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.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pasta with tuna, anchovies and tomatoes

This was a recipe snipped out of the Observer food monthly years ago - I forget who it's by, some famous Italian cook. Basically it's a kind of pasta puttanesca jacked up with white wine, fresh instead of canned tomatoes, and good tuna. I trot it out every so often usually at the instigation of my dear wife, who loves it. I never look forward to eating it because it combines things that I don't normally think of myself as loving (tuna, tomatoes, olives, pasta) but whenever I do eat it I'm reminded of how good it is. It's also a good meal for people who like Italian food because it's composed of things that most such people are likely to have anyway - fresh tomatoes, good tuna in olive oil, etc. I have made it with tinned chopped tomatoes and cheap canned tuna, but it's not as good because the tuna dissolves and it all just turns to sludge. It should be lumpy, this dish.

You need (for 2 people):

enough dried pasta of your choice, probably something long and stringy, i.e. spaghetti or linguini as opposed to fusilli or penne;

1 jar of good quality tuna in extra virgin olive oil, or two cans of good tuna in olive oil might do if they're not very big cans;

three cloves of garlic;

1 peperoncino (small dried chili pepper);

six anchovy fillets;

a large glass of white wine;

a double handful of smallish fresh tomatoes, washed and halved;

vegetable stock (I use Marigold stock powder);

black olives;


1 lemon;

a handful of fresh basil leaves, rinsed and torn

black pepper.

First, put your water on for your pasta. Next, open the tuna, heat a large heavy-bottomed frying pan and pour a good glug of the oil from the tuna jar into the pan - besides the fact that it's already infused with delicious tuna aromas, using the oil from the tuna jar will save you using your own precious oil. When the oil is good and hot, throw in the anchovies. They will spit oil all over your hob, your arms (if you don't step back quickly enough) and the surrounding areas. Live with it. When they are beginning to dissolve, throw in the garlic and peperoncino and quickly follow this with the tuna. Let the tuna cook for a couple of minutes, taking care not to let the garlic burn, and when the tuna is beginning to colour a little then add the wine and let it bubble, scraping up any anchovy. When the anchovy has dissolved in the wine/oil mixture, add the tomatoes to the frying pan and also add the pasta to the pasta water, assuming of course that the water's boiling by now, which it should be. So now you're cooking your pasta and your sauce simultaneously. Add as many stoned and halved black olives and as many capers as you like, being aware that too many olives and capers are a Bad Thing. The tomato halves should be softening in the sauce. Throw in a mugful of vegetable stock to add liquid to the sauce, although if you're me you just throw in a spoonful of good stock powder and a mugful of boiling water.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it well and add it to the frying pan, tossing it with the sauce so that it soaks up all the tomatoey, tuna-ey, aromatic, salty goodness. You should not need to add any salt to this dish - it's well salted already from the anchovies, the olives, the capers and the stock. If you feel the need to add salt anyway, you are clearly accustomed to too much salt in your diet and should cut down, starting right now.

When the pasta is well tossed with the sauce, serve in bowls, squeezing half a fresh lemon over each bowl and as many torn basil leaves as you like (I love fresh basil with a tomato-based pasta sauce and will usually add a fistful to my own portion). No, you don't add parmesan, it will taste weird with all the fish in this sauce. Just a good twist of freshly ground black pepper and you have a killer bowl of pasta.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the rather pretty finished dish, but this is what the sauce looks like before you add the pasta and basil. Yeah, I know it looks a bit like you're cooking tuna and tomatoes in a phlegm-based sauce, but that greenish liquor is in fact a combination of natural tomato juice, white wine, olive oil and dissolved anchovy, and is delicious. Trust me, it all looks nicer when it's tossed with pasta and basil.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Foodies and fandom

I have been told from time to time that I am a 'foodie'. This is one of those things that anyone who knows me would consider obvious, just as anyone walking into my home office would take me for a Beatle fan, because there's a big Beatles poster on the wall, some Beatles plastic figures perched on a bookshelf, another Beatles picture, two shelves of books about and by them, etc. etc.

The thing is, I don't consider myself either a foodie or a Beatle fan. I like eating good food, but I also sometimes like eating bad food. (Maybe it would be better to say that I like eating what I consider good food.) I have loved listening to the Beatles ever since I started listening to music, but I am well aware that some of their stuff is kind of awful, or at any rate shoddy. All of my Beatlesabilia, other than the books, were things that people gave me because they know I like the Beatles. (I'll try, from here on, to keep this post on the subject of food because after all, this blog is called Notes on Meals.)

A while ago I returned from holiday by myself, leaving I. and L. (wife and child) on holiday, because I had to go back to work but they didn't. I had three weeks in the flat on my own. During that period, I found it very hard to interest myself in food. Had I been a 'foodie', I imagine that I would have run wild and indulged my most extravagant and/or perverse tastes, but in fact I learned that I am chiefly interested in sharing food with other people, not so much in cooking it for myself. I like cooking a brand new dish for myself first, so as to verify that it is in fact tasty before trying it out on others, but the real fun is in witnessing other people appreciating what I've cooked. Likewise, I am fascinated by the Beatles, but I do not worship them.

Food, like music, is sometimes put together for very strange reasons, and consumed for equally strange and quite different reasons which may have nothing to do with its actual quality, savour or digestibility. The British attitude towards curry, for example, owes more to competitive sport than it does to cuisine. The Scottish attitude to food owes way too much to questions of national identity and not nearly enough to commonsensical tests of what combinations actually taste good - haggis, neaps and tatties being only the most well-known and offensively stodgiest offender.

I have a few observations to make about food snobbery and cooking-related one-upmanship, but I'll save them till later. In the meantime, I don't plan for this blog to be just about great food and how to make it (or what a great cook I am). I would like to get a conversation going about what role food plays in our lives.

Cooking Misconception #2: Chicken is a neutral ingredient good for absorbing other flavours

I write this as someone who realised late in life that we are doing something terrible to nearly all the chicken we eat.

It has to be one of the most common mcnuggets of received wisdom in cookery lore: the idea that chicken is a sort of neutral, basically flavourless protein that we can use to mop up spicier and more interesting flavours. The thing is, this is actually true of most supermarket chicken, as we can see from the hapless dweeb who asked the question on Yahoo - and most of us who buy chicken are buying it in the supermarket. But we shouldn't be.

Nearly all of us start our cooking lives using chicken as the basic protein in not very complicated recipes. I must have cooked and eaten countless plates of pasta with chicken breast in readymade pasta sauce, over the years. (Paul Newman RIP, btw - I have fond memories of his Bandito Diavolo brand chili-spiked tomato sauce in a jar.) You buy the chicken breast, you cut it up, you fry it till it turns white, and then you drench it in something red and serve it with pasta. There's nothing very nutritionally wrong with this (although you should probably be having a salad on the side) and it's cheap and filling - so far, so good. But there is so much more to chicken than these bland slices of chewable white rubber. If you want to be passionate about it, we are insulting chickens we are killing by treating them like this. Let's face it, for all the flavour and texture we are getting, we might as well eat Quorn or TVP. Even a couple of sliced white flat mushrooms would yield about as much protein, and wouldn't involve the death of a sentient (albeit not very bright) creature.

I don't know exactly how it started but it probably had something to do with my rediscovery of my mum's (delectable) roast chicken. It dawned on me that a good chicken, cooked with care, has a unique flavour and texture - delicate yet rich, succulent but also mysteriously lean, an almost winey aroma that positively seduces you into marrying it to things like white wine and mushrooms and tarragon and cream and bacon on. For a while, I was dedicatedly stuffing herbed butter under the skin of all the chickens I roasted; then I replaced that with rubbing herbed butter all over them. I stopped doing it because I don't like my chickens being riddled with foliage, but also because I learned the hard way that a simple free-range organic chicken is a miracle of natural food engineering that will almost baste itself.

Every serious cook has a perfect roast chicken recipe. I think I've found the ultimate one. It comes from Thomas Keller of the fantastically swanky French Laundry in California, but this recipe is from his more modest and usable Bouchon recipe book, which is about purifying classic bistro food. You take a chicken, not too big. You clean it thoroughly, inside and out, and then you dry it with kitchen towel. It must be as dry as possible. Then you season its interior, and then you truss it so that the legs are hugging the breast. Then you salt it well, and stick it in a really hot oven (230 C) for about 50-55 minutes. While it's cooking, chop some thyme and melt some butter. After the time is over, you take the chicken out, throw the thyme and butter into the pan juices and baste the chicken, then you let it sit for at least ten minutes to calm down. After that you simply eat it, with a green salad and a little Dijon mustard on the side.

Provided your chicken was a good one, there is something about this meal that is the ultimate tribute to chicken. No faffing about with herbed butter under the skin or anything like that; it's just chicken, skilfully amplified and set off by the freshness of the salad and the sharpness of the mustard. It's one of the greatest and simplest meals I know. After you've done this (and the only thing you really have to learn to do is truss the chicken, which is very easy) you will never be happy to slice up and fry supermarket chicken breast again. I would drink a nice light Valpolicella with this.

We should all be eating less meat, so if we are gonna eat it, it should be making us happy, not just filling us up. If there is a food out there which is good only for absorbing more interesting flavours, it's tofu. Battery chickens don't have lives, and they taste like it; it's in their as well as our interest that that particular industry closes down. If we're going to eat chicken, let's accept that an edible chicken is not cheap and that it's something that deserves to be treated with respect.


So, those of us who have roasted a piece of pork have eventually run into the problem of crackling. What you're aiming for are thin, crunchy strips of pork skin with a sticky underside, in which the skin has bubbled up at some point so that the crackling itself has an aerated and frangible texture, making it possible to eat it without the need of major dental reconstruction afterwards. Without crackling, roast pork runs the risk of being bland and unexciting. (The French typically pot-roast their pork with aromatics and vegetables and so do without crackling altogether, and although I think that the French can do very little wrong in the food line, their low opinion of the possibilities of crackling does them little credit.)

However, a lot of the time we end up with crackling that hasn't crackled. Either it's rock hard, or else it's bendy, leathery and chewy and almost impossible to eat. Why should this be? What did we do wrong? There are theories. Nigel Slater's is that the quality of the crackling depends a lot on the quality of the pig, and there's a lot to be said for this idea. Roast cheap supermarket pork and you will probably not get good crackling. For some time now, I have been scoring the skin on my own roast pork with a Stanley knife kept for that sole purpose, rather than asking the butcher to do it (my experience is that they usually score it too widely). I then rub some salt into the skin before roasting. But sometimes it doesn't make any difference, and when I bring my (moderately) expensive piece of butcher pork out of the oven and once again my crackling has gone all floppy, I want to hit Nigel Slater over the head with a copy of Appetite, because we can't all afford to buy meat from, you know, posh London butchers.

However, because I am in my modest way a man of science, I was determined to figure out in the spare moments that my pressing humanitarian duties afford me, why, in the name of Jesus, my crackling was so inconsistent. After a while I began to see a pattern.

When I roast pork I usually cook pork belly, because a.) it's still cheaper than most other cuts and b.) it's harder to get wrong. But when pork belly roasts, something happens to it; the skin shrinks, and causes the belly to flex into a vaguely concave shape, the top surface (the cracklingy bit) forming a shallow bowl. This in turn traps juices in the bowl, and crackling will not crackle when it's in any way damp. When I have cooked pork loin the outside surface is convex, and so juices run down and off the skin; the grooves between the crackling form natural drainage channels. So the crackling on my pork loin is always better than the crackling on my pork belly.

Here is the secret reason why crackling sometimes doesn't crackle; meat juices are seeping into the skin from underneath. You can partially solve this by not scoring the meat too deeply and also by making sure that any juices can run out of the meat - perhaps by cooking it on a tilt. The other thing you can do is remove the skin before cooking and cook it separately, but the only problem there is that the underside of the crackling tends to crisp up, and so you end up with a great crunchy wodge of skin and fat that lacks the delectable combination of crunchy and gooey that's part of the point of good crackling.

It so happens that the best crackling I've had lately was from a half pig's head that I'd roasted in the oven, partially submerged in a bath of stock and madeira. The skin on the pig's cheek was much thinner than the skin from loin or belly, didn't need scoring at all and broke off in crisp and juicy little pieces. From a half pig's head that cost me £1.75, I got enough skin, meat and lusciously moist neither-skin-nor-fat-nor-meat (i.e. the snout) to feed at least four people. But I don't think that pig's head will become the pork belly of tomorrow. Recession or no recession, I doubt that enough people want to get that intimate with the animal that died for their dinner.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cooking Misconceptions #1: searing meat 'seals in the juice'

This is something I didn't realise wasn't true until I read Harold McGee's classic 'On Food and Cooking'. Most of us have read cookbooks or watched videos in which a cook confidently promises us that browning a piece of meat will 'seal in the juice'. This sounds plausible, because we all know that a well-browned steak or chop has an almost crispy crust; surely that thing is somehow protecting the wonderful juices inside from escaping? Wrong, wrong, wrong, friends. That crust is partly MADE of the wonderful juices, which are being squeezed from the meat by the heat that's causing the muscle fibres to contract. As long as your food is on the fire, the heat is making it shrink, which in turn is making it squeeze itself like a sponge, and as soon as the juices inside reach the outside and encounter the hot pan, as long as the pan is hot enough the sugar in the juices will caramelise and cause the browning reaction that those of us who like that kind of thing long for. If this all sounds very carnivorous, vegetarians should consider that it also goes for vegetables; something very similar happens when the sugar in onions caramelises and gives you nicely browned fried onions, and likewise when you fry mushrooms, and I mean fry them properly, not just cook them until they sweat grey juice into the pan.

If you think about the 'sealing-in-the-juice' notion, you soon realise that it makes no sense. If browning a steak truly sealed the juices inside the meat, then if you kept on cooking the steak it would eventually explode like a gigantic piece of popcorn, because the juice inside would boil and the resulting pressure would rip the steak apart. But we all know that if you keep on cooking a steak forever, eventually it will turn into the sole of a shoe; the juices will be squeezed to the outside of the steak, where they will partly caramelise and partly evaporate, and the meat will dry up, and the steak will become (IMO) inedible.

The truth is, placing food on a very hot surface is liable to cause a browning reaction but it will not 'seal' the food in any way. The art of making sure that food stays juicy is trickier than that; for example, it's one of the reasons why meaty stews and casseroles are always tastier if you cook them the night before you eat them. Why? Because if you cook them and eat them in one go, the long cooking process will mean that the meat has been exuding its juice into the casserole all evening, and is liable to be a bit dry. If, however, you stop cooking it, let it get cold and then gently reheat it the next day, as the meat gets cold in the liquor it starts to reabsorb all the liquid that it was being cooked in, so it becomes juicy all over again, but more interestingly so (because the liquid is flavoured with the vegetables and herbs, etc. that you threw into the pot). If you then gently reheat it the next night, the meat doesn't have a chance to shrink and squeeze out all that great flavour, so it remains juicy. Isn't science wonderful? (There may also be some minor fermentation/decomposition things going on that help to enhance the flavour of a reheated casserole.)

Curiously enough, chicken seldom seems to be better for being reheated, unless you're brave/insane enough to make genuine coq au vin. One day, I will make this and report.
We had Sarah visiting, who doesn't eat meat, and although she intermittently eats salmon we'd pretty much rung all the interesting salmon-related changes we could think of, so I decided, perhaps foolishly, to cook a Gordon Ramsay recipe for mushroom torte. This involved part-baking large, whole flat mushrooms (just ten minutes in the oven) and then letting them cool while you prepare a mushroom duxelle. This turned out to be mushrooms whizzed in a blender into millions of tiny pieces and then sautéed with butter, oil, tarragon and you're supposed to add a dash of sherry or madeira, but having neither I used white wine; this is then cooked until the moisture has evaporated, leaving you with very aromatic tiny fried mushroom, into which you mix an egg yolk and some breadcrumbs. The next thing you do is make crepes. Then, you take a big mushroom, spread it with the duxelle, put another mushroom on top, spread that also with the duxelle, put another mushroom on top of that, then wrap the triple-decker mushroom sandwich in crepe, so it looks like this:

then you encase the whole crepe-wrapped mushroom sandwich in puff pastry and bake it in the oven.

Why the crepe? you ask. I thought about this and came to the conclusion that the crepe is there to absorb juices that leak out of the enormous tier of mushrooms, juices which would otherwise make your puff pastry casing soggy. It's the same principle that makes people who make beef wellington insulate the beef from the pastry with a layer of cooked mushroom. So in they went to the oven and came out looking like this:

Cutting into them revealed that they were very mushroomy indeed, as you can see.

All in all, though, they were a bit disappointing. Perhaps you need to be a better hand with puff pastry than I am, but I thought they were a bit heavy and stodgy and uninteresting, and lacked the fabulous juicy meatiness of Nigella Lawson's celebrated mushroom sandwich (a baked portobello mushroom served in a bun spread with mustard, the greatest veggie burger I know). They needed something else in there, and I kind of knew it when I was putting them together, something that would ooze out and bring the whole thing to life, like cheese perhaps. In the meantime, only I succeeded in finishing mine although Sarah and Ioanna were kind about theirs. The salad was a lot better, just a bag of salad from Sainsbury's with some Scotmid romaine lettuce leaves and sliced fennel bunged in to liven it up.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yesterday's dinner

Yesterday I was cooking not only for the Cake-Meistress, who had made excellent flapjacks if ya like that kind of thing (and although I have the opposite of a sweet tooth, I will eat her flapjacks anytime) but also our friend Pamela who is in town and rather pregnant and who therefore needs a good, well-rounded meal and no fancy-shmancy stuff. So this was the result, in some ways depressingly similar to Sunday night's meal, sure, but also tasty in quite a different way. Lamb chops were seared on the griddle and finished in the oven and served with Greek couscous (waaaaay bigger than the stuff you get in UK supermarkets) and a salad of diced cucumber and tomato with parsley and mint. It doesn't look that appetising in the picture, chiefly because Pamela had already eaten some of it. But the thing going on here is the combination of the griddled chops, the raw salad and the comforting couscous which, incidentally, is so big it can't be cooked in the normal English-speaking manner of pouring a kettle of hot water over it. Oh no. This stuff has to be cooked much like pasta - in this case, by simmering it in a saucepan of boiling water jacked up with a few spoonfuls of Marigold stock powder, one of this cook's secret weapons. Anyway, we all cleaned our plates so I think it worked.

Some friends have just got a new flat and we had to go there on Sunday evening and christen it with champagne and crisps. This meant feeding the fussy one prior to going to the flat, while we ourselves would have to eat later. Fortunately, I had been to the farmer's market the previous day and had scored the fussy one a nice piece of lemon sole, which was duly served up with a little broccoli, most of which broccoli didn't get eaten, but that's three-year-old girls for you. The Cake-Mistress and myself were supposed to be sitting down at some point to a leisurely meal of delicious roast pork belly, Sunday dinner if you get my meaning, so I put some in the oven at 6.30pm to do a long slow cook before we left for the flat-christening, but what with lingering over the champers and strolling home and getting the fussy one to bed, the idea of making roast potatoes and all that other stuff combined with the fact that it was suddenly 9pm and none of the vegetables were even out of the fridge led me to propose that I just make a salad, which idea the Cake-Mistress fortunately agreed to. So we had somewhat overcooked roast pork belly and salad. The pork belly had sat in the fridge in a light slick of olive oil, pounded garlic 'n' rosemary and salt all afternoon, which probably hadn't done it any favours (i.e. the salt probably robbed it of moisture, and being a Sainsbury's cut and therefore boneless it wasn't exactly succulent to begin with) and then the long cooking dried it out a bit, but it was still tasty. But, as usual with me, the crackling didn't crackle (there are various theories about this. More in future posts). The salad was a lightly modified version of one by Fergus Henderson: the leaves from two little gem lettuces mixed with a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, a couple of tomatoes finely diced and half a dozen torn-up anchovy fillets. So that took care of Sunday.