I love the art of preserving food - smoking, curing, pickling, jam and sauce making, etc. Some people are avid bakers, or have a passion for making desserts, but no amount of yeast or chocolate will ever excite me as much as creating a pot of pesto or a jar of jam.
I did a cooking class in Barcelona during a trip to Spain a few years ago, and I was really struck by discovering that the Spanish use a variety of ways of preserving food which not only prolongs the life of the food, but which they passionately believe actually "improves" its flavour - you only have to taste their bacalao (salt cod), chorizo sausage, or tuna preserved in olive oil to recognise the veracity of this.
I find it wonderful to be able to take great quality, fresh ingredients, when they are at their most abundant and preserve them to enjoy throughout the year. But that Spanish ethos really resonates with me, and what excites me the most, is taking those ingredients and transforming them into something which is even more flavourful and interesting than the fresh ingredients themselves. Transforming lemon juice and zest (with the help of some butter and eggs) into lemon curd is pure magic, or (aided by the addition of salt) into preserved lemons blows my mind every time I use them to pep up a salad or casserole, in a way which fresh lemon can never quite achieve. I love the fiery kick and depth of flavour that harissa will bring to a dish, which you just won't find from chillies on their own. Turning a bunch of fresh herbs into a pesto, is not just a great way of preserving that abundance of herbs when they're in season, but that pesto will add a layer of flavour and texture to soups, dressings, and pasta dishes that is greater than the herbs on their own. I will never, ever tire of the magic of whisking egg yolks and olive oil together and ending up with mayonnaise - never!
This is the kind of food alchemy that excites me most, and keeps me coming back to the kitchen time and time again. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, these are the kinds of things I like to keep my fridge and pantry stocked with - the kind of ingredients that can be rolled out to add an instant flavour boost to all manner of dishes, or which can be served up antipasto-style for a quick and simple meal. I think this is also the kind of cooking that makes you feel very "accomplished" in the kitchen, in a way which is actually completely disproportionate to the level of expertise really required to create most preserves. If you've ever served up a platter of homemade goodies or gifted a jar of homemade jam or chutney you will know this to be true - maximum kudos : minimal effort. That's my kind of cooking.
As soon as Diana Henry was voted in as our current I Heart Cooking Clubs chef, I knew I had to get my hands on her book "Salt Sugar Smoke". I couldn't wait to open it when my package arrived from Amazon, and I was not disappointed. I fell a bit in love with Diana from the very first page, and I can tell you that I have more little post-it note bookmarks on this book than any other in my collection.
Right from the get-go I have had her recipe for "Spiced Feta in Olive Oil" bookmarked as something that was definitely going to find its way into my repertoire, and my store cupboard. Since our theme this week is Sweet Cloves and Liquid Gold - celebrating dishes with garlic, olives and/or olive oil - I knew this was the week to share.
I made very minimal changes to the recipe - adding in some preserved lemon to amplify the salty-lemony tang of the feta cheese, and substituting some pink peppercorns for the white peppercorns (partly because I didn't have any white ones, and also because I love the slight "fruitiness" of pink ones. I also increased the amount of dried chilli flakes for a bit of extra kick.
This makes a wonderful addition to an antipasto platter, serve as part of a mezze feast, or just spread generously on some good crusty bread.
Spiced Feta with Preserved Lemons Recipe
Adapted from recipe by Diana Henry
from Salt Sugar Smoke
3/4 cup olive oil
juice of 2x lemons
1/2 a preserved lemon, flesh discarded, rind finely sliced
small bunch of fresh thyme sprigs
3/4 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns
200g (7 oz) sheeps milk feta, cut or broken into chunks
In a small jug, mix together olive oil, lemon juice, preserved lemon rind, thyme sprigs, and dried chilli flakes.
Place fennel seeds, black peppercorns, and pink peppercorns into a mortar and pestle, and crush slightly before adding to the oil mixture.
Pack the chunks of feta into a sterilised jar (allow the jar to cool first though, otherwise the cheese will melt). Pour the oil mixture over the feta - top up with a little more oil if the feta is not completely covered. Seal the jar and refrigerate.
You could use this within a few hours, and it will keep for at least a couple of weeks.
If you would like to get to know Diana Henry a little better, and to see what everyone else has cooked up this week, then do go and visit my friends at I Heart Cooking Clubs and check out the links (who knows, you might even want to join the journey and cook along with us) ...