Thursday, 29 December 2011

Just enough time to look back

It’s the time of the year when, according to tradition, a look back over the preceding 12 months is in order.

And who am I to buck such a trend?

Sometimes this is a general review, but it can be specific to a subject too.

So here – but in no particular order – are a few of my favourite food-based memories from the last 360-odd days.

Meal of the year

It has to be that charity dinner in the spring at The Zetter, with Raymond Blanc and Bruno Loubet cooking, for pretty much obvious reasons.

Memorable it most certainly was – perhaps particularly because we could spot, easily, who was behind which course. And because it was clear that Blanc had brought with him produce from his kitchens at Le Manoir – the baby vegetables that somehow managed to be jam-packed with flavour and the air-dried duck that he’d been demonstrating on the television only a week earlier.

Single course of the year

The marrowbone at 7e Vin in Paris. Utter fabulousness.

I called it food for the soul then – I’m sticking with that now. My first experience of marrowbone in Carcassonne in July was good: this managed to be even better.

Restaurant of the year

Bistrot Bruno Loubet. No longer a discovery for us, but now a firm favourite – consistently wonderful food.

But also a mention for Au Casot in Collioure – not least because it’s wonderful to eat such simple but fresh and first-rate seafood right next to a beach, overlooking such an incredible scene.

Restaurant discovery of the year

Three really.

L'Amphitryon in Collioure. Finally, a genuinely memorable ‘posh’ eatery in our favourite place.

The cod with aïoli (pictured left) was quite superb, while the cassis sorbet re-introduced me to blackcurrants – I could happily have eaten it by the bucket.

Never mind Ribena: this was something very grown up.

Then there was Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery in Glasgow, which came up a really excellent – and stunningly good value – Sunday lunch, and Michael Caines @Abode in Manchester, where I enjoyed an excellent tasting menu.

Best fast food of the year

Fish and chips, done properly, in dripping and with proper mushy peas, in a small cafe on the dock side at Scarborough. It took 10 minutes to cook from the start – so that's 'fast' in my book.

And it was gorgeous.

Book of the year (recipes)

This might be about to be Michel Roux’s Desserts, but otherwise, Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets.

Book of the year

Raymond Blanc’s A Taste of My Life, for the reasons explained here.

But special mentions also for Matthew Fort’s Eating Up Italy, Nigel Slater’s Toast and the very, very important Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets by Joanna Blythman, which also made me take stock and adjust my life.

Personal achievement of the year

Christmas Day – lunch and dinner, not least for the presentation, but also for managing to plan it effectively enough to stop it being a trial.

And realising that I can now cook a few dishes without constant recourse to a recipe. That felt like a sort of culinary coming of age.

Gadget of the year

The mandolin and the mincer attachment for my mixer are good, but it has to be my potato ricer, which is just fabulous because it makes really fabulous potato purée.

Investment of the year

After umming and erring about it for some time, I finally shelled out for some Le Creuset – and realised instantly why it was worth it.

And after mentioning it here, a number of readers told me that they wouldn’t be without it.

Quality pays off.

Ingredient discovery of the year

Lard. Simple as. After Oliver Thring’s article on the subject in the Guardian early this year, I started exploring the issue – not just of lard, but of natural fats.

And I started cooking with them too, with great results. Lard and dripping are cheaper than the over-promoted artificial, so-called ‘healthy’ fats too. Any connection, one wonders?

But honorable mentions also go to the Bath Soft Cheese Co for Bath Soft and Wyfe of Bath, plus pigeon breasts, which are an all-year pleasure, and frogs’ legs, which were a very pleasant surprise.

And I can't forget blackcurrants – but that was less a discovery and more a re-discovery, as mentioned above.

Favourite ingredient of the year

Rhubarb still rates highly. One of these days I'll manage to create something really special with it, but in the meantime, I edged closer with a number of experiments – some more successful than others – in the early part of the year

Non-eating culinary moment of the year

Meeting Raymond Blanc. Charming and passionate. I’m afraid I was close to being rendered speechless.

Not quite – but it was a close-run thing.

Food TV of the year

Masterchef: The Professionals and Service, both of which saw Michel Roux Jnr soaring in my estimation.

Thank goodness we’ve left the era of chefs having to be shouty bullies. He treated people with respect and understood the difference between objective and subjective criticism.

Both programmes were not just competitions, but were also about giving people real opportunities to develop. And his demonstrations of classic dishes on the former programme were just an education.

The former too was about real people with real talent and skill – something sadly lacking in so much so-called 'reality TV' these days.

But let’s not forget Kitchen Secrets with Raymond Blanc – educational and enormously entertaining.

Cultural surprise of the year

It came late in the year – Christmas Day – but the Disney/Pixar animated feature Ratatouille is a delight – and a big surprise, not least because it champions food as pleasure over food as fuel, and it also links memory and food.

And it’s funny and gloriously animated. The kitchen scenes are extraordinary, full stop. But the realisation of food in an animation is nothing short of astonishing.

I've been fond of animation since I was child – this brilliantly brought this together with food. A wonderful combination!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The eyes can feast too

Occasionally, a colleague and fellow foodie asks, in a manner that one knows (and is intended to know) is not really serious, whether I have ever considered applying for Masterchef.

The answer is simple: no. Not likely. And as for Come Dine With Me, that’s freak show telly to gawp at when trapped in a hotel room at night during a business stop over.

Personally, the ultra-competitive re-invention of Masterchef has never appealed to me. Even in my own pre-foodie days, I used to quite enjoy the previous incarnation with Lloyd Grossman.

It was a gentler TV, where – officially at least – the amateur cooks competing on it had no ambition to move into the professional ranks. It was, in other words, a celebration of what amateur means at its best.

Masterchef: The Professionals is a different beast altogether – but let’s leave that one for another day.

But that’s not to say that I’m not hugely competitive – albeit mostly against myself. Indeed, in my pool playing days (five or six nights a week), I was, I like to think, gracious in both victory and defeat – but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be found muttering at myself when I failed to meet the standards I’d set for myself.

And I noticed it recently in the kitchen. Maybe ‘competitive’ is too strong a word, but I enjoy testing myself, and probably set myself challenges that might seem downright bonkers to some. Come to that, I sometimes find myself wondering if they’re not downright bonkers too.

Christmas has been a case in point.

In recent months, while I’ve been practising pies and crumbles and sausages, I’ve also been trying to improve my presentation.

Now how a dish looks isn’t everything, but a feast for the eyes can add to the pleasure of a meal.

I had ideas – but was singularly failing to achieve anything that I really liked. Part of that was because drizzling isn’t as easy as you’d think, but part of it was also the crockery.

There’s a reason restaurants use big, white plates and dishes.

Our set (Argos, two-for-one for £16, if memory serves me) has been a good servant. With its colourful rims, it’s ideal for day-to-day use.

So recently, I picked up a few bits of plain, white stuff – including rectangular dishes.

In my mind’s eye were pictures. On Christmas Day, I got to see if I could recreate them.

Before I’d decided on what we would be eating in the evening, I’d planned lunch.

A little smoked salmon and smoked eel, with some horseradish and crème fraiche, salted cucumber and some good bread.

Nearer the day, that started getting embroidered a little. I didn’t sit down and think: ‘what else can I do with this?’ I simply found something would pop into my head. Like adding some pickled beetroot.

It was the same with the idea to present the fish by weaving it into a checkerboard effect. That was done the night before, before being carefully wrapped in cling film and laid in the fridge with a small weight on it.

Dozing on Christmas morning, the idea of cubing the cucumber occurred. The beetroot followed naturally – after all, this would continue a geometric theme.

Rooting in a cupboard later, I found cornichons and added one to each plate, sliced carefully and spread out concertina fashion.

There were chives in a salad drawer – a perfect garnish. A tiny dollop of caviar added some depth – as well as a further level of fishiness. Lemon – obviously – and then the horseradish-crème fraiche was kept to a minimum.

I was pleased with the flavours and the textures and the colours. But perhaps most of all, I was pleased with how it looked.

Dinner offered more opportunities.

While the consommé was served in rather downmarket style, in cups – a big hit of beefiness, though – deep, plain bowls displayed the linguine to good effect.

I couldn’t manage one single twirl each of the pasta – how do they do that? – but did manage two small ones per bowl, before adding a little virgin olive oil, some shaved white truffle and, to complete things, a garnish/seasoning of truffle fleur de sel.

The venison steaks looked simple but dramatic on plain white, with a rather cack-handed drizzle of the chocolate sauce (drizzling is another art form to work at), with the puréed sprouts (with chopped parsley) adding another touch of drama to the finished plate.

Then there was dessert. As with lunch, I’d been adding components in my mind for some time.

The three layers of a triple chocolate mousse – all based on a recipe from Michel Roux – had been prepared in advance. And thank goodness for seeing someone on Masterchef: The Professionals use a blow torch to un-ring something similar only a few days before!

You can use cling film to make a drum-tight base to a ring.

The candied citrus peel was easy enough – 10 minutes simmering in stock sugar before drying in the lowest oven for an hour or so.

I’d thought that using mandarin dust would add something too, and a search online had produced the specifics of what I supposed would be the basic approach.

That was almost a disaster, because in classic not-reading-the-instructions-properly mode, I’d managed to misread farenheit for centigrade – and then not bother to think that 200 would be far, far too hot.

I got it though – at the third time of asking.

The thinly sliced, dried fruit was then blitzed in my mini processor, with the addition of a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt, then sieved and packed away.

On the day itself, I had another idea. Well, two actually.

All ants-in-me-pants to be in the kitchen, I made up a small amount of paté sable in the afternoon, rolled it out and cut little biscuits. At the first time of asking, I burnt them. It was second time lucky on this occasion.

When it came to serving, mandarin segments were prepared to add a touch of freshness.

Chocolate swirls were something else I’d never tried. Melted dark chocolate is spread as thin as possible on a baking tray and then, once it’s set enough that the gloss has faded to matte, you gently ease curls up and away with a spatula or palette knife. Done in advance, they could go in the fridge too.

The final part of the equation was intended to be a bravura bit of drizzling with a mix of seriously thick double cream and a coffee liqueur I’d picked up in Paris.

Fortunately, I tried it out in the afternoon. The lines I wanted just weren’t going to be possible – a combination of my erratic technique with the bottle and the sauce itself not being anywhere thick enough to stop it spreading.

In the event, I settled for some almost-but-not-quite-random dots on the plate.

I’d sent The Other Half out of the room between courses: plating up took a while.

His face when he was called back in was a treat. Amazingly, it did just about all come together (the mousses were also dusted with cocoa powder). We sat and looked at them for a moment or so, barely wanting to start attacking the arrangement.

Perhaps it had been a case of watching “too much Masterchef”. But well into Boxing Day, I was still feeling chuffed with myself.

Would it have mattered if I’d just used our day-to-day crockery? Would it have been earth-shatteringly dull if I hadn’t gone a bit mad with the garnishes?

No. But then again, food is also about engaging more than just the taste buds. The eyes – and the nose – can be titivated too. ‘We need to use all our senses’ was what Raymond Blanc had emphasised to me.

One thing is certain – don’t let anyone ever tell you that the plates themselves don’t make a big difference.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Some Christmas prep and a French classic

And so we arrive at the middle of the week leading to Christmas itself; the shortest day: milder than of late, but gloomy under a leaden sky.

The biggest struggle now seems to be to stop fretting and realise that I really do have things under control.

The serious preparation began at the weekend. After three days of office jollification - including eating out twice and culminating in the annual Christmas disco (at which much hair was let down) - it was a case of back to Broadway Market and back to the kitchen.

I'd been gradually working out the festive food and, equally gradually, ordering what needs to be ordered.

Having found that, although they farm and sell veal, top-rated butcher The Ginger Pig could not supply me with veal bones, Matthew from Longwood had brought up a 2kg bag of chopped beef ones, including pieces of rib.

On Saturday afternoon, they went into the oven with some olive oil for an hour and a half - a glorious, warming smell filled the flat as they roasted – before spending close to four hours very gently simmering away with carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and the usual herbs.

After the stock had cooled, around half was bottled and frozen. The rest - destined for consommé on Christmas Day - was then cooked down further, with the addition of some diced beef, before being strained.

Then it was time for the raft. Two beaten egg whites were added to some finely chopped carrot, celery, leek and parsley, and then slightly loosened with a ladle of the stock. This mix is added to the pot, whisked in, and left as everything is brought, very carefully, back to a simmer.

I find myself wondering who worked out this process - and how. The raft looks a mess, but it draws to it the fat in the consommé, leaving the liquid beautifully clear. Well, that's the idea.

After an hour, the raft was moved slightly to one side and the liquid strained carefully through a muslin-lined sieve. The result was remarkably clear - but two further clarifications await.

It's now in the freezer, so when I bring it out to thaw on Christmas Eve, any further fat will have risen to the top before freezing in a layer. That can be removed. And it's worth heating in a wide, shallow pan so that you can also just brush a sheet of kitchen paper over it at the end to pick up any remaining globules.

The aim is complete clarity, with very strong taste to really get the taste buds going, but nothing to fill up your diners. I did one last year for the first time - a mushroom one – and to be honest, it didn't seem to be anywhere near as difficult a task as some might make out. Although I didn't have much left to serve by the end, the intensity of the taste more than made up for it.

There are still questions: as George and Bill commented on Facebook, it can be served with a drop of booze, with finely chopped pancake or with very finely cut and cooked veg, floating like koi carp in the rich, clear liquid. I'll decide later.

In the meantime, there was everyday food to prepare.

Matthew had also jointed a chicken for me, which went into a large bowl with a bouquet garni, celery, carrot, peeled baby onions and peppercorns, plus a bottle and a half of hearty red wine that had been boiled to reduce by a third to intensify the flavour and get rid of the alcohol.

Because, with several possible recipes for coq au vin to work from, I'd chosen a Raymond Blanc one, and that last bit is typical of him.

Then it was all covered with cling film and popped into the fridge for 24 hours.

Saturday night was tuna. The fish is pan-fried simply and served with a light gravy made by reducing white wine with some chopped celery and dried chilli and dried mushrooms in it. At the end, you strain and then thicken with beurre manié.

It's a Rick Stein dish and works very well. He suggests serving with puréed garlicky potatoes, but I opted instead for the comforts of mashed carrot and swede.

Sunday's actual cook was easy: the chicken and veg were drained for an hour and then patted dry before being browned in a little olive oil. The veg followed, before a heaped tablespoon of plain flour, which had been toasted for around 15 minutes in the oven, was added too.

Then in went the marinade and it's stirred over a heat until thickened, when the meat was returned to the pot, before it went into the oven at 140˚C (fan) for about 50 minutes. The recipe had said half an hour, but the chicken pieces were large and I know my oven.

The result was very tasty, but there are things to learn. To start with, when I'd dropped the farm an email to ask for a jointed bird, I should have specified the number of pieces - five was nowhere enough. And second, I need to make the sauce a little thicker. But this is certainly a dish I'll be doing again.

Monday saw my Christmas visit to my parents, while The Other Half stayed in as work started on the kitchen.

The cold tap hasn't worked at all for years, while part of the casing of the hot tap has rotted away with limescale.

The hob was a mess too. We'd bought a new one around three years ago when we'd had to buy a new oven, but ended up in a total debacle with Curry's over fitting, and it had subsequently spent the intervening time in its box in the hall.

The hood should have been replaced then too - but the one we'd ordered had never even arrived, let alone been installed.

Moral of the story: just because John Lewis actually openly and truthfully says they can't arrange installation in your area, don't go elsewhere to buy a product on the basis that some other company claims that they can install it – and then does nothing but have you running around in circles.

And to add to the overall job, there was the small matter of lighting - just a single bulb.

So over Monday and Tuesday morning, the hob was replaced with a ceramic one, a new hood was fitted, the taps were replaced and a new light, with six adjustable spots of 50 watts each, took its place on the ceiling.

The room has been revolutionised! And now all I have to do is adjust to a hob that is around a third more subtle than the old one!

Friday, 16 December 2011

'Too much' Masterchef?

It’s apparently the case that I have been watching too much Masterchef. Now I should point out, after yesterday’s lengthy tirade against the dominance of TV in family life, that this is currently one of only a very few TV programmes that I’m watching.

Okay, there’s usually a bit of football most weeks, but other than that, in terms of programmes that I myself select, on a regular basis, there might be University Challenge and very little else.

Nor do I usually follow such competitions as this, but it has been fascinating – not least because of Michel Roux Jnr. He shows respect to all the contestants, he actually knows the difference between objective and subjective opinions – and lets the former rule his judging – and his demonstrations of various classic dishes are just fascinating and incredibly educative.

But how can I have been watching ‘too much’ of this?

Wednesday saw our department Christmas lunch. After the culinary disappointments of the last two years, at gastro pub Harrisons and then Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, I was looking forward to something rather better on the food front.

This year, we were booked into Blacks, a club in the heart of London’s Soho, courtesy of a colleague who is a member being able to book us in.

It was a very pleasant setting, with a small dining room and open fire (not real, but very convincing). There was plenty to be optimistic about.

The menu wasn’t a specifically Christmas one either, which also seemed like a good thing, since that should surely mean that the chefs would be cooking dishes that they were much more familiar with.

I opted for a squid ink tagliatelle, with Cornish crab, chilli and parsley to start.

There could have been more crab and less pasta; it could have been hot, rather than a case of the pasta being barely warm (but cooked), but it was really quite pleasant.

I’d also chosen the pheasant – another chance to continue my game education by having it properly cooked for me. But it was not to be.

My half of a bird arrived in just that condition in a bowl – to look at, that was the dish: just a rather large chunk of meat in a bowl.

A little searching revealed that there was some cavolo nero, the Italian kale, and some pancetta underneath, but the presentation was distinctly lacking.

‘Hey ho,’ I though and dug in. It was woefully overcooked and, as a result, very dry.

Even I know that the biggest difficulty with cooking game birds is keeping them moist. You need it to be a little pink – this was the colour of roast chicken.

It wasn’t helped by comparison with Sunday’s partridge at Bistrot Bruno Loubet either.

By the time a colleague on our table, who was having the same thing, had walked to the kitchen to request some gravy (she’s German, incidentally, and loathe though I am to do stereotypes, they’re bloody good at taking this sort of action), I had grown tired of it and wasn’t in the mood to eat much more.

I stuck with simple caramel ice cream for dessert, which was perfectly tasty – although presented a tad poorly again, being nothing more than the ice cream in a small dish.

A short while later, the maitre d came over and was asking him how the meal had been. I said that the starter had been nice, but also that the pheasant had been overcooked, dry and poorly presented.

He apologised – and gave me an extra glass of wine to compensate a tad.

Later, I told The Other Half what had happened. It was when I got around to mentioning that I’d criticised the presentation that he said I’d been watching too much Masterchef.

Which is not entirely fair. I didn’t expect haute cuisine along Roux lines, but it didn’t take any sort of an expert to realise how poor the presentation was.

At the simplest level, it could have been helped enormously by being jointed – as my partridge had been at the weekend – leaving the cavolo nero and pancetta instantly visible.

Personally, I’d not have served it in a bowl either, but on a plate – again making it easier to see beyond the meat.

So, Masterchef or not, I’m sticking with my critique. And I'd be prepared to wager that Michel would agree with me too.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Christmas memories come rolling back

On a forum elsewhere in the great ether, someone posted a thread about the 10 things at Christmas that take you straight back to your childhood.

In the last couple of years or so, I’ve been pushing at the door to the attic of memory to see what I can find from a past that is, in general, often really rather blurry.

Now in my own version of Proust, I’ve been specifically trying to dredge up food-related memories, and predictably, this set the cogs grinding away once more.

So here is a little selection of seasonal memories – some food related and others not – to perhaps whet your appetite and get your own memories going too.

❅ The arrival of the special double issue of theRadio Times was always something to be met with delight. Even in the days of just three channels, it heralded a lengthy and detailed study as I searched to find films that I loved and those that I'd never seen from Hollywood's golden era.

Just before Christmas itself, my mother and I would sit down and work through it more thoroughly, with a pen and paper to note down the things that the entire family would sit and watch together – because television was the centrepiece of family activity.

And after, like picking the final scraps of meat from the carcass, I’d raid it one final time, snipping out pictures and film details for a scrapbook.

❅ Turkey. I don't miss the big roast – but I do miss the sandwiches on Christmas night, when the far tastier dark meat would be packed between sliced white bread, seasoned well, and served with one of my mother's now cold stuffing balls on the side.

Most of these memories come from our time in Mossley – Christmas before then is rather vague, and even later Christmasses have only occasional concrete memories.

One of those was many years later, when my parents lived in Nottingham. It was one of the last years that the whole immediate family came together – after that, I finally found a little bit of courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be joining them and would spend the holiday with The Other Half.

On this occasion, my mother was ill after Boxing Day and I suddenly had responsibility for feeding the family – and more to the point, for stripping the final meat from the turkey carcass, something I’d never done anything like before.

I haven’t a clue what I cooked. Perhaps that was a sort of revenge on my mother for never having bothered teach us anything in the kitchen beyond a few prep chores.

I also have vague memories of eating pheasant at Christmas in Mossley – when we'd be invited to a festive dinner by one of my father's parishoners: an elderly spinster who was, frankly, bonkers and, like more than one or two other female members of his congregations down the decades, saw her lay role in the church and her relationship with the minister as a very important part of her life.

You've seen those films where women fixate on the local priest? Well, I always had the sense that it was not far off with my father.

Memory is an odd thing. I do remember a moment from a Christmas a year or so earlier, in Reading, when we were all sat around watching telly. My father’s mother was with us.

Predictably, she was bored and didn’t want to watch whatever was on – so suddenly decided to start an entirely random conversation directed at my mother, asking her, entirely out of the blue: “Do you like tinned salmon?” before my father snapped at her to be quiet.

I suppose all of this is also why I could, quite frankly, live without a TV. Did many other families base so much of their family life around the box in the corner? Was it a particularly British thing? It seemed to have an almost sacred quality: my parents decided what we were watching – and so we all sat around and watched.

It may not have been the case, but I don’t remember there being a choice about whether to sit down and watch or not. There’s a bitter quality to the knowledge that I lost a lot of my youth just sitting there, watching things, without the bottle or the opportunity to go and do something else instead.

New Year’s Eve would be dominated by whatever end-of-year celebration was on, before my father would go outside with a piece of coal, ready to enter at the stroke of midnight.

❅ Carols. This is something I still associate particularly with school. Fairfield High School for Girls had been founded, in part, by the Moravian church, and was linked to the Moravian settlement next door. Each year, we’d have our school carol service in the church there, with Christingles, a traditional symbol of this Bohemian denomination.

Later, at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, the annual carol service would be held in the Priory. There’s been a church on the site from around 630AD, but the current one dates from a little later, with massive reconstruction work carried out in the early 15th century.

But such an environment always adds to the drama of an occasion – and our carol services benefitted too.

As a member of the school choirs at both schools, we'd have to sing the descant to carols – those for Hark the Herald and Come All Ye Faithful are still totally rooted in my mind.

I’d still be able to sing them today if it wasn’t that my voice has dropped over the years from a mezzo to nearer an alt: my wonderful music teacher, Noel McKee, who trained and then conducted us in those LGGS services, said I had an excellent, almost Russian middle register. I’ve never been entirely sure what that means, but it sounds good.

❅ After scouring the Radio Times there was always telly itself. From the utter boredom of the Queen’s speech, to the peerless pleasure of Morecambe & Wise. I still find the repeats hilarious – Eric was a comic genius. All he had to do was wiggle his glasses around.

The afternoon film once included the TV premiere of Oliver! – and it was love at first viewing.

Back at school, I went without lunch for a couple of weeks to save the money and buy a copy of the score, then sat down at the piano and taught myself to play using that score.

Many years later, when I was regularly penning theatre reviews, I used to write about the National Youth Theatre – indeed, I was the only hack who bothered, until Ed Wilson, the artistic director, scheduled Blitz! one year.

That had been one of composer Lionel Bart’s other shows – and suddenly, the media pack, realising that the man himself wasn’t actually dead, decided it was time to pay attention to the NYT.

Bart wasn’t doing an interviews – he might have been alive, but he was frail. But the following year, when the company revived Maggie May, Ed invited me along to the season launch, with a specific promise that he’d introduce me and that I should tell Bart the story of how I used Oliver! to learn the piano.

After that, Ed told me, I’d have him eating out of my hand and could do – informally – the interview he wasn’t going to give to anyone else. I stood there, almost gawping as he told me about going to the Maggie May after-premiere party with Judy Garland on his arm.

Remember I said I loved the golden age of Hollywood? Here I was, almost touching it.

It was Lionel Bart’s last interview.

Late on a Christmas night, there’d be a classic B&W film on BBC2. My introduction to Humphrey Bogart came in just such a fashion. I was considered old enough to stay up so late and it was The Big Sleep – still one of my favourite movies and, indeed, the subsequent inspiration for some of my O level art course work.

❅ Boredom. We’d get our presents (some of which we knew about, if we’d had the opportunity to sneak into my parents’ bedroom in the weeks preceding the day itself, and take a look on top of the wardrobe) and then have to leave them to go to church.

And then there’d be the wait for my father to actually remember he had a family – and a dinner – to come home to after he'd taken his second service of the day.

To be honest, I don’t know to what degree this actually happened every single year – but it certainly did happen some of the time, and I remember it clearly, not least for the tension of the wait, knowing that there'd be some level of row waiting when he eventually turned up.

❅ Decking the halls always reminds me of doing just that with my mother. It would often be as late as Christmas Eve and there’d be a film on.

I specifically remember Meet Me In Saint Louis being on one year while we were pegging cards to a thread before hanging it – a Judy Garland moment, note – and my father rolling in from somewhere and looking long and hard at the telly, before announcing: “It’s the Wizard of Oz”, to be met by considerable amusement.

It wasn’t bad for him really – after all, he’d clocked that it was Garland and then managed to remember the title of a film she really had appeared in.

❅ Finally, the booze. May parents would have a bottle of something like Blue Nun for Christmas dinner. My sister and I would have Woodpecker cider.

As a Cornish lad, brought up on scrumpy, my father considered it pop - and therefore entirely acceptable for his when we sat down to such a special lunch.

It was my tipple of choice for some years. At some point, my parents decided that, as a teenager, I needed a social life. So they sent me to the fortnightly disco for members’ children at the Conservative Club around the corner.

It was good fun, actually. I’d get enough money for a bottle of the aforementioned brew – but rapidly learned to change that situation by issuing staring-out challenges to random young males, with further cider as the prize.

I was rather good at it – but I don’t know what that says about me and my approach to the opposite sex. And indeed, I’m not sure I’m ready to explore that particular memory any further just yet!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It a birthday, so it must be back to Bruno

With the combination of various work and family commitments in the last month or so, I seem to have done a lot of dining out in a whirl that's felt less like a jet-set lifestyle and more like a permanently jet-lagged one.

But when it came to my birthday, there was still only one thing I had in mind.

Our first experience of Bistrot Bruno Loubet was a year ago to the date – and we’d been back three times since, so it’s probably fair to say that it has become established as our favourite London eatery.

Although, to be rather more accurate, it's the first time in London that we've actually found a restaurant that we enjoyed enough to want to go back to, which is precisely why we've eaten out so little when at home previously.

And on Sunday, there we were again.

Contemplating an aperitif, we were sold on the idea of Bruno’s special seasonal infusion, involving Drambuie, gin and cranberry syrup, with subtle spicing.

Incredibly boozy to the nose, but surprisingly subtle to taste – and very refreshing, these were a very pleasant start to the meal.

For my starter, I opted for a ballotine of foie gras, with sour fig marmalade, a lemon glaze and green beans.

It was served not so much with toast, as with very briefly fried bread – which added a superb, light-as-a-feather texture to the dish.

The fig marmalade also provided an excellent foil for the sweetness of the foie gras, while the crunchy beans added another layer of texture.

All in all, very enjoyable indeed.

For my main course, I chose roast partridge – not least because I’ve never actually had a game bird cooked for me in a restaurant. And this is how it's done.

It had been jointed, and came with fresh choucroutte (sauerkraut), sautéed cauliflower and apple, and a cider roasting jus.

Any by gum, it was lovely. The meat was still just pink, but moist and really tasty, with a crispy skin that was also good enough to eat.

The turned, sautéed apple was delightful – as were the tiny pieces of cauliflower. And there was just a little of the choucroutte to add a further texture, while the jus was light but packed with flavour.

We took a much-needed breather after that, before deciding on dessert.

Both of us selected a “bitter chocolate slice with coffee sabayon”, which actually turned out to be less of a “slice” and more of a sort of circle of dense mouse on a light base, topped with a dusting of cocoa powder and a tuile of (I think) praline, while the sabayon sat on the side.

Delicious – rich and gorgeous, with The Other Half raving about the sabayon. And after that, he finished with coffee, while I sipped an Amaretto.

Service was, as always, charming and attentive without ever being over-fussy or formal.

Quite simply, Bistrot Bruno Loubet never disappoints.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Fusion confusion

A few weeks ago, in a moment of flighty insanity, I bought a bag of popcorn.

Not just any old popcorn, mind, but one of these trendy new ‘flavoured’ ones. Flavoured, that is, in some way other than salt or sugar.

In this case, it was a bag from a company owned by Julian Metcalfe, who founded Pret a Manger. And the flavouring in question was wasabi.


I took one piece, consumed that – and decided that that was quite enough. I’m quite happy to try things, but that was just wrong.

And then, in the French capital, I came across another potentially intriguing fusion of foods.

A book on gourmet Paris had recommended a chocolatier called Jean-Paul Hévin, who has a number of outlets in the city, including one that’s just around the corner from where we stay.

In the event, we didn’t suss out where it was until our final morning – by which time we’d found a substantial Hévin stall in Galeries Lafayette.

We bought conventional chocolates for ourselves and a box for my mother – before I spotted something that had actually been mentioned in that gourmet guide: cheese chocolates.

Yes, you really did read that correctly. These were small cubes of cheese, covered in chocolate. Me being me, I had to try. There was one small box left, so it came back to London.

What would you expect from such a combination?

One of the four cheeses that Hévin uses is Roquefort – hardly a shrinking violet on the taste and smell front.

My first response then, when I sat down to pay such a confection the time it merits, was pleasant surprise. There wasn’t such a clash as one might have expected. It was as though the chocolate muted the flavour of the cheese, which then only came through later and in a very subtle way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder what the point of it actually is. After all, who wants a ‘subtle’ Roquefort?

Perhaps it qualifies as a sort of amuse-bouche – a single-bite appetiser to set the tastebuds tingling? But on that note, I’d suggest that it fails too, simply because it’s too subtle to really excite the palate. It manages to take two wonderful ingredients and render them less exciting than they should be.

And just because something doesn’t taste vile that still doesn’t mean that it really works.

I understand the artistic imperative – the need and desire to experiment and try new things. But I remain unconvinced about the merits of chocolate cheese.

I shall eat the rest – they are, frankly, more chocolate than cheese – and then I shall enjoy Hévin’s proper chocolates over Christmas. And some really good cheese.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Food for the soul in Paris

And so, adieu Paris – until the next time! We pulled out Gard du Nord with Sacré Cœur silhouetted on the horizon in the brittle winter sun. And as we picked up speed, La Tour Eiffel rose against the sky like a hand raised in farewell.

The Other Half describes me as a 'romantic Prussian' on occasion, but it is a romanticism that I also feel in Paris; the ghost of a past era seems to permeate the walls. It is almost within reach; almost an aroma that I can smell.

But enough of such intangibles. This was not a trip about romance - but it was (in part at least) a little pre-Christmas gourmet adventure.

We arrived on Thursday evening - too late to dine, and ready only to lounge outside La Terrasse with a glass of something and a cigarette, watching the world go by. But before that, I booked us in for the following evening at Septiéme vin, our favourite eatery in the city.

Just around the corner from where we like to stay, we visit at least once a trip. Olivier, the maitre d' and co-owner, has always been an utterly charming and generous host, making us feel more like returning friends than simply occasional customers.

It's a small place, but comfortable and warm. In the warmer months, we've enjoyed dining outside, but this was most definitely not the time for that. And with the temperature falling, winter food was on the agenda too.

The menu is, if not quite unchanging, one where you know what to expect. But on Friday's specials of the day was something I don't recall seeing there before: marrowbone gratinée. After my introduction to that ingredient in Carcassone in July, there was no question what my starter would be.

What arrived was a piece of bone, around eight inches long, halved lengthways and with a very fine topping of breadcrumbs and garlic over the marrow itself. There was toasted baguette to accompany and fleur de sel to garnish.

Scoop out the jellyish marrow onto toast and eat. This is not haute cuisine. It is not food to worry about eating elegantly. But boy, oh boy, this is the food of the gods. Sweet, with a fabulous mouth feel, and so, so satisfying.

So satisfying, in fact, that I struggled to eat all my main course of scallops with beautifully julienned vegetables and a very nice buerre blanc. It was further evidence of something I'm starting to understand: that fat - the real, natural stuff - makes you feel sated quicker than any other foodstuff.

I had a lemon sorbet to finish - although Olivier suggested having it with vodka and seemed impressed when I named that as a 'colonel'. I'd known about it for ages, but never tried it. I swear he put more booze in there than would be usual: the sorbet was nearly swimming. It's a great - hic! - combination.

The following evening, we made the error of eating at Café de Champs de Mars, just near the tower – my favourite piece of bling in the world. Now this is a fairly touristique spot on a small roundabout, but I love it: it absolutely reeks of the 19th century and 'gay Paree'. However, we had forgotten that it's fine for eating if you stick to their grills or steaks and frites, but less so if you off piste, so to speak.

We both felt like a change and opted for dishes with pasta. Neither was bad - they simply weren't much better than average.

The next night, we went back to see Olivier - with me hoping that the specials would still be the same. They were. So it was a case of the marrowbone redux.

You always worry at least a tiny bit that, on repeating something like that, it won't be as good the second time. Oh, but it was: every bit as good if not even more.

Olivier told me that they pre-cook the bone - as I understand it, in a court bouillon. Whatever they do, it's stunning.

What struck me was just how basic such a food is - how much it plays to our core. And how much the fast and junk food industries spend fortunes trying to replicate the same sort of impact with all their chemicals, additives, sugars and salts.

Now it's a very long time since, in an act of desperation driven by food deprivation, I consumed fodder from one of those such outlets, so things might have changed, but on the basis of memory, they don't come close to what I ate at the weekend.

Marrowbone has plenty to recommend it in terms of the old nose-to-tail eating philosophy alone, but ignoring that, it's a sensational food to taste. Why on each did we stop eating it and when?

If you're still interested, I followed with cod and a little rice and more of those julienned veg - I asked for a small portion, but it was still a bit too much. Y'see what I mean about being sated?

I did manage to cram a first ever taste of Iles flottante - the classic French meringue dish. I expected it to be as meringue that I've tasted has always been: hard and crisp, but it was soft and, well, sort of floppy – the result of having been poached.

But swimming in a quite delightful chilled custard, with a drizzle of caramel, it was very, very nice indeed.

Aside from the eating, there was preparing for future eating. Or put another way, shopping in the food hall at Le Bon Marché, which is an absolute joy, and saw me transformed into something like the archetypal child in a toyshop. And in the kitchen section was the biggest selection of moulds and rings I've seen anywhere outside of the catalogue of professional cooks' suppliers.

There was also a reminder of just how many top-notch chocolatiers and patisseries there are in Paris - every street has at least one of each, it seems! Even a fleeting look in the window and you're drooling like one very happy cat.

So, that was Paris in summary.

But I warn you: it may not be the last you hear of marrowbone.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Fine food amid the madness

The last few weeks have been a tad bonkers on the work front – hence the paucity of posts – but the cooking and eating have been maintained reasonably well, even if the time to write everything up has been lacking.

Here’s a sketched view of the eating-out side of things – the home nosh will (I hope!) follow in due course.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow briefly for work, and on the Saturday, we had our traditional staff dinner – this year, at a restaurant called The Living Room.

For those who may recall the story of our meal this time last year, you’ll be reassured to read that this was much, much better.

Nice service and some very nice food.

I had a chicken liver parfait to start, with a redcurrant and port jelly. Now, it wasn’t so much a “jelly” as a sauce, and the parfait wasn’t really set quite enough, but it did taste good and the presentation was good too.

My main course smoked haddock, with a mustard mash, wilted spinach, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Very good; very nice.

And for dessert, a chocolate and salted caramel tart with a little vanilla ice cream. The tart wasn’t as I’d expected, but was light and very tasty.

Portion size was excellent – not ridiculously large – and there was a decent selection of wines that started at under £20. We had a La Croix Vermentino – a sauvignon blanc from the south of France. My colleagues, remembering last year’s debacle over the wine prices, made me select again – simply because I had initially stated that I wouldn’t.

The bottle was £16.75 – the second cheapest on the menu, which kept them all happy. It was light, fresh and had alcohol in it. Personally, I’d have selected something different – but I know where that got me last year!

The service was pleasant and helpful. My only real complain would be the noise. It’s busy to start with, so having an amplified live pianist-singer made it very difficult to converse, even though our party was in a sort of side room.

Glasgow ended chaotically, with my Sunday evening flight back to London cancelled due to fog at City Airport. I was then rescheduled for a Heathrow flight at around the same time. So no problem.

But what I didn’t know was that Heathrow was fogged in too. With my baggage already checked in, they couldn’t transfer me to a Stanstead flight.

When would we be likely to depart? Oh, about sixish. Oh, about eightish. Oh, about tennish.

At that stage, I walked out, went across the road, checked into a Holiday Inn and slept. The following morning, back in the airport itself before 7am, I discovered that one flight had already been cancelled for the same reason – but that they were ‘hopeful’ of things sorting themselves out sometime soon.

I rescued my bag, got a cab back into the city centre and caught a train with five minutes to spare, finally arriving back into London at almost 12.15pm. Knackered.

After just a short respite, it was off again on Thursday – this time, to Leeds for my niece’s graduation.

Staying at the same hotel as my parents, I had to show them the hotel’s menu that evening in order to convince them that it was limited and pricey, and my idea of a nearby restaurant I’d tried, earlier this year, was far better.

I got the three of us into Sous le Nez – and we made it in time to make use of the excellent value early evening menu – £24.95 per person for three courses, plus a half bottle of wine each.

Here, I enjoyed a nice chicken liver parfait – much more set than in Glasgow and, I think, the better for it, even if it didn’t have such a creative source/jelly.

It came with a muffin-like brioche and some piccalilli. Good stuff.

For a main, I opted for seared pigeon breast with mustard horseradish and parsley mash, chorizo and a thyme jus.

The bird was lovely – I did find the large disco of chorizo very tough and, to be honest, I don’t think it really added anything.

For dessert, I went simple, with a duo of sorbets – blackcurrant and lemon.

My parents enjoyed it too – in spite of their general aversion to all things French.

The following night, after an amazing day – and one that was emotionally exhausting, for various reasons – we went to Brasserie Blanc with my niece and her boyfriend, for a celebration dinner.

The restaurant was her choice. My mother, although utterly accepting that it was her granddaughter’s day and her choice, had been nervous.

Two weeks before, I’d sat down and read the entire menu to her over the phone, to reassure her that there would be plenty to choose from that they could eat: French food, in other words, is not just mussels and frogs’ legs and snails.

It’s interesting that, I realised, neither of them had a real clue about the massive influence of classic French cooking.

They started with a celeriac and apple soup – and both raved. I’m afraid I cringed when they ordered rack of lamb – well done – but they enjoyed it and that’s really the only thing that matters.

I opted for confit chicken, haricot bean & prune terrine as a starter – a fascinating creation with remarkably light texture and an intriguing taste.

After that, a special of the day – pork leg confit, with a riff on mushy peas (crushed garden peas with rosemary) and they swapped the new potatoes for a carrot and swede mash for me.

Yes, I know it was all going a bit OTT on the confit front, but I decided I really was just too tempted. Very nice it was too: moist and tasty. The whole dish was delightfully colourful.

For dessert, I just about managed a leafed dark chocolate slice, which was really a slice of torte with three different textures to it: a dense sponge-like centre, with surprises of crispiness, and a ganache on top. Very good.

We had a bottle of rosé between us: the men finished with good whisky, my niece with a champagne cocktail, my mother with coffee and me with a glass of Muscat.

Another most enjoyable meal – and also very good value, and cheaper that the hotel.

Now, more travel awaits: on Tuesday, I head to Birmingham for one night for work. And then, on Thursday evening, it’s off to Paris for some Christmas shopping and, of course, some rather good food.

No bookie would give me odds on the meal on the Eurostar not being massively better than the filled ‘croissant’ that East Coast Mainline served on the way back from Leeds.

Two fine French meals and the trip ends with something inspipid and damp and cold and lacking in any of the buttery crispness and flakiness of the real thing – the real French thing.

Still, it’s probably good to be reminded of how poor food can be sometimes – just so you really do appreciate the good stuff.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The toast sandwich challenge

The latest Christmas advert from Waitrose features Heston Blumenthal as a Harry Potteresque magician, creating his pine-scented mince pies as though by magic.

But if the country’s number one exponent of molecular gastronomy makes you wonder at the blurring lines between food and science, then try this.

One group of scientists has decided that the cheapest meal that you can manage in these austere times is a toast sandwich.

But the rather strange confection isn’t new, as it first appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management 150 years ago.

Now, though, it’s been revived by the Royal Society of Chemistry with the claim that, at 7.5p, it’s the cheapest meal possible. They’re so confident that they’re offering a £200 prize to anyone who can beat it.

The sandwich is a slice of toast between two pieces of buttered bread, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

RSC employee Jon Edwards said: “In my student days, I thought a meal of 9p noodles from Tesco was thrifty – but a toast sandwich is tastier, quicker, has more calories and comes in at just 7.5p.”

That gives us a quick idea of just what the society’s criteria are: calories per penny, in effect.

In a press release, Dr John Emsley of the RSC said: “We could have gone for one of the thousands of recipes that Mrs Beeton employed, most of them being table-groaning creations full of meats.

“But, given the stern days we are yet to experience, we decided to go for an unknown dish that requires little money and little time, and which she devised to cater for less well-off people.”

After the cost, what are the nutritional benefits, according to the society?

The basics: 3 slices of white bread = 240 calories. Butter = 10g = 90 calories
Total = 330 calories

Toast sandwich nutrients
Protein = 9.5 g
Fat = 12 g
Carbohydrate = 55 g
Fibre = 4.5 grams
Calcium = 120 mg
Iron = 2 mg
Vitamin A = 90 mcg
Vitamin B1 = 0.25 mg
Vitamin B2 = 80 mcg
Vitamin B3 = 4 mg
Vitamin D = 0.08 mcg

Well, I actually think that I can meet this challenge. And my idea is only a slightly modernised take on an old food.

I give you toast and dripping with yeast spread.

Although not that modern: Marmite was launched in 1902 in Burton-on-Trent, while the basis for it had been discovered in the late 19th century by German scientist Justus von Liebig, who had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten.

First, how to do it: take two thick slices of white bread. Toast them. Spread dripping on one and scrape some yeast spread onto the other.

Put them together.


Now let’s look at the ingredients, with a cost and nutritional analysis.

For prices, I used today. Let’s take a thick sliced, white loaf (own-brand) at 47p for 800g. A slice is apparently 44g.

So on that basis, there are 18.1 slices in a bag. For my ease at least, let’s call it 18, which makes it 2.61p per slice.

Tesco has dripping at 72p for 500g (£1.44 per kg). This is cheaper than lard, in case you’re wondering.

Thus 1% of the packet – 5g – is 0.72p.

The best value Marmite is 500g for £4.99 (£1 per 100g) – this is cheaper than smaller bottles.

However, Tesco’s own-brand yeast extract is 240g for £1.89 (79p per 100g).

In which case, it costs 0.0315p for a four-gram serving.

So, two slices of bread costs 5.22p.

Let's say a scraping of yeast extract (2g) costs 1.575p

And 10g of dripping is 2.16p.

So, the total costs of the sandwich – the “meal” – would be 8.955p.

At this point, I’m losing on this basis.

But let’s look at the nutrition next.

The bread works out at 110kcals per 36g slice, so 220kcals for two slices. It has 21g of carbohydrate per slice (so a total of 42g here) and 1.1g of fibre (total 2.2) with a little sodium of 0.2g per slice (so 0.4g), 0.07g fat (0.14g) and 3.6g of protein (7.2g protein).

The dripping is 135kcals for a 15g serving. There’s 15g fat, but no proteins, carbs, fibre or sodium.

One serving (2g) of the Tesco yeast extract provides 5kcal, 1.6g protein and 0.3g carbs (of which only a trace sugars). There’s only a trace of fat and fibre, 0.2g of salt, but 0.15mg of vitamin B1, 1.5 of niacin, 25.0µg of folic acid and 0.15µg of vitamin B12.

As a slight aside, Marmite has half a calorie per 2g and fractionally more protein and carbs, plus 0.14mg riboflavin.

So, the total of calories is 355kcals,
Protein = 7.4g
Carbohydrate = 48.6g
Fibre = 2.7g
Fat = 15.14g.

Calories are up and fat is up.

Now as we know, fat is not bad – our parents and grandparents didn’t have an obesity epidemic while eating bread and dripping. Indeed, this is a combination of that traditional dish and Mrs Beeton’s lesser-known idea, plus my own yeast spread twist.

The fat helps to ensure the eater feels sated. It provides good mouthfeel too and it has plenty of nutritional benefits, such as helping the body absorb plenty of other nutrients, including a number of vitamins.

The yeast spread adds nutrients that the salt and pepper don’t provide, but does give a similar seasoning.

Now, I don’t have the data on iron and calcium (or various other nutrients) for my version of this – and I’m no chemist – but I would suspect they’d be similar at least.

And remember – the challenge, as set out by the society, was not for what is regarded as ‘healthy’ eating these days, but – in effect – as calories for your penny.

There is more fat in my version – but since it’s dripping, it’s a lot, lot cheaper than butter or marg.

If I'd kept it to bread and dripping – and how much more traditional can you get> – that would have been cheaper, but the yeast spread adds an interesting touch and quite a lot of nutritional benefit.

I actually tried a toasted dripping and Marmite sandwich this lunchtime (with wholemeal sliced bread) and I have to say, it was not unpleasant at all.

Mind, this is austerity food – with a royal society uncovering it and promoting it for exactly that reason. It’s not supposed to be about taste. And it's difficult to see how anyone could come up with more calories for less.

But the mood of culinary pessimism seems to be spreading, with a recent article looking back at George Orwell’s comments on British food in the 1940s.

It’s all as depressing as a royal society finding it as appropriate to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mrs Beeton’s book with a recipe for austere times.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A spot of midweek cheating

As I mentioned the other day, I was quite ready to cheat a little on my first attempt to make pie. It was only on reading the ingredients of a ready-made pack of pastry that I decided to do otherwise.

But late last week, although I got back to Broadway Market quite early after work, the butcher was closed. My plan for sausages went out of the window – and I certainly wasn’t tempted to revert to my old habit of buying rubbish, mass-produced ones.

Wandering into a general store to buy a couple of odds and ends, and musing over what to put on the menu, the germ of an idea formed.

I picked up some smoked Mattesson’s sausage (not bad on the ingredients front) and two tins of mushy peas. I midweek cheat was in mind.

Back at home, I peeled and chopped a large carrot, a parsnip, the remainder of the swede we’d had with the pie and a hefty potato. All these were then boiled together until nearly cooked.

After being thoroughly drained, they went into a larger pan with the mushy peas. Some boiling water was added and stirred in very carefully to thin down the peas. The sausage was sliced and added, with chopped parsley going in just before it was finished.

This was heated through very gently with the lid on – and then, hey presto!

This was a seriously easy midweek version of the Dutch classic, Erwtensoep, which I’ve been cooking for some years (there are also very similar versions in German cooking, in the UK of course and pretty much throughout northern Europe).

The full version takes some time (restaurant version pictures above, with smoked bacon on rye bread to accompany) – not least because you have to soak the peas for two hours before cooking everything at one go, very slowly.

The proper version also used more than one kind of meat, but in this circumstance, the smoked sausage was enough. My original recipe would have included celeriac and not parsnip and swede. But using those root vegetables together hardly defied culinary logic.

And the parsley, added just near the end, lends a nice little zing to the finished dish.

This was an easy way to use up some veg – and make something hearty, comforting and decently nutritious, and all in quite short order.

Midweek cheating can work!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Christmas gifts you really don't need

It’s getting to that time of year when people start considering gifts – gifts to buy for others; gifts they’d like themselves.

And of course, this is when companies start bombarding us with ideas for just that.

Food gifts might not rate as highly in the UK as they do in France – strange, that – but foodies are not entirely neglected here.

But some of what is on offer could blow you away.

Currently featuring high in the kitchen gadget TV advert stakes is a Cuisinart soup maker, £140 from Amazon at the time of posting.

Now, before you all observe that:

a) all you need to make soup is a pan, a spoon, a knife and a chopping board – with an optional hand-held blender


b) I'm becoming a grumpy old woman, let’s look at what such a shiny new toy would give you.

And the perfect place to find out is the reviews section of Amazon.

There, one reviewer wrote: “We have had our soup maker for about 18 months now, and it tends not to get used much any more, in favour of a simple saucepan followed by blending.”

Okay. Why would that be, then?

“The maximum soup capacity of just 1.4L means that a big family only get small helpings.”

So it doesn’t give you enough size flexibility. Is that all?

“… and, why on earth, with such a good basic design, did they choose NOT to give it automatic intermittent stir? The manual stir means one has to remember to stir at intervals, or it can quickly burn – especially during the initial very hot period. That propensity to burn is the downside of a very effective heater used to fry up ingredients before moving on to liquid addition.”

So you don’t save any time, then, because you have to watch it and you have to stir it when it’s busy – exactly as you would with the conventional method.

But there’s more:

“We had to return the very first machine as the ‘spigot’ which is the drive spindle is some sort of plastic, and it lost its shape very quickly. We have been very careful with the replacement, to make sure we don't put too much drive up into the blender chamber. We do not use it for ice-crushing, for that reason.”

So it broke. And as a result, you don’t feel able to use it for one of it’s intended purposes.

“… If we had not had that experience, we would be giving a 3 or 4 star rating.

“Otherwise, it seems certainly well-made, heavy motor and well-thought-out. So, when the MkII comes out with intermittent stir and 2.5L capacity, we will possibly replace.”

So, to recap: in essence, it gives you next to nowt over and above the conventional method of making soup, takes up a lot more space, is less reliable (pans, knives and chopping boards rarely have a bit of plastic that loses shape) and costs well over a ton. And yet you claim you’d get a bigger one if such a thing existed?

It’s only the other day that I mention the ‘Breville Antony Worrall Thompson VTP099 Gourmet Pie Maker’, with a recommended retail price of £47.99.

Also available is the ‘Professional Cooks Gourmet 4 Slot Electric Pie Maker for a mere £26.

Come on – can anyone name me the “professional cooks” who would use a machine like this?

You can get similar machines for cupcakes, and others that promise to make ‘flapjacks, cake bars and breakfast cereal bars’. There are machines for waffles and canapés too.

Most of these take the form of a clunky piece of machinery that opens up like a book and has the halves of assorted moulds in each bit.

Although there is also a Russell Hobbs “cookie maker” that bucks the trend by looking, frankly, more like something you’d find on the shelves of your local ‘private shop’ and intended for male enhancement.

But how many of these do you get? How much storage space have you got?

To be honest, I’m reaching a point where I’m beginning to think that coffee machines are largely an OTT way of doing something that can be achieved just as simply, with far less expense, far less space taken in the kitchen and no bits of machinery to go wrong or get messed up by hard water with a simple cafetière!

Indeed, perhaps it’s heresy, but is ‘instant’ coffee really so much more ‘instant’ than cafetière?

Take a 200g jar of Douwe Egberts “pure smooth” instant – that’s £6.59. Douwe Egberts “cafetière blend twin pack” is £5.49 for two packs of 250g each.

But one thing is for certain: soup makers of the world unite – you have nothing to throw off but your gadgets!

And here's some I made earlier – the proper way.

A version of a River Café Italian rustic soup: peel and slice a couple of cloves of garlic.

Peel and chop a couple of medium potatoes into dice no bigger than 2cm.

Peel and dice a butternut squash.

Put all these in a pan.

Add a tin of plum tomatoes. Rinse out the juice from the tin with hot water and add this too, along with enough stock to cover.

Add a few crushed fennel seeds.

Grind some black pepper into it.

Cook gently for around 30 minutes and test that the potato is cooked through.

Remove from heat and mash – you want it to still have plenty of texture.

Serve with a drizzle of good virgin oil and, if you want, a dollop of marscarpone.

There. Soup. Made properly. How difficult is it?

Friday, 11 November 2011

The tao of pie

    Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,

    Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

    When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,

    Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Nursery rhymes are a fascinating subject in their own right – and this one might have been about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

In that context, the description of the dish as “dainty” is sarcastic – it’s a wreck of a recipe. But it does tell us that a pie, of itself, would not be considered unsuitable for a monarch.

We don’t really think of savoury pie as a posh dish today – well, perhaps apart from game pie and that’s as much down to the remaining sentiments about game being posh/rich people’s food in England.

But if pie is, in general, the domain of all of us ordinary folk, then up north it takes on a deeper importance and in Lancashire, it’s pretty much a religion.

A few years ago, the Telegraph reported that after a discussion with a northern fan about the half-time pies at her beloved Norwich City, Delia Smith was encouraged to change the club’s supplier to Hollands Pies – from Lancashire. And when news emerged last summer that Hollands had been bought by a non-UK company, there was outrage locally.

Indeed, in recent weeks, I’ve been finding a Hollands meat and potato pie quite acceptable half-time fodder at Manchester City games.

As I mentioned the other week, I have fond memories of eating meat ‘n’ tatty pies – with black peas – at bonfire nights in when we lived in Mossley.

My mother used to buy little pork pies from a local baker in the town, Cakebread. She’d heat them through for tea and serve them with baked beans. The crusts were thick and peppery, and the meat densely packed but moist.

She made her own pork pies too: she’d spend an age trimming and chopping some pork until it was almost mince, then it would be mixed with dried onion that had been rehydrated in a white enamel mug with blue trim, plus grated potato, before being packed into pastry-lined enamel pie tins and topped with more shortcrust.

That, on the savoury pie front, was pretty much my mother’s repertoire. She would do a version of steak and kidney – but not in a pie, cooking the meats separately and serving them on a slice of piping hot pastry. That was Sunday dinner I particularly looked forward to.

If we had a steak and kidney pie (or chicken and mushroom, for that matter), it would be a mini Bird's Eye frozen one: she kept the little foil containers, watched them carefully and then found various uses for them – including as the receptacle for our ration of sweets and chocolate when she divvied this out a couple of times a week.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a new book by Si King and Dave Myers: The Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies: The ultimate pie bible from the kings of pies.

A flick through tempted me, but I left it on the shelf – and then, unable to put it out of my mind, ordered a copy less than two days later.

With the burgeoning sense of food nostalgia inspired initially by Nigel Slater, I had set my course for pie.

I also ordered a trio of old-fashioned pie dishes – three different sizes; all round and with wide rims; enamel with a blue stripe on the rim. And a pie bird – a nod to that nursery rhyme.

Like my Mason Cash mixing bowls, there is something hugely comforting in having such traditional equipment. And it's considerably cheaper than some other options.

For instance, in all honestly and without fear of overstating my culinary skills, I did not feel that I needed the Breville Antony Worrall Thompson VTP099 Gourmet Pie Maker (only £25.46 at Amazon, instead of the RRP of £47.99).

I don’t know what’s worse: that or Marco Pierre White trying to keep a straight face while telling us that Knorr stock (ingredients for the beef stock pots at £1.46 for four of 28g each: Water, Salt, Beef fat (5.0%), Yeast Extract, Vegetables in Varying Proportions (2,3%) (Carrot, Leek), Sugar, Flavourings (contains Milk and Mustard), Beef Extract (1.3%), Vegetable Fats and Oils, Thickeners (Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum), Colour (Burnt Sugar Caramel), Herbs (Parsley, Lovage), Rosemary Extract, Apple Juice Concentrate, Carrot Juice Concentrate, Onion Juice Concentrate, Spices (Pepper, Paprika), Garlic) is every bit as good as the real stuff.

After the goodies arrived, I picked a midweek evening to make my pie debut. The plan was something involving chicken – based on the first recipe in the book, for a creamy chicken, ham and leek pie. Because it was midweek, I was preparing to cheat a tad, using ready-made pastry.

In the shop, I went to pick up a packet of Jus-Rol shortcrust (£2.80 for a kilo). Then I glanced at the ingredients: Wheat Flour, Vegetable Oil, Water, Salt, Lemon Juice, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate.

And I decided that I was damned if my first pie was going to be made with a pastry made with vegetable oil. And lemon juice.

Back in the kitchen, I rubbed together 350g plain flour and 100g each of butter and lard, before adding a large egg that had been whisked up with a tablespoon of chilled water.

It came together well, but fretting a little too much about not letting my warm paws heat it up to much, I probably didn’t press it together quite enough.

Defying convention, Myers and King suggest not putting the pastry into the fridge before rolling it – that makes it harder to roll – but doing that and lining the tin first. This works quite well.

In the meantime, I had skinned and boned four chicken thighs and added the meat to a pan in which I’d been gently cooking some sliced leeks in, in a little lard. Some chopped smoked streaky bacon joined it.

In another pan, I very gently heated some whole milk and a little stock for the sauce, with the chicken skin and bones in, along with the rind from the bacon.

In another pan, some butter was melted and some plain flour added and cooked through for a minute, before I started adding the milk/stock.

When that was a decent consistency – you need it quite thick – I popped the meat and leeks in, together with some chopped parsley and sage, then left it to cool down.

Pop the kettle on. Grab a biscuit. Put your feet up.

And then, after a while, you can decant the filling into the lined dish, roll out some more to make a lid, trim, crimp the edges and, if you want, decorate it.

I opted for a postmodern statement with the latter, cutting out the word ‘pie’ and sticking it on with the egg glaze. Just so nobody would be left in any doubt.

You need to have pre-heated the oven to 200˚C (180˚C fan). Myers and King recommend putting a baking tray in the oven to warm up thoroughly while it’s heating.

And then it’s the matter of a mere 35 minutes before you can remove it, slice it and eat.

I served this with mashed swede, since it needed something on the side, but I didn’t want to add more complex carbs, since there was already pastry involved.

The pastry didn’t look perfect and I hadn’t made it quite thick enough to withstand the serving process, but it was beautifully flakey. The filling was tasty enough to satisfy The Other Half, who tends to be underwhelmed by anything he considers ‘bland’.

One thing is certain. Pie is now firmly on the household agenda. And in keeping with my recent revelation that cooking something regularly helps you get to grips with the skills required, there’ll be another one very, very soon.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Lancashire hot pot challenge

What feels like a very long time ago, I happened to start a sort of research on this blog – and as it started to gain a bit of momentum, I made a sort of promise.

For various reasons, I'd decided to look up Lancashire hot pots via the online supermarkets. Coming across two versions from Tesco, I'd been rather surprised to see just what they cost.

The gist of the matter (and you can read the full story here) was that Tesco's hot pot ordinaire, if you will, rolled in at £2.90 for 450g. Which, as I calculated at the time, would make it around £11.60 for the archetypal family of four.

The weight is important – it’s only 50g more than a standard tin of soup.

But Tesco also retailed a 'Finest' version, at £4.25 per serving – or, using the same calculation as above, £17 for the four-person family.

I said then that the next time I made a Lancashire hot pot myself, I’d “make a note, to the very last penny, of what it costs.” I added: “I make you a promise now: it will not come even close to £4.25 per serving. And it will have good meat and good kidneys in it. And it will be rather bigger servings than the amount mentioned above”.

So, here we are. Almost 11 months later and I haven’t forgotten that little challenge.

And at the weekend, I set out to test my assertions.

Now before we start, a little background. It’s worth remembering that Tesco itself had, in a survey, bemoaned the demise of the classic British dishes – including Lancashire hot pot. Tesco has also, with a startling lack of self-awareness, produced a survey that reveals that only older people really know what joints and cuts of meat to use for what dishes. Each younger generation knows less and less on the subject.

That research didn’t observe that each new generations’ shopping choices have become more and more dominated by supermarkets in the last 30 years, as supermarkets’ share of the UK grocery retail trade has leapt from 20% to 80%.

And as Joanna Blythman showed in Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarkets, the supermarkets in general have also ensured a de-skilling of butchery. They very rarely have staff who know anything about a cut – or can themselves prepare any cut.

Moving on, it’s worth making a quick check on the state of affairs with the supermarkets.

Ocado don't sell anything called a Lancashire hot pot for adults – three baby meals come under such a description.

Sainsbury's has one baby meal under the name – and a recipe for the real thing. The Co-op site reveals nothing.

Tesco no longer has anything listed either and nor does Asda.

So we're still working with Tesco's prices and portion sizes – nothing alters the challenge I set myself.

Now for the shopping list first – and at the risk of seeming overly pernickety, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. I went to some of my usual suppliers – I didn’t look around for the ultra cheapest. The bouquet garni was in the cupboard but I have checked the current price for the identical product online, as of yesterday.

Lamb and lambs’ kidneys came from my local butcher with a combined weight of 490g (trimmed). The cost was £1.20 for the kidneys and £3.59 for the chops. Total: £4.79 for the meat.

I bought two large potatoes for 80p, weighing in at around 320g. I used just one. They were both approximately the same size, so let’s call that 40p. It was 30p for one large carrot at around 196g unpeeled and approximately the same for two onions with a combined, unpeeled weight of 246g.

It was 29p for a sachet of bouquet garni and I’m going to calculate 10p for the chicken stock, 20p for a few dots of butter at the end (calculated on the basis of the cost of a small catering pack in the office canteen) and 5p for some lard at the beginning.

That’s a total of £6.43.

But you’ve probably already spotted something else: the combined weight of the ingredients in my dish (not counting the herbs, the stock and the fats) was 1,092g (with all the un-prepped veg). Let’s make this reasonably easy and deduct the whole of that awkward 92g as the peel and other bits, but adding nowt extra for the liquid.

So we’ve got a dish of 1kg.

That was for two people. Portion size was approximately 50g more than the Tesco ones. The cheap range would have cost £5.80 for two, with a total of 100g less.

The 'Finest' version would have cost £8.50 for two people – with 100g less actual food. My fresh version was £6.38 for 1kg.

Or put it another way: if the Tesco cheap range version had been the same size as mine, it would have come in at £6.43 for two portions, while the ‘Finest’ range would have been £9.35 for two.

You're left, of course, with the question of measuring a few other things – heat to cook and the time to make it. It took me 50 minutes to prep, slowly. I've no idea how much it cost to cook, at a moderate heat for two hours and 20 minutes. The fan oven is supposed to save energy.

On the basis of a very approximate (but generous, because I’m not interested in cheating) guesstimate, based on our average electricity bill, we’ll add about 20p for the cooking. And let’s not forget, you still need to cook the ready-made version – a cost that comes on top of what you pay at the checkout.

So even adding the power required, our version is, at £6.63, considerably cheaper than Tesco’s ‘Finest’. And it also included a higher percentage of meat (the previous article includes the full ingredients list for the Tesco versions) and no additives.

The issue of the missing kidney in the Tesco dishes is interesting: I have mused over whether this is because kidney would be more difficult to prep by a machine in a production line, but I've no way of knowing for certain.

Let’s look at it a different way, though. The cheaper Tesco version had 28% meat; the ‘Finest’ version had 36%. Mine had around 49% meat.

Of course, another question, which I didn’t include in the original challenge, is that of the labour. And just how do we calculate that?

Many people claim that the lack of prep required with ready-made food is worth the added cost.

But what about the value added by the food tasting much better, being fresher (and therefore with more nutrients intact) and additive free? And just as an added note, each portion of my own hot pot not only had more meat – it still had enough carrot and onion to count as two portions of each person's fruit and veg for the day, while depending less on potatoes.

I leave all this to your own musings on all this, because I really don’t know where to begin estimating the cost impact of that – although my gut says that they would make my version better value.

In the meantime, here’s how it’s done. The amounts are approximate and based on two people.

Pre-heat your oven to 160˚C (150˚C for a fan oven).

The longest bit is prepping the kidneys. I had four whole ones and two small bits. You need seriously sharp kitchen scissors, but they make the job of coring the kidneys quite easy.

I used three almost boneless ‘chops’, trimming most of the back fat off.

Take a couple of medium onions, peel and slice. Peel and thickly slice a large carrot.

Melt some lard in a casserole and brown the meats. Remove to a plate.

Add the onion and carrot and soften for a few minutes.

Pop your bouquet garni in, plus the meats and a little seasoning, and gently mix together.

Add a small amount of chicken stock – it needs to come up only about a third of the contents.

Peel and thinly slice enough potatoes to cover the dish. Season and dot with butter.

Put in the oven and leave for two hours. Take the lid off and leave for a further 20 minutes. Serve.

The smell as it cooked was divine. The contrasts in textures and the combination of flavours is wonderful. There’s a reason that this is enough of a classic dish that Larousse Gastronomique allots it an individual entry.

And to follow? A large, ripe pear, skinned, cored and diced, and some blackberries, cooked gently with a little brown sugar and a drop or two of water for something like 10 minutes.

Then decanted into a buttered dish and topped with more of the crumble mix that has been sitting in the fridge.

It was cooked in the same oven for 40 minutes after the hot pot had finished, and served with clotted cream – the perfect accompaniment: a joyous jolt of hot and cold in the mouth.