From fennel pollen to beef heel, Sudi Pigott has suggestions for cooks whose new year resolution is to be more adventurous in the kitchen.
Resolving to be even more adventurous with trying new ingredients is my kind of new year's resolution. Piqued taste-buds need a wake-up call. A little of something different seems a more enticing proposition than a good deal of something familiar. We are growing fatigued with extreme and limiting localism and an excess of foraged weedy goods and need a bit more escapism and global exploration. Chefs are looking for impeccable, original ingredients and intriguing flavours to combine with local produce.
Unreservedly the new polenta. Found throughout the Arab world, it is small pearl-like balls of rolled semolina cooked over an open flame. Moghrabieh has considerably larger grains than couscous and retains more bite when cooked. In Beirut it can be found fresh. It is the name of a Lebanese dish, too – chicken and onions cooked with fragrant spices – cinnamon, caraway and allspice – to make a broth in which the mograbieh is cooked. I recall, ever in the vanguard, Peter Gordon pioneering what he called Israeli couscous five years or so back at Providores and he has a wonderful salad with broad beans and pistachio in his latest Everyday Cooking book. It's also referred to as pearl couscous, and it can be used as a substitute for fregola, its Sardinian equivalent. But it is Yotam Ottolenghi who has well and truly put mograbieh on the map and sells it in his new online store ottolenghi.co.uk. I even found my lovely, local Balham all-day café, Milk, serving his "Jerusalem", a wonderfully warming burnt aubergine and moghrabieh soup. And Merchant Gourmet (merchantgourmet.com) already sells giant couscous, which it recommends serving as an alternative to pasta with pesto, too.
It may be the third most expensive spice after saffron and cardamom, but fortunately a little is transformative with a subtle, yet haunting, fragrance. Its discovery growing wild just south of the Yosemite National Park in California was certainly a Damascene moment for David Mason, of Global Harvest, who is single-handedly turning chefs on to its charms in dishes from venison carpaccio to wild salmon, even mixed with breadcrumbs to coat green-lipped mussels and in fishcakes. Each "umbrella", or flower, is handpicked, then sun-dried before going through numerous screen filters to arrive at pure pollen. After every harvest the plants are re-pollinated to ensure a sustainable yield year after year. Fennel pollen has already starred on MasterChef and is used to beguiling effect by the Tanner brothers of Tanners with brill, buttered leeks, cockles (fashionably also on the brink of rediscovery) and vermouth and more radically in chocolate truffles by Russell Brown at Sienna Restaurant, also in Dorset. From January, fennel pollen and dill pollen will be sold at Fortnum & Mason and available at globalharvestlimited.com, too.
A dark red/purple berry (known as a sumac bob) that grows in spiky clusters on small wild trees, it is picked when the "bobs" are dry and hard, crushed by hand and has earthy, fruity notes with a distinctive citrus tang and is frankly addictive. I find myself adding it to everything from scrambled eggs to hummus. It has a great affinity with roasted tomatoes and I've even used sumac Arabic style as a substitute for vinegar in salad dressings. The best and freshest I've tried is Arabica's (arabicfoodandspice.com) from the valleys of Ajloun in Jordan, where the locals winningly call it "the lemons from God", and it grows throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Chris Golding, of Apero in the stylish new Ampersand Hotel, is a big fan and uses sumac to add great depth to a vibrant dish of stone bass and beetroot risotto. Sumac is a key ingredient in Silvena Rowe's cooking, too (wonderful rubbed into kebabs and a star of the bold sensual spiced rack of lamb with sweet pomegranate sauce I tried at Quince). It inspired the title of her book, Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume.
"It's so incredibly versatile, it's going to be right out there," Anna Hansen, who is renowned for her innovative combinations of ingredients, says. "I love that it has such a broad spectrum of flavours spanning both sweet and savoury." The wrinkled seed from a flowering South American tree, the tonka bean's taste is linked strongly to its aroma with notes of cherry, almond, cinnamon and vanilla. Contrary to what some assume, it is not a cheap substitute for vanilla, which is more floral while tonka has distinctive fruity, earthy tones, though both are good in ice-cream. At Hansen's The Modern Pantry, at Harrods, it infuses all manner of vegetable purée guises including chestnut (cooked with shallot, garlic, thyme, plenty of butter and cream plus a grating of tonka bean (use a nutmeg grater or microplane) plus salads such as roast pear, salsify, poached egg, tonka bean. It even appears at breakfast in hazelnut and tonka bean croissants and after dinner in mesmerising tonka bean and miso caramel truffles. Tonka beans form part of Hansen's pop-up range at The Modern Pantry. Tonka beans are also available through thespicerie.com.
Long fashionable on French menus, chervil root is gaining currency as a more intriguing root alternative to parsnip, with a delicate flavour closer to artichoke and chestnut with notes of aniseed and a lovely fluffy texture, Franco Fubini, of Natoora (natoora.co.uk), says. Grown in northern France, Anthony Demetre, of Wild Honey, raves about how well the roasted, small, carrot-sized white root combines with caramelised cep and chestnut mushrooms, especially when finished with shavings of black truffle. At Pied à Terre, Marcus Eaves cooks chervil root, sweated in butter and crushed alongside brill, with equally modish liquorice jus and paper-thin slices of chervil root "ceviche" marinated in olive oil and lemon juice.
Beef round heel
Beef round heel pot roast "has absolutely stonking depth of flavour", according to chef Ben Spalding, definitely "a haute in trainers" new culinary force to be reckoned and increasingly renowned for cooking challenging and playful dishes at pop-ups around London and beyond. He braises the round (from the back end of the cow) for up to a day to make it incredibly tender, yet it remains still lush and pink. On a recent tasting menu, Spalding served beef heel with a subtle kick of ultra-fashionable kimchi-and-carrot purée, while when served as a Sunday roast, beef heel comes accompanied by onions, crispy fat, herbs and, unapologetically, unfiltered, ie greasy, juices. Already more popular in the US, after butchering, beef round heel is often reserved for making beef stock, a waste of the new brisket, according to Spalding.
Ripe for revival and already proliferating on chef's menus, it's billed as sauerkraut, too, and perhaps subliminally influenced by the ever-growing gastro excitement about all things kimchi/Korean. Pierre Koffmann waxes lyrical about "choucroute's beautiful, hearty flavour yet silky texture" and adds that it is good for the stomach and digestion. Koffmann buys his cabbage raw and fermented from Rungis market. In the kitchen it is rinsed, sautéed in pork fat (or goose or duck), layered with onions, carrots, bouquet garni, peppercorns, juniper and Alsace riesling and simmered for a minimum of two hours. Koffmann recommends adding apple and fennel for zingy freshness. Choucroute is presently on the menu at Koffmann's at the Berkeley as an accompaniment to roast mallard, though traditional choucroute alsacienne garnie with smoked pork, montebeliard and morteau (a sausage from Jura smoked over conifer wood fast gaining modish credence on menus) plus knuckle of green bacon will feature as an occasional daily special. Authentic choucroute with all the smoky, salty piggy things, is already a stalwart of the menus of The Wolseley, the Delaunay and Zedel, too. I'm predicting the imminent arrival of fish choucroute, too, as served in Alsace with pike-perch and a light, creamy Riesling sauce.
This is like no other smoked haddock, both in its taste and story. Cooking it at home for a simple lunch, I was blown away by its moist, still translucent texture that flakes away and, most importantly, is not over-smoked. Richard Corrigan, of Corrigan's of Mayfair, agrees and is championing its revival as part of Slow Food's Chef Alliance, serving it in a pancake with caviar butter and more simply creamed with duck eggs en cocotte. The Grimsby haddock tradition goes back to the mid 1880s. Fillets are brined and drained on long metal rods called spreats and cold-smoked overnight in the tall, tar-lined chimneys of Jaines & Sons' listed-building smokehouse. Grimsby haddock is one of the "forgotten foods" from Slow Food's "Ark of Taste" in which Booths, the North-west's supermarket chain, is reviving interest. Chris Dee, the chief executive of Booths, says: "We like to rediscover 'new' old-fashioned flavours. What you end up with is unique to this location because of the wind that comes from the estuary and the North Sea, which maintain a temperature that's just right, like an Angel's breath caressing you!"
Capers "are the unsung heroes of seasoning", asserts Daniel Doherty of the phenomenally successful 24/7 restaurant Duck & Waffle at the top of Heron Tower. Capers are essentially flower buds, harvested by hand because they are so small (the most sought after and tiniest are called sanpareil), sun-dried and pickled or salted. I favour those grown on the volcanic Aoelian islands of Pantelleria and Lipari, close to Sicily. (guidettifoods.co.uk have olives-sized caperberries, too). Doherty especially likes their salty, punchy, vinegary fruity flavour accentuated by deep-frying until the flowers pop open and scatters them generously over roast chorizo with confit salmon and parsnip purée. More delicious still is Doherty's tip to blitz capers and raisins in a blender with a dash of olive oil for a memorable sweet/salty punch of flavour with true umami depth that he uses "ketchup" style in all manner of dishes, including his trail-blazing bacon jam doughnuts.
A recent flying visit to "purgatory" in Novara, close to Milan, convinced me that sweet, nutty Gorgonzola DOP was ripe for rediscovery, especially the absurdly decadent, oozy dolce. It's made from cow's milk, the salted curds injected by an intriguing multi-needle Heath Robinson-style machine with a culture native to the Po Valley, Penicillium glaucum, that allows the air to enter and helps the development. They spend three days in bikram-yoga humidity and temperature "purgatory" and are aged for 90 to 110 days before being wrapped in foil to retain moisture. Whilst I'll greedily spoon gorgonzola dolce straight or accompanied by a few fresh figs, Theo Randall, a die-hard gorgonzola enthusiast, showcases its versatility using gorgonzola piccante with thinly sliced Aberdeen Angus beef fillet with wet walnuts and trevisse tardivo and gorgonzola dolce in an agre-dolce risotto of delicia squash with marjoram.