tablespoon hot paprika

1 teaspoon red chilli flakes

1 tablespoon sherry

1/2 cup cream

1/2 lb lovely, lovely razor clams, cleaned and diced

cilantro, to garnish

Add the paprika and chilli flakes and simmer until the last potato is soft (again, feel free to add more liquid if necessary). Add the sherry and cream. Add the clams and reserved bacon and simmer 15 minutes. Taste, add more cream if desired. Serve with a sprinkling of cilantro and crackers for dipping.

The Daily Grinds in Hawaii

DSC_0025Hawaiian Chilli Pepper Water

8 small hot red peppers (Hawaiian, ideally, but birdseye will do), chopped

2 slices ginger

1 clove garlic, smashed

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

about 2 cups hot water

Sterilize a pint jar. Place in it the peppers, ginger, garlic, vinegar and salt. Add the hot water, seal the jar, and let mellow a few days in the refrigerator before straining out and using. Slop it on anything you like – rice, pasta, meat, salad – to add a touch of Tabasco-like zing.

Chilli pepper water is a ubiquitous Hawaiian condiment which I think pretty well expresses the Hawaiian attitude to food. The word grinds refers to the kind of food you eat everyday, with relish, until you are bursting-full. The most famous grind is loco moco, two scoops of white rice (always medium grain), topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy… which you should then feel free to slosh chilli pepper water over. Local variations abound, such as this dish we encountered in Hilo – katsu moco, rice topped with Japanese tonkatsu-style pork and fried eggs. Once you eat of this dish you will forget the days you were hungry.

Katsu moco

Katsu moco

I’m not so much into the diner-style eats, honestly, though they have their place. Mostly this is because I am embarrassed I can never finish a red-blooded-male-size portion. Also, I’m a grazer. I like to nibble on this and that through the day. The best Hawaiian nibble, which I have posted about here, is spam musubi. Again, medium grain white rice, topped with a slice of spam which has been lightly fried in soy sauce, then wrapped in nori. Sometimes other condiments are added, such as the famous Japanese pickled plums ume. Or a little fish roe. Or a sprinkling of furikake. Again, the local variations are endless. They are good. I want some right now.

Making spam musubi and onigiri rice balls

Making spam musubi and onigiri rice balls

Another indigenous food is kulua pork, which is pig that is roasted whole underground in a stone pit. Served with cabbage and the ubiquitous scoops of rice, it is salty, savoury, smoky, succulent and satisfying.

Hawaii (116)

Hawaii is fortunate enough to have a strong Japanese influence, even more so than Seattle. Hawaii is also fortunate enough to have a million available species of fish, which of all people the Japanese know how to deal with.  In Hawaii they put fish to the best of all possible uses, served raw as poke (I’ve previously mentioned poke here). There are even more versions of poke than there are of loco moco or spam musubi. Any creature that swims the watery deep, it seems, can be turned into raw fish salad, lightly seasoned with shoyu, sesame oil, seaweed and chilli. Ahi tuna is the classic fish of choice but you can also get octopus, sea snails, squid, crab, you name it. Poke is so ubiquitous in Hawaii that pretty much any corner store sells it by the pound and with a couple of pairs of disposable chopsticks you have a wonderful grazing lunch for two.

Poke counter at the supermarket

Poke counter at the supermarket

Among other things we have the Japanese in Hawaii to thank for is the tonkatsu-wich. Tonkatzu is pork which has been breaded in panko breadcrumbs and fried, then sliced and served with shredded raw cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is often apple-based. Tonkatsu is, historically speaking, already a fusion food. It is an example of yōshoku, the Japanized versions of the Western foods which were suddenly available in Japan after the Meiji restoration. In Hawaii they take the cultural confusion a step further by placing the breaded pork between two slices of white bread. Served with tsukemono (pickled vegetables), ground sesame seeds and a variety of sauces, this is less trashy than it sounds, and very, very delicious.



In Waikiki we visited a fantastic udon noodle restaurant. It was so popular the line usually doubled about the block, which was a bit odd for a place that really only served one dish. But their udon were fantastic, made before your eyes, thick as nightcrawlers and served with a few simple choices of garnish. Despite the line we went back, just to be amazed again that something so simple could be so good. I think I must try mastering the art of udon making.

Simply prepared udon at Marukame Udon, Waikiki

Simply prepared udon at Marukame Udon, Waikiki

Hawaii (6)

I could go on, and on. I haven’t even mentioned the most famous Hawaiian dish of all, poi, which is steamed and mashed taro root, and which a local we met advised us, if offered it, to smile politely and take a tiny taste so as not to offend anyone. I could rant about the sushi. Or the Portuguese influenced longaniza sausage. Or the dragonfruits and longans and lilikoi (passionfruit), my most favourite of all fruits.

Maybe next time.

Hot Fusion

eating musubiRice, to me, is not a comfort food like pasta or bread. It is something far more fundamental and taken for granted until you don’t have it, like blood. Rice is a hint at the great and profound fact that we must eat to live. When I hear the word “Spam,” on the other hand, I feel like I just watched someone trip off the edge of the sidewalk – simultaneously compassionate and amused. Spam does not even deserve to be rice’s opposite – their relationship is more akin to Superman and helpless victim. However! I should have realised that without the helpless victim, Superman is just a dude in tights wearing his underwear on the outside, and I’ve learned that if you put rice and Spam together you get the way-too-unknown Hawaiian snack known as Spam musubi. You won’t see it in fusion restaurants but musubi are true fusion cuisine, combining both the Japanese and American influences in Hawaii in perfect harmony.

musubi on a plate

If you’re going to do a dish comprised of just Spam and rice, do it right. Sushi rice is tricky to make perfectly, and, unfortunately, there is no simple recipe. It all depends on what kind of rice you are using. Once you open this particular can of worms you soon understand why in many Japanese restaurants there’s a guy whose sole job is just to prepare the rice. I quote from the brilliant but absurdly named Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji:

“It is difficult to prescribe an exact formula for the size of pot and the amount of water to use in cooking rice because there are so many variables. Assuming that our interest is only in short-grain rice, we still must consider whether it was grown in a flooded paddy or dry field, whether the rice is newly harvested or whether it has already been on the shelf for some time, whether the climate is hot and muggy or desert dry. These are all factors that the rice chef, with a many-year training period, would have no trouble in dealing with.”

Not being a rice chef, I had some trouble dealing with the factors. I used white medium grain Calrose rice from California, which is often considered a good substitute for real Japonica sushi rice. Shizuo Tsuji suggests as a general rule, for rice of Asian origin grown in wet fields, 1 cup of water to 1 cup of washed rice (not dry), and for rice of American or European origin (grown in dry fields), 1 ¾ cups of water to 1 cup of dry rice. Exhausted yet? I followed his directions for American rice and ended up with rice pudding, not at all suitable for sushi. Fortunately, no one was very hungry yet, so I had time to start again:

Rice for Spam Musubi

2 cups medium-grain Calrose rice from California

2 cups water

4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon white sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Wash the rice. This is done by putting the rice in a bowl, covering with cold water and squishing the rice around with your hands until the water turns milky. Do not let the rice stand in the water – when the water is milky, pour it out. Refill the bowl with cold water. Do this for about five minutes, removing the starches, until the water is almost clear. Shizuo Tsuji makes a point of mentioning that later washings should be performed more gently than the first washings, to avoid “bruising” the grains. Sure. Whatever. When done, drain the rice in a sieve and let stand for 30 minutes to an hour. I am convinced this does something, because the rice changes from clear to opaque.

Place the rice in a heavy pot with a tight fitting lid. I used my Le Creuset cast iron casserole. Add the water, cover, and heat over medium heat until the water just starts to boil. Turn the heat to high and let the water get to a vigorous boil. White foam will creep out from under the lid and sizzle on your burner but this is a sign you are doing the right thing. After two minutes, reduce heat to low and simmer for five more minutes. Do not, at any time, take the lid off to see how it is doing.

Turn off the heat and let the rice sit for twenty minutes unmolested.

While this is happening, combine the rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar and salt dissolve. The quantities of the flavourings vary, traditional sushi rice is quite a bit sweeter, but we don’t like sweet things much. When dissolved, cool the saucepan in an ice bath (just kidding. No I’m not. Well, I did it. Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, right?).

Now enlist your helper with a bamboo fan (or folded newspaper), lift off the lid on the pot, and sprinkle in the vinegar mixture. While your helper fans like a demon, cut the rice with a wooden spatula and turn it, essentially speed cooling it. This also apparently does something essential to the texture of the rice, I’m not sure what, but 126 million Japanese can’t be wrong, can they?

block of rice

And there you have it. Perfect sushi rice, unless you are using a different brand than me or the weather is unsual or… anyway, if you want oodles more detail on the subject, I urge you to consult Japanese Cooking, a Simple Art.

Did I mention you will need a musubi mold?

Sorry about that. A musubi mold, exactly the dimensions of a slice of Spam, is used to compress the rice into a lovely brick shape. I don’t have a musubi mold, but I have a lovely 70s era sushi press that served the purpose. I have heard that some musubi fans use the empty Spam can.

Spam Musubi

Prepared sushi rice

1 can Spam

2 sheets nori

Furikake seasoning

De-can your Spam and slice it into eight even slices. Heat up a frypan and toss in the Spam. When it begins to brown on the underside, pour in a mix of soy sauce and sugar. How much? Well, let’s say about three tablespoons of soy and 1 teaspoon of sugar, but you can mix it up to your own taste. Spam is far more forgiving than rice. The Spam will quickly suck up the soy; turn it off the heat.

frying spam

Place rice in mold. Squash rice under high pressure until it is a firm brick. Sprinkle the rice brick with furikake and add slice of Spam. Since I was using a long sushi mold, I found it the perfect size to hold four slices of Spam, which I then turned into individual musubi with a sharp knife.


Cut strips of nori, and wrap the musubi up prettily. The nori is essential, it adds a fresh vegetable aroma to the heavily meaty Spam.