Sunday, 28 November 2010

What's up, cook?

Is it recipes, other instructions, the oven or me? That’s the question exercising my brain today, after something close to another culinary debacle last night.

A week or so ago, via Twitter, Liz Upton alerted followers to an article in Slate, discussing how poor cookery writers are at guessing how long it takes to prepare a meal.

The same subject has recently reared its head on this side of The Pond with Jamie Oliver’s new series (and accompanying book), Jamie’s 30-minute Meals.

I’ve watched a couple of the programmes, which do prove that Jamie at least really can prepare and cook some quite complex meals in the time alotted – although letters have appeared in the various parts of the media claiming it just ain’t possible: or at least, that other people find it takes slightly longer.

To be honest, I’ve never really worried about preparation guidelines: they’re just that, to my mind – guidelines.

But what does increasingly get me is actual cooking times.

And not just, as I’ve mentioned before, cooking times as given on, say, a bag of pasta. It’s all well and good to talk of pasta or vegetables or rice in a risotto as needing to be al dente, but I’m beginning to think that, on this little island of ours at least, we really do not understand what that means.

Whereas I have, more than once, had vegetables served to me here that were, in essence, not cooked, it doesn’t happen when on the other side of the Channel (or in good restaurants).

If I were to pay strict attention to timings on packets of pasta, I’d be struggling to munch though it. And the same goes for the cooking times usually given for risotto. I made that mistake in style the first time I attempted to cook risotto, having never actually eaten one before and, therefore, having nothing to judge it against.

But when I ate pasta for the first time in Italy itself earlier this year, and when I've eaten risotto in France (or even in UK restaurants), it’s been far softer. So adjusting the times given in books or on packets, I’ve come closer to achieving that effect at home.

However, there’s another aspect of timings that particularly frustrates me and it’s far harder to know how to deal with it.

A couple of years ago, when the cheap oven that had been part of our shared-ownership flat since the day we’d moved in was dying (it had done a very long stint that belied its initial cheapness), we bought a new oven – a Neff.

Now it’s a fan oven – good and environmental, and cheaper on electricity. A win-win situation, indeed.

Or so we thought.

But for cooking some things, it’s an absolute 'mare.

Now it’ll probably be fine with today’s Lancashire hotpot (about which, more tomorrow), but I never seem to be able to get a potatoes boulangerie right – is that me or that any instructions I’ve seen allow far too little time? Yet potatoes dauphinoise never seems a problem.

On Friday, with a day off in lieu of last weekend’s working, I headed to Borough Market. I had a few things to get, but it’s always a pleasure to wander around – not least on days and at times when it is not absolutely knee-deep in tourists.

There’s a small French shop there and, after sipping a wonderfully warming mulled wine (so much better in freezing open air than inside) I was planning a purchase of foie gras in my continuing campaign to be seen as more evil than the little Austrian with a chip on his shoulder.

What I hadn’t calculated on was spotting a beautifully dressed piece of rabbit, wrapped around with a strip of fat, stuffed with rabbit meat and prunes and topped by two of the same fruits. Wow.

I tried calling The Other Half to see if he’d try it (he doesn’t usually like prunes), but couldn’t get through to him. I gave up and took the chance.

"200˚ for 20 minutes," said the thoroughly delightful French woman working there.

"Non – 180", said her male colleague, which was followed by banter (with accompanying winks in my direction) about how long for the lower temperature.

As a slight aside, this delightful French lady gave me a complimentary goat’s cheese – which was very pleasantly tangy – but that may have been partly because of the discussion we had about foie gras. She’d heard about the Guardian article, but not about the crass responses, and shook her head in utter amazement.

Oh well, that’s another French person who probably thinks a lot of us are simply barking. Memo to self – never accept any offer to be an ambassador for these islands.

But let's get back to Bugs.

Knowing the difficulties with the aforementioned oven, I set the temperature for the correct equivalent of 180˚, but organised everything else to allow the meat longer than 20 minutes.

In the meantime, I diced carrots and started them off very gently in a little butter, prepped some broccoli and par-boiled some spuds, which were then dried, sliced and popped into hot olive oil to become sautéed potatoes. All the time, watching the clock carefully.

The meat didn’t seem to be browning at all. I turned the temperature up and gave it longer. The potatoes started to get a little browner than I would have wanted. I took them off and popped them in kitchen paper.

Eventually, I removed out the meat, left it for a minute or two, and then started to carve. It was still very much uncooked in the middle – and The Other Half in particular really does not like extremely rare meat.

Quickly washing and drying a pan, I heated some olive oil and bunged in the bunny.

It didn’t take long, but by the time I served everything, the potatoes were on the cool side and the carrots were closer to fried than the perfectly softened little cubes that I'd been aiming for.

The meat was tasty enough, but bloody hell – this was frustrating beyond belief.

Now I'm nobody's molecular gastronome, but really … shouldn’t cooking be a tad more scientific than trying to read tealeaves to see how long the next royal marriage will last?

So, is it recipes or other instructions? Is it the oven or is that I’m really rather an incompetent would-be cook with ideas far above my cooking station?

And if it's the oven – how on Earth do I work out a reliable method of knowing what's going to happen, at what temperature and in what time?

Yours, h'exasperated of Hackney.

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