IN THE KITCHEN
As the year draws to a close Jojo finds ways to preserve summer’s flavour through the raw months, and makes the most of a glut of grapes
There is a rawness to gardening at this time of year. The wind bites and fingers stumble numbly over simple tasks. I often like the idea of winter gardening more than the reality but I still want to cook with something I’ve grown, even if it’s just a herb. Sage lives in a pot on the stone steps outside my kitchen door. Its soft, grey-green leaves are always good to stop and smell, and by frying them with butter you can use them to make the simplest of all sauces for stuffed pasta. Put the pasta (ravioli, tortellini or agnolotti) on to boil. Melt 100g of butter and fry with 16 sage leaves, let the butter caramelise and the solids separate but not burn and then add a ladleful of the pasta water, the sauce should foam and start to thicken. Add the drained pasta (just slightly undercooked) and cook for another 30 seconds on a medium heat, the sauce should be velvety and coat the pasta. Serve with lots of parmesan and black pepper.
The discovery of how to make many of our basic ingredients – cheese, bread, yoghurt – came about through some unknown culinary accident. Vinegar is no exception; wine left to oxidise will naturally turn to vinegar. (The word vinegar comes from the French vin meaning wine and aigre meaning sour.) You can make vinegar out of old wine or cider using yeast or a vinegar ‘mother’ (a cloudy film that is filled with vinegar-making bacteria), or by simply letting it sour (with more variable results) and can make a flavoured vinegar by infusing fruits or herbs in strong white vinegar or in a cruder form by letting fruit juice ferment. Most of us will start with the simplest process – infusion. Take cider or white wine vinegar and just add herbs or flowers. Stuff a bottle with tarragon leaves to preserve the flavour of tarragon year round or use basil or fresh chillies. You can infuse vinegar with elderflowers to make vinegar that has a delicate sweet fruitiness. You can also ferment elderflowers with sugar to make a ‘fizz’ and then instead of drinking it, let it sour. The key is that the sugars must turn into 3 or 4 per cent alcohol before they can then become vinegar. Both blackcurrants and apple juice make good vinegars.
While most of us don’t have a lot of excess wine to hand we often have sour fruits. This year I have been experimenting with fermenting a variety of crops either to make a natural soda (fermented with whey) or to make verjuice. The latter is a gentler acidulant useful in the kitchen when lemon juice or vinegar is too harsh but with the same brightening effect on flavour. Verjuice was a common ingredient in medieval kitchens (and is still used in Iranian cooking) but over time it was superseded by the lemon. Verjuice was traditionally made with unfermented grapes or crab apples, which is perfect as the most plentiful sour crop I have are the many kilos of small green grapes I harvest each year from the vines that engulf my allotment shed. You can also use unripe apples or earlier in the year use currants, damsons or the tall American blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum. If you can’t wait until next year and still have lots of frozen berries (gooseberries or currants) you could defrost some and use those. Pulse 1kg of whole unblemished fruits in a food processor until you have a pulpy mass and strain through a sieve under light pressure. Place the liquid in a clean china bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave for three days (perhaps a little longer if your kitchen is cold), stir several times until all bubbling has ceased. Strain through a muslin or jelly bag and transfer to clean plastic bottles and store somewhere cool and dark. You can use the verjuice as a base for sauces in a salad dressing, added to braised or roasted vegetables, to deglaze pans after cooking meat or fish or make a dressing out of 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 200ml of verjuice and use it to baste roast chicken.