Soak it and see

For tender moments and full-on flavour, give meat and fish a long leisurely bathe in a fine marinade. Bill Knott has the definitive guide
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sometimes, an idea is just too good to pass up, even if its original purpose is redundant. Take the marinade. It was probably first used to preserve fish ("marine" is a related word), and it also came in very handy for tenderising tough lumps of meat.

Sometimes, an idea is just too good to pass up, even if its original purpose is redundant. Take the marinade. It was probably first used to preserve fish ("marine" is a related word), and it also came in very handy for tenderising tough lumps of meat.

Now that every home has a fridge and a freezer, and animals are bred to be tender, you might think that the marinade would have picked up its culinary P45. Not a bit of it. The marinade has another string to its bow: flavouring. A tender but rather bland piece of meat can benefit immeasurably from a good soak.

A marinade is usually a mixture of acid (wine, for example), fat (olive oil, perhaps) and aromatics. By varying the proportions of each component of the marinade, you can, in theory, create the perfect marinade for whichever slab of protein you have in front of you.

Fish and some poultry (chicken breasts, for instance) are naturally tender and are marinated mostly for flavour, or to avoid dryness: in Indian cookery, yoghurt is widely used to marinate chicken, which tends to be tougher - and tastier - than a Western bird. Yoghurt combines fat and acidity, as well as having a texture conducive to coating meat while it cooks.

Fish is easily "cooked" with acid - ceviche is the best example, but it can also be preserved this way: rollmops, for instance, are cured herring fillets preserved in vinegar. Escabeche, which is probably related to ceviche, could be described as a mixture of pickle and marinade: cooked fish preserved in an aromatic, vinegar-spiked liquid. In the Caribbean it is known as escovitch fish, while a similar and ancient Venetian dish, called "in saor", is flavoured with dried fruit and pine nuts.

In general, the proportions for a classic Mediterranean marinade of red wine, olive oil, herbs, garlic and pepper would be four or five parts wine to one part oil, a sort of salad dressing in reverse. Aroma comes from garlic cloves, black peppercorns, a few bay leaves, and a woody herb: oregano, thyme or rosemary. Carrots, celery and onions work best in a cooked marinade: for a daube de boeuf, for example, in which the vegetables are gently cooked first in oil, then the wine is added, simmered with the aromatics, cooled and strained, and used to marinate the beef.

Meat left in a strong marinade for several days can actually change in character: lamb or mutton can taste like venison, and pork develops a pronounced flavour of wild boar, tricks well known in the Victorian kitchen.

If meat is to be slow-cooked, it can be left in the marinade as long as you like: if it is to be roasted rare, however, it is wiser to marinate it for a shorter time, or the marinade will "set" the blood in the joint. While still juicy, the meat might be a little grey and bloodless.

Although marinades are excellent for breathing life into moribund supermarket meat, they really excel with tough, old-fashioned but flavoursome cuts, like shin of beef or shoulder of mutton. Give them a few days of culinary aromatherapy, then a long, slow braise in the oven, and the marinade will have worked its magic: succulent, tender meat, with a rich and haunting aroma. The marinade, thankfully, has a very strong instinct for self-preservation.

Leg of lamb with coriander and orange

Serves 6-8

1 leg of lamb (2-3kg/4lb 8oz-6lb 12oz), boned, but not butterflied
500ml/16fl oz red wine
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted in a dry pan
Small bunch rosemary, leaves stripped off, stems discarded
4 cloves garlic, each cut into 4 slices
100ml/3fl oz olive oil
8 or so long strips of orange zest, pith removed
1 tablespoon salt
Big dash Worcestershire sauce

With a sharp knife, make 12 little pockets on skin side of lamb, and push a bit of garlic and a few rosemary leaves into each. Push rest of garlic and rosemary between muscles on other side of leg.

Mix remaining ingredients in a glass or earthenware dish just big enough to hold meat. Squash in lamb, ensuring marinade covers it as much as possible. Turn it over a few times, and cover dish.

Refrigerate for at least a day - longer, if you want a gamier-tasting roast. Turn it whenever you remember.

To barbecue, cook in foil over a high heat to start, then remove foil and finish on a lower heat. Rest meat before carving.

To roast, allow about an hour on a rack at 200C/400F/Gas 6, then leave to rest, covered in foil, for 20 minutes.

Carve into fairly thick slices and serve with new potatoes and green beans.

Indian chicken kebabs

Serves 4

700g/1lb 6oz chicken breast, cut into 2cm/1in cubes
250ml/8fl oz Greek yoghurt
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 cloves
2-4 dried red chillies
6 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
Half a cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons mango chutney, any large pieces of fruit chopped up
Pinch of saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
Bunch of fresh coriander, chopped

In a dry pan, toast spices gently until they start to smoke, then grind to a powder. Mix spices, garlic, ginger, salt, saffron and chutney in a glass bowl. Then mix in yoghurt, add chicken and stir, making sure each piece is covered in marinade, cover and put in fridge.

Leave for about two hours then thread on to four skewers - with peppers and onions, if you like. Grill or barbecue until cooked through. Scatter with coriander, and serve with naan bread, wedges of lemon, and a cucumber and mint salad.

Rib chops with black beans

Serves 4

Ask your butcher to cut chops from the belly, with the rib attached. They should be skinned, too. Middle White and Old Spots pork are particularly good.

4 spare rib chops, on the bone, about 300g/10oz each
1 litre/44fl oz cloudy apple juice
1 tablespoon groundnut oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 or 2 green chillies, finely chopped
1 large knob of ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons dried salted black beans, soaked in 3 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce (shoyu)
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
150ml/5fl oz dry sherry
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon honey
Juice of one lemon
Bunch of spring onions, finely sliced
Bunch of coriander, chopped

In a wide sauté pan, cover chops with apple juice, bring to boil and simmer for 45 minutes or so, until cooked and tender.

Make marinade. Heat groundnut oil in a pan, add garlic, chilli and ginger, and fry gently until soft, but not brown.

Add all other ingredients except spring onions and coriander, bring to boil, and simmer until reduced to a coating consistency: about 15 minutes.

Discard apple juice. Coat chops with hot marinade. Allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate for a day, turning when you can: a freezer bag is ideal for this.

To heat - they're already cooked - grill or barbecue over a medium to high heat until fat starts to crisp. Serve with rice. Sprinkle with spring onions and coriander.

Escabeche

Serves 4, as a starter

8 small or 4 large fillets of firm white or oily fish (sea bass is nice, but really fresh mackerel is even better), about 500g/1lb 2oz in total
Seasoned flour
3 tablespoons groundnut oil
1 red pepper, cut in thin rings
1 green pepper, cut in thin rings
1 small red onion, sliced into rings
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 carrot, sliced in thin rounds
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Zest and juice of a lime
2 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
Good dash of Tabasco

Heat oil in a wide frying pan, dust fillets with flour and fry until golden. Take them out of pan. Leave to drain on kitchen roll.

Cook vegetables gently in oil until soft. Add remaining ingredients and simmer gently for a minute. Remove from heat.

In a non-reactive bowl, layer fillets with marinade. Refrigerate covered for two days. Serve cold, with warm tortillas, on salad of sliced avocado with lemon juice.

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