COOK THIS: Sour by Mark Diacono - Modern Farmer

COOK THIS: Sour by Mark Diacono

Twice a month, our writer cooks from the book and decides if these farm-to-table recipes are worth the investment.

From drinking vinegar to heritage sourdough and spicy kimchi, you might have noticed that sour food is hot right now. A sour flavor (or acidity) is usually instrumental in bringing balance to your dish, perhaps in the form of a squeeze of lemon or a splash of wine. Sourness also plays a role in preserving, tenderizing, or “cooking” (as in ceviche), and it is a result of the fermentation process. Mark Diacono’s new book, Sour/the magical element that will transform your cooking (Quadrille; $35) takes on this complex characteristic, starting with a more scientific look at what constitutes sourness (anything under a pH of seven, which ranges from milk to lemon juice), before delving into fermentation-derived sourness versus naturally sour ingredients—mainly fruit. The book is then divided into two main sections: souring skills, with basic recipes for making things like sourdough starter, sour cream, sauerkraut and kombucha, as well as recipes that use both fermented and naturally sour ingredients.

The recipe for Cranberry Jewelled Rice caught my eye; it’s listed as a main course, but it would actually make a very festive side dish. Onions and carrots are cooked in butter until soft, before being joined by cardamom, cinnamon and nuts. Basmati rice and dried cranberries are added, along with hot water and orange blossom water that has had saffron soaking in it. It’s cooked for about 15 minutes, and briefly blasted with heat at the end to develop a crust on the bottom. This was delicious—delicately spiced with the bright acidity of the cranberries bringing everything together.

Sour offers the best of both worlds, with easy projects to get you started on some home fermenting, but also offering some very creative, exciting dishes for indulging your sour tooth. Unlike many books that include fermentation, the recipes themselves are very straightforward, and dare I say, a treasure trove of homemade gifts for the holidays as well.

Wendy Underwood tests out cookbooks weekly on Instagram at @kitchenvscookbook.

Excerpted from Sour/the magical element that will transform your cooking. (C) 2019 by Mark Diacono. Reproduced by permission of Quadrille. All rights reserved.

Serves 4

Saffron is a funny thing. Mostly it reminds me of that time I sucked the end of the fountain pen I used for all of a fortnight at school, only to find it was leaking its turquoise (classy) Quink all over my mouth. Happy days. Saffron gives me hope that perhaps there is nothing to which a delicious end cannot be found. Here, its generous nasal bitterness is what creates the alchemy. Sour fruit and nuts are so fine together too, and I think this shows that happy alliance at its best. I’m as likely to eat this as it is – a joyously satisfying bowlful, fork pecking away – as I am to bother with a bright salad to accompany.

300g (10oz) basmati rice large pinch of saffron (or use ground turmeric)
50ml (2fl oz) orange blossom water
3 tbsp butter, ghee or olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
½ tsp ground cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
100g (3½oz) shelled pistachios (or use flaked almonds or pine nuts, or a mix)
100g (3½oz) dried cranberries (or use dried sour cherries)
sea salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Wash the rice thoroughly and drain well. Soak the saffron in the orange blossom water.

Heat the butter, ghee or oil in a large pan, add the onion and carrots and cook over a medium heat until soft – this will take 10–15 minutes or so. Add the spices, nuts and 1 teaspoon of salt and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the drained rice and cranberries and cook for a minute to toast the rice, then add the orange blossom saffron water plus another 400ml (14fl oz) hot water and cover. Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking for 15 minutes until all the liquid has evaporated and the rice is tender. Turn the heat up to medium and cook for 5 minutes to develop a crust at the base.

Turn off the heat. Place a clean tea towel between the pan and its lid and let the pan sit and rest for 5 minutes in about 3cm (1¼in) cold water in the sink to help loosen the crust.

Turn the rice out on to a large platter to serve.

Serves 2–3 (or just me watching a game)

It’s 8.07am and I’m writing about tamarind ribs and now all I want for second breakfast is tamarind ribs. And all I’ll want for lunch and dinner is tamarind ribs. They may take a while in the oven, but the only attention you need to pay here is in softening the onions slowly: after that, you just have to come back in a couple of hours with an appetite.

The sauce is hugely adaptable: when I couldn’t get good pork ribs, I tried it with a rack of lamb – cooked hard at 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6 for 15 minutes, before being slathered on the sauce and cooked for another 25 minutes at 160°C/325°F/gas mark 3 – and it was extraordinary.

4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
15g (½oz) fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1½ tsp fennel seeds
1 star anise
1½ tsp Aleppo pepper
5 tbsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp tomato ketchup
3 tbsp maple syrup
60g (2¼oz) soft dark brown sugar
5 tbsp tamarind paste (ideally made from tamarind block, see page 18)
1kg (2lb 4oz) pork ribs
sea salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2.

Warm the oil in a frying pan over low-medium heat, add the onions and fry slowly, stirring often – we are after sweet softness, without burning, so expect it to take 15–25 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a few minutes more. Add the spices, stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the soy sauce, ketchup, maple syrup, sugar and tamarind paste and stir to incorporate thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Cook just for a minute or two.

Place the ribs into a roasting tray large enough to accommodate them in a single layer, close-ish but not jammed in. Spoon the spicy paste over the ribs.

Cover the tray in foil and cook for 2 hours. Turn the heat up to 180°C/350°F/ gas mark 4. Uncover the ribs and taste the paste, seasoning more if needed. Spoon some of the paste from the tin over the ribs. Replace the foil, and return to the oven for 20 minutes more – be careful; you are after dark and sweet– sour gooey rather than black and burnt.

Remove from the oven and allow the ribs to cool a little, before serving with pea shoots and a sharp dressing, or just a cold beer.

I’ve come to tamarind rather too recently, and it is one of those flavours that can make you enter a slightly daydreamy state, imagining how it might suit this or complement that. Once you start cooking with tamarind, it is as if you have discovered a special music or favourite author previously unknown to you. The weeks following may easily be lost in enthusiastic exploration, and that ‘what else can I do with this?’ feeling never quite leaves you when it comes to tamarind.

Tamarind comes from a tropical tree of the same name, likely to originate from Madagascar. Its brown pods look not unlike broad beans after a long weekend and in need of a shower and a glass of water; they contain a dark sour pulp that is extracted from the desiccated pods when ripe and squeezed into blocks, or strained of seeds to make a paste. In either form, it is used in curries, stews, drinks, chutneys and more throughout the Middle East and Asia, as well as Worcestershire sauce and brown sauce in the UK. As much as it is used for its distinctive and complex flavour – perfectly described by Niki Segnit in Lateral Cooking as ‘like a lemon that’s sucked a date’ – tamarind brings a distinctly characterful souring that just works in so many dishes.

The concentrated paste is pretty good and widely available; the block version is superb and available online and from Asian food shops. Tamarind block involves the tiny faff of adding a little boiling water and encouraging it to dissolve, for which – as is usual for a little culinary effort – you are more than proportionately rewarded in flavour.

Although tamarind adds a unique spicy-sour tone, if you are without, then use vinegar or lime juice in a similar quantity (and then amend to taste) to add the required sourness.

Serves 4

If ever I tire of the home-worker’s high-carb, quick-grab lunches and crave a cold shower of freshness, this is one I turn to. It’s a waltz, a cha cha cha and a tango in the mouth, all at once. I tend to leave the herbs large-leaved and barely shredded, to give a big hit of independent flavour from each, and I use red (rather than green) chillies for looks, but the recipe is really a blueprint to play with as you like. The mango should be unripe and sour, but if yours has sweetened, consider upping the lime for balance. And, if you can find them, small green mangoes are perfect here.

2 bird’s-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
juice of 2 limes
50ml (2fl oz) fish sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
2–3 tsp soft light brown sugar
1 unripe mango, peeled and julienned
2–3 shallots, thinly sliced
60g (2¼oz) unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped
small handful of coriander leaves, barely chopped
small handful of mint leaves, barely chopped
3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
sea salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Stir together the chillies, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, sugar and plenty of black pepper – this dressing should be a jumble of flavours more than a complete amalgamation.

Combine the mango, shallots, two-thirds of the peanuts, coriander, mint, sesame seeds and the dressing in a large bowl, season with salt to taste and serve immediately with more nuts to the side and a cold beer.

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