Monday, 30 May 2011

More lemons – and a bit of football

It was a blustery Sunday in London, somehow combining a cool wind with a sort of heavy and oppressive atmosphere.

It is also becoming a Sunday habit to pop back up Broadway Market for a few bits and pieces – not least from the London Farmers’ Market that sets up shop at London Fields Primary School.

It’s small, but there are some stalls that make it worth a visit – not least that of Bury Lane Farm, where I’ve been able to pick up asparagus that was only harvested the night before. And yesterday they also had what I was desperately looking for – fresh oregano.

These Sunday jaunts have also revealed that Percy Ingle the baker is open on a Sunday – although for some reason or other, it never has wholemeal loaves after Saturday.

Pottering back, I pick up my habitual can of V (fizz with caffeine etc – but no artificial sweeteners!) and, unless it’s raining, wander into the park behind our flats to sit on a bench, sip my drink and smoke a fag.

Which allows the opportunity to vicariously partake of a very English Sunday ritual: football in the park.

They’re a pretty organised bunch who play behind us each weekend – no jumpers for goalposts here, but ones that are extracted from bags and erected for a match, together with a marked-out pitch.

The skill level is better than you’d perhaps expect and it’s all good humoured.

Yesterday, unsurprisingly, as they set up and warmed up, the talk was of Saturday night’s match.

It’s an old saying that football is the working man’s ballet, but perhaps there has never been quite an exhibition of why as came at Wembley, from Barcelona in the Champions’ League Final.

I hadn’t really been planning to watch, but turned on just 10 minutes into the game. Thank goodness I did, because what followed was sublime: Messi and co are simply on a different planet.

Some months after the 1998 World Cup, the winners, France, came to play a friendly against England at Wembley. These were the days when I was a sports hackette and I readily grabbed the opportunity.

On a chilly February night, the French fielded a side with just two changes from the team that had won in Paris the previous summer.

It was, if memory serves, 0-0 at the break and concluded 2-0 – both goals scored by Nicolas Anelka, who hadn’t played in the final. What stands out in my mind, though, was not the score but the quality of football on display.

And I suspect that, like many others there, long before the final whistle, I had ceased to care that England were losing (the score flattered them), but had become absorbed by the quality of what I was seeing.

The Other Half – not notoriously a big football fan – joined me to watch part of Saturday’s match and marvel at what Barça were doing.

As a Manchester City fan, with the Citizens having qualified for this competition next season, it was a salutary reminder of the step up in class that any progress will require. Big gulp time. But that’s what moving forward means. And it’s a hang of a lot better than relegation.

But for the moment, let’s put that aside and concentrate again on the weekend’s food.

That oregano was wanted for a reason. With The Other Half traveling to Yorkshire and back for Rugby League yesterday, I had a choice: do I make myself something for dinner this evening and then either make him the same or something else later; do I wait until late so that we can eat together or do I find some other way around this.

The solution – entirely in keeping with my current culinary directions – involved lemons. And oregano.

In other words, a kleftiko.

So let me explain, according to a recipe from Rick Stein in his Mediterranean book.

Take a shoulder of lamb and have the butcher chop it into three pieces.

Pop these in a large casserole, with some peeled potatoes, a head of garlic (papery skin removed and then chopped in half on the horizontal), the juice of two lemons, a few bay leaves and generous amounts of dried and fresh oregano.

Pour around 200ml of water in.

Cover with foil and then pop in an oven that’s preheated to 190˚C.

Leave for three hours.

Well, that’s how I did it the first time, a year or so ago.

But it needs to be cooked longer if you really want the meat falling off the bone. That’s barely enough.

Looking online at recipes, it’s interesting the variety of times, from a staggeringly short 1 hour, 20 minutes on the Waitrose site, to around four on a recipe from the programme Galley Slaves.

This intrigues me. Mine ended up having around five hours – and another hour tonight to fully reheat the remainder. But I wonder if recipe writers are scared to give a dish that long for some reason?

Perhaps we’re so out of the habit of long, slow cooking, and so used to microwaves speeding everything up, that we’re shocked by really long times and think them impractical or even too costly in terms of the fuel bills?

Which is a shame, because this kleftiko has been considerably better than my first effort. And the big, simple but gutsy flavours are a real pleasure – be generous with the herbs!

The Other Half, who in the days before we met visited Greek restaurants with friends a few times, says that he’s sure that something like chickpeas were also included in the dish, but no recipe I’ve seen thus far has anything other than the ingredients above (well, apart from one that adds cinnamon).

For tonight, though, I did new potatoes and peas on the side, instead of adding more of the former to the main dish.

So, if you’re making kleftiko, try to give it a really long, slow cook. The rewards are obvious when you tuck in.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

A culinary pilgrimage to Soho

More culinary exploration and adventures beckoned on Friday, with another day to myself on the cards.

It was all a question of whether to head to Borough Market – or to try something completely new and make my way to Soho for a foodie outing.

After much musing on the subject – lasting until I actually had to decide which bus stop to go to – Soho came out as the winner.

This was a chance to descend a little deeper into Italian food. First, there was time to have a coffee at Bar Italia on Frith Street. An expensive coffee, to be sure, at £3, but it was the best latte I've tasted by a country mile.

Having been past the legendary cafe many times, but never having been in, the time was right to break that duck.

It really is like stepping into a different world. A long, narrow room, football news on two television screens, mirrors, a wonderful jumble of decorations and bar stools at the narrow table around two walls. And then the counter, with chilled cabinets crammed full of cakes and paninis, and a vast coffee maker on top.

It was more than just liquid refreshment; it was an experience.

And then on down Old Compton Street to Brewer Street.

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing a new book about Tuscany – recipes combined with writing about the area's produce – when I came across an article about a regional delicacy, Lardo di Colonnata. It's fat from the back of a pig, cured in salt and herbs in baths made of the Carrara marble that is mined nearby – the marble that sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore have chiseled away at.

Have you ever heard of lard being quite so classy?

But in 1996, lardo was nearly sunk, when EU inspectors took one look at the way it was made, threw up their collective hands in horror, proclaimed it unsafe for human consumption and impounded tons of it. To think of all the people it must have killed down the centuries: it's a wonder nobody had noticed ...

Fortunately, the Italian slow food movement stepped in to fight this stupidity, and thus we still have lardo today, made in the traditional – the proper – way.

Days after first reading about lardo, I came across more in Jennifer McLagan's Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, and it made me determined to try to find some.

You can cook with it, but it's mostly eaten thinly sliced on warm bread or toast, which melts it.

An online search soon gave me the name of several Italian delis in central London, but one stood out: Lina Stores. And so that was where I headed.

It's a step back into the past: a delightful shop with a soft green livery (which looked almost impossibly retro when the bag was seen later against a red and white gingham tablecloth). Inside isn't exactly big, but it's a floor-to-ceiling heaven for foodies.

I dipped to smell the dried porcini in a whicker basket and found a heady aroma, which prompted me to pile some gently into a bag.

And then there was the deli counter itself, with it's tantalising selection of cooked meats and cheeses. And there, right at the front, was a piece of Lardo di Colonnata. On hearing that I'd never had it but come in search of exactly that, one of the staff offered me a piece to taste.

Wafer thin, creamily white and wrapping itself around a finger, I tasted. Utter bliss. Fabulously sensual and satisfying.

I left the shop with a piece, together with some pancetta, some pork sausages, a chunk of Pecorino and a jar of bottarga – grated sun-dried roe of the red mullet, which can be used as a garnish on pasta, and something else that I'd be hankering to try.

A little of the precious lardo was used to cook the sausages in the evening, serving them with cannellini beans that I'd cooked together with a small tin of plum tomatoes, and some gnocchi from a packet that had been in the cupboard for some time, waiting to be tried.

Not a difficult meal by any stretch of the imagination, but a tasty one. The sausages were excellent and the vegetables and gnocchi worked well too.

But it's going to be a long time before I forget that amazing first taste of Lardo di Colonnata.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Cutting out the additives

It was something of a shock to discover, not so long ago, that table salt often contains aluminum hydroxide, which is added to make the salt pour better. Yet this is something that has been suggested as a potential cause of Alzheimer’s.

The source for this discovery (which I suspect a load of you out there already know) was Raymond Blanc.

There’s always a tub or bag of table salt in the cupboard: I’ve tended to use it for cooking vegetables and pasta, and for when I salt cod.

No more. After reading that information, I lost any remote sense of appetite for such a product. I was already using Maldon sea salt for the table (ironic, eh?) and there was a tub of course sea salt in the cupboard too, so it was hardly as though I was suddenly sans salt.

I haven’t touched the table salt since that time and, last night, the remaining salt itself was poured down the drain and the tub tossed into the recycling crate.

It makes me feel that I’m rather dopey not to have known already. Or rather, I knew that such salts had additives in to stop the salt caking, but it hadn’t really crossed my mind to find out just what they were or to consider that they might be linked to such a serious health condition.

It’s not the only thing I’ve stopped using – or am attempting to do so.

I’d heard years ago – although have scant memory for the detail – that artificial sweeteners have all sorts of questions hanging over them too. Some time ago, I stopped using any in tea or coffee, concluding that it was better to use straightforward granulated sugar.

At the same time, I started drinking more Earl Grey, which I need nothing added to, and camomile, which is also just fine neat. In recent weeks, I’ve stopped taking any sugar in drinks.

The biggest difficulty is Diet Coke or Pepsi. It’s not that I’m addicted, but there are times when I really do want a can of fizz and I’m used to picking up a diet variety.

A quick Google search for ‘health issues aspartame’ reveals a lot of links. There have been claims, over a number of years, that artificial sweeteners can even contribute to weight gain.

Research has suggested that it’s safe, but various governments (at local and national level) have considered banning it, while some supermarket chains have stopped using it in their own-brand foods.

Now, I’m no expert, so I don’t know the rights or wrongs of the claims and counter-claims.

But it does make one think: ‘why risk it?’ Or even if there’s no risk, why bother adding something so completely artificial to one’s food?

I don’t want to get obsessive, but the more I read and the more I think about such things, it seems sensible to maintain as much control over what you consume as possible. And I even have some anecdotal experience to back this up.

Some years ago, a colleague and I did an experiment. The pub over the road from where we worked served Carling on tap. That was what we drank after we'd got the paper away, in the face of the best efforts of a computer network that crashed regularly and with no warning.

But a discussion one evening revealed that both of us suffered headaches or, in my case, odd dreams after even a pint.

We resolved to spend a month drinking the bitter – even though it was from a keg. In all that time, the symptoms that we'd noticed ceased.

I haven't drunk Carling since and, in the years since then, I learned about the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law of 1516, which said that the only things that a brewer could put into beer were barley, hops, malt and water. What a fantastic (and amazingly obvious) idea – and it's still around, which is why you can drink Becks and never get a really bad head.

Not that the Germans – who know a thing or two about beer – are unique on this score: Czech Budvar is the same: strong and with a serious taste, it still doesn't leave me with any unpleasant dreams or thumping heads.

And after all, it’s hardly as if un-processed food and drink with no additives are boring or bland!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lessons in taste

One of the most rewarding things about investing time in thinking and reading about food is that the learning process does bear fruit.

Alongside actual cooking, it really helps to change a recipe book-cook into one who can cook with passion, as Nigel Slater might put it.

Last night was a case in point.

Having bought pigeon breasts at the weekend with a view to serving a mid-week warm salad, I’d very lightly browsed the web for some specific ideas.

Nothing shot out of the blue, demanding to be made.

But ideas can be taken and used once you start to understand what they’re on about.

So later, it was no difficulty to rustle up something that was tasty, quick and not difficult.

So for two, take a large shallot, chop finely and soften in some rapeseed oil. Add some lardons and leave them to start caramelising before moving around.

Make sure your pigeon breasts are nice and dry.

Share out some leaves on serving plates: I used endive, watercress and lamb’s lettuce.

Heat oil or lard and fry a slice of bread that you’ve diced into croutons.

Cook the pigeon breasts quickly in a hot pan. They need to be pink inside.

Decant your shallot and lardon mixture onto the plates. Then add the pigeon breasts and drizzle raspberry vinegar over.

Top with the croutons and serve with crusty bread. Voila!

The shallots and two meats here are sweet, so the raspberry vinegar is tart enough to cut through that and strong enough not to be overwhelmed by the pigeon.

The leaves add a bitter contrast and the croutons add texture.

We all use words to understand what we’re experiencing, and we have to do that by comparing things to something we already know. So when you’re trying to use words to describe a wine you’re tasting, for instance, you can end up with ‘like fresh-mown grass’ and ‘like petrol’ and things that can seem crazy.

I tried a big red wine from South Africa last year after it was suggested by a member of staff in the wine section of a shop. He pointed out that everyone tastes differently – and since everyone’s taste experiences will differ at least a bit, then their ways of describing tastes and smells will be subjective too.

But I admit to being chuffed to pieces when he almost applauded as I said that the first thing that struck me about the wine in my glass was burnt toast. Subjective possibly, but it felt like the ‘right’ answer.

When I ate ostrich for the first time, it was different from anything I’d tasted before. So how to describe that? I eventually came up with saying that it was like a gamey beef. But how would you understand that if you didn’t know what ‘gamey’ meant?

Raymond Blanc’s A Taste of My Life made me start trying to think more about flavours and, as I hope I’ve shown above, it really can help when it comes to putting together even a simple, midweek supper.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Lemon and lard: a match made in heaven?

Monday’s TOIL (time off in lieu) brought with it the opportunity for a spot of culinary endeavour.

And it started with a pleasantly lazy breakfast: fried bread and eggs – cooked experimentally for me – in lard.

Was ever there such a dirty word?

Back in February, Oliver Thring discussed that much maligned substance in his weekly Guardian column.

It was just at a time when I was starting to pick up some information surrounding the demonisation of animal fats in our diet and piece two and two together, and one of the things that hit me was just what very negative ideas I had about some fats.

Okay, not goose fat or duck fat perhaps, but that's because of the glow of Frenchness they have. But lard is so very northern; so very lumpen and unsophisticated, isn't it?

Look at the advert here and imagine that sort of an advertising campaign now.

We've been hoodwinked, you and I, into seeing lard – and other fats, including butter – as bad.

However, although I’ve barely used it since I read that article in February, there was some in the fridge.

Jennifer McLagen’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes is a book that’s well worth thumbing through. Not just for the recipes – although the salted butter caramel tart that I’ve made thus far is utterly scrummy – but perhaps particularly for what else is included on the pages.

Part history, part science, McLagen looks at the forgotten health benefits of animal fats. Personally, I had no idea, for instance, just how many nutrients such fats included, having been convinced that saturated fats as a whole contained essentially ‘empty’ calories.

She even goes on to explain the molecular differences between different fats.

Now all this might seem a bit pointless for most of us, but it makes for valuable education when you’ve grown up pretty much alongside that process of demonisation.

Setting aside the health issue and diet myths though, McLagen also makes clear the role that fats play in taste – and also the suitability of certain fats for cooking.

Lard, as it happens, is very good to cook with because it’s so stable.

My fried bread was beautifully crisp, while the eggs were lusciously smooth, cooked beautifully and tasting wonderful. A breakfast that left me very happily sated.

But I’d also been wondering what else to do on the kitchen front and, given the egg whites remaining from Saturday’s culinary exploits (lemon gelato) had decided that this would be the perfect time to make my first attempt at meringue. And in keeping with the taste theme of recent days, I was contemplating a lemon meringue pie.

An internal debate then followed over which recipe to use: go for the simplicity of Delia or the greater complexity of Michel Roux?

I decided that it would be pastry from Roux’s book – but with lard substituted for some of the butter, as per Delia.

The filling and topping would be straight from Roux, which would mean making an Italian meringue – in other words, creating a syrup (including liquid gelatin) and adding this, at a specific temperature, to the whipped egg whites. But okay – I’m not a kitchen scaredy cat any more. I can do complicated things – and I have a jam thermometer.

The pastry veered close to disaster and was a nightmare to roll, as it was so sticky. That, I suspect, was partly because I’d let the fats get too warm before mixing. Fortunately, I had enough to make a second effort to roll and line the tin – and it just about worked.

Then, being a dipstick – and slightly frazzled by this juncture – I forgot to turn the temperature of the oven down from what was required to blind bake the pastry to what was required to cook the filled tart.

I realised about 40 minutes into a 1 hour 20 minute cook, when a glance in the oven showed something that had a rather unexpectedly brown hue on top. Since it was already set to the touch, I whacked the oven off completely and left it in to cool with the oven for a further 20 minutes or so, before bringing it out and, after another spell, removing it from the flan dish.

To compound matters, I then managed to stick a finger into the filling. Still, at least that proved that it was cooked – and still edible.

So meringue will have to wait for another day – it didn’t seem worth the effort after all that. I sprinkled caster sugar on top and simply caramelised that with my blow torch.

Remarkably for something that you think must be inherently fragile, it survived and proved edible. The filling is light as a feather and very fresh. The pastry was crisp and tasty.

There are questions about much modern lard, in that most of it is hydrogenated. But then again, McLagen makes the case – and gives the instructions – for rendering your own. It's not difficult, and it does mean a greater level of control over what you are cooking with and eating. I am seriously tempted to try.

But in the meantime, who knew that lemons and lard could make such a marriage – even given the hitches at the wedding?

Monday, 23 May 2011

Tesco meets street art

A judicial review of the decision to open a new Tesco Express in part of Bristol, which caused rioting in April, is to to be held in June.

Meanwhile, campaigners have called for further clarification on the classification of supermarkets for planning purposes, and the government has decided that the situation is so serious that it's asked TV's retail 'guru' Mary Portas to revive the British high street (only seven months after HM's loyal opposition said it would be looking at policy on the issue – itself only a year after I overheard the now leader of HM's loyal opposition being told about the impact of supermarkets on small businesses).

For a start, Ms Portas will hopefully tell government to stop the situation where supermarkets can build massive carparks, for which they charge nothing, while many town centres have been pedestrianised (not of itself a bad thing), with parking difficult and/or costly, meaning that drivers are effectively punished for shopping in town centres, but not at vast out-of-town supermarkets.

It would also be nice to see some sort of controls on landlords who simply decide that, because Clone Town can bring more money, they drive up rents to deliberately drive out independent businesses and replace them with franchises. Scales of economy (in this case, the capacity of big chains to pay much more than small businesses for rent) should not be the used at the expense of choice and variety.

I felt that it was worth updating readers of this blog, since they may remember my comments about the story here – but also because it offered a sublime opportunity to post Bristolian Banksy's artistic comment on the riots.

Let's face it – every little helps, eh?

And in the meantime, there are a few interesting thoughts here.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Let's hear it for the lemons

Has anyone else been watching Two Greedy Italians on BBC2 over the last few weeks?

Old friends Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo went back to Italy to visit four areas and talk about the food. Okay, they don’t just talk about it – they cook and eat it.

But the trip is not one where gastronomy is a stand-alone motivation: they meet old friends and family, they share stories of their lives before leaving for the UK.

This is not about food in isolation, but about food as a part of life, of love, of family, of friendship. And what it achieves, starting with the title itself, is a sense of vibrancy and earthiness and sensual pleasure that is an absolute joy to behold. There is poignancy in places, but ultimately, this is a celebration.

And the food is simple and gutsy and full of bold flavours.

There was a scene in the second episode when the pair sat there eating lemons they’d plucked from a tree – peel and all.

Now that could leave a northern European quite shocked.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been drifting toward buying more organic fruit and veg than previously. I noticed with organic Jersey Royals that that the flavour was better.

And then there were the lemons I bought last weekend. A softer yellow, knobblier by far than any you’d find in a supermarket and obviously unwaxed. The aroma when you cut into them absolutely sang.

During the week, we squeezed some on pan-fried tuna and some on grilled lamb chops. Lovely stuff.

And when I opened a bottle of Sicilian-style lemonade (made in France) that I’d picked up as an impulse buy, it was a million miles away from most of what I’ve ever tasted that has been called lemonade.

I have a jar of preserved lemons in to try a couple of Morrocan-style salads from Rick Stein’s Mediterranean – that’ll be different. It might not be eating peel in the same way that Carluccio and Contaldo did in the series, but since I’ve never done it before, it’ll still be a whole new culinary experience.

Natives of Asia, lemons made their European debut near southern Italy, no later than the 1st century AD, during the time of ancient Rome, before being introduced to Persia and Egypt.

The first mentions of lemons in literature are in a 10th century Arabic treatise on farming, and trees were used as an ornamental plant in early Islamic gardens.

But it wasn’t until the middle of the 15th century that the first major cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa.

In recent years, lemons have become something that I always have in the house. But I'm only just discovering that not all lemons are equal.

In a fit of lemony enthusiasm yesterday, I bought a load of the organic ones mentioned above.

First, the juice and zest of three went into a first attempt at gelato, the Italian ice cream that uses an egg custard as its base. It's not perfect: letting concentration slip for mere seconds, I barely saved the custard from boiling, and I need to work on the freezing process; it's a tad too icy. But the taste ...

The other thing I did, while The Other Half was biting his nails over a last-kick Challenge Cup victory for the Castleford Tigers at Wakefield, was to have another go at pasta.

Ravioli again, but this time with proper pasta flour – it's much finer. I used 125g of flour to one egg – and a few drops of chilled water. It was much more elastic – which is how you see it on TV – and seemed a little easier to roll.

The stuffing this time was a mixture of ricotta cheese, pine nuts, Parmesan, a little crème fraïche and lemon zest.

The pasta was thinner this time and I used an off cut to check when it was cooked, throwing that in the pan of boiling water with the ravioli themselves.

The sauce was simple – just some sage leaves fried in good butter and a squeeze of lemon to finish. That was not bad at all. Practice will improve my pasta skills, but it was good to try again so soon, while I still have ideas in my mind about what I did previously.

And if lemon had become an important ingredient for me in the last few years, it might just have moved into a higher pantheon of foods with the experimentation of the last week.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Lessons from Italy

Practise makes perfect, so they say. Well even if doesn’t actually bring about perfection, it’s essential in the kitchen.

For some reason or other, I seem to have an inbuilt belief that, if I follow a recipe closely, it’ll turn out exactly right – even if it’s the first time that I’ve attempted that dish and it requires skills I’ve never learnt.

By now you’d think I’d know better. It wasn’t until I’d actually eaten risotto in a restaurant, for instance, that I could understand what al dente really meant in terms of the rice. And if you don’t understand that, then you really shouldn’t hope to know how to cook this famous dish.

Pasta is the same. I’ve tried making my own pasta in the past – once – but made it too thick. Last weekend, I decided to give it another go.

Now there’s nowt wrong with dried pasta and I’ve no great desire to make little bows: what I want to get into is the flavoured stuff – tagliatelle and pappardelle, for instance – and the filled pastas like ravioli.

Quite apart from anything else, this screams of the opportunity for masses of culinary creativity and experimentation with flavour. Even more so when you remember that The Other Half doesn’t like cheese, so such classic fillings as ricotta and spinach are off the menu.

Browsing through A Taste of Italy, a recipe for ravioli with a traditional meat filling had caught the eye.

We had ravioli at home when I was a child – the tinned stuff from Heinz, in gloopy, orangy tomato sauce.

At the weekend, I’d just minced down the remains of a leg of lamb and decided to adjust the recipe to use some of that. It takes quite some cooking – long and slow – with onion and garlic and tomato purée and stock. After simmering away under cover for nearly an hour, you take the lid off, turn up the heat and reduce the liquid until it’s really quite dry. Let it cool – and then beat an egg into it.

But let’s consider the pasta itself.

Since I now have a good mixer, I decided to use that. So, 250g decent plain flour and two eggs. Mistake number one was in assuming that, since pasta dough is – well, a dough, I’d be best advised to use the dough hook.

Wrong. All that was created was a mess that refused to come together properly (even with chilled water added) and, when I pressed it together by hand, was a grainy lump, with plenty of flour that hadn’t been blended in.

It was back to square one – and using the ordinary beater this time.

Having got that far – and then kneaded by a hand for a couple of minutes – you leave it then to rest in the bowl under a tea towel.

And then comes the rolling out.

There is a picture, in Jamie’s Italy, of Mr Oliver with a group of Italian ladies of indeterminate age, all with their rolling pins, ready for some pasta contest.

Some of the pins were huge. Their muscles must have been like Popeye’s. I’d bought a better rolling pin and this made it a easier to put some real weight behind it. But boy. It’s hard work!

Lesson one is to pay attention to the recipe and not assume that, just because I’d used half quantities, it wouldn’t benefit from being cut in half (or quarters) for rolling (you can keep the rest under a damp, clean tea towel).

I thought perhaps I’d got it thin enough – but I need more practice; and not in a year’s time when I’ve forgotten the lessons of last weekend. Not that I’m short of ideas.

Because The Other Half doesn’t eat cheese, I’ve been trying to think of classic-style ravioli fillings, other than meat ones, that don’t involve cheese. I want to try flaked crab meat, with lemon zest and paprika, bound together with a little crème fraiche, which should also provide some moisture.

But the next question is that of fitting a pasta dish like this into the structure of a meal: do you have to search for some way to add vegetables to it? Does it demand a big sauce?

What I did on Sunday was to try to take lessons from Italy. We started with asparagus, cooked in a slightly different way that I’d just read about: spears lying flat in barely enough water to cover; bring to the boil, give around four minutes (less if they’re very thin – but test).

The smaller amount of water and the lack of a ‘shock’ to the vegetable of starting it in boiling water does seem to help preserve the taste better. I’ve done it this way three times now, with asparagus from different places, and it’s worked well each time.

That was served simply with a drizzle of Balsamico and a sprinkle of course salt – which works a treat. You can add shavings of Parmesan or Pecorino if you like.

I’d made the ravioli in advance – you can leave them on a dish, dusted with cornflour and covered in a tea towel, until you’re ready to cook. Then it was a matter of just a few minutes in salted, boiling water (memo to self – use the largest pan you have next time). Test to make sure it’s cooked.

They were still too thick – but with a decent taste. The meat filling worked. It was served simply with a drizzle of my best virgin oil.

And for dessert, some strawberries, with a first taste of the strawberry ice cream I’d made that morning.

I like the simplicity of such a meal – but it relies on decent ingredients.

Next time, I may be less ambitious and simply try to make some pasta ribbons before moving to the more complex types. It’s as big a business as making puff pastry: rolling into a circle, then folding over and rolling again – a number of times. And you need to allow yourself far more time than I did on Sunday.

But like so many other things in the kitchen, it’s a rewarding feeling to find that you can make something like this on your own – even it needs practice to make it at least better next time around!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The cause of obesity? Well it isn't feminism

It was with something perilously close to a guffaw of absolute disbelief that I read an article the other day – Tweeted at me by The Other Half – that asserted that the blame for rising childhood obesity in Britain can be laid firmly at the door of feminism.

Now many of you will probably already be able to guess that such an article could only find a home in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Feminism is, for the Mail, something that can be blamed for many things.

This article (which was published penned last autumn), posits the view that feminism made home cooking (which was obviously always done by women) seem ‘unfair’ – and therefore women stopped doing it.

Just like that. And so supermarkets stepped in and started making us all eat rubbish.

Just like that.

The piece was penned by one Rose Prince, who smirks out at readers from the pages as she pods peas and stirs something in a pot on the stove.

Her wishy washy waffle about women as ‘nurturers’ and food needing to be ‘nurturing’ and women needing to cooking ‘nurturing’ food because they’re the natural ‘nurturers’ is vomit-inducing. She actually calls for a revival of “the gentle art of feminine food”.

It’s enough to put you off your nosh.

She conveniently ignores a number of things.

One is the state of work-life balance in the UK – but then again, this is the paper that, in recent weeks, boasted that we now work seven hours longer than we did before Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (it’s one of the best bits of her legacy, apparently). Even though our nearest Continental neighbours, the French, might work far, far few hours and still have a far greater GDP (ours has fallen in the years since 1979), it’s just the fact that we work longer that’s important, right?

In general, we have a perverse attitude toward food, seeing it mostly as fuel and not one of life’s great pleasures.

The article assumes a rosy-hued nostalgia about ‘mother’s home cooking’ that ignores the reality for many women – that it was a chore, a duty; not something done for the love of it or the pleasure.

My own mother is a case in point. Food was something that she paid attention to, but with no pleasure. She taught her own children little in the kitchen, except a few basic chores, and withdrew them from domestic science at school, viewing it as a waste of time and money.

She was nobody’s definition of a feminist – and certainly not of the sort that Rose Prince is trying to clumsily throw blame at. She believed very much in ‘a wife’s place’; in a very traditional family set up; in a mother’s responsibilities. That was why she cooked.

But most certainly not with any sense of pleasure – and thus she handed on no pleasure to her daughters.

Nowadays, freed from needing to cater for children and with a slightly better income, she often buys ready-made meals from M&S (which she considers to be vastly better than supermarkets) – or still struggles to put together even something quite basic.

Yet on the other hand, my sister, who was as uninspired by food as I was by the time we each left home, has produced a daughter who loves cooking. Yet my niece is very much more a ‘feminist’ than her mother. But what she has learnt is the pleasure of food, not to see it simply as fuel or in terms of dieting analysis – 356 kcals, 15 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat; Y grams of simple carbs, Z grams of starchy carbs etc.

For women, dieting has also often seen food been their number one enemy in the constant battle to have the sort of figure that the Mail pretends all women should aspire to – with no cellulite either.

And much of the reason why this article is so infuriating is that this is the same Mail that also, year after year, publishes faddy diets aimed at women alone. When you’re fretting about how many calories a bowl of steamed cabbage contains – and how to make it taste better without adding anything with any calories – you are not enjoying your food.

But another way of illustrating how crass Ms Prince’s idea is, is to take a look across the Channel. That’s France, a place with one or two feminists and where they enjoy their food and take it seriously, and where many more women (and men) still cook at home than do here.

Indeed, France provides a very interesting example of just why obesity is rising, as it’s rising there too, in places where work patterns and lifestyles are changing to ones that are more recognisable in the US and UK.

But it’s also an irritating article because it avoids any serious answers, and simply adds to the nonsense that’s spouted – some of it by supposedly authoritative sources.

The Seven Countries Study is a case in point. In the 1940s, a Dr Ancel Keys suggested that there was a link between high-fat diets, increased cholesterol and heart disease.

After a limited study in Minnesota, he carried out a similar study, over a number of years, for what is now known as the Seven Countries Study, which proved the link that he’d earlier posited. It remains the only research showing such ‘proof’, yet has massively influenced (and continues to do so) the attitude to and advice around eating in many countries, particularly the UK and US. In the latter, his findings were readily accepted because there had been an unexplained surge in heart attacks.

There are a number of issues with Key’s research (he only studied males, for instance), but the biggest one should have seen his findings thrown out on day one.

The Seven Countries Study is wrongly named – it was, in fact, the 22 countries study. But Keys didn’t like the findings from 15 of the countries (including France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands), so he just ‘forgot’ the results and pretended that his findings provided 100% proof of his idea.

Is it mere coincidence that obesity has risen since fats in general and saturated fats in particular have been demonised?

Is it a coincidence that obesity has risen in the years since we were told to cuts as many fats as possible – and use artificial alternatives such as margarine and spray-on fat for cooking (the same can be asked of sugar alternatives)?

Is it a coincidence that obesity has risen since we were told to eat more carbs instead of fats?

Is it any coincidence that Proctor & Gamble quietly sold off the profitable Crisco brand of solidified vegetable fat after work by Dr Mary Enig showed how bad hydrogenated and trans fats were for humans? *

Is it coincidence, given the different diet cultures, that rates of cholesterol are about the same in France and the UK – but the latter has far more heart disease? *

None of this is because of ‘feminism’.

Why is any of this important? Why is it worth writing about what something like the Mail publishes?

It’s important, if for no other reason than that the lies need to be shown up for what they are. That includes the simply silly – particularly when it’s published in a publication that actually furthers the problems it claims to address by encouraging the self-hatred and fear of pleasure that contribute to these very problems and, indeed, to a life-denying culture that sees our role increasingly as living to work and living to buy, and as glorified lab rats with money for big pharmaceutical companies and big food retail.

* See Cholesterol & The French Paradox by Frank Cooper.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Strawberry days are booming

There can be few single things more redolent of an English summer than strawberries. And at the same time, few things are more generally disappointing these days.

Even when you play the seasonality game and wait until British fruits are in the shops, all too often, they’re a pale shadow of what your memory tells you they should be like.

I’ve had a few punnets already this year – the early warmth means a bumper crop – but none of them have beaten the ones we had yesterday. A 400g box for £1.50 from our local organic shop.

There was no label, so I don’t know what variety they are, and while some of them might have fitted the supermarket looks and shape criteria, some most certainly would not have.

But one thing was certain – taste they had by the bucketload. Lucious gems; juicy and sweet, yet with just a touch of acidity.

I went back up Broadway Market this morning and bought more. Because when you have such a chance, at that sort of price, it’s a shame to waste it.

Now I know that Waitrose is not the cheapest supermarket chain around – although these days, they boast that they can match the price of Tesco on many items – but today, its ‘essential’ (cheapest range) strawberries are £1.99 for 400g, organic strawberries are £2.99 for 250g and a 400g pack of ‘speciality’ strawberries is £3.99.

They’re ‘special’, because they’re “Driscoll® Magdalena™” (I kid you not), a new variety from California that is apparently “picked for its fine quality, intensely sweet flavour and classic shape”, according to the website of Ocado, which delivers Waitrose goods in areas that the supermarket itself does not yet cover.

As Joanna Blythman points out in Shopped: the shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets, supermarkets will charge you a premium for flavour.

And such a statement also effectively admits that the store's other strawberries are not picked for their "fine quality, intensely sweet flavour and classic shape".

But putting that aside for the moment, what was I going to do with an extra 800g of great-value fruit?

Easy. I planned to make ice cream. Well, I was actually contemplating making gelato, an Italian ice cream with a custard base. My big, basic Italian cookbook had recipes for both lemon and coffee gelato and I’d been hovering between the two when contemplating yesterday morning’s shopping expedition.

But then, what with everything else that was going on, that had been put on hold. In the evening, however, we’d had a bowl of strawberries with cream, and an idea took shape.

Now I’ve never been a fan of strawberry ice cream – mostly because it always seems to taste so artificial, so completely unlike the real deal.

Which given its popularity as an ice cream flavour, possibly says something about how denuded our tastebuds have become in general over recent decades.

Before we visited Venice last year, I read somewhere that, while Italians most certainly know how to make ice cream, even there, there is good stuff and less-than-good stuff.

The article gave a hint: if you’re visiting an ice cream parlour, look for the banana flavour. If it’s a vibrant yellow, it’s an artificial flavour.

If it’s a sort of grey-white, it’ll be a very natural flavour.

Who’d want to eat ice cream that looked a bit gray? But then again, if you think about it, what makes us think of yellow in terms of a banana is inedible.

We have developed ideas about what colours look edible – even when we’d never think twice while actually peeling and eating a real banana.

The garden strawberry was first bred in France in the 18th century – a cross between varieties from North and South America.

There are many varieties – and many of them are better than the ubiquitous Elsanta, which might keep well and look good by supermarket standards, but almost always tastes incredibly bland.

Only a few days ago, I was reading an article where the question was even asked as to whether it’s true that sugar is sometimes pumped into the fruits to make them sweeter.

Now, I don’t know whether there’s any truth in this, but the thought is a dreadful one. What a crazy world when you grow something so poorly that you then have to inject it with something else to make it taste more as it should.

But let’s get back to the ice cream.

It couldn’t be easier. After browsing the internet briefly, I opted for a James Martin recipe.

Take 600g of hulled, sliced strawberries and blitz them to a purée.

Take 600ml of double cream and mix with 280g of caster sugar.

Mix the purée into that.

Martin's recipe uses an ice cream maker, but it's perfectly easy without one. Just decant into a container (mine made over a litre) and pop in the freezer. After an hour, get it out and fork around to make sure you don’t get any ice crystals. Repeat until fully frozen.

In mine, I stirred in a few extra, diced strawberries just at the end. After all, it's difficult to have too much real strawberry goodness.

Goethe apparently said: "One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste."

But they're not a childish or frivolous food – like so many other fruits, for instance, they have vast nutritional value and are an antioxidant. And for sheer taste, the 'natural' ones are the best by far.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Musings under a blue moon that's rising

In the course of a massively important week on the football front, I've found myself musing, not for the first time, on the whole business of being a fan.

Not on being a fan of the game in general, but on being a fan of a particular club. Note that I didn’t say ‘team’, because the team changes. What we attach ourselves to is the club and whatever that club represents for us.

I have vague memories of nailing my colours to Manchester City’s mast. It was the early ’70s and my new school (all girls) was divided along sporting lines. You either liked speedway or football and, if the latter, then it was City or United. For some reason, I plumped for the Blues.

My mother had little interest in football, preferring rugby league and cricket – her sole concession being a soft spot for Liverpool when they’re winning.

My father is a lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan. During his training for the church, he lived in both London and Manchester, and watched Arsenal, Tottenham, City and United.

So my own allegiance didn’t come from any family commitment.

My choice itself – which followed brief spells as a Chelsea fan (when we lived in west London as the ’60s came to a close) and later as a Leeds fan during the Revie days – holds no surprise for me.

What does surprise me, even now, is how that has lasted; how it has stuck with me, when so little else of my past has stuck. But I could no sooner change that allegiance now than I could the colour of my blood. In fact, dying my blood would probably be easier.

There have been moments – more than a few – where I’ve declared myself finished; that I’ve had enough of watching ‘typical Citeh’ – a well-worn complaint as, over decades, we developed a capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (or at least a draw).

It’s been more than an ability – a psyche, rather, of failure and low expectation that seemed to infect the entire club and every player who ever pulled on the sky blue shirt. If we went a goal down, you could walk out in the sure knowledge that heads would drop and we'd have no chance of getting back into the contest.

And yet in the face of such consistent failure and disappointment for 30-odd years, there was no mass desertion of the club, but a development amongst the faithful of a self-deprecating, gallows humour – and the sort of total bonkersness that revealed itself years ago when inflatable giant bananas were first waved above the terraces at Maine Road, and now has a new form in the Poznan.

This was learnt from Polish team Lech Poznan when they visited Eastlands last autumn for a Europa Cup tie.

In essence – well, this is what the instructions on my t-shirt say – turn around, link up with the people on either side of you and “bounce”.

At Wembley last month, shortly before the semi-final against Manchester United, the teams were being announced over the tannoy.

As the nominally ‘home’ side, the Blues team was named first.

We applauded and cheered, as is the norm. But the norm also usually means booing the opposition players when they’re named.

Something else happened. I don’t know how, but it was almost as though it was the result of a mass telepathic episode: we turned our backs on the stadium, put our arms around our neighbours’ shoulders and, as one report put it the following day, “turned Wembley into a blue bouncy castle”.

The United fans booed. They stopped cheering their own players and booed us. In retrospect, it was the first psychological battle of the day – and we’d won it.

We did it again, later, after Yaya scored and after the final whistle. The players and coaching staff did it too as we celebrated.

If Manchester is a party city, then City can be a party club.

And if you think the Poznan sounds mad, then it gets madder when you realise that, as a shortarse between two very tall blokes, my little feet were pretty much off the floor for the entire time that we bounced.

I’d seen City at Wembley before, in May 1999, when we – very unusually at the time – managed to snatch victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat in the Division II play-off final, going from 2-0 down against Gillingham, with just six minutes left on the clock, to 2-2 after a remarkable six minutes of ‘Fergie time’, and then winning on penalties after extra time produced no goals.

It was in my days as a sports hackette, so I was in the press box: no colours, no shows of emotion; everything that I was feeling hidden under the desk as my legs couldn’t stay still, while I attempted to make professional notes above it.

When Nicky Weaver saved the final penalty, at least two thirds of the press box were revealed to be Blues in disguise. At the end of my row, an elderly man in a flat cap and raincoat suddenly hauled open his mack to reveal a City scarf.

The young man next to me – I have no idea who he was – jumped up and we hugged. It was crazy. Later, I slipped into the ladies, changed into a City t-shirt and marched down the road until I hit a bar, overflowing with fans, where I was welcomed as one of the family. It was rather late that night when I eventually wended back home.

On Tuesday night, we came out on top at the end of a cagey encounter with Tottenham, guaranteeing us a place in next season’s Champions’ League for the first time in the club’s history.

Tomorrow afternoon, we're back at Wembley to play Stoke City in the final of the FA Cup.

I can barely think about that: we’ve not won a pot since 1976 and I’m light years from being overly confident. It’ll be a tough, tough game against very difficult and competent opponents, who’ll want it every bit as much as we do.

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be there in the flesh. All hope has not quite been extinguished – I’m still clutching some straws – but the ticket allocation from the FA for the match was 10,000 less than for the semi-final – and for some reason, Stoke have received a larger ticket allocation, even though they have fewer season ticket holders than we do.

I’ll certainly be there in spirit, though – and possibly watching somewhere with other fans, where we can ‘do the Poznan’ if the opportunity arises. A City-supporting friend told me today that, on Tuesday night, he had a text from a friend who'd been watching in a pub and doing the Poznan all on his own. Did I tell you we were mad?

In the last decade or so, I’ve shed labels and badges, and refused to be locked into any pigeon hole. The only tribe that I happily declare myself part of is City.

I arrived at the stadium for the semi-final early and decided that, rather than stand outside for an hour, I’d get through the gate and have a drink in one of the bars inside.

As soon as I’d got a beer in my hand, I was ‘adopted’ by other fans. It is extraordinary, this sense that on some strange level, we’re a sort of vast family.

I’d been incredibly nervous, but the atmosphere eased me. By the time I took my seat, I was more relaxed – and had realised something more than ever before: I had a role to play, a responsibility, as we all did, to be that 12th man for the players on the pitch.

I’d never felt that so strongly before. Of course, winning makes everything feel better, but it was a glorious day and experience.

And one of the things that that attachment to a club gives you is the chance to let off steam in a way that is not particularly the norm in our society these days. I was hoarse after the semi, but a sense of relaxation lasted for days.

Whatever happens tomorrow, there’s a blue moon rising. My eyes were a little moist at the end of Tuesday night’s game. I have no idea, if we lift the FA Cup tomorrow, just how I’ll react, but – fingers crossed – it could be fun finding out and I make no promises that it wouldn't be bonkers.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The joy of a good spring roast

Is there anything much better suited to a Sunday dinner at this time of year than roast lamb?

There’s that wonderfully reassuring sense of a roast, while the season offers plenty of wonderful accompaniments on the vegetable front.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been wanting to do a big spring roast. But for various reasons, it’s not been possible.

At Easter, when it would have felt so apt, we were going away so shortly after the Sunday that there was no point in buying a big joint for the two of us.

Last week, neither of the butchers who I could have bought lamb from were at Broadway Market, since it was another bank holiday weekend. I had to settle – oh, woe is me! – for a piece of brisket, which was perfectly good.

But it wasn’t lamb.

This weekend finally presented the perfect opportunity.

I picked up a leg from Henry Tidiman, the local butcher and one of the very few traders to have survived the bad times until the revival of the market.

A hulking piece of meat, it weighed in at 2.438kg – thank goodness I’ve finally got scales that can deal with more then 900g.

For something like this, Delia always does the business with basic cooking instructions.

Adjusting for my fan oven, her ever-reliable instructions start with half an hour at 190˚ and then 30 minutes per 450g at 160˚.

And that was the end of the specific book use.

I took a load of fresh rosemary, mint and flat leaf parsley, plus three cloves of garlic, and blitzed it all, adding some salt and then some olive oil to bind it together.

Once that’s done, slap it on the meat – okay, not so much a ‘slapping’, as a rather more careful business, but you get the gist.

Into a big roasting tin went the meat, with a little cold water the logic of that being that it would help to create a nice jus. And then into the oven it went.

I have no head for maths, and a notebook page was needed to scrawl down the calculations for cooking times.

After half an hour, the temperature was reduced. Then it got two and a quarter hours. During that time, a few Jersey Royals were scraped and par-boiled (15 minutes).

When the time was up, four new carrots and four baby turnips (wiped) were added to the roasting tin, together with a slug of vermouth.

Half an hour after that, the meat came out for resting, and potatoes, a couple of artichoke hearts and a few asparagus tips were added and the tin placed back in the oven for a further 10 minutes.

After that, the only thing left (apart from carving, which was a doddle), was to pour all the juices and liquid into one of those fat separating jugs and drain off the fat.

The meat was lovely – people rave about pork crackling when done well, but crisped lamb skin, light as a feather and so, so sweet, is just gorgeous.

The crust worked well, the jus was right and the vegetables had roasted perfectly, cooked but still retaining enough bite.

Dessert was a Sarah Raven rhubarb syllabub – a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of main course and now one of an increasing number of dishes that I can make without recourse to any book.

There is, obviously, a lot of meat left. But this accords absolutely with my plans – and my current aim of trying to avoid midweek supermarket shopping as much as possible.

With the mincing machine I now have, there are plenty of options for using this wonderful joint throughout the week in a variety of ways.

And making the most of it is something that will actually be rather exciting – and definitely enjoyable – in the coming days.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Forget the weather - light the fire

It was hardly perfect braai weather. After a heavy rain shower this morning, I'd nipped up to Broadway Market as the skies cleared and the sun shucked off its grey cover, but as the afternoon wore on, the clouds returned, even as the temperature stayed high.

For various reasons, the last couple of weeks don't really seem to have produced much in the way of major cooking experiences. That's actually slightly deceptive, since I managed, a couple of weeks ago, to cure some pork chops to reasonable effect - a first such effort.

Yet today has had the feeling of being the first 'proper' shopping and cooking Saturday for some time.

Not that that has meant that I've actually done any cooking.

For some time, The Other Half and I have been contemplating the first barbecue - or braai - of the season. To be more specific, we'd been contemplating something that The Other Half has never done before - a fish feast cooked over the glowing coals.

The inspiration was last summer's trip to Collioure - and the boat trip on the Med down to the border with Spain, during which the captain had cooked us sardines on a little fire on board.

Until then, The Other Half has never been inspired to cook fish, but with Cornish sardines now available, it was a perfect opportunity. To three each of them, I added a small piece of line-caught tuna.

By the time the barbecue was hauled from beneath its cover for the first time this year, the weather had already changed direction, setting course for the forecast rain.

Nothing was going to alter our plans, though, and the simple solution was to cook outside and then eat inside, with green olives, slices of baguette and a bowl of the best virgin oil I have with a pool of dipping Balsamico in its midst, plus glasses of rosé on the side.

Captain Eric had cooked his sardines with just a little dried thyme and olive oil. In the absence of any of the former in the cupboard, these were done with oil, fresh thyme, oregano, some flat leaf parsley and some garlic. The tuna was done in oil, pimenton and a little piri piri (I'd forgotten there was even any in!).

And my goodness, weren't they good! Perhaps the simplest meal we've eaten for some time - a real reminder of the taste of the Roussillon.

Before we'd eaten those sardines while afloat, I'd always had problems with bony fish - a very English issue, as it happens. But then again, that was also the first time that I'd picked up a fish in my fingers and eaten it like that, not struggling ridiculously with knife and fork. It adds to the sensuality of the eating as well.

Today's weather might not have been as conducive as we would have wished, but nothing could dent the pleasure and the deep satisfaction of that meal.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The economics of pleasure

The glorious weather has brought with it a surge of reading activity on my part: while keeping half an eye on the cats as they enjoy the garden, I’ve been ripping through books.

One of the most recent tomes to enjoy this treatment was Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner.

It's economics Jim, but not as we know it.

There is no overarching theme, but some of the questions that are tackled by Levitt (he’s the economist, while Dubner is a journalist) are intriguing to say the least.

For instance, he debunks the idea that the dramatic fall in crime in the US in recent years was primarily down to innovative policing or changes in sentencing (although he does note that increased numbers of police would have been beneficial).

Instead, he reveals a factor that had not come into many discussions before: that of the impact of the legalisation of abortion meaning that just as a generation of youngsters from that era would have been coming into their criminal prime, they were not there.

Such an analysis is fraught with difficulties, since abortion remains such an emotive subject. But Levitt seems to have been thorough in his work.

For instance, prior to Roe v Wade, the case that saw abortion legalised throughout the US, it had been legal in three states for a short period of time. In these states, the same fall in crime is noticeable earlier than in the rest of country but at the same rate that the rest of the country would subsequently see.

Levitt has been accused of many things for this research, from being a racist to being a eugenicist. However, as elsewhere, he merely looks for what is behind the available data – he makes no moral pronouncements. And quite frankly, while the results of his work may not seem palatable to some, it’s knee-jerkery to dismiss them with such accusations.

He’s interesting too on education and parenting. But this is also where one starts to get the feeling that he’s perhaps over stretching himself – or rather, over stretching what economics can show.

On the one hand he uses incredibly detailed data from Chicago to argue that many parental choices and actions have no impact on children, as much of what they will become is already genetically imprinted in them.

Yet elsewhere, he argues that peers have more influence on children than their parents and later, when discussing this in terms of adopted children, he admits that the approach of adoptive parents can change and improve the life outcomes for an adopted child, even if it cannot, for instance, change their basic intelligence.

In other words, his data shows many things, but even he knows that it would be too crude a conclusion to take his findings in isolation.

And in the ‘bonus material’ at the end of the edition that I was reading (newspaper articles) we see again the limitations – even the danger – of trying to view the world in economic terms alone.

In one brief essay, Levitt looks at leisure activities and he asks the question of why someone would pay more to knit their own scarf than to buy one. Included in his estimate of the cost is that of the person’s own labour. But doing that clearly dodges the question of the pleasure and satisfaction that the knitter gains from that creative activity – and indeed, from producing an end result that they can then wear.

"Cooking for fun” (as a survey of US activities put it) confuses him too.

Again taking the labour into account, he reaches the conclusion that it would be far cheaper to simply buy a takeaway or ready meal from the shop.

Now to be fair, there are hints in the piece that Levitt himself knows that life doesn’t work this simply, but he does seem to be trapped into asking questions where he expects – and wants – clear-cut economic answers.

In this brief essay he seems to suggest that everything is reducible to thinking in terms of finance and incentives.

Now in most households, someone has to buy and prepare food.

It might be the act of buying that ready meal, taking it home and then popping it in the microwave before divvying up onto plates, but it still has to be done.

That, of course, can easily be classed as a ‘chore’.

But what if you take greater time because you want to have control over your food and do not believe that highly processed fodder is actually any good for you?

How does that change the economic situation? It’s still a ‘chore’, but how do you assess the motivation and calculate the cost of that? Indeed, how so you economically calculate the impact of a better diet?

The article suggests that, in terms of economic incentives alone, fast food and ready-made meals are the sensible option.

But to take it a stage further, what happens when you do the latter – not just for the reasons briefly listed above, but also because you actually enjoy it; you find it, say, as therapy after a tough day at work?

Does it cease to become a chore and become leisure?

It’s that peculiar dividing line between leisure and non-leisure: as if something, if it is enjoyable, has less of an economic value.

It’s as though we have become suckered into seeing everything in terms of economic productivity – that economic productivity is the most important factor in all our lives, or should be.

Perhaps, in terms of the US and UK, this is the case – not least because there still exists a rather puritanical idea that work is the most important thing in one's life – even above family and certainly above pleasure.

In Stewart Lee Allen’s In the Devil’s Garden, a history of taboo foods, he comments that food culture in the US is now so denuded of pleasure that people scoff their tasteless fodder to get back to work that much quicker. In other words, go back to being productive.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that, in general, people in the UK and US scorn the idea of the French two-hour lunch. It’s culturally viewed as something negative.

But hold on a moment.

A couple of days ago, the Daily Mail published an article boasting that one of Margaret Thatcher's best legacies was that people in the UK work seven hours longer, per week, than we did before she came to power in 1979. And that is at the same time as workers in most of the rest of Europe have seen their own working week shrink.

That's a great boast. Yet it gets 'better'. In fact, in that time, productivity in the UKL has actually fallen.

And if we specifically compare the UK and France, then the French work noticeably fewer hours than we do – but their productivity is higher. Strangely, the Mail didn't actually mention that, but then who would want to boast that people work longer, to less effect?

But given this sort of attitide, it's little wonder that the likes of Levitt struggle with how to deal with “cooking for fun” in economic terms.

It would be interesting to see them actually try to come up with an economic value for the French 'lifestyle' given that basic data, which comes from a pretty reputable source in the OECD.

Levitt has plenty to say that is of interest – it's easy to see why his expertise is in economics and crime – but he might not have intended to show, as effectively as he has, the limitations of economic analysis and the negative impact of a certain type of economic philosophy on UK and US lifestyles.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Lunch just got a lot better

It’s become a regular occurrence to find myself complaining about the state of lunches on a work day.

It wasn’t so much the case that there was no variety available as the quality – and cost. Pret a Manger might have been decent (apart from an obsession with rocket), but it was costly.

The in-house ‘deli bar’ was poor and my own occasional efforts were variable, revealing a distinct lack of creativity on the packed lunch front.

Two things may have changed all that.

One of those has been the move to the new offices, with the company running the catering facilities determined that it should be their flagship contract.

Breakfast is considerably better. Lunch is better too – they have a proper kitchen now to start with.

But the other factor was the arrival of a slender tome from my friend George, which was in direct response to the most recent complaints in these columns.

The book in question is The Packed Lunch, a collection of recipes from Australian Women’s Weekly.

It’s a bit of a revelation – not just because there are some good recipes in there, but also because it offers some very good general tips.

For instance, in many cases, it’s best not to dress a salad the night before: carry the dressing to work in a different container and only decant it when you’re about to eat.

Now why hadn’t I thought of that before? It’s obvious when I consider a few of my previous attempts to prepare something for myself and have made exactly that mistake. You can end up with leaves, for instance, that are simply a mess and utterly unappetising after sitting for hours in a dressing.

As it happened, the first recipe that I tried could be dressed as soon as it was ready to go in the box.

Simply cook some lentils gently in a little water, then drain and cool. The recipe called for this to be added to “canned” beetroot. Now I assume that this is an Australian thing, because I’ve never seen such over here, but unlike the reviewer on Amazon, I didn’t get all negative, but simply halved some baby pickled beets (which I love) instead, and then dressed, as per instructions, with a little Balsamico.

When I sat down to eat, I added some soft cheese that’d I’d diced and then packed into a separate, small container. And very nice it was too, without requiring any great effort.

The following day, I took in two quarters of a frittata that I’d made with a wide array of ingredients – the idea of the frittata came from the book (I wouldn't have thought of it as a packed lunch item), the ingredients from the combination of my imagination, fridge and cupboard.

Again, a success – and the remainder kept well enough to be enjoyed for the following day.

On day four (the last at work before the Easter break), I ate in the deli. Much better than I had expected.

But on Monday evening, the eve of our first day back after the break, I’d sliced red onion, roasted red pepper and celery. And this time, I took the dressing to the office in a little jar, together with another little pot of diced goat’s cheese.

The salad was another of mine ideas, based on what I had in. The dressing was straight from the book: a teaspoon of tomato pesto, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and two teaspoons of olive oil, shaken but not stirred.

And again, this was very good. The salad kept well and still had loads of crunch; the cheese hadn’t been discoloured by sitting with everything else overnight and the dressing was a success.

Today, it was another frittata – softened onion and three different cheeses this time.

But something else is making a difference too.

In the past, I’d invariably sit at my desk, working while eating breakfast and lunch. Cloud Nine was great as a bar, for drinking and socialising, but it wasn’t somewhere that I ever wanted to sit down in to eat.

The new canteen, with tables and chairs extending into the atrium, is a pleasure to spend time in.

So I’ve been taking my food down there to eat. It’s an enormous lifestyle change – and a very positive one.

I’m currently trying to do some research on ‘the French paradox’ – the question of why the French can consume such amounts of fatty foods (including such delights as cheese and butter and paté and foie gras) without the heart disease that would be considered over here as an inevitable consequence of such a diet. The French also do not have the same levels of obesity – in spite of their incredibly rich diet, that's high in fat and so many of the things that we have demonised.

One of the things that I’m already coming across repeatedly is that the French don’t sit in front of the TV for dinner or at their office desk for lunch.

They pay attention to their food and take their time to eat it – it helps, of course, that it's usually worth paying attention to.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have even shown that French people in a McDonalds take longer over a meal there than Americans in the same restaurant.

Now clearly this is not the sum total of what causes ‘the French paradox’, but it is quite revealing.

At present, sitting down properly to eat my lunch in pleasant surroundings instead of at a desk, I don’t rush – and yes, I have actually been appreciating what I’m eating. Sometimes there’s even company and conversation.

Even setting aside the question of whether it’s good for my health, it’s so much more pleasant.

And a big thank you to George for the book.

The French paradox (2004 article).

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Beside the seaside

Yorkshire. Day two. Or to be pedantic, day two and a half. And having breakfasted, we set off from the hotel with a firm plan of action.

This time, we boarded a train to York and beyond, skirting the North York Moors and finally pulling to a halt in Scarborough.

‘Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside …’

For all the sun – and it was a lovely day – there was a blustery wind coming off the North Sea. I had my leather jacket with me for the trip as a whole, but it was rolled in a bag for this trip. This was neither the time nor place to be swanning around in leather.

But a t-shirt with very short sleeves was taking things too far the other way and my arms were covered in goosebumps by the time we were halfway down the town’s main Clone Town shopping street.

An Edinburgh Wool Mill offered rapid relief in the form of a sea green sweatshirt – and then it was off again, cutting away from the crowds down a side street of far greater charm.

This brought us out near the top of the cliffs, near the Grand Hotel, with a funicular railway and the absolutely delightful Parlour Tearooms next door.

We took seats outside and ordered tea and cakes: in my case, a slab of tea loaf, moist with plump fruit and slicked with a generous portion of butter. Who says Yorkshire folk are stingy? We could gaze at the sea or over toward the remains of the vast castle that top the hill on the opposite side of the bay. Perfect.

The café itself harks back to years long gone, with a touch of humour in a painted window sign that proclaims “dogs and sprogs welcome”.

Wending down to the seafront, you hit a different world. All the gaudy sights and sounds of the seaside; amusement arcades, shops selling loads of kitsch (to which I am addicted) and, in Scarborough’s case, countless eateries offering fish and chips.

There was even a shop offering huge sticks of fudge – some with very peculiar flavourings. Not least amongst these was a Marmite fudge – and no, I didn't try some!

It’s rather tragic that, although Scarborough is still a working harbour, not one of those restaurants or cafes serves fish that has come inland there. There’s not enough stock in this part of the North Sea; the big catch for local fishermen is lobster, with something like 20,000 pots in the area.

Not that wandering around the small harbour itself wasn’t fascinating, particularly as it was a day when the camera barely shifted from around my neck, allowing me the chance, on one occasion, to rip off a shot of a gull as it flew out of a skip.

Looking inside after the bird had gone, there were masses of left-overs from fish that had rapidly been filleted. And the thought that struck home was the amount of waste – well, obviously not as far as the gull was concerned.

We ate at a café on the harbour itself. Run by a couple, we were warned that our lunch would take 10 minutes, as it would be cooked for us. That is absolutely fine by me.

And it was the best fish and chips I’ve had in many a year, since an afternoon a long time ago in Hull, although the cook explained that he gets his fish from the Faroe Islands – unfrozen. Wherever it came from, it tasted very good.

The batter was a dream: wafer thin and covered in a filigree of light crispiness that made me remember exactly why, as children, we rated scraps – the bits of batter left in the fryer, which could be bought by the bag for a penny – as such a treat.

The chips were not piled high, but they were hand cut and properly cooked. The mushy peas were fine and there were even slabs of bread on the side. Forget the slice of lemon that came with it – a modern affectation – all you needed was salt and perhaps the barest hint of malt vinegar on your chips.

It was a meal to relish.

Ambling further, I took the chance to photograph more gulls, who stayed put in their determination not to risk losing a spot near where a boat was expected to dock or where leftovers materialise from the sheds.

With time on our hands, we made a rapid decision to join a boat going for a trip out to sea, and found ourselves in the middle of another bit of history.

The Regal Lady was built in 1930 by Fellows & Company of Great Yarmouth for the Yarmouth & Gorleston Steamboat Company.

Originally called the Oulton Belle, she was a double-ended steamer that became one of the ‘Little Ships’ at the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, before being requisitioned by the Navy until 1946.

In 1954, she was brought to Scarborough and given her current name.

We sat out at the front as the boat chugged gently past the little lighthouse before hitting the first real swell.

A few minutes later, fellow passengers had fled inside as waves splashed over the prow. “Shall we go in?” asked The Other Half. On the basis that my hands were by that time attached very tightly to the boat itself and my stomach was debating whether having eaten beforehand was a wise move, I had no inclination to risk shifting my body, and besides, as I told him, I’d wanted something that would blow the cobwebs away.

Eventually, with the cobwebs fully departed, I edged inside, managing to crash an elbow into the thick plastic window of one of the doors. Fortunately, nobody noticed the rather large cracks.

Inside was quite surreal, like stepping into a 1970s pub, with customers perched on small upholstered barrels and shipping maps turned into tables, listening to ’60s pop hits and supping pints.

There was something rather Alan Plater about it: indeed, it could almost have been straight out of his wonderful Beiderbecke series.

We didn’t imbibe. And my stomach coped. Which couldn’t be said for everyone. A man nearby had a face that was bleached of colour even before his wife attempted to put his coat around his shoulders comfortingly.

Then he stood, lurched forward a little, put his hand to his mouth and vomited all over the place.

This was not apparently an unusual situation. One of the crew pottered nonchalantly out with a bucket and mop. The wife took the same coat into the tiny toilet, and was still attempting to scrub it clean when we docked again.

We ambled some more, wending our way up the steep streets until we were back in Clone Town and near the station once again. And then it was back to Leeds aboard a ridiculously small Pennine Express train, with a couple of outbreaks of bad temper as people discovered that, for whatever reason, seat reservations had not been prepared in the carriages.

Things happen – technical problems, shortage of staff etc – but the company really should announce to passengers that there’s been a problem, thus helping to avoid fractious outbursts as people accuse others of sitting in ‘their’ seat.

Being near the sea can never be a bad thing for me. And the day had moments of utter bliss – not least that tea loaf, the fish and chips and the gulls, from their skirling cries to their reluctance to flee the moment I pointed the camera at them.

By the time we were back in Leeds, the only thing to consider was dinner – and for that, we headed to the nearby Brasserie Blanc.

Given a big lunch – every last crumb of which had been enjoyed – the general feeling was that this meal would involve no starter. But that was a flawed plan, since it ignored the many enticements of the menu.

In the end, I opted for an asparagus risotto (lovely textures and tastes, with the asparagus itself served in three different ways: as a sauce, stalks slivered into the risotto itself and a couple of spears topping the dish), followed by a second ‘starter’ – superb Cornish smoked mackerel with cucumber and horseradish: perfectly-sized portions just bursting with taste.

And to finish, a dish of rhubarb and custard, topped with smashed cinder toffee – a delicacy that I’d forgotten about until we’d spotted some in York and then bought two bags in Scarborough in a fit of delighted nostalgia.

There’s a recipe in the Yorkshire Relish book I’d found in York that involves cinder toffee – indeed, it even gives instructions for how to make it.

Regional food is a thing to cherish.

Monday, 2 May 2011

In the land of The Other Half's fathers

Or Yorkshire, as it's otherwise known. Yes, dear readers, I spent part of last week in the white rose county, from which The Other Half hails. And I survived – although I do now possess a tweed flat cap to show for it – but no ferret or whippet!

Taking advantage of the double bank holiday (sounds like a happy hour special), we took an extra three days off work and then took off for Leeds.

Arriving there on Tuesday afternoon, I was offered a choice of activities to while away the rest of the time before evening (and dinner).

Now how many blokes do you think would ask their bird if she'd prefer to go shopping or visit a military museum – only for the aforementioned bird to opt for the latter? Well, this one picked a visit to the Royal Armouries – after all, given that pretty much everywhere in the UK is Clone Town these days, it seemed unlikely that Leeds' main shopping area would produce anything novel.

The Armouries, on the other hand, was fascinating. Yes, it is what it says on the tin – a lot of weapons and armour, including a suit of jousting armour that belonged to Henry VIII, and a very weird and slightly creepy horned helmet that was made between 1511 and 1514, and given to the same monarch by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

It's a strange piece. The spectacles may apparently indicate a fool – was Max taking the pee, so to speak? But the horns made me think of Andrew Graham-Dixon's fascinating Art of Germany documentary series a few months ago, in which he started by emphasising the place of the forest in the German imagination. The horns on this extraordinary item – which was made by Konrad Seusenhofer in Austria – seemed to nod to the fairy tale fears that hide in the dark amid the trees.

Moving beyond Henry VIII, though, there was much more to interest – not least seeing the real versions of iconic weaponary that we know through comic books and westerns: a Colt 45, for instance, or the impossibly flimsy Sten submachine gun MkIII. And given my own historical passions, it was particularly interesting to see a display of arms from the Franco-Prussian War.

It's an interesting museum – if a tad noisy from all the many interactive displays that are aimed primarily at children, which seem to overlap in your ear.

But with that experience behind us, it wasn't long before the hour chimed for dinner.

We were staying near the river and decided to pop just a door down from the hotel to Brasserie Forty 4. This proved an excellent choice.

My first meal in Yorkshire began with duck rillettes, a lightly spiced rhubarb chutney and crostini. Very tasty it was too – and while I could get pedantic, pointing out that rillettes really is supposed to be a dish made with pork, at least the meat was shredded as the pork should be.

Rhubarb, of course, is a very Yorkshire ingredient – the 'Rhubarb Triangle' is only a short distance away – and it works as an excellently tart accompaniment to duck, cutting through the sweetness of the meat.

That was followed by a rather nice piece of roast haddock with black pudding rösti, and then a dish of lemon posset with a pistachio tuile.

All good stuff. And washed down with a Sables and Galets Gewürztraminer 2008 terroirs d'alsace that offered a nice moment of personal satisfaction. Having suggested we go for that one, The Other Half nodded in my direction when the waiter arrived and was about to pour a drop or two for him a taste.

A really flowery aroma and taste brought to mind elderflower and I said so. It wasn't, but the waiter looked impressed (I hate to think what the general reaction to wine is, given his response to my novice's analysis) and told me that it was rose and lychee. But most important, it was very nice as well.

And so that was day one.

Wednesday saw us potter around by the river for a while before heading out to York, which is only a short train journey away.

This was one of the day trips that I'd most wanted to do, never having visited this historic city, and we started with a gentle stroll from the railway station into the centre of the city via a very nice park, with plenty of flowers and a ruined abbey (another bit of Henry VIII's legacy, no doubt).

We crammed a remarkable amount into just a few hours, starting with the famous minster itself – although I drew the line at going all the way into the church, having seen the prices.

The Jorvik Viking Centre offered another history hit – this a look at the remains of a Viking settlement under the present city. Excavations since the 1970s – which are ongoing – have provided an extraordinarily detailed picture of life in that time, allowing a recreation of a few streets, together with animatronic figures – and smells.

We're so absorbed with the idea of the Vikings as warriors that we forget that they were sailors and traders and superb craftsmen – some of the work that survived in the Yorkshire soil is astonishing and beautiful.

Glancing around the centre's little shop, I found pieces of stone engraved with runes – in one case, the rune for 'ing'. This intrigues me. My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Ingham. Now given the difficulty of finding out anything concrete about either side of my family, a few years ago I did a spot of research around that name, since it doesn't seem to be one that you hear or see every day.

It's made up of two parts. The first part is the 'Ing'. The second part – the 'ham' – means a 'hold' or 'home'. But who, then, was Ing that had a hold? I eventually came up with a German name for the goddess of fertility known in the Norse as Freya (whose name gave rise to Friday – Freya's day).

So it seems reasonable to suppose that at least part of my family was Saxon. Which seems pretty cool, really. And it horrified my parents when I told them (thus tickling me pink). But it's also why I find the whole northern European thing of particular interest. Any why I bought the stone with the rune for 'Ing' on it.

The Shambles offered some more non-Clone Town shopping amid half-timbered buildings that lean so far that you wonder how they're still actually standing. Around the corner at an old-fashioned market was where, in a spirit of ee-by-gumness, we both picked up tweed flat caps as souvenirs. It's hanging on top of my French beret right now.

There was also time to visit the infamous Clifford's Tower – it's difficult to look at this rather picturesque ruin now and think that this was the scene of the 1190 massacre of Jewish residents of York – and then take a walk along some of the enormous lengths of city wall that are still standing and in excellent condition.

And I cannot forget to mention spotting the best address I think I've ever seen: 1 1/2 Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. How splendid is that?

It's a lovely city that also offered the chance for a spot of foodie shopping – a book of recipes by chefs of restaurants in Yorkshire and a packet of tea from Holmfirth, which The Other Half intends to send out to his mother in South Africa, since that is where she hails from.

Back in Leeds, we enjoyed a couple of pints of Theakstons sitting next to the river outside a pub next to the hotel in the early evening sun, and after tidying ourselves up, headed for dinner. I'd had fish and chips for lunch in York, but it wasn't particularly good.

Now we headed for a Loch Fyne restaurant in the centre.

It wasn't bad. I had some paté, which was nothing out of the ordinary, followed by dressed crab with lime. The best part of the meal was, without doubt, a blackcurrant sorbet that absolutely zinged with natural fruitness. Later this year, I may well make some of my own: it was gorgeous.

And there we were: half way through our little trip and wearily to bed, with hopes that the excellent weather would hold at least a day longer.