Sunday, 20 February 2011

The pleasure principle

With The Other Half traveling to northern climes for more rugby league yesterday, I did a few bits and pieces in the kitchen in the afternoon and then I sat down, with camomile tea and chocolates, to watch Julie & Julia.

Nora Ephron’s 2009 film weaves together the story of Julie Powell’s blog project to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a single year, with dramatisations of Child’s own life in France in the 1950s, where she studied French cooking, through to the publication of her book.

Child was to US cooking what Elizabeth David was to the UK.

I searched for YouTube for footage of the woman herself, just to verify that Meryl Streep’s performance wasn’t completely over the top. It wasn’t.

Setting aside how irritating one would find the fluting loudness of her voice and an almost boyish physical clumsiness, it’s a charming film that, at it’s heart, celebrates the pleasures of life: not just food, but also sex – both couples seem to have plenty of that as well as good food.

This relaxing viewing came at the end of the week in which Oliver Thring’s article on lard appeared online at the Guardian and triggered not only a wave of nostalgia, but also the arrival of another of the food fundamentalist brigade, shrilling that we should all stop eating all fats – there are enough in vegetables and fruit to keep us healthy (no mention of happy); olive oil is processed/refined, and potatoes can be cooked and eaten without any fat involved, so bid farewell to mash with cream/milk and butter.

“You get used to it” apparently – which begs the question of why you’d want to. Health is what is always cited.

Child herself lived to 91. She never skimped on the cream or butter. Her husband lived to 92.

Eleswhere, an article on the paucity of good food programming on British TV mentioned the execrable Man vs Food, where the presenter travels around the US taking on eating ‘challenges’ to see just how much he can stuff into his face in a single sitting in places that specialise in massive portions.

It’s on the Good Food Channel, despite pretty much being the antithesis of good food – indeed, it could be seen as the other side of the coin that produces the streak of food puritanism that, on Facebook, saw me effectively branded a murderer because I am not a vegan.

Is this an indicator of dumbed-down education, the ‘nanny state’ or an illustration of how, with the decline of conventional, mainstream religious observance in the UK and the failure and/or apparent abandonment of left-wing political alternatives to what seems to be the current political and economic orthodoxy, a void has been left?

A void that, in so many situations, seems now to be being filled with a variety of extremisms, from fundamentalist versions of traditional religions to other sorts of ‘faith’, but all sharing a complete moral certainty, an evangelical fervour and pretty much total contempt for anyone who dares to disagree.

The Facebook incident was amusing in some ways: it was on a page for a campaign against plans for a dairy factory farm in the UK. I 'liked' it some time ago and have signed the odd petition and whatever else. But at the news that the application for planning permission by the 'farmers' appears to have been dropped, the vegan fundamentalists were out, having a go at those who, unlike them, are not vegan.

I pointed out – entirely politely – that we're not vegetarians, but omnivores. I don't remotely have an issue with veggies and vegans – just don't lecture me about how I should become one.

I also gave an illustration of the advantages of meat for me personally (not even mentioning the pleasure). This involved a portion of liver or kidney solving occasional bouts of monthly anemia. Iron tablets bring me out in a rash. I was told off and informed that I obviously 'hadn't tried hard enough' to find an alternative – Guinness works, apparently – to murdering animals.

Yet this was from a supporter of the same campaign! They don't seem to realise that, were it not for human consumers of dairy and meat products, there wouldn't be any cute animals in fields for them to get pseudo-religious about – never mind being able to cope with the fact that many meat and dairy eaters actually care about husbandry and animal welfare.

One of the things that Thring’s article notes – and he also mentions Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, which is currently sitting in my kitchen waiting to be read – is that a lot of myths have been spun and fat in food – yes, even saturated fat. Indeed, the rise in obesity has come as we eat less saturated fats in the form of butter (replaced by the dreadful margarine) and, of course, lard.

We take less time over food, considering it instead to be primarily a fuel, the preparation and consumption of which merely interferes with other things. This isn’t unique to the UK’s food culture, but it is a reality. And yet as this happens, the weight is packed on.

Is this, as some people have suggested, beneficial to the extreme ends of neo-liberal economic set ups? Is that why such an approach to food has become so prevalent in the UK and US? It's certainly something that Stewart Lee Allen posits in the enjoyable and informative In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food.

In a climate where instant and repeated consumerist gratification is essential to an economy that has become hugely reliant on retail, to the extent that, in recent years, quarterly retail figures have become a regular and important part of news programmes, isn't it better that we spend our time and money in the shops or buying online – and, indeed, grabbing a bite at our desks in work rather than going out for a proper lunch. Further, if we do the latter, do we not also fill space in an outlet that sells food than if we merely walked in, bought something and took it back to our desks?

There's a Pret a Manger near where I work. It's certainly better than the 'deli' at work itself, but it's far from cheap. A sandwich or salad and soup will set you back well over a fiver. On the other hand, if you take the time to make a lunch, you can eat better and far, far cheaper (and this is partly a recurring memo to myself). And of course you get to control what you eat.

One of the things that I discovered a few years ago, in the years immediately following my own decision to give up the cycle of dieting and putting more weight on, was that one thing that saturated fat does is comfort and sate us. And it does so far more quickly than, say, a plate of complex carbohydrates – pasta, for instance. And in substituting the latter for the former, we can end up consuming more calories in order to reach a point of being sated.

A few weeks ago, I bough lamb chops and grilled them. For some time, I haven’t been able to eat crackling, but that evening, I could. The chops had a thick layer of fat, which crisped up, beautiful and golden.

It was a divine taste. And, by the time I’d eaten that, I felt almost full – and also utterly satisfied by the taste experience.

Personally, the older I get, the less certain I am about so many things. With the exception, perhaps, of food and even of life: enjoy it. There’s no second chance. And life is really far too short to eat mashed potatoes with no butter.

What's wrong with pleasure? Outside of religious extremists, when did we start to see pleasure in food as something 'wrong'?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Two puddings and some bread (but no bread pudding)

As the week draws to a close, finally there is the space to breathe again. Don’t take that as a complaint – I’d far rather have work than not – but it’s been a busy old week.

But now to look back a little and complete some stories.

First, there was that starter dough that I mentioned making on Saturday. The following morning, it went into the mixer, along with the rest of the bread ingredients. It was the first time I’d used a mixer for making bread and Raymond Blanc’s instructions are helpfully exact: five minutes on the lowest speed and then 10 on the next speed up.

Boy, does it make the machine work. Washing machines rattle around and vibrate like mad, but I’ve never wondered whether they’re about to break. The dough, clinging to the hook as it’s bashed around and around in the bowl, makes the mixer jerk a bit and left me slightly nervous.

It baked fine though and is probably my best effort at bread thus far. Previous attempts haven’t been bad, but this had an evenness (the mixer, presumably) that was much better. And a good taste too.

And so to the steak and kidney pudding. Browsing through Kitchen Secrets the night before, I’d been amused to discover that Blanc has a recipe for this – albeit with oysters added. Interestingly, his proportions of offal to beef were closer to my kidney-loving ones that most recipes I’d seen.

I used his recipe for the dough – easy to make but really quite awkward to roll and handle. Still, we got there. Indeed, my circle of dough (with a quarter cut out) was so big that I didn’t really need to make a separate lid, but just folded it over and carefully trimmed and sealed it.

For the filling, I’d halved, cored and then halved again the kidneys. The beef came ready diced. It was mixed together in seasoned flour and then packed into the dough-lined bowl. I went along a little further with the Blanc recipe in taking a very small amount of red wine and briefly boiling it – taste and then give it 10 seconds and then taste again: the difference is amazing. You want to boil off some of the alcohol but not all of it or too much.

I added that to a little beef stock (out of a bottle, I’m afraid) and then, remembering the recipe for the sausage and kidney turbigo, squeezed in some tomato purée. This was mixed together and poured over the meat until it was almost but not quite at the top. Then the pud was closed.

Pleated foil was then wrapped over the bowl, allowing space for expansion, and tied with string. It went into a large pan, on top of an upturned saucer and with enough water to reach half way up the side of the bowl. The water was brought to the boil, the lid went on, the heat was turned down and it stayed that way for a whopping five hours, with just occasional checks to ensure that the water hadn’t boiled away.

Five hours! I’ve been vaguely looking into slow cooking for a while, but most recipes seem to be barely over two hours. Heston Blumenthal’s nine hours for belly pork is an exception rather than a rule.

It didn’t come out of the bowl completely cleanly – but it hardly mattered. And the taste was truly divine. I had actually managed to cook something that gave me an eyes-closed moment.

The chocolate delice, which we tried after The Other Half was back in town, was also a hit – although I think the Cornflakes need to be crushed a bit more. Easy enough to remember for next time.

But in many ways, what pleased me most this week was the rhubarb jelly.

A week or so ago, while trawling Amazon, I’d come across a book called Black Pudding and Rhubarb. Written by chef Paul Heathcote and food writer Matthew Fort, it’s more than just a collection of recipes, but is about seasonality and cooking with regional produce in Lancashire.

Out of print, I’d found a dirt-cheap copy – at 1p, the postage was considerably more than the book itself – and ordered it. But when it arrived, there was a little disappointment on finding that there was no mention of a dish of black pudding and rhubarb.

After all, when you think about it, it would be a perfect combination, with the tartness of the vegetable cutting through the sweetness of good black pud.

The mind started chugging away at this. The conundrum was how you would serve it: you wouldn’t want a stewed pile of the stuff, plonked next to the pudding and I didn’t think the rhubarb gravy was what was needed either.

And that was where the idea for the small rhubarb jellies was born. Two slices of black pudding, grilled, and sandwiching a jelly. Okay, maybe not quite “sandwiching”, but you get the drift (and served with some tinned new spuds, drained, dried and then pan-fried in duck fat, plus some butter beans in tomato. The drizzle, which went a bit awry, was raspberry vinegar, to add another tart taste).

The Other Half – who is, after all, my only judge on most of my culinary efforts – was impressed, although he thought that there were too many green peppercorns in the jellies. But the idea works: I can technically achieve it and the idea behind the flavour combination is sound. I am chuffed.

Finally for today, I had better explain the picture at the top of this post – or does it really need an explanation?

Anyway, the idea had been buzzing around for some time and I finally set it up. I’m not sure about the reflections on the egg shells – and may yet remove them. But generally speaking, it’s not bad at al.

You see – I didn’t spend quite all last weekend cooking.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A very brief update

I'm having a VERY busy time at present, so please excuse me if I'm not posting as regularly as I'd like – or maybe even as often as you'd like.

But to keep things ticking over, at least here's another recipe from the Manchester City school of eating. It doesn't look too bad – well, certainly better than most of the canteen food our workplace 'deli bar' offers up.

Although I will say that, today they managed something that was actually really quite enjoyable – a ring of slender sausage, with mustard mash and onion gravy. I ate it all – which is close to a first. And that should say it all!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Plenty of rhubarb, but no custard

It's probably a good thing that The Other Half is returning today from his jaunt to exotic parts – or Cardiff, as it's otherwise known – for the entire first round of matches on the opening weekend of the 2011 Rugby League top flight season.

What could have been a quiet girly weekend turned into something that might have had little volume attached, but was close to frenetic at times. I was knackered by last night, but pleasantly so, I think.

Everything got into serious swing on Saturday morning. An early visit to the market gave me the chance to chat with various people and make at least one intriguing discovery: Andy says that orders for hare have pretty much shot through the roof. It seems to be a trend. But just for once, I was able to offer a possible explanation of such a thing: of course, not huge amounts of people will have been able to taste Bruno Loubet's hare royale, but with it getting mentions all over the place and, indeed, being named main course of 2010 by Jay Rayner, hare has had a big publicity boost.

But my mission of the day was not merely to attempt to cast some light on things. At the Longwood van, I had completely confused Matthew with an email order for five lambs' kidneys and the same weight in braising steak. He obviously had a good idea what was intended for the meat, but would have expected that there would be far more beef.

I explained that this was my chance for a sort of revenge on all those insipid steak & hardly-any-kidney pies – and particularly the steak & just-one-small-piece-of-kidney pud at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese before Christmas: this was going to be the apotheosis of the kidney.

But all that was for Sunday: Saturday had plenty of other things in store.

Now while I might be neither mouse nor man, my well-laid plans still went awry when it became clear that there was no crab to be found on the market. Vicki explained that the weather had stopped a fresh catch. Instead, I opted for a squid and mused over cooking it with red chili and linguine.

Sadly – although not in some ways – Ed will be leaving La Bouche. Sad for us, but not for Ed. Having completed his doctorate (architectural history, if memory serves me right), he's got a brilliant post as a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery. All the best, Ed.

And so back to the kitchen.

First things first involved rhubarb, with Otto helpfully using the sheer force of her feline brain to will the juice to drip through the sieve for an individual syllabub, à la Sarah Raven, for that evening.

That done, a second batch went the same way, although it was six sticks this time, a little sugar and just a very little water. Here was one of the experiments of the weekend. I wanted to make little individual jellies – which promised to be fun, since I'd never used gelatine before. But I'd picked up enough from a video of Michel Roux using it to realise that it wasn't too scary.

Maybe not too "scary", but it still needs a bit of technical sorting out. I calculated half a sheet of the gelatine to my rhubarb juice (there was around 150ml). In the event, it wasn't remotely enough. I put a repeat off until Sunday. And in the evening, browsing through Kitchen Secrets by Raymond Blanc, I came across a dish where he'd used his famous tomato essence in four different ways. It included a jelly. I had the secret in my hands.

Using his calculations, I realised that I'd need 3 1/2-4 sheets of the size of gelatine I had for around 200ml of juice. This is what I tried the following day.

While the cooked fruit drained, I took two metal cook's rings and gave them each a base of cling film, tightly stretched over and up onto the sides. These were placed in a dish.

I wanted the jelly to be a tart compliment to something sweet and savoury, so was careful to taste and not over sweeten. The gelatine sheets need to be soaked in cold water for around 10 minutes. Then you drain them well and add them to warm liquid – but not boiling, as it could make the dish bitter. In this case, I warmed a little of the strained juice, then incorporated the squeezed gelatine, which melts really easily, and then added that back into the rest of the juice.

Blanc also explains how to get a "garnish" in a jelly without it all sinking straight to the bottom: wait for five minutes and then gently stir in whatever you want. It took longer for my jellies, but the eventual outcome was in the right direction, as drained and dried green peppercorns were added.

These were popped into the fridge to wait for use (of which more another time). But at the second time of asking, I'd got them to set and that was a victory.

Back to Saturday and more from the same Blanc book. This time, sugar was melted to a hard crack caramel in a large pan (how a proper thermometer helps!) and 200g of skinned hazelnuts were chucked in, stirred around, and then the whole lot was as quickly as possible spread onto a lined tray and left to set and cool.

When it's reach that point, it gets blasted into a paste in a processor: I have a small one, which just coped over a number of shifts. It didn't get very paste-like, so a little water was added, as per the book. This is a praline paste.

This is then mixed with lightly crushed cornflakes and pressed firmly into a tart tin or rectangular 'ring'. Or, if don't quite have that, use whatever will allow you to spread it quite thinly. Stick in the fridge and leave for at least half an hour.

Next, whisk a couple of eggs lightly. Bring some double cream and full-fat milk just to the boil, and pour onto the eggs, whisking to slightly cook them. Pour in chopped, good-quality chocolate and keep whisking until the chocolate is entirely melted and you have a lovely glossy mixture. Spread on top of the praline and cornflake mix and put back into the fridge.

It needs to be left overnight – and indeed, apart from a tiny taste, is waiting for this evening. A portion can be garnished with grated chocolate and even a single hazelnut that's been roasted and then dipped in caramel and quickly hung up by a cocktail stick from BluTac so that the caramel drips into a lovely, long 'tail'. The Other Half saw this in the book and responded with a comment about posiness. I haven't decided whether I'll try this, but I did buy a packet of BluTac on Saturday.

The point is, though, that the dipped nut aside, this is not difficult.

That was almost that for Saturday – except to prep a starter dough for some bread and actually make myself dinner. I decided to drop the linguine idea, but did the squid pan fried, in a risotto with red chili and actually with some Parmesan cheese (a first, given The Other Half's dislike of cheese).

It was enormously pleasing and soothing.

• For snacking during the day, I picked up some Stichelton from La Bouche, having read about a few days earlier on Raymond Blanc's blog, which is not only interesting on what Stichelton actually is – like 'proper' Stilton was before makers were forced to used pasturised milk – but also on the state of British cheese in general. And the Stichelton is absolutely lovely.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Football and food

How do you persuade children and young people to forget the junk food and eat healthily?

It's unexpected – but wonderfully logical – to see a football club making efforts to do just that.

Manchester City have started a series of recipes from the chefs at Carrington, the club's training ground. They're being published in the club magazine and online too.

Char-grilled chicken with pasta is a favourite of Gunnar Nielsen, the site tells us.

Baked salmon with a warm Niçoise salad, which is apparently the favourite of City and England number one Joe Hart, plus Shaun Wright Wright Wright-Phillips.

Now obviously this is all centred on 'health food' – it's for athletes, after all – but it isn't tasteless, isn't inaccessible and won't be very expensive. And it just might convince someone to try some real food. Okay, someone's got to cook it, but they're pretty straightforward.

It's nice to see some social awareness like this from the club – and it costs next to nowt to do this sort of thing.

One of these days, I'm actually going to have to try the stadium food. The staples of football fodder usually turn me right off, but the club has had Marco Pierre White in to do a revamp.

Okay, it's still pies and sausages, but the aim is to make it better pies and sausages. I'm going up later this month – perhaps I'll convince myself to give it a whirl.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Getting crabby about my cookery plans

Suddenly – and really rather strangely – I'm aware that while I’ve been thinking about food from my childhood, I have no memories of my mother cooking us fish. Yet I know that, in our time in Mossley at least, she visited the fish stall at the market, once a week or more, or sent my father there to get fish. But try as I might, I can recall none of her fish dishes.

I do remember – and with great love – fish ‘n’ chips from the chippy, which my father would occasionally go and buy and bring home for a Saturday lunch … with proper mushy peas, of course; there were also scraps (the left-over bits of batter) that you could buy for a penny or so a bag from chippies.

Later, I remember family trips to Blackpool and eating in restaurants where I’d almost always pick scampi.

Those things have stuck firmly in my memory – but not my mother’s fish dishes. And in being incapable of that memory, I’m also incapable of knowing exactly why that should be the case.

I do know that we never had any shellfish. Perhaps rather surprisingly under all the circumstances, I was quite prepared to try new things from early on in my adult life.

Well before the dawn of my ‘foodie period’, I’d eaten – and enjoyed – squid, mussels (before they seemed to have decided to disagree with me) and eel; foods that were really rather ‘exotic’.

At polytechnic in Leicester for a year, I discovered crab: you could buy it quite cheaply, ready cooked, from the market in the city centre.

I’d take it back to the halls and use a small hammer to break into the shell and liberate the meat. Then, as far as I can remember (because I long ago lost the un-illustrated Penguin cookery book that I got the recipe from), I’d warm it through with butter and some lemon juice and eat it on toast.

The book, incidentally, had been one of those great ideas of my mother’s: ‘I haven’t taught you anything much about cooking and I even stopped you doing cookery at school, so here’s a book of recipes now that you’ll have to cook for yourself’.

The hammer was my father’s idea of something practical that I should have. It’s still in the toolbox, if a tad bent.

Then today came reminders of crab: first Oliver Thring’s article in the Guardian and the associated piece about how to prepare and dress crab. Further recipes are apparently to follow.

Now my plans for the weekend have been blown right open: Never mind trashy retro food, crab has to be on the menu – particularly as The Other Half doesn’t really eat shellfish.

And to further complicate things, I then found this – which might be 'hard' by the standards of UKTVFood, but sounds relatively easy to me. And rather delicious. And if I'm going to buy a nice big crab, then it's going to do me more than one meal.

But there we are – at present!

And as if that were not making my foodie life complicated enough, my colleagues seem to have decided that I’m not doing enough to defend public services by making chocolate things to keep their spirits up!

Thank goodness there's marzipan in the house!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Time to get nostalgic

This coming weekend sees the start of the rugby league’s top flight season in the UK and France: I can’t forget the Catalan Dragons; watching matches in Perpignan is the root of my love affair with that country.

But it so happens that this season’s entire opening weekend of fixtures is to take place in Cardiff, at the Millennium Stadium – and thus The Other Half is set to be away for three nights.

So, what is a girl to do with three nights and two days to herself?

This one is starting to plan. And, as is so often the way with these things, first ideas are giving way to something rather different.

I had been considering trying to recreate the scallop bisque from the other week in Glasgow – or one with lobster or crab. And then some other rather posh stuff.

That was, however, until some little memory triggered in my mind while I was organising an online order for basics (cat food etc).

Like Nigel Slater in Toast, I started musing over culinary pleasures from years gone by. For some time, I’ve made occasional efforts to look in shops for Bird’s Angel Delight in butterscotch flavour. Today I found it online. The Other Half also remembers it fondly. I ordered some.

Then the site came up with one of those jaunty little suggestions – in this case, for malt loaf. I remember malt loaf with great pleasure: dense, fruity and slathered in butter. I ordered one.

Thinking of Slater’s experience, as he tried to find the foods he remembered from his childhood, and then eating them all over again, I contemplated a frozen Bird’s Eye steak & kidney pie.

I was saved from this by the fact that only boxes of four were available and this isn’t a multi-pack path that I’m aiming to tread.

Although it strikes me that perhaps the reason I liked them so much was that they always seemed to have a higher ratio of kidney to steak than any other steak & kidney dish. Okay, it will have been cheaper for the company that way, but as I’ve loved kidney for as long as I can remember, it was absolutely what I liked.

Then another idea took shape: why not try to recreate my mother’s pork pie?

She would take pork – quite lean, as I remember – and cut it finely, add a small amount of dried onion that she would have soaked in boiling water for a few minutes, together with some grated potato (which would hold some moisture).

This, with seasoning (although she wasn’t much of a one for pepper, if memory serves) would go into a shortcrust-lined, shallow enamel dish to be topped with further pastry and then baked.

She always made two at a time and served them with the freshest bread we had – this wasn’t France, but if memory serves me correctly, the bread (during the time this memory really comes from) would be from a little baker called Cakebread in Mossley.

It might not sound special, but it’s one of the stand-out food memories of my childhood and adolescence. I loved it. I remember the texture and the saltiness and the crisp thinness of the pastry.

Oddly – in retrospect – I remember it as the meat being minced: you know – those strings of meat? Not blitzed. Yet that doesn’t accord with my memories of not having it as often as I’d have wanted because it was such a labour-intensive thing for her to cut the meat.

Memory is a funny old thing.

I hadn’t thought about it for some time, but in Michel Roux’s book, Pastry there’s a recipe for a potato pie. That hardly sounds like French haute cuisine, does it? But it brought memories of my mother’s pork pie flooding back.

Some years ago, I tried it myself, after taking basic notes from Mother. It was dry and bland. Memory is such a funny thing, but I remain convinced that it should be as I remember – if only can I just work out the key.

I say “the key”, but my tastes have changed – been educated by experience – by the years. You can never really hope to recreate the past (and would we really want to?), but how odd that I have such strong memories of such a dish, cooked by a mother who worked hard at it, seeing it as a duty etc, but who has never allowed herself to really relish food freely.

There are other things I remember too. She never made a steak and kidney pie (that I can recall), but did cook steak and kidney (plenty of kidney!) and serve it with a beautifully crisp quarter of a pastry circle that’s she’d bake.

However, partly because that pre-Christmas experience at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was just so disappointing, I’ve decided that steak and kidney pud is what I’m going to make. Possibly to be followed by butterscotch whip, served in a big bowl, on top of boudoir biscuits (soaked with sweet sherry?) and topped with some smashed Maltesers, to be consumed while curled up on the sofa in me jimjams, watching something trashy on TV.

And who cares – as long as I enjoy it? And okay – as long as it isn’t also denuding some developing world country of water in the quest to produce out-of-season grub for the West.

I have also ordered clotted cream from Cornwall. I remember it as seasonal, but that was only because we only got it if we visited Cornwall for a holiday or if someone else did and had some sent to us.

I do remember my mother buttering white bread, then spreading it with Golden Syrup and adding clotted cream on top.

Dear god – for a woman who believed that: ‘we eat to live, not live to eat’, she had her moments of understanding that 100% culinary pleasure was the order of the hour.

I do sometimes wonder how much that was really her default position, and how much she forced herself to behave otherwise. These days, as I’ve mentioned before, she seems so much more relaxed: not that she enjoys cooking herself, but certainly food has become a common ground (to a degree) that we have and can therefore talk about.

When I visited last week, one of the first things she wanted to hear about was the food at Bistrot Bruno Loubet, for instance, which query hardly suggests a saintly denial of pleasure.

But back to the clotted cream: the purpose I have in mind is scones. Real ones – home made, crumbling and warm enough to melt butter and cream (if not jam). Just as I enjoyed in Glasgow.

I make enough to freeze a couple and leave them in the freezer for The Other Half for when he gets home in the early afternoon on Monday. All he’ll need to do is cook them through and scoff.

I do also want to make bread again – I have the kMix now, and the Raymond Blanc book that I’m reading has a recipe for bread that looks easy but spot on.

I do have some girly films to watch – but the only question now is whether I’ll have the time!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

One of the joys of this time of year, when the nights might finally be lengthening out again, but the greyness of winter really starts to feel as though it’s dragging its heels, is the start of the rhubarb season.

It begins, of course, with the forced rhubarb: grown in dark sheds, where you can hear those tender, pink stems creaking in an effort to find the light.

In the UK, this also means rhubarb from the ‘Yorkshire Triangle’ around Wakefield, a name that suggests a certain sinister quality to a vegetable that has poisonous leaves, but whose stems can easily be put to all manner of culinary uses.

Actually, that’s one of the things that intrigues me: rhubarb is one of those foodstuffs that has been sectioned off neatly into puddings (well, crumble) and, err, that’s pretty much it.

For some years now, I’ve made Sarah Raven’s lovely rhubarb syllabub – but what else could you do with it? Is it limited to a few puddings or is it more versatile than that?

I love rhubarb. My mother used to make the obligatory crumbles – and she’d also stew batches to keep in the fridge and serve as a topping for cereal.

My sister was never as convinced. I liked the tartness: she’d sit and over-dramatically shiver if it wasn’t sweet enough for her taste. It was the same with gooseberries.

A few years ago, in possibly my first real moment of culinary creativity, I decided that chili would go wonderfully well with rhubarb. I’ve subsequently managed to rhubarb chili jelly – although far from brilliantly, since it gets all a bit complicated by the fact that chili apparently reduces the setting effectiveness of pectin. Experimentation has produced a decent taste – but not yet the right set.

A jelly will be a super condiment, like redcurrant or crabapple jellies, to serve with – well, to serve with pretty much the same things that you’d serve those with.

The fruitiness helps to cut through the richness of the meat: we use apple sauce that way with pork and mint sauce to balance the richness of lamb.

The French use raspberries with duck breast and even that cliché of a dish, duck à l’orange, is about using the citrus fruit to cut through the sweetness of the meat.

A book of Irish cooking on my shelf includes a recipe for herring with mackerel – but it uses the fruit as a stuffing and I’m hopeless at rolling up fish with a stuffing inside it.

The grain of an idea bnmkis present, though. I surfed a little, thinking of tuna. I’m afraid that I found this highly dubious image of someone’s idea, but while it didn’t inspire me, it didn’t completely put me off either.

On Friday, that grain developed into a full-blown experiment. After work, I bought salmon steaks. There were some rather tired stalks of rhubarb already at home.

Three stalks, cut into thumb-sized pieces, went into a pan with approximately a dessertspoon of caster sugar, a very little water, a few thin slices of a red chili and some redcurrants that were sitting in the fridge beginning to feel that they’d been forgotten.

Then it was left to simmer away – very, very gently.

Once it was cooked right down, it was mashed around a bit (primarily to better release the juice of the redcurrants) and then strained.

Adjust the sugar to taste. I also added a pinch of salt and a small glug of raspberry vinegar. Reduce a bit, then whisk in small pieces of beurre manié until you have something that’s the consistency of gravy.


The technical idea was based on Rick Stein’s mushroom gravy for tuna, which I’ve been cooking for some years now, but this works very well with salmon. I’m sure it would work equally well with tuna, and probably duck.

But today, I made another small batch (no redcurrants or chili this time), to deploy somehow or other with the evening’s venison meatballs.

And then everything changed. Well, it’s the weekend, and things don’t always pan out the way you planned.

For various other reason, and after mulling over countless permutations of dishes with the aforementioned meatballs, I decided simply to concoct a pretty standard version. It was made up as I went along.

Meatballs: minced venison, complete with blood, into a bowl. A ‘cup’ of breadcrumbs – for some reason, this is the only US measurement I know that makes sense to me and which I use. Season. Mix by hand. Form into meatballs. Pop on plate, cover and chill. You really do not need to add an egg to meatballs – or burgers – to get them to hold.

When you’re ready, heat some butter in a big sauté pan. Brown the meatballs. Remove to a plate. If the butter’s remotely burnt, dump it, wipe the pan and add new butter.

Soften a diced onion and a diced carrot. Be patient – there are plenty of nice smells, so inhale and enjoy.

In the meantime, take a heaped dessertspoon of plain flour and whisk a little booze into it – just enough to make a smooth paste. Sherry would probably be an idea, but I only had Noilly Prat, so that had to do. Add a good, big squeeze of tomato purée. Whisk again.

Put the kettle on – yes, you can have a cuppa if you want, but that’s not what I was thinking about!

Pop some liquid beef stock concentrate into the flour-booze mix. Whisk again.

The onions and carrot should be soft by now. Pour a glug of your chosen/what’s-in-the-cupboard booze into the pan. Relish the smell while you deglaze: this is not some sort of sacrifice.

When some of the alcohol has boiled away (taste and decide whether that’s enough alcohol that’s evaporated or not!) and you’ve deglazed, add the flour mix and stir until it’s thick but even. Add the rhubarb mix and then as much boiling water as you need to reach a consistency you like.

Remember: you need little booze because the rhubarb mix is going to give you a big acidic fillip.

Pop the meatballs and any juices back into the pan. Add some peeled small potatoes. Taste – and adjust the seasoning if you think it needs it.

Put a lid on the pan, turn down the heat and leave for half an hour. The biggest question after this is how the potato is doing – potato always cooks more slowly in stock or sauce (George gave me that incredibly valuable piece of information some years ago – I’ve yet to see a book that mentions it).

So check your potatoes with a sharp knife. Taste again. And then decide whether it needs further cooking.

It is not, as they say, rocket science. The rhubarb might seem an odd idea, but it’s really no more ‘peculiar’ than those other fruit-meat/fish combos I mentioned earlier.

And it actually worked. It wasn’t remotely obviously that there was rhubarb in the dish, but there was pleasing tartness in the background – and indeed, that’s pretty much what wine would have added. Although I think the fruitiness just made it through, very subtly.

Why did it take me so long to understand this?

It occurs to me that perhaps some of us do need to go down an almost Heston route because we do not possess a history of knowing techniques. Perhaps, when we hit a certain age and if we haven’t learnt such things from standing next to our mother, watching, then even a small version of the Heston-like science becomes a vital way of learning?

But then again, that’s perhaps destroyed as an argument by my having picked some of these techniques up ¬– very recently – from one Raymond Blanc: hardly your backwoods Englishman!

But let’s get back to rhubarb, It's difficult to know why it became the word that actors supposedly use to each other when trying to look as though they were deep in conversation in the background of a shot or on stage.

Because whatever else you can say about rhubarb, it ain't bland.

And honestly, you really don't have to have it with custard.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

A day with the folks

It was a funny old day yesterday. When my pre-Christmas cold gifted me a hacking cough, it was decided that the usual pre-festive trip to my parents would have to be delayed.

Not only did it seem crass to risk giving them the same cold, but the weather made the prospect of sitting on a frozen platform, waiting for a delayed train and constantly coughing, all the more possible.

So, after a busy start to the year, I finally made it to deepest, darkest Surrey yesterday morning – albeit after complications of a transport variety.

My parents had booked for lunch at a local restaurant: it saves my mother spending hours in the kitchen and gave us all time to sit together.

The restaurant, which they’ve been to a number of times and which they’ve taken me to once before, is El Nido in Wallington.

A family-run affair, this brasserie-style eatery may be Spanish-influenced, but much of the menu – even with Spanish names – is classic French.

I started with the country paté and toast: nice, thin toast, while the paté was pleasingly robust, with a nice hit of brandy in one bite.

Then it was on to the sole meunière (see what I mean about the French dishes? My father was having duck with orange and my mother had selected chicken with tarragon).

It was nicely cooked, albeit not the most special piece of fish I’ve had, but I didn’t really feel like one of the big meaty dishes on offer. The tiny potatoes, carrots, courgette and mange tout were all cooked very nicely too.

To finish, I selected a piece of lemon meringue pie – something I haven’t tasted in years, and which was tangy and rich and light all at once.

It’s an odd restaurant, though. There are hints of Spanish cuisine on the menu – paprika, a little chorizo etc – but it seems to me to be Spanish Very Lite (combined with French Pretty Lite Too) for people who haven’t really eaten Spanish food – or French food, for that matter. Which would certainly describe my parents. There is, then something peculiarly suburban about the culinary experience.

It’s essentially simple cooking, done decently. The service was excellent – the staff we met were delightful.
But what was most surprising was the cost: it’s barely any cheaper than Bistrot Bruno Loubet – a quid or two for most main courses, for instance, although some were considerably more expensive.

Given its setting and (presumably) the intended clientele, it does what it says on the tin and does it very nicely. But it really did make me realise, yet again, what stunning value Monsieur Loubet offers. And indeed, the ‘con’ of the price of food in this country, with the concomitant belief that really, really good food requires a second mortgage.

I don't want to slag off this place in any way – not because of the food, but because the service in particular was genuinely charming. And because local areas really need places like this.

But the prices were – to me at least – really quite surprising.

However, the foodiness of the day was really quite novel: food now offers a safe conversation ground for my mother and I (she seems to have set aside her “we eat to live, not live to eat” mantra), but my father has, more than once, described me as “obsessed” with food.

It’s an indicator of how lowly he sees food: he would never dream of saying anything similar if we’d spent an entire day discussing football or politics, but then again, food is not something that he is personally interested greatly in.

But he refrained from any such comments and I even got him talking a little about his own childhood in a Cornish village. I knew his parents had had their own chickens, but I didn’t know that they bred rabbits.

My paternal grandfather had made his son a little trolley so that he could take the rabbits to the market. It sounds a thriving little business – particularly during the war. But there were six rabbits, he added, who were never eaten but were “pets”.

We exchanged presents later: my mother had overcome her own feeling that it sounded a “bit peculiar” to get me Nigel Slater’s Toast, while she’d also spotted Green and Black’s Chocolate Recipes: From the cacao pod to muffins, mousses and moles, which she thought might be of interest. She was right.

There was further rail disruption on the return journey – but not too much. Before that, I’d done a piece of DIY for my mother – she’d been waiting for me to visit to do that: it’s been that way for well over two decades.

Not only can I increasingly handle a pan with some skill; in our family, I’ve always been the only one who really knew what to do with a screwdriver as well.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Wake up and smell the butter

It was Sunday morning. The Other Half was on his way to Yorkshire for a final pre-season Rugby League match and I had the house to myself. Okay – to myself and the cats.

As you may already have read, macarons were on the menu – and that all went in mixed sort of fashion.

But when I’d hauled myself from the pit, the first question that had to be dealt with was that of breakfast.

Now me being me, I’m not ‘good’ at breakfast – or certainly not when I’m not at work. Then, I tend to pick up something from the Pret opposite the office or nip up and risk the deli bar after I’ve taken off my coat and booted the computer.

On Sunday, with serious baking ahead, I needed fodder – and was remarkably disciplined. I opted for straightforward scrambled eggs. No toast – just the eggs.

I heated some butter in a heavy-based saucepan and whisked up three eggs. And then the smell of melting butter caught my nose. Oh god … breathe it in, girl, deeply. What an aroma!

Some time ago – and goodness knows where – I read that you should only whisk eggs for cooking as late as possible and that you should only season them at the very last minute before cooking. Chemical processes begin when you start either of these actions – and you want to delay those processes as long as possible.

I forgot the latter. There was another lesson. As I sat, relishing silky smooth scrambled egg, I had to season at the table – and noticed quickly the un-evenness that that produced. Some mouthfuls perfect; some over-salty.

And so, let’s fast forward to yesterday. There was part of a bottle of Riesling and part of a container of chicken stock left over from Sunday.

During a rapid post-work shop, I bought chicken thighs and, after a cuppa, gently heated a large knob of butter in the large sauté pan and waited. Incidentally, what constitutes a “knob” of butter? It’s another of those things you have to gauge by instinct – and, of course, experience.

What I was waiting for – what I was listening for – was the sound of the butter.

It’s that Raymond Blanc again. In A Taste of My Life, he writes about how his mother would sear food; how you’d just be able to hear the butter; about how she’d cook the meat like that for around 10 minutes.

Blocking out the Hackney traffic outside and The Simpsons inside, I bent an ear and, with my nostrils full of the glorious smell, waited and listened.

The gentle popping happened. The chicken breasts – dried – went in, skin side down. I resisted the temptation to move them around and left them for around six minutes. When I turned them over, they were a pale gold, flecked with rich, brown spots. I left them again.

When every part of the surface of the flesh and skin was browned, I popped them into a bowl and replaced them in the burbling butter with an onion, chopped – but not too finely.

And again taking my lessons from Monsieur Blanc, I spread that out across the pan’s surface – and left well alone. No: do not be tempted to move the onion around – that’ll effectively mean it steams or boils. I cooked it like that for around 12 minutes, testing twice and realising that, while still holding its shape and some bite, the onion was getting ever sweeter.

Then in went some plain flour. Cook for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t matter how messy it looks at this point, the important thing is that you need to cook the flour through.

Then the wine and a good scrape around the pan to deglaze, picking up all the bits of the caramelised meat and onion. Then the remains of the chicken stock: not out of a bottle, but my own homemade variety.

Bring it to the boil and add a bay leaf and a carrot and parsnip, both diced reasonably evenly, plus a few peeled small new potatoes – all of which were hanging around, demanding to be used before they were too far gone.

Then taste. Season. Leave a few minutes. Taste again. Puzzle over what’s missing. Realise that little salt has actually gone into the dish and add some more. Lid the pan, turn down the heat and leave for 20 minutes.

Taste again. Leave to cook some more. Repeat. The vegetables are cooked but holding their shape nicely. The meat is beginning to flake invitingly away from the bone.

Look at it, smell it, taste it.

Another touch of Monsieur Blanc: not all herbs are equal. Bay was added early in the cooking process – it’s one of the robust herbs that can cook for a long time and not suffer. But several are not. I vaguely knew this – but not so concretely. A couple of minutes from the end – no more – and handful of chopped flat leaf parsley goes in.

Then serve and eat.

It can hardly be described as some sort of rocket-science dish, but it was (as much as it could be) all my own. Or put another way, I didn’t consult a recipe book.

What I used – what I relied on – was Blanc’s technical advice: in the case of the initial caramelisation of the meat, his evocative description of his mother cooking.

And slowly, slowly. There is no need to rush. That’s one of the keys, I think. We have become obsessed with our food being instant – or almost, as though time spent preparing food is time wasted. Why? Increasingly I understand that time spent in the kitchen is an antidote for the insanity of London life.

I have been working to make myself slow down when I’m eating: yesterday, I worked to make myself slow down when cooking.

It paid off. It wasn’t a starburst of flavour, but there was real depth to the taste: the sweetness of the meat, vegetables and stock; the acidity of the wine and the bitterness of the parsley. I’m not imagining it: it was there, in something that I made.

Of course, none of this is exactly hampered by trying to do what Blanc recommends – learning to taste. Learning to think about what you’re eating – and also tasting constantly as you cook.

I felt close to serene. Not giddy – but serene. Only time will really tell, but it feels as though I’ve taken a very big step forward; as though I’m moving onto a slightly different culinary plane. It’s not an unwelcome thought.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A second helping at Bistrot Bruno Loubet

There is always a risk that, when you return to a restaurant within a short time of first experiencing it, that return can lack quite the edge of excitement of the first visit.

Just to start with, there isn't the same surprise element.

So it was with trepidation – albeit a miniscule amount – that I had booked for Bistrot Bruno Loubet for yesterday evening, for The Other Half's birthday.

Since we were both at work and since the staff bar isn't open on a Monday, I'd opted for 6.30pm. Not too long to twiddle the thumbs before dining; not straight after walking out of the office either.

We were, unsurprisingly, the first through the door for evening service. But the bar and the cocktail menu provided ample pleasures before we sat down to eat.

A charming barman made me a French 75 (which, he explained, is named after a WWI French cannon) and is made of Tanqueray gin, lemon and sugar, and Champagne. He added a maraschino cherry – they're back in fashion, apparently. Very nice it was too; very refreshing.

There are other Champagne cocktails named after French cannons of the same era – one replaces the gin with brandy, the other with vodka.

The Other Half had a 22nd July, which was made up of Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, Kings ginger, Evan Williams
honey and pressed apple juice. Served short over cubes, it was garnished with a fan of green-skinned apple.

And so it was to dinner.

This time, I started with the guinea fowl boudin blanc on cassoulet beans. A light-as-a-feather, mousse-like confection, cooked until its casing was just caramelised. Sweet and luxurious – as were the beans. But everything was lightened by the tomato that was cooked with the beans, which added freshness, and the parsley, which gave it a bitter layer. Wonderful.

My main was from the dishes of the day – how tempting was the veal liver? – and was fillet of stone bass, served with new potatoes and a hint of lime. Charred on the skin side, this was a big hit of meaty fish – given a real zing by the lime.

For dessert, I opted for the rhubarb, orange and vanilla Clerkenwell mess. Never mind being a "mess" – what a surprise! The perfectly cooked and sweetened rhubarb was delightful – but the punchline was discovering that the orange was the tart flavour instead. That put such a delighted smile on my face: what a twist!

The Other Half opted for mauricette snails and meatballs, with mushrooms: the snails were tiny (as were the meatballs) and were served already out of the shells. It was the first time he'd ever eaten snails and apparently enjoyed them.

That, he followed with the beef daube bourguignon and mashed potato, and single scoops of chocolate ice cream and pear sorbet to finish.

Around half way through our meal, colleagues walked through on the way to a birthday reservation themselves. Since it was essentially on the basis of my ravings, I felt a twinge of nerves.

But an email this morning eased these: they had a wonderful time too.

And as before, the service was excellent. Friendly and warm, but without ever making you feel that someone was hovering behind you or rushing you.

Not one iota of disappointment, then.

Now when's the next birthday?