Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chocolate Sandwich Cake with Chestnut & Whisky Cream Filling

So I was making a birthday cake. I knew I wanted it to be a chocolate cake, but the person who normally bakes the cakes in this house was the person whose birthday it was and I was nervous in the run-up to the event, never having baked a cake before. I had my eye on a recipe in Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques for a fridge cake involving a lot of chocolate, some butter, some rum and that tin of Clement Faugier Sweetened Chestnut Purée that had been sitting at the back of the food cupboard for about a year without my having any idea what to do with it. Actually, what I really wanted to cook was Anthony Bourdain's Charlotte de marrons, but I couldn't find sponge fingers anywhere.

In the end, I decided that the fridge cake would be excessively alcoholic, so I decided to cook a cake I had at least seen being baked before, and then modify it somewhat. So, this is a modified version of Nigella Lawson's chocolate Birthday Cake from How To Eat; the filling is my own, inspired my Messrs Pepin and Bourdain, and is based on my wish to use both chestnuts and alcohol to make the cake a bit more a.) seasonal and b.) interesting.

For the cake:

225g self-raising flour
30g best cocoa
200g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
200g condensed milk
100g best quality dark chocolate
2 eggs, beaten

For the chocolate ganache:

100g best quality dark chocolate
100g best quality milk chocolate
200ml double cream

For the filling:

1 tin of sweetened chestnut purée (i.e. the stuff I mentioned above, or something similar - don't use use tinned chestnut purée that they sell for Christmas stuffing. The stuff you want has been heavily sweetened and flavoured with vanilla and other things and is a thick, glossy, sticky sludge when you open the tin.)
200ml double cream
1 double measure of whisky/rum/brandy

[The following method is mostly Nigella, with my annotations.]

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Put the kettle on. Butter two shallow sandwich tins. [Nigella says line the base with baking parchment. I didn't, but I did use a carving knife to help get the cakes out of the tins when I'd finished.]

Sieve the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt together into a large bowl and set aside.

Put the sugar, butter, condensed milk, 100ml just-boiled water and the chocolate, broken into small pieces, into a saucepan and heat until melted and smooth. Then stir this into the flour-cocoa mixture with a wooden spoon, and when all is 'glossily amalgamated', beat in the eggs.

Pour into the sandwich tins and bake for 20 minutes, no longer.

Leave to cool in the tins and then turn out onto a rack.

To make the ganache, break up the chocolate into small pieces (you could blitz it in a blender if you like) and put it in a medium-sized bowl. Heat the cream to boiling, but don't let it boil [that doesn't really make any sense, Nigella] and then pour it over the chocolate. Leave for five minutes and then, preferably with an electric mixer, beat until combined, coolish, thickish and glossy.

To make the filling...well, I sort of winged it, but here's how. The purée will come in a 500g tin and you need about 300g. Scoop it out into a medium-sized bowl. Add the liquor of choice and mix it in with a fork so that it's absorbed. Whip the cream with your electric mixer (you've washed the mixer bits since making the ganache, obviously) and then gently amalgamate the whipped cream into the chestnut/liquor goo until you get a thick but spreadable, pale brown cream. Yes, you could leave out the alcohol but don't do so on the grounds that it's more healthy: there is absolutely nothing healthy about this cake, and anyway the chestnut filling will seem tooth-hurtingly sweet without it.

It's important to wait until the cakes are cool before you put them together, otherwise the filling might melt. Spread the top half of one of the cakes with the chestnut/whisky cream. Be generous. Pretend it's the biggest and richest peanut butter sandwich ever. Gently lower the other cake on top and press down very gently (i.e. don't crush the damn thing). Lastly, spread your ganache on top of the upper surface of the upper cake (and the sides too, if you can be bothered) and let it set. It's probably a good idea to store this cake in the fridge so that the cream doesn't go off, but on the other hand that's liable to make the cake go stale quicker, so you should really try to eat it as soon as possible. I hope that's not too much trouble.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deconstructed Chasseur (Il y a hors-de-poulet)

So I had some chicken thighs (bone-in) and some mushrooms, and I was thinking about chicken chasseur, chicken cacciatore, all those unfashionable but warming, herby, rich chicken casseroles we love, from the more mountainy bits of France and Italy. Usually I think that you can't do anything more sensible with a chicken than clean it, dry it, truss it, sprinkle it with salt and roast it, but I was thinking seriously about doing something casserole-y with my chicken pieces.

The only problem is that one of the main reasons I eat chicken is the skin. I love chicken skin. (This is the point where I would normally like to provide useful nutritional information about how relatively healthy chicken fat is compared to other fats, but the trouble is that most websites out there that offer 'information' on such topics are written by hysterical wellness gurus who want to sell you things.) The trouble with chicken casseroles is that skinning the chicken leaves you with tender but rather bland pieces of meat that lack a lot of the fun of eating chicken in the first place, but if you don't skin them, the skin turns flabby and unappealing in the sauce. I quite like eating fat, but not big moist claggy lumps of the stuff.

Then I had a thought, which doesn't happen very often. Given that I had more chicken thighs than I strictly needed, why did I have to cook them all in the sauce? Couldn't I keep some aside and let them be treated the way chicken thighs should be treated, with dry heat and a frying pan, while a couple sat in the sauce and lent their flavour to it?

So I marinated my chicken thighs overnight in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, garlic and rosemary. I was on a bit of a rosemary kick; I knew that this dish was going to be seriously browned and earthy and rich, so it needed a sharp aromatic note to cut through all that.

The following evening, I sautéed chopped onion, carrot and celery in olive oil in a big pot, took it out, and browned a couple of chicken thighs in the oil, then returned the vegetables, added a good amount of vegetable stock (made with stock powder), a splash of white wine, some chopped fresh thyme and a bay leaf, and simmered the result for a couple of hours. In the meantime, I made the rest.

The garnishes were to be bacon lardons and mushrooms. I could have cooked these in the sauce, of course, but that would have made everything taste of everything else. I browned the lardons and set them aside, then browned small, whole white button mushrooms in olive oil and a little of the fat the lardons gave off.

An hour before cooking time, I put the remaining chicken thighs in a moderate hot oven to bake. Half an hour later they were cooked through and had given up a lot of their fat, but I still didn't have the seriously crispy and aromatic skin that I wanted. That called for a last spell in a frying pan.

I put the cooked chicken thighs skin-side down in a frying pan over a moderate heat, and threw in a sprig of rosemary. The whole sprig of rosemary is crucial here, if you want the result to have an almost trippily herbal aroma; if you don't like rosemary, well, don't do it. I learned this chicken-in-the-pan trick from Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. Baking chicken in the oven will give it puffed skin, but if you want the skin to get insanely crispy and almost crackling-like, there's nothing like putting it in direct contact with hot metal. It needs to sit there for about fifteen minutes and it will spit a lot. But apart from flavour and texture, the other good thing about this is a lot of the subcutaneous chicken fat will render into the pan as the skin cooks; you may even need to pour some of it off. (You can either throw the rendered fat away or use it to cook with. It's a popular condiment in European Jewish cuisine, but have a thought for your arteries and don't eat it all the time.)

(You could cook the chicken thighs like this without first baking them, but they'll spit all over your hob and the surrounding area and you'll be wiping up for a long time afterwards. Cooking boned chicken thighs doesn't take as long, but then they aren't half as tasty, not to mention being more expensive.)

35 minutes before showtime, a handful of puy lentils thrown into the sauce added body and texture, and the mushrooms and bacon went in with five minutes to go. I reserved the chicken thighs that had been cooked in the sauce (put them in a bowl, let them cool down before sticking them in the fridge and the flesh will be great in a sandwich the next day.) Serve the sauce in a bowl and place your crispy chicken thighs on top, after letting them drain for a couple of minutes on some kitchen paper; accompany with a green salad. This chicken is so hunterish it's practically walking the hills with a shotgun over its shoulder.

Chicken thighs are very cheap, and to my mind tastier and more succulent than chicken breast, which is the bit of the chicken you offer to people who don't like food. Thighs are also tougher and more fatty, but that's where long slow cooking comes in. This modified chasseur recipe combines the best bits of roast chicken with the depth of flavour you get from cooking a sauce with chicken bone in it. Cooking the bacon and the mushrooms separately keeps the different flavour elements isolated from each other until the last minute, so that they all sing together on the plate. Or, as in this case, in the bowl.

Given that this is a modification of an already pretty corny old recipe I've called it Deconstructed Chasseur, out of a fondness for unfashionable flavours of continental philosophy. The subtitle is a nod to the great Roland Barthes: as much flavour as possible, Roland, baby.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon

My mum started to cook this on Christmas mornings when I was a teenager, and it became a bit of a tradition.

Per person:

a handful of shredded smoked salmon (trimmings will do)
2 eggs
Wholemeal toast

Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the smoked salmon and a healthy grind of black pepper. No need to add salt; the salmon will add all the salty notes you need.

Melt butter in shallow frying pan or saucepan and when it's frothing, put the toast in the toaster and press the lever, add the eggs to the butter and beat them with a wooden spoon or, better, a wooden fork until they're creamy. No matter how many eggs you use, this should take as long as it takes for your toast to cook. (Don't wait until after the butter has stopped frothing because then it'll be too hot.) As soon as they are creamy but no longer runny, serve on the toast; you don't really need to butter the toast (I never bother) but you could if you really, really love butter. The ideal beverage accompaniments are O.J. and good coffee. Or something cold, grape-derived, dry and sparkling. Either, really.

Don't be tempted to make this with equal amounts of salmon and egg. Heating the salmon enhances the salty flavour, and you don't want to be eating great masses of hot smoked salmon. The dominant ingredient should be creamy scrambled eggs, with tasty shreds of smoked salmon suspended in it here and there, the whole given fire and life by fresh pepper. (If you're scared of creamy eggs and insist on always cooking them until they're rubberised, you don't deserve to eat scrambled eggs in the first place.) A perfect bracing Christmas brunch, this will keep you going until the late afternoon feast and will provide a useful lining for any alcohol that gets thrust at you in the middle of the day.

This year I was given Half-Canned Cooks, the fabulously rakish new cookbook from Lupe Pinto's Deli, the finest Mexican/Spanish/American deli for miles and an institution round our way, and I use the word 'institution' at least partly in the sense of a place where people sometimes behave in colourful and alarming ways. I've long owned a copy of their brilliant earlier book Two Cooks and a Suitcase, have eagerly read the new one and I'll be cooking from it in weeks to come.

Happy holidays, all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


In Dublin, where I come from, one of the traditional local dishes is a sausage, bacon and potato stew called Coddle. It consists of sausages, bacon (or ham), potatoes and onions, all boiled together in water. It's dishes like this that helped to prevent Dublin from becoming the internationally-renowned city of gastronomy that it isn't. It should come as no surprise that few Dubliners younger than fifty have ever eaten Coddle. I myself have only eaten it twice, very much in a spirit of research & development, and both times it was only because I cooked it myself; the first time to see what it tasted like, and the second time to check that it really was as disgusting as I remembered. It was.

Fortunately, for those that like one-pot meals and the taste of sausage, there is at least one great traditional sausage casserole out there: Spetsofai. I know it sounds like a special forces unit from a former Warsaw Pact country, but it is in fact a Greek sausage casserole of great gutsiness and character. (There are of course more great sausage dishes out there - choucroute garnie comes to mind - but Spetsofai is the only one I've tasted.) My wonderful Greek mother-in-law cooks it, and being a Greek woman who lives round the corner from an excellent butcher (John Saunderson's), she likes to buy a couple of every kind of sausage the butcher has and chuck 'em all in there in the spirit of variety.

Spetsofai is real rustic Greek food, and there is no one way to do it. I've seen a bunch of recipes on the internet but none of them looked as tasty as my mother-in-law's version. Spetsofai should be considered as a method, not as something written in stone (unlike, say, saltimbocca alla Romana, the recipe for which was actually agreed upon by a panel of Italian chefs in 1962). Here is Katy's recipe as I got it from her.

"I am crap at quantities, but will tell you what I got today: 2 Cumberland sausages, 3 pork and leek, 3 venison, 2 tomato something, 5 pork, and 6 chipolatas as an afterthought. Also, 3 green and 1 yellow pepper, and I had 1 1/2 at home.

Made my tomato sauce. Used 1 onion, not too big, bunch of spring onions, sauted them in butter, put in 1 tin chopped tomatoes, squeezed in some tomato puree, red wine, salt, pepper, sugar, oregano again and again, then decided to put in another tin of chopped tomatoes, more wine, more everything, then saw there was still some parsley and a few leaves of basil, (OK not in mint condition) on the window sill, so in they went, also put in ends of peppers which were sticking out (because they fry better if they are flat). Then fried peppers, then fried cut up sausages. Put everything in big enough pot (earthenware) in a moderate oven, and that was cooked for (I think) an hour. Until you arrived in any case."

So there you go. Here's the method in short:

1. Make your favourite rich tomato sauce, as if for pasta. Add lots of oregano, otherwise it's lacking in Greekness.
2. Fry 4-5 roughly chopped bell peppers and add them to the sauce.
3. Take more sausages than you think you want, cut them all in half, brown them well in olive oil and add them to the sauce. Note that my mother-in-law here used 15 regular sausages and 6 chipolatas in a dish meant for four adults and one small child (!). Granted that she likes to have leftovers: abundance is the key, here. Sausages are not very expensive, let's face it.
4. Bake it in the oven for an hour, preferably in an earthenware dish. Do it with the lid off. The top should be a bit scorched, and the sauce should be really thick.
5. Serve with whatever kind of carb you fancy - pasta, rice, some small roasted new potatoes are all good.

Eat this with sausage-loving friends. The overall impression should be of more sausages than anyone could really want to eat. But between you, you will eat them. A simple Greek salad of chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion is all you need on the side, and plenty of red wine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Venison shank with barley & mushroom risotto

This sounds a bit restaurantish but is in fact very easy although it does take a long time. I went to the farmers' market and was actually planning to make myself some hare or rabbit or pigeon, but I'd forgotten that the game dealer is only there every second week and that the only game available would be venison. Because I was cooking for myself I was on a budget, so venison shank was the most economical option. I read a few recipes for venison and decided to wing it. I couldn't decide what to make with it but I gather that barley is now becoming a bit of a restaurant cliché as an accompaniment; I hardly ever eat in restaurants so had never had it before. For the barley, I adapted a recipe in Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. So this is a Scottish-Italian fusion which is all about autumn - Scottish ingredients, red wine, slow cooking, mushrooms, that kind of thing. Yes, it contains wine twice. No, I don't think that's a bad thing.

Ingredients for the venison:

1 venison shank per person

3 onions, roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled, halved and sliced lengthwise

1 stick of celery, roughly chopped

a handful of diced pancetta

three garlic cloves, crushed

the leaves from 4-5 sprigs of thyme

1 bay leaf

1/3 bottle of red wine

olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

300ml dark meat stock

1 piece of very dark (75%) chocolate

enough watercress for as many people as are eating

Ingredients for the barley risotto (assuming 4 people):

175g pearl barley

250g chestnut or wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into .5cm slices - it should be wild mushrooms but I couldn't afford them, so used chestnut with some soaked porcini thrown in

1 glass of red wine

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

300ml meat or vegetable stock

olive oil


chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 160C.

2. Heat a thick-based casserole pan and brown the venison shanks one by one until they're all nicely brown.

3. Remove the shanks to a plate and add the pancetta to the pan. Cook it until it's going golden, then throw in the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook it until softened.

4. Add the wine and chocolate and let it reduce, scraping up any brown residue. When the wine has reduced by half, add the meat and herbs and stock, season lightly with salt, cover and put the casserole in the oven for at least 2.5-3 hours, until the meat is tender.

5. Meanwhile, closer to the time of eating, heat a heavy sauté pan and add a glug of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pearl barley and cook it for five minutes until it's starting to go golden brown - don't let it burn, though. After five minutes, add the onion and garlic and let it soften, stirring it in. If it looks like the barley is getting too brown, add the wine and let it reduce a bit.

6. If the onion has softened and the barley hasn't gone too brown, add the wine and stock and let it simmer.

7. Meanwhile, sauté the onion in butter in a separate frying pan, until it's nicely browned. If you were soaking porcini in hot water, add the water to the barley and the porcini to the mushrooms, being careful not to let the residue at the bottom of the water get out. (It's mostly dirt.)

8. Now, it's pretty much up to you. You need to keep simmering the barley until the stock/wine mixture has reduced and been absorbed, while the barley softens. This can take 30 minutes or more. When the mushrooms are done, remove them to a bowl.

9. When the barley is nearly done, check the venison - it should be falling off the bone by now and very tender. Remove it and the bone to a separate plate. The venison shank contains marrow, which you can eat if you want. Compared to beef or veal marrow it's relatively tasteless but it can add a richness to the final sauce, so by all means scrape it out and save it if you like that kind of thing.

10. Now, the liquid your venison cooked in should be purple in colour and full of bits of cooked bacon and onion and carrot and so on. You don't want to eat any of that. You could, but it'll be boring. Sieve it. Get a sieve, place it over a large bowl and pour the liquid into the sieve. Next, use a wooden spoon to squeeze all the remaining juice out of the sodden vegetable mush in the sieve. You'll be surprised how much flavour you can squeeze out.

11. Return the strained liquid to the venison pan and put it on the heat. If you are using the venison marrow, add it. You want to bring this liquid to the boil and simmer it until it's reduced and tastes more intense. This can take a while, so keep an eye on your risotto and make sure that the barley is becoming tender and the liquid is being absorbed. You can add the mushrooms to the barley at this stage and stir them well in.

12. When your venison liquid is reduced to being an intensely flavoured syrupy sauce, check it for seasoning and season if necessary - it'll probably need at least some black pepper - then return the meat to it to heat up.

13. When your barley risotto is tender and aromatic, take it off the heat and add a sprinkling of parsley, then toss the watercress into the venison pan and let it wilt before giving everyone a good ladle or two of barley, then a bed of wilted watercress followed by the meat from a shank and plenty of the jus to tie it all together.

Chocolate may seem weird, but venison and chocolate get on strangely well with each other and the final thing doesn't taste chocolatey, just slightly smokey and mysterious. Needless to say, if you don't have posh 75% dark chocolate, this isn't going to work; a Galaxy is not the right thing here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Little Cinnamon Biscuits Like They Serve In Posh Cafés

Today, the Tortemeisterin had a yearning to bake something. Anything. So had I, which was weird because I never normally bake things. I for my part wanted to make bagels, which I'd never made before, but I thought the ability to whip up a few bagels would be a useful skill. The Tortemeisterin wanted to make little crunchy cinnamon-flavoured biscuits like the kind they serve with your coffee in Greek cafés (and in posh cafés elsewhere in the world). I happily yielded the kitchen to her, on the grounds that the little cinnamon biscuits sounded like they would take less time; you don't have to let the dough rise, basically. I ended up hovering over her shoulder and doing odd jobs like melting the butter and golden syrup together, while she handled everything else. So this one was a true joint effort.

A recipe was located on the Channel 4 website, and I reproduce it here with our annotations.


* 50g butter
* 125g golden syrup (we were a bit short and used more like 110g)
* 1 egg yolk, beaten
* 125g plain flour
* 50g soft dark brown sugar (we used Muscovado)
* 1 tsp ground cinnamon
* 1/2 tsp baking powder

"1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/ fan160°C/gas 4. Line a baking tray with baking paper."

Note: you don't have to line a baking tray with baking paper. We did that for the first batch, and the biscuits stuck to the paper. You might be better off lightly greasing a non-stick baking tray and letting the biscuits get firm before you try and remove them - a sharp tap with a knife should knock them off in one go, but be careful not to scratch the non-stick.

"Melt the butter and golden syrup in a large saucepan over a gentle heat until they come together. Remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolk."

Note: make sure that you don't heat the butter so much that it foams. You just want it to melt. If you start cooking that butter, the egg yolk will scramble when you pour it in the pan.

"2. Sift the remaining ingredients together into the saucepan and fold into the egg and syrup mix. You should now have a cinnamony paste. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon-size dots onto the lined tray. Keep well apart, as they’ll spread a bit. Bake for 15 minutes, then cool before removing. They will crisp up a little more as they cool."

Note: an extra three or four minutes won't hurt. We got about 40 biscuits out of this mixture. Don't be tempted to put large blobs on the baking tray; the biscuits are very sweet and very intense. A half a teaspoon of mixture will give you a biscuit large enough to accompany a single espresso.

Store them in tupperware and bring them out next time you make a cup of real coffee. They're so crunchy they're almost like some kind of cinnamon-flavoured sweet. Respect to Channel 4 for the recipe and my lovely wife for deciding to make it in the first place.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Herb-rubbed slow-cooked roast pork

When it's your birthday, it's sometimes a good idea to announce that you're gonna cook the birthday dinner yourself. This is especially true when you don't trust anybody else to cook something that you aren't going to find objectionable one way or the other. If you let someone else cook the dinner, you open yourself up to multiple disappointments. The chief one is "I know that you like X and specifically asked to have X for your birthday dinner, and indeed begged me to make X, but I thought just for a change you might like Y, which I have never cooked before but thought in my very deluded mind that you might enjoy, even though it is not what you explicitly requested, and even though I sort of fucked it up. But I am your friend/relative/parent, and I hoped you wouldn't mind."

No, it's better to do it yourself. Which is how I came to be cooking roast belly of pork, potatoes and cabbage on the afternoon of my birthday, because literally nobody else I know cooks belly pork. I love belly pork, partly because it it's a very forgiving cut of pig, not to mention a cheap one (it's nearly impossible to overcook, whereas a regular pork chop is easy to turn into a rubbery puck of sadness) but mostly because it fulfils the dream of roast pork - something that's succulent and delicate at the same time. Why potatoes? Because if the theme is roast pork, you just need roast potatoes, unless you're going Chinese, which I wasn't. Why cabbage? Because the lusciousness of roast pork belly needs a fairly austere green vegetable to balance it and cabbage is about as austere as it gets.

So I bought two lovely pieces of pork belly from Austen Davies' stall at the farmers' market. I had to feed six adults plus one child: my mum, my mum's sister, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my lovely wife plus myself, plus of course the kid. Each of the pieces of pork were too small to feed all those people, but both together didn't fit in my roasting tin. Solution? To cut the smaller one down its length and stick it in the pan next to the other one. A side-effect of this would be that there would be more lovely crusty outside to the pork than there would normally have been.

Roast pork, roast potatoes and cabbage

1 piece of pork belly with skin, preferably on the bone, the thicker the better, c. 1.5-2kg

roasting potatoes (I used Desirees and will admit to missing Ireland, where it's much easier to get Roosters)

1 large white cabbage

bay leaves

juniper berries

caraway seeds

sea salt

black peppercorns

olive oil


a glass of white wine

vegetable stock made with Marigold stock powder

1. Preheat the oven to 220C (200C if you have a fan oven.) Crush a generous pinch of sea salt, a good few black peppercorns, two or three dried bay leaves and about four juniper berries together in your mortar and pestle. Keep pounding till it's a medium-coarse powder. You don't want bits of bay leaf and chunks of berry turning up on your fork. You want to rub this on the outside of the meat to make a delicious crust, so keep pounding away until a perfect stranger who doesn't know what's in the mortar couldn't tell what it is from a casual glance. So, not dust, just a coarse powder.

2. Okay. This is roast pork. You want crackling, right? Crackling is fun. Let's assume that you forgot to ask the butcher to cut off but keep the skin for you, so the skin is still attached. We will now cut through the whole crackling problem with a very sharp knife. You will need to be careful, you will need to be patient and you will need to not cut your hand off.

The skin on the roast pork will probably be more loose at one end than at the other. Go for the loose end. Lift the skin up and slide the blade of a very sharp knife underneath, and then work the blade under the skin, cutting away the connective tissue and pulling the skin gently but firmly upwards as you go, so that you cut the skin off in one piece.

3. Rub the meat all over with the salt/pepper/herb mix, and when it's been rubbed in, place the meat in a roasting tin and place the loose skin on top of it, skin-side-up. If you have any excess rub, it would be a good idea to rub some onto the skin at this point. If you don't, just rub a little salt into it - and I mean a little, preferably Maldon sea salt or your preferred good sea salt, crushed. It'll help give flavour to the crackling.

4. Now, leave the meat to sit for a good half an hour while you get the veg ready.

5. Half-fill a large saucepan with water and salt it lightly. Peel as many spuds as you want (I usually estimate about two per person - like most things, they shrink in the cooking), cut each medium-sized one into two pieces and each large one into at least three. Roast potatoes do not like to be perfectly smooth spheroids. Edges and corners helps them become crispy. Do not hesitate to hack off the end of a potato if it has dodgy-looking bits in it. Rinse the spuds before you put them in the water - it washes off the starch, which you don't want. Place spuds in cold water. Turn the water on for the spuds and cover the pan.

7. Your pork has now been sitting in the kitchen for about half an hour, and because you salted the skin, the skin is probably starting to exude a little moisture. Dab this off with a bit of kitchen towel, as crackling is less likely to happen when the skin is damp. Stick the pork in the oven. This is the bit where I usually lean down and watch through the door as it starts to sweat. I don't know why I do that.

8. You are now cooking your spuds in water. What the hey, some of you ask, aren't we making roast potatoes? Nigella Lawson, who I respect greatly, has a very good rule for roast potatoes: you need to cook them for longer than you think, at a hotter temperature than you think. Therefore, you need to start cooking them at the same time as, if not before, the meat. To get them crispy, they need to be fluffy when they hit the pan of hot fat or oil in the oven. To get them fluffy, you have to parboil them first. Let them come to the boil and take the lid off when the water boils, otherwise it'll boil over. Let them cook until they are tender enough that you can fairly easily stick a fork into them. (Don't try to test them by sticking a sharp knife into them. You can stick a sharp knife fairly easily into anything, so it will give you a false positive for tenderness. A fork is more reliable.)

9. Pour some olive oil, or your preferred fat (please, not butter or margarine - the former will burn and the latter is bad for you) into the bottom of a baking dish and stick it in the oven. You need to let this get hot before putting the parboiled potatoes in it, and that will take a good ten minutes. After your pork has been cooking for about 25 minutes, turn the oven heat down to about 150C. This will sort-of slow-cook the pork (it's actually too hot for real slow cooking, but it gives you time to do other things).

10. When your potatoes are tender drain them, leave them for a couple of minutes to dry off a bit, and then give them a quick glug of olive oil and transfer them to the baking dish to roast.

11. Congratulations. Most of the work is done. Sit down. Have a glass of wine. You can leave your pork and potatoes in the oven for a good hour and a half while you read a book, get ready for the party, chat to your guests about reality TV or Richard Dawkins or whatever floats your boat. Apart from the next bit.

12. Forty minutes before showtime, wash the cabbage, chop it into shreds and wash the saucepan that you cooked the spuds in, if you haven't already. As soon as it's clean, you will recycle this saucepan to cook the cabbage in. See how I save you washing up? When it's clean, half-fill it with water, put the water on to boil and cover it.

13. Twenty minutes before showtime, take the pork out of the oven and let it rest. The next bit is crucial: right after you've taken the pork out, whack the heat up in the oven to about 220C, take the skin off the pork (it'll probably look like it's almost but not quite crackling) and lay it on top of the spuds.

14. Next, blanch the cabbage in the boiling water for just a few minutes. There are two ways to cook cabbage; one way is to do it for about three hours, the other way is to do it for about five minutes. Every other way leads to nasty cabbage.

15. When the cabbage is blanched (like, two minutes in boiling water), take it out and cool it down in cold water. Rinse the saucepan. When you're ready to serve up, heat some butter in the saucepan, plus a few crushed caraway seeds. Finish off the cabbage by sautéing it lightly in the butter. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the top if you're feeling frisky.

16. Deglaze the sticky brown goo in the roasting tin with the white wine and veg stock that you made at some point, scraping up the goo with a wooden spoon so that it dissolves into the liquid. Let this boil so that it becomes a piquant jus for your pork. Your crackling should have puffed up nicely in the twenty minutes that it was away from the pork, sitting on top of the potatoes. If not - call me and we'll discuss it.

17. Cut the pork into thick slices and serve with a good piece of crackling, a few roast potatoes, a helping of cabbage and some jus from the pan. As you can see from the picture at the top, the potatoes weren't as crispy and golden as they might have been. But the pork made up for it. Oh yeah.

This particular meal was helped enormously by the fact that the meat was really, really good - flavourful and incredibly cheap. Two large slabs of it cost me £8 each. I dunno how they make a profit on that but I am very smug that half of one of those pieces is still nestling raw in my freezer, waiting for me to do things to it.

You wouldn't want to eat this every day. But for a birthday, it works.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Potato dauphinoise

I think my posts are becoming too long, so I've put the recipe at the top for a change.

The potato can be lots of things: comforting (baked), succulent (roasted), sociable (chips). But there's only one way with potatoes that's actually sexy, and it's potato dauphinoise: slices of potato cooked in a garlicky cream and then baked in the oven with a light cheese topping. Meltingly soft, it should have a cheesy-garlic twang and the sauce should flow into the embrace of whatever gravy or jus you've managed to coax out of whatever else that you've cooked (in last night's case, a very small shoulder of lamb that I'd marinaded in thyme, garlic and olive oil and which had unfortunately been completely eaten by the time I took the photo.)

This is my recipe, anyway. You'll need:

1 medium-sized baking potato per person;

n + ((n/2)-1) crushed (but not mashed) garlic cloves per person, to a maximum of n=8, where n is the number of people you're making it for - so if it's just yourself, use 1 garlic clove, but if there are two of you use two, and if there are three of you use 3.5, and if there are four of you use five, and so on, but I wouldn't ever use more than eight cloves;

c. 300ml of double cream - you will need more if cooking for more than two people;

a sprig of thyme;

a bay leaf;

a handful of grated mature cheese - Gruyere is traditional but I used a mixture of Red Leicester and Parmesan last night, thereby making this Potato Dolphin.

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly. The traditional thing is to slice them about a 1/4-inch thick, but last night I used my beloved mandoline slicer and got wafer-thin slices to see what would happen.

2. Place the potatoes, cream, garlic and herbs in a saucepan, season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and heat the cream until boiling. Turn down the heat and simmer for ten minutes.

3. While the potatoes are cooking, rub the interior of a baking dish with half a cut garlic clove and then smear it with butter.

4. When the potato has been simmering for ten minutes, fish out the garlic and herbs and throw them away. You don't want to be eating big chunks of garlic and sprigs of thyme. Next, pour the potatoes and cream from the saucepan into the baking dish, grate the cheese over the top (or scatter it over the top if you already grated it) and bake for forty minutes.

5. When it's tender and the cheese has formed a nice brown crust on the top, take it out and let it sit for ten minutes. This is essential! Why? Because otherwise it will be a.) volcanically hot and b.) too runny. You want it to congeal slightly and settle down before serving it. Or rather trying to serve it, because it will ooze.

6. Cut in portions like a creamy potato-based lasagna and serve with grilled or roast lamb - or steak, if you're really not worried about your arteries. This dish is crying out for browned, rare meat and winey juices.

This was my most successful dauphinoise ever. Not because of my years of experience and innate genius, but because the potatoes were sliced so thin. Sometimes my dauphinoises are heavy and starchy, but in this one the potato was almost but not quite melting into the sauce. Big thanks to my friend Niall Markey, chef-turned-farmer, who gave me the mandoline in the first place in an act of unprompted generosity. (Niall also makes the best pizzas I have ever eaten.)

I am not a huge fan of potato. I was brought up on boiled potatoes as a kid and if there's one process a potato shouldn't have to undergo, it's being peeled and boiled in water, and then served up just as it is, as if it were fit to eat. I don't like mash. I can more or less do without chips, unless I'm having either steak & frites or moules & frites. Apart from dauphinoise, which is a rare and guilty pleasure, I only love potatoes two ways: roasted and fried. The point of a potato, for me, is not the boring fluffy white stuff but the crisp golden crust surrounding the fluffy white stuff. There's a fair amount of work entailed in getting a potato to that state (peeling, pre-boiling, draining, cooking in hot fat) and so I can seldom be bothered to, thankfully for my cholesterol levels.

The single worst thing I have ever been served in a restaurant was a 'baked potato' in a place in Ballinasloe, undoubtedly one of the worst towns in Ireland (although it did have a surprisingly brilliant secondhand bookshop in which I scored an ultra-rare copy of Richard Farina's uncollected writings for 35p); when the baked potato finally appeared, it turned out that they'd peeled it, wrapped it in foil and heated it in the oven. That was the sum total of what they did to it. Because of course, there's a whole bunch of classic French recipes for potatoes that seldom if ever get tried, such as pommes fondant (olive-shaped bits of potatoes fried lightly then cooked in stock until the stock boils away and glazes the spud), potato croquettes (potato puree enriched with egg, formed into clumps, rolled in egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried - hell yeah, I'm doing that one of these days), potatoes boulangéres, which my dad used to make: slice potatoes and onions thinly, alternate layers of them in a well-buttered baking dish, cover with stock and bake until they can be cut with a spoon. (The best way to do them is to place your meat on top, so that the meat juices run into the potato-onion mixture. My dad used to use chicken portions but lamb is also good.)

I hardly ever eat potato dauphinoise. I think the first time I ever ate it was in Pierre Levicky's much missed bargain bistro Chez Jules, in Dublin in the mid-90s. It used to be possible to go to Chez Jules and order a steak, potato dauphinoise and a bottle of wine on a student's budget. I think he did it by having very few things on the menu and using cheaper and more interesting cuts of steak than the usual sirloin and fillet, because Chez Jules was almost certainly the first place I ever tasted ribeye. The kitchen was semi-open and there was a constant sense of things exploding into huge bursts of flame as the chefs tossed glugs of wine into hot sauté pans. I had many memorable meals there, or maybe it was just a very few extremely memorable ones. The Chez Jules project died in Dublin because the Irish went straight from not having much of a taste for food to having a need to be seen to be spending a lot of money on it, and so a great but inexpensive idea like Levicky's became a place that Dubliners thought was beneath them, and we ended up with shitty rip-off joints like Cafe Soho (formerly the utterly contemptible Cornerhouse, if I remember its accursed name correctly). Levicky is back now, at least in my new town, and he has the same menu as before. Good man.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fast food in the home #2: hardcore chicken

So my last post was nobly vegetarian. This one isn't. This is a love letter to some of my favourite and most hardcore ingredients: chicken innards.

Most of us who eat meat at all have eaten doner or shawarma, that uncopyable kebab house dish for which you have to acquire a tower of spiced meat and an upright rotisserie grill, and in fact you may as well not bother because you can't fit those things into your kitchen. I am very fond of gyros, pronounced more or less like gear-oss, which is the Greek version. In northern Greece, at any rate, this is as likely to be made from pork than from lamb, and it will generally consist of shreds of grilled meat that's been cooked on the usual giant vertical rotating skewer, then sliced off and dumped in a thick piece of Greek pita bread which likely as not has been dunked in hot oil (it's a heart attack in a paper envelope) and garnished with a few chips, some sliced red onion and squirts of mustard and ketchup. Is it nutritious? Not especially. Is it tasty? Hell yeah. The best I know is from a cafe in Salonika the name of which escapes me, but my favourite gyros place is a tiny one-room outlet on the seafront of a small seaside town in northern Greece. It's called 'Spiros Gyros'. Spiros is the owner. Yes, it rhymes.

My favourite cookbook of all time is probably Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, not because I cook from it all the time (I don't) but because it's just such a great read, and this is one recipe that she actually doesn't give in it. This is Mo'arav Yerushalmi (the exact spelling depends on how you transliterate Hebrew into English), aka Jerusalem Mix, and it supposedly originated with the mixed grill that the British forces brought to Palestine during the mandate period (1922-1948). Roden describes it as being cooked on metal grills round the back of Jerusalem bus station. If that doesn't get your taste buds throbbing, you have no soul.

There are as many recipes for Jerusalem Mix as there are for a classic fried breakfast. In the case of the fry-up, much depends on whether you use back bacon or streaky bacon, and whether you allow such things as potato farls or black & white pudding. In the case of Jerusalem Mix, it's all about the spices. I only found one recipe for it, which is this one, and I've adapted it slightly to fit the ingredients that were available to me. It's cheap, it's filling and it's a unique flavour clash which is all about conflicting flavours and textures coming together in each mouthful. It's about raw and fresh salad meeting deliciously chewy but succulent and spicy chicken which in turn bounces off the sharp, sour relish. Yes, like sabich, it's just a goddamn culinary metaphor for the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. It's one of my favourite dishes, and since there's very little added fat and that's olive oil, it's not even all that bad for you. You could adapt it into a salad by simply leaving out the bread and tossing the chicken with the salad. But most of all, it's about the pleasure of feasting on bits of the chicken that you don't normally eat.

You will need:

pita bread (at least 1 per person)

slightly more of the following than you think you will be able to eat:

chicken thigh meat, cubed - count on at least one thigh per person because the meat shrinks amazingly during the cooking process;

chicken hearts, liver and gizzards; again, get more than you think you'll need, because they'll shrink during the cooking. Chicken liver should be cut up into large chunks and all greenish bits removed and thrown away (they're bitter). Chicken hearts should be halved lengthways and rinsed to remove any blood. (It's not bad for you, it's just a bit grisly-looking.) Chicken gizzards - cut off the thin greyish flaps and keep the big chunky bits. The other bits aren't inedible, they're just alarmingly tough. It's the gizzards that really separate the sheep from the goats, when it comes to eating this meal.

Baharat spices. I have been using Bart's Baharat mix: "baharat" is just a generic name for an Arabic spice mix, which in Bart's case is comprised of paprika, coriander, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves and nutmeg. Now that I read the list of ingredients, I realise that I could make this up myself; the Bart's mix is fine, but like all spice mixes, you'll probably get better, stronger, fresher results making it fresh, plus you can fine tune the flavours. I also throw in a good pinch of sumac at the end.

Radishes, topped, tailed and sliced

Cherry tomatoes, diced

A few white onions, sliced

A big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

A good handful of mint leaves, chopped

Red wine vinegar

A clove of garlic, thinly sliced

Olive oil

Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

Mango pickle - see my note on this in the previous post.

1. First, you may as well toast your pita bread now (I put it in the toaster, because...well, I just do.)

2. Next, fry your onion in a little olive oil over a moderate heat until it's soft, golden and caramelising. Don't let it burn. Resist the temptation to season it. You need this onion to be plain, because it acts as an emollient and sweetener in the final sandwich and brings the other ingredients together as a kind of neutral negotiating partner; without it, the chicken and the salad will walk away from the table. If your onion is perfectly cooked but you haven't started the chicken, don't worry, just reserve it. We'll have a chance to reheat it later.

3. When the onion is going nicely, make a salad of the chopped radish, parsley, mint, garlic, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil. Put this in a little bowl. This is what will give the finished thing freshness, sharpness and vitality.

4. Next, fry your chicken. Heat olive oil in a pan and when it's really hot, throw in your chicken thigh meat and innards. Let them colour and then throw in a generous spoonful of your spice mixture. Let it brown and enjoy the delicious aroma. Next, throw in a glassful of white wine, or water, or a mixture of the two. It should boil almost immediately, and make sure you scrape up the brown goo on the bottom of your pan. This liquor will cook the chicken further and differently from the frying. Let it go on cooking until all the liquor has evaporated, and I mean all of it. You want to first fry the chicken, then boil it, then go back to frying it again. The result of this process is that the chicken will acquire a rich brown crust. Taste it - it should be spicy and chewy but also tender.

5. When the chicken is ready, that's a good time to just toss your already fried onions into the pan for a minute or so, not to cook anymore, just to warm up. Of course, if you are a cook of skill, you'll have timed it so that the chicken and the onions are ready at the same time.

To assemble the dish, take a toasted pita, split it and line the bottom with salad and fried onions. Next, fill it with as much chicken as it can take - it should be full to bursting - and then add some mango pickle on the top. Serve with very cold beer and also napkins, because it will leak oily, orange, fenugreek-flavoured juice as soon as you bite into it. Yes, I know that that thing on the right looks like a really nasty part of the chicken, but it isn't, it's a chicken heart. (Trivia fact: I always thought that the pope's nose was the chicken's ass, but it isn't; it turns out to be the base of the chicken's tail. So, adjacent to the ass, anyway.) Mop up the juice with any remaining pita. Argue. Denounce. Hug.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fast food in the home #1: Sabich

I love making facsimiles of street food more than I like eating the real thing. Those who remember the CJD panic of the 1990s will recall the stories about how eating hamburgers served from little carts will turn your brain to fondue, and I don't know about you, but the whole thing caused me to come to one particular conclusion and to behave in one particular way. The conclusion I came to, which was rigorously founded on a basis of no evidence whatever, was that the government had probably tightened up safety standards on the production of hamburger meat (75% less death-dealing prions by volume!). The pattern of behaviour I adopted, which would seem to be at odds with my conclusion, was that I have never, ever eaten a hamburger from a street vendor. I had never eaten one before CJD came along, but the CJD scare caused me to decide not to as a general rule of life, just as at some point back there I decided that I was never going to become a Mormon. Just because street vendor hamburgers might conceivably be a tiny bit safer now, or at any rate those who make them might conceivably face stiffer penalties for delivering bad ones, that's still no reason to eat one. Unless the vendor can produce, like, a signed letter from the Minister for Health confirming that the burgers are prion-free. Then at least my legal guardians will know who to sue when I'm on a ventilator.

But there are other kinds of street food than hamburgers. I am a big fan of pretty much anything that gets served in pita bread, for example. This is the bit where I should start talking about great fast food I have eaten from around the world, but unfortunately I haven't been all over the world. However, I know some well-travelled people, including my friend Peter Crawley, who is a theatre reviewer for the Irish Times, God help him. Apart from being very intelligent and an all-round good bloke, one of the fine things about Peter is that he once called Chris de Burgh a talentless git, and in return for thus speaking the truth to power he earned the mono-browed one's undying hatred. Peter went to Israel a while ago and came back raving about sabich, a vegetarian fast food. I am normally wary of anything that involves aubergine, but Peter was so eloquent that I asked him to recap his experience for us. Here he goes:

"I'd arrived for a cultural press trip in Israel late at night, and boarded a cheap shuttle bus for Ben Yehuda Street, where I was staying in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, it deposited me in Ben Yehuda street in Haifa, about 100 km away.

Still, I did get to build up an appetite touring through a few ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods en route, where small boys in black suits played with iPods in the blazing sun and street posters depicted Barack Obama as a new Yasser Arafat, smiling beneath a superimposed keffiyeh.

I was famished by the time I got to Tel Aviv, an expensive taxi ride later. The hotel receptionist sent me downtown to a network of narrow streets where she told me "Israelis go to eat" and I was advised to get some shawarma - a kebab, basically. By the time I got there that stall was long closed and the only option was the sabich vendor who didn't seem to keep any sort of reasonable hours.

I had no idea what sabich was, to be honest, and the place could have looked a whole lot cleaner. But even at that hour it seemed popular and I have an instinctive admiration for any name that lends itself to weak puns and that practically needs to be hissed if it's pronounced correctly.

I got a sales pitch from a fast-talking Israeli-Arab, nonetheless, who loaded up a pitta bread with mysterious squidgy contents from a simmering pot (which I presumed was potato) and then layered it with hummus, harif, cucumber and tomato salad. He paused dramatically over a trough full of a viscous orange-coloured sauce. "Do you want amba?" he asked. "Ok," I said. "Are you sure? You'll get sweats in the night. You'll wake up wanting more." "Um, alright?" I said.

The first bite felt like a conspiracy of mush, loosely held together in the floury pitta, full of new flavours. It filled the mouth, soft and tender. You had to eat slowly. It demanded to be savoured. It was everything I needed when I needed it and I knew too that the satisfaction it brought was also probably unrepeatable - I'd never be as hungry, or as relieved to have arrived somewhere safely, or have been as adventurous given more familiar options.

Thank you Peter. The cheque is in the post. My own recipe is adapted from one I found on the most excellent blog of Michael Natkin, and I chose it because it doesn't involve potatoes, a vegetable I had too much of as a kid and now actively avoid.

You will need (for four people):

A packet of good pita bread - the pita you get in Asian shops tends to be bigger and cheaper than the stuff you get in supermarkets, although it can sometimes disintegrate on you.

2-3 large aubergines, peeled and cut into slices about 1 cm thick

Four hard-boiled eggs, quartered. (for perfect hard-boiled eggs without grey yolk, place eggs in cold water, bring to boil, boil for minute, turn off heat, leave for ten minutes and cool under the tap). If you want to make vegan sabich, leave out the eggs.

Good hummus, either shop-bought or your own

Tahina (optional)

2 red onions, sliced

1 cucumber, peeled and finely diced

Plenty of cherry tomatoes
, finely diced

Some topped, tailed and sliced radishes (optional

The chopped leaves of about five sprigs each of flat-leaf parsley and mint

Mango pickle. Not mango chutney, which is usually sweet, mild and jam-like, but mango pickle, which is sour, hot and fenugreeky - the Israeli product, amba, is apparently a puree, but the only kind I can get is Indian or Pakistani and has chunks of mango in it, but the spicing and general effect is the same. It should be a bright orange colour.

Red wine vinegar

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast and split your pita in advance, because if you try and assemble this with freshly toasted pita you'll drop it.

2. Make a salad with the onion, cucumber, tomato, parsley and mint. Wait until the last minute to dress it, so it doesn't wilt.

3. Sauté the aubergine slices a few at a time in olive oil, until they're nicely browned. The aubergine will first absorb all the oil, but as it cooks it will give up the struggle and the olive oil will ooze out of it again. You can keep the slices warm in a warm oven (50C) if you like.

4. Serve dressed salad, pita, hummus, tahina, eggs, fried aubergines and pickle in bowls and let everyone assemble a mighty sandwich.

5. Eat, accompanied by ice cold beer, preferably at the end of a long journey.

This meal, as Peter says, is the source of many rivalling recipes and theories and claims: 'I never thought conflict in the Middle East would spill into a very filling sandwich.' For the record, he didn't get night sweats and neither will you, probably. But you will want more.

Before I finish: the tomatoes in this particular sabich were outstanding, and came from J & M Craig. I bought them at the Edinburgh farmer's market. Best tomatoes I've had this side of the Mediterranean; eating them, you were reminded that tomatoes are actually a fruit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Plans and Cakes

Today's entry is largely a chronicle of failure.

I am aware that I probably eat too much meat, and in an attempt to do something about this, I've instituted the meat-free Wednesday rule: whatever we eat on a Wednesday can't have any meat in it, although that doesn't mean that it has to be vegan or even strictly vegetarian. Fish is okay, although it's slightly a cop-out. Since tonight I was only going to be cooking for myself, the Tortemeisterin having made other plans, I had decided last night that I would go old-school vegetarian and make falafel in pita with hummus. From scratch, too.

So last night I put some dried broad beans and chickpeas in to soak. Why broad beans? I hear you ask. Because Claudia Roden, who is my goddess in the matter of Middle Eastern finger food, advises in the Book of Jewish Food that the best falafel are made not with chickpeas but with soaked, dried broad beans. Fair enough, you ask, but in that case, why chickpeas as well? Because I wanted to be able to compare the two.

The first thing I did to make things difficult for myself later on was to put them both to soak in the same bowl. Why was this a stupid idea? Because if, later on, I wanted to make two different kinds of falafel, I was going to have to unpick the broad beans from the chickpeas, which would take time and therefore put my eventual eating time even further back.
The next thing I did to make things difficult for myself was go out in the middle of the day to have a coffee in the Elephant House and then go to the library to do a bit of preliminary swotting for my Greek class that starts in October, but then not do a proper shop on the way home. The result was that by the time the fussy one had been put to bed and I was good to go with making falafel, it was 8.20PM and I realised that I had no hummus, flat-leaf parsley or spring onions. This meant that a trip to Scotmid was in order. It was at this point that the Tortemeisterin asked a superficially shallow and cynical but actually, as it would turn out, very important, complex and difficult question, which was this:

'Why bother?'

'Because,' I replied with what I imagined was rocklike integrity, 'I've started making it so I'm gonna finish.' This was, in many respects, quite untrue. I had only got as far as soaking the pulses and buying pita bread. I had originally planned to make hummus too, from scratch, but as the evening had worn on it had become pretty obvious that there wouldn't be much hope of cooking chickpeas, cooling them sufficiently and blending them with my ample supplies of tahini in time to have usable hummus by 10pm or so. So, for the hummus, I was going to get some in Scotmid.

But already, the falafel-making plan was becoming perhaps fatally compromised. I took the rubbish out and made my way downstairs, fully intending to pillage Scotmid for all the hummus, flat-leaf parsley and spring onions they had. But I was barely out the door, carrying a bag of rubbish down the road in the cool blue autumn twilight, before I realised that there would be very little chance that Scotmid was going to have any flat-leaf parsley at this time of the evening. Their fresh herb supplies are erratic at the best of times and it's not unusual for even the herbs they have to be black and slimy before you've even bought them. If I had really wanted flat-leaf parsley, I should have gone to the greengrocer on Home Street, who sells the stuff in fat, verdant bunches but who closes at 7pm.

Okay, I told myself. This whole plan rests on whether or not Scotmid has flat-leaf parsley. You can't make falafel without flat-leaf parsley. It is an integral part of the whole thing. If they don't have it, it's plan B, whatever plan B is.

I arrived at Scotmid, picked up a basket and headed for the fresh herbs. And I looked, and I saw that it was in one way bad, because they didn't have flat-leaf parsley but only mint, coriander (my least favourite leaf in the universe) and basil, but in another way good, because it meant that I was no longer obliged to make falafel this evening, and therefore stood a reasonable chance of eating some time before 10.30pm. And when I did finally get to eat something, it wouldn't be bloody falafel, which I like, but which shouldn't be anything like this much trouble.

Which is why I bought a few beers, came home and ordered a Neptune pizza from Italian Connection in Bruntsfield. It has fish in it, so the no-meat rule is observed. The moral of this story? Darwin was right. Those individual members of a given species that adapt best to changing circumstances ensure the survival of the species as a whole.

The day wasn't totally wasted, culinarily speaking. Earlier on, I had been attracted by a big packet of raw peanuts in Sainsbury's that said 'perfect for home roasting'. I bought a packet, came home and roasted some (20 minutes on a baking tray at 200C, or 180C in our case cause we have a fan oven). The results were crunchy, complex and delicious and quite unlike the rather flubby taste and texture of a raw peanut. See the pictures for comparison. In both cases, the peanuts on the left are raw, the ones on the right are roasted.

It has come to my attention that I have been referring to the Tortemeisterin's prowess at cake-making but haven't posted any evidence of it. Here it is. On how and why she made these particular cakes, she refuses to go into any detail other than that they were kid's parties and "It's amazing what you can find on YouTube."

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I had to get the fussy one out of the way because the Cake Mistress was preparing a birthday cake for the child's best friend, little Evie (happy birthday Evie). The cake deserves a post of its own, which will happen shortly.

So I took the fussy one to the movies instead, where we watched Toy Story 3 in 3D. Now, for me, a movie experience is incomplete unless it involves popcorn. The only exceptions are when I'm going to see a movie in either the Cameo or the Dominion, in both of which cinemas you can bring beer. But basically, for me, going to the cinema is an excuse to eat huge amounts of popcorn. I get bored in the cinema. (I actually dozed off during "Misery".) The only thing that can keep me awake is a gigantic amount of popcorn. Popcorn is of course mostly air, so that's one good reason for eating it. Another is that it's fairly high in fibre. According to this website that I found, 1 cup of popcorn contains 1 gram of dietary fibre, whereas 1 cup of cooked chickpeas contains 12 grams of fibre. That may make popcorn seem relatively low in fibre, but 1 cup of cooked popcorn is very much less than the average portion because popcorn has a very high volume indeed in relation to its mass, whereas 1 cup of chickpeas represents about as many chickpeas as the average person is liable to consume during the course of one meal that involves chickpeas (unless he or she is having falafel with hummus, in which case you'll be having even more).

I've just read back that last sentence to myself and a part of my brain has gone 'What?!' Let me go through it again.

Anyone who has ever cooked popcorn is aware that it starts with you introducing a relatively small amount of popcorn kernels into your cooking device (in my case, a great big saucepan with a thin film of oil and a little butter at the bottom). These kernels will usually form a layer one kernel deep. My guesstimate is that this represents the amount of kernels you would get off about 1.5-2 corncobs. That's not very much food, and it's low-fat to begin with. When you cook popcorn, what happens is that the moisture inside the kernels heats, boils and explodes the kernels into large, fluffy, crunchy fragments. When you open the saucepan, it's suddenly half-full of delicious popcorn that only needs a skilful pinch or two of salt to become a perfect movietime snack. When you decant all that popcorn into a bowl, you can see that that small initial handful of kernels - which represents all the food that you are actually eating - has become an enormous volume of popcorn. If you tried to eat the same volume of, say, chickpeas, you wouldn't get very far because chickpeas, compared to cooked popcorn, are many times heavier and denser. But, mass for mass, they have quite similar fibre contents. So eating a huge bowl of popcorn will deliver you about as much fibre as eating a side order of chickpeas. See? (The rest of the mass in chickpeas consists mostly of things like carbs, protein and fat.)

Fortunately, it's not just one website advising us to eat popcorn. The high-fibre nature of popcorn is also pointed out here. Both of these sites share an American assumption that we're eating air-cooked popcorn with neither fat nor salt, but I for my part am assuming that you, being a sensible person, do not eat high-fat, high-salt snacks all day and so a little butter and salt won't hurt you. Not great slathers of melted butter poured over it - just the use of butter as part of the initial cooking medium, and a couple of pinches of Maldon salt to wake it up at the end.

The art in cooking popcorn lies in making sure that all the kernels pop, and I am still working on this. If the heat is too high, you will burn the corn. If it's too low, you will be left with an annoying quantity of unpopped corn. Like cooking a steak, cooking popcorn is something that you only get good at from much practice. If you think that getting a home popcorn machine will help, apparently it doesn't.

Historical gobbet: popcorn, although well-known to native Americans, only achieved mass popularity during the Great Depression, when it became a popular food in cinemas because it was cheap, and also because of Charles Cretors' invention of the commercial popcorn machine. To this day, Cretors are major players in the commercial popcorn machine industry.

I bought my popcorn in Brougham Street's fine Real Foods, where I think they have some kind of hiring policy that you can't work there if you don't have a piercing. They also recycle plastic bags, which is cool. I ate most of the popcorn myself because the fussy one turned it down, until the penultimate reel, when she started asking for it. I was forced to hand-feed her the remaining bits. The movie was great. I almost cried. 3D, however, is a crock. I was impressed for about five minutes and then stopped noticing it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Spag Bol: a critique

Tonight I will be cooking spag bol. Actually it'll be fus(illi) bol, because the kid finds spaghetti hard to handle. Those who want to skip the philosophical investigations can go straight to the recipe.

I have been making spaghetti bolognese almost as long as I have been cooking. It's the great student standby, the thing you whip up (along with metres of garlic bread) when you're young and you want to have a party that involves everyone getting defragmented on wine instead of beer. I don't know what your recipe is, but here is the one that I learned and subsequently made for years, and I bet yours is not dissimilar:

Primordial Spag Bol
Chop an onion and 1-3 cloves of garlic (quantity of garlic depending on how close the friends are that you're cooking for). Fry onions and garlic in olive oil. Add lots of beef mince. Cook until mince not pink. Maybe add some red wine at this point. Add tins of chopped tomatoes and - if you're being really posh - maybe some kind of dried herb, like oregano. Cook for about an hour. Taste and season with salt and lots of black pepper. Serve with spaghetti and that grated cheese that comes in a little drum, with lots of red wine.

Okay, maybe nowadays we aren't buying so much as we used to of that weird dried-out cheese powder that comes in a plastic drum and smells of navels. Perhaps the youth are going so far as to buy real parmesan (or grated parmesan) in a plastic packet. But that's it.

And then, and then, my friends, as we go into our twenties, we start to buy Italian cookbooks, and we discover, perhaps to our embarrassment, that the spag bol we've been cooking all these years bears as much relationship to an authentic Bolognese dish of pasta with ragu as doing well in a session of Guitar Hero bears to being awarded the Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance. And we are discomfited, oh dear me yes.

So we start looking for the perfect ragu recipe. We experiment with cooking the meat first in milk, because Marcella Hazan told us to. We try incorporating such things as nutmeg, sage, ham, pancetta and chicken livers (not necessarily all at the same time). We buy braising steak and chop it finely instead of using mince, because Angela Hartnett (whose mum is Italian) says it's more authentic. We cook it for five hours instead of one. We use any kind of pasta other than spaghetti, because in Bologna they never serve this sauce with spaghetti. We do all sorts of things in the name of cooking a real Italian ragu, instead of that scarlet, peppery, garlic-spiked sludge that we've been eating for years. It could even be that, in the end, we manage to make something that actually resembles, however slightly a true, authentic Bolognese ragu.

I have a question. Why?

What was so wrong with the original dish? Maybe we could have civilised it a bit, using fresh basil and simmering for a bit longer than an hour (because, to tell the truth, it does actually take quite a long time for a sauce like this to calm down and stop tasting of all its constituent parts) but why were we kidding ourselves - why were we letting Delia 'How to Cheat at Cooking' Smith, of all people, kid us - that we could ever make the "real thing"? What were we looking for? The answers are not very difficult to figure out, but one thing is certain; most of them have nothing to do with food.

When I use the word 'we' in this article, unlike most writers who use the first person plural I include myself. I have dicked around endlessly with my bolognese sauce, and it was only a few years ago that, faced with the prospect of cooking a largish meal for a bunch of non-vegetarian and non-fussy people that had to be done on a budget, I resorted to making an old-school student-style Spag Bol. I used good parmesan and bought fresh basil and San Marzano canned tomatoes, and maybe I used some finely chopped carrot and celery as well as the onion, but basically it wasn't a million miles away from the concoction I used to help whip up in my first girlfriend's flat in Stoneybatter in the early 1990s. The result was a lot more satisfying than any of the supposedly authentic ragus I'd cooked up, for one very good reason: we who ate that particular meal knew how it was supposed to taste, and so we were fondly reminded of previous times we'd eaten it, and we were not disappointed or distracted by (to us) alien ingredients such as milk, pancetta or veal. It was a moment of genuine communion, and not - as the professional cookery writers want it to be - an occasion for culinary one-upmanship over whose sauce was more authentic.

So I offer this advice to you who worry about your Spag Bol, and think it needs to be upgraded: why do you want to eat this dish? Think back to what, exactly, you want from it. In Italy, and to be precise in Bologna, it means one thing. To us, who learned a bastardised version, it means something else, and the bastardised Spag Bol is our authentic ground-meat-and-tomato sauce for pasta, not the 'true' Bolognese ragu, that we will almost certainly never taste unless we actually travel to Italy, and maybe not even then.

Okay. Here, finally, is the recipe or tonight's Spag Bol, which because the child was joining us, had hidden vegetables that gave it a certain extra dimension.

Spag Bol with Hidden Vegetables

1 finely chopped medium onion

3 chopped garlic cloves

1 small dried chili pepper

2 carrots, finely chopped or blitzed into fragments in a Moulinex

1 red pepper, ditto

7-8 regular (white or chestnut, not flat or portobello) mushrooms, cleaned and ditto

750g beef mince

tomato puree

Glass of red/white wine (red is richer, white is fresher)

vegetable stock

1 can/packet of chopped tomatoes


2 bay leaves

pasta of your choice - use whatever you like, but dried pasta is definitely the way to go because this sauce will overpower fresh pasta

parmesan cheese, freshly grated

sea salt & black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Using a heavy saute pan or heavy-based saucepan, fry the onion, garlic and chili pepper in the oil till softened. Add the carrot and pepper and fry some more until softened. Take it all out and leave it in a bowl for now.

Add more oil to the pan and then the mushrooms, and fry until they stop exuding juice and are starting to brown. Remove them.

Add more oil, not too much, and add the meat, frying it in batches until it stops simmering in its own juice and has started to sizzle in its own fat. Reserve all the mince as you go. When the last batch of mince is browning nicely, throw in a good glug of tomato puree and mix it in well. Then add the wine and let it bubble and reduce by half.

Then add all the other meat and vegetables and mix well. Add plenty of oregano and season. Taste it. It should taste pretty good already.

Add the chopped tomatoes and vegetable stock to loosen it up. Stir well, add 2 bay leaves, bring to a simmer and let it simmer gently for at least three hours, though five would be even better.

After all that time, it should no longer taste of its constituent ingredients but of a deep, rich, meaty, tomatoey sauce. If it seems a little salty, add a spoonful of sugar. If it seems a little bland, add a dash (but no more) of red wine vinegar.

Serve with cooked pasta, freshly grated parmesan and torn basil leaves, and preferably a big bottle of cheap Italian wine. (If you're really not worried about the fat and carbs content, then you should by all means make and eat lots of garlic bread while you're waiting for the sauce to be ready. This in turn can help soak up the wine. It's been a long time since I tucked into garlic bread with anything like my old relish, basically because I want go on weighing 11 and a half stone.)

This is not ragu, which by most accounts is rich but also subtle and gentle - I've never been to Italy and have never had the real thing in a restaurant. I have nothing against it. I'm sure it's yummy, and one day I hope to eat it. But this is something else, something loud, vulgar, garish, garlicky and a second-generation immigrant: This Is Spag Bol. Up yours, Delia.

Binky's Notes 1: Wrong expectations (NSFW!)

I read this review of one of my favourite restaurants and it annoyed me so much, I wanted to say something about it. But because I want this blog to be what is now known as 'family-friendly' but used to be referred to as 'polite', I can't talk about this review in a manner appropriate to the blog. My evil twin, Binky, can, however. This is the first in an irregular series of Binky Notes, in which he will bring his unique verbal style and perspective to the problem of Food Mistakes. I should point out that Binky's Notes are not suitable for reading at work, or for the under-18s. Take it away, Binky.

We'll be returning to the wuss and his mealy-mouthed banalities in just a moment, but first it's time to say something about Robert et Louise. This is a small restaurant in the Marais district of Paris that specialises in what you might call meat & potatoes. In fact I will call it that, because that's basically all they serve. The house speciality is coté de boeuf, which is a single monster rib of beef grilled over charcoal and served with fried potatoes and salad; one of these motherfuckers will feed two people easily, and they do a three-person one just in case. I have never had such a simple and satisfying bistro meal in my life. These guys know how to cook a steak, and unless you're going for the boudin noir (which is similarly excellent), just don't fucking bother to go to Robert et Louise, because they've probably been serving this stuff for about fifty years and aren't about to change now.

Which brings me to this anonymous Belgian tourist who's been posting so-called 'reviews' of the place on the internet lately. This person, who goes by various names although it's clearly the same ignorant fuck in both French and English, is living proof that the customer is not always right, as I will demonstrate using simple logic. Here is 'MarilenaR4236''s English-language review:

"My biggest problem - beyond the bad food and service - is that this is the absolute tourist trap but pretends not to be one. The meat they throw on the grill is absolutely tasteless which makes me think that they don’t prepare it in any way before 'cooking' it. When it came at our table it was already cold and served with a salad and potatoes that lack any kind of imagination. A big no to this restaurant!"

I don't know what this skank's problem with the service was, but I can only assume that the customer had a bad attitude, because I've seen the R et L waiters deal with drunk students and pompous Welsh conference attendees with equal charm; perhaps Marilena was just too fucking Belgian to be tolerated. Next, how does she know that the meat is tasteless when it's thrown on the grill? Did she sneak into the walk-in fridge and lick it? Next thing: any cook dealing with a steak knows that it has to sit for a few minutes after it comes off the heat, or else it'll collapse, leak all its juice and dry up the minute you cut into it. (This goes for any piece of grilled meat, btw - anybody who insists that a steak be served piping hot from the grill needs to see a specialist about that talking-through-the-arsehole problem.)

My biggest problem - beyond the fucking ignorance and bad manners - is that this reviewer is complaining that a restaurant didn't offer something that it isn't trying to offer. You don't go to a place like Robert et Louise to sample freeze-dried mushroom juice with parmesan breath. It is not about reinventing things. It is about carrying on a tradition. That takes humility and dedication. If every restaurant were like this it would be boring, but if every restaurant were like the Fat Duck, or that Spanish guy's place I forget the name of, where you can't get a reservation until 5 billion years from now by which time the sun will be in its red giant phase and as a result bruléeing your créme spontaneously - if most places were like that, it would be unbearable. Most places need to be more like Robert et Louise, doing simple food exceptionally well, but cooks tend to be like writers, having more ambition and more half-baked ideas than their talents are able to control. Never again will I put up with being expected to consume a shotglass of something that looks like it was extracted from a wolfhound by means of manual stimulation of the prostate.

So, Marilena, take your pretentious obsession with innovation and park it somewhere that gives a shit, because you went into the wrong place - as you would have realised if you'd bothered to do even minimal research. But never mind, there's justice in the world. You may be a twat, but at least you have the misfortune to live in Belgium.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cheap food transformed: breast of lamb St Ménéhould

There are two main types of regional cuisine, those that are food-driven and those that are cook-driven. Food-driven cuisines use fresh, seasonal ingredients and do very little to them, and they're found in two places: 1.) areas where the people farm and grow their own food and so know exactly where the ingredients come from and what went into the making of them, and 2.) large, rich cities in historically affluent countries where the inhabitants can afford to pay through the nose for fresh ingredients sourced somewhere else and flown to the city at enormous expense. The classic example of a food-driven cuisine is the food of southern Italy. Only southern Italian peasants and rich city-dwellers in the rest of the world can afford to eat it. Food-driven cuisines tend to attract food snobs, because they're about obtaining and showing off ingredients that nobody else can get (this particular kind of tomato, that exact truffle, the other strain of hand-reared beef.)

Cook-driven cuisines, on the other hand, are the products of deprivation, imagination and enterprise, and they're found in many different places in the world. The peasant cookery of France is largely cook-driven, because French agriculture was historically based on handing over the classy cuts of meat and the best vegetables to the aristocracy for whom you were a serf, while you made do with the skanky cuts and the less palatable vegetables, and devised clever ways of making these things taste good. The historical irony is that this ingenuity-based approach turned into French haute cuisine, with its gobsmackingly complex array of stocks and sauces and garnishes, and its methods of transforming perfectly good food into extremely fancy food. But the basic idea - of learning how to treat cheap food so that it tastes expensive - is perfectly suited to where we are now.

These are the two basic approaches for those of us who don't have unlimited money; are you gonna pay more money for food that needs very little cooking, or pay less money and work a little harder to make cheap and difficult food into something delicious? Many of us have not had the choice. When I was first living in a flat on the dole, I had almost no money, could only afford the cheapest food from the most budget supermarkets (and Moore Street) and learned to cook by trial, error and two or three cookbooks. None of my cookbooks taught me the basic techniques I needed to know to turn the crappy food I could afford into something that would feed soul as well as body, but one of them - Elizabeth David's 'French Provincial Cooking' - did teach me about approaches that still inspire me today. Tonight, for the first time in ages, I cooked something out of Mrs. David's book that I'd never cooked before. It's a lesson in taking a cheap, gristly cut of meat and turning it into something memorable and delicious.

Breast of lamb St Ménéhould

I don't know who St Ménéhould was, and is less than informative, but there's a commune in NE France named after her, where the local speciality is pig's trotters. It should come as no surprise, then, that the whole point of this recipe is to treat breast of lamb like pig's trotters. It takes two days to make, so don't start it the evening you want to eat it.

You take a piece of breast of lamb. This is, or rather should be, dead cheap. I bought a piece in Sainsbury's that weighed 700g and cost £3.91. That's ridiculous.

Preheat the oven to 130C. Roughly chop a couple of carrots and a large onion. Take whatever fresh herbs you have and make a bouquet garni - I used bay leaves (which I always have) and thyme (which I bought specially, cost 90p). Cost so far of stuff I had to buy specially: £4.81. Cut a head of garlic in half; I always have heads of garlic in the fridge so no special buying here.

Make stock. I try to have M&S chicken stock on hand, but you could use decent vegetable stock. In any case, more stuff from the store cupboard.

Unroll the breast of lamb, if it isn't unrolled already. Season it well. Lay the chopped onion and carrot, the herbs and the garlic in the bottom of a roasting tin. Lay the lamb on top. Throw in a pint of stock and a glass of (preferably white) wine, so that the lamb is resting in liquor in the manner of a partially submerged iceberg. (I assume you've got wine, right?) Cover it all with foil and place in the oven for 3.5-4 hours, or until the lamb yields fairly easily to a fork. It shouldn't be falling apart, but it may well have separated into two distinct layers.

Take it out of the oven and let the lamb cool in the stock. (Why in the stock? Because if you let it cool outside the stock, it will dry out.) When it's cool enough to handle easily, wrap it in greaseproof paper and place it on a plate in the fridge with another plate on top and a weight on top of that, so that the lamb is pressed. (I used a kilo plastic pack of flour.) Leave it until the following evening.

You will need the following: a good sharp salad, e.g. rocket/watercress/spinach; eggs; breadcrumbs; Dijon mustard; the ingredients for salad dressing; a lemon; melted butter.

To finish: preheat oven to 170C. Take the meat out of the fridge and cut it into inch-wide strips. Spread each strip lightly with mustard and season. Here is this stage of the process - the cut-up lamb strips top right, the mustard below right, the egg dip left:

Dip each slice into beaten egg and then into breadcrumbs. They should look a bit like this:

Lay them all out on a grill rack. Brush them with a little melted butter. Place them, still on the grill rack, in the oven to heat up. This final stage will loosen up the lamb from its rather chewy present state, and will turn it succulent and pliable.

While it's in the oven, heat up a griddle pan until it's good and hot, and make salad dressing. Divide up salad between plates. When the lamb has been heating up for 15-20 minutes or so, take it out and put it on the griddle pan as it is - no need to add extra oil. You want to get nice charred grill marks on those breadcrumbs, so turn the lamb once, maybe twice, until it's looking really grilled. Don't let it burn, though. Then serve, with the salad and lemon wedges.

Yes, they're basically lamb goujons. The initial braising tenderises the breast of lamb and helps break down this very tough and gristly piece of meat, and also gives it flavour (you could always add more herbs to the bouquet garni- rosemary would be good). The final heating gives it succulence, the final grilling gives it crispness, and the bitter salad leaves balance the richness of the lamb. A good sharp dressing is essential. Just make sure that the initial braising leaves you with well-seasoned, flavourful lamb, and this will be a very luxurious and fairly light meal with very little outlay. The final version depicted above is actually a variant called 'Epigrammes d'agneau', which includes a stray grilled lamb cutlet just for variety's sake.

We had eggs in the fridge, and also a lemon. I always have Dijon mustard. The breadcrumbs came from some frozen burger buns that I'd thawed out overnight and blitzed into crumbs in the moulinex. Cost of lamb cutlet: £1.50, cost of salad: £1.50, so final cost of meal: £7.81.