Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The unhealthiest shopping basket?

After the debacle of the missing lard, I needed a few bits and pieces in a midweek shop and decided, for a change, to head to Waitrose – a somewhat more acceptable supermarket than assorted other options, if only on the basis that staff are partners.

There, I found Kerrygold lard – although that's slightly confusing, since as far as I know, Kerrygold produce butter from cows, which doesn’t really suggest piggy products. But hey ho, I’m not complaining.

I did, however, decide that, as a response to all the obsessive, joyless – and downright inaccurate – emphasis on so-called ‘healthy’ eating, I would see just how ‘unhealthy’ a shopping basket I could stomach.

Thus a second block of lard, beef dripping – I’ve never used it before and don’t know when or how I will, but I will – French butter with salt crystals, potato farls (to be grilled and then drenched in butter), cream cheese with garlic (Otto loves this too), nacarons and chocolate, although I did nearly leave that out given positive health reports.

Cooking a French dish at the weekend, I was happily able to employ some of the lard.

The dish was a boeuf à la gardiane – essentially, beef of the cowboys of the Camargue.

Using a recipe from Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc by Angela Murrills, The Other Half had set out to cook this one weekend last year when I was away.

You start by marinading beef that’s been cut into smallish cubes – skirt or a similar cut.

The marinade is based on red wine and includes the usual sort of aromatics.

He told me later that one of the hardest things was being able to tell whether you’ve browned the meat after the marinade has so changed the colour.

I had decided to use a different recipe from Flavours of Provence by Clare Ferguson. Murrills’s book is a delight, but I think that the recipes have been simplified a tad. Ferguson’s version was a little more complex.

It began in the same fashion, although with 50ml of cognac as well as 250ml of robust red wine ion the marinade. I used a couple of onions, peeled and then slashed across the top, with a bay leaf inserted. Two cloves were also pressed into each onion.

These, together with plenty of sprigs of thyme, were added to the marinade, together with salt, pepper and crushed garlic.

It stayed like that for around three hours, before the liquid was strained into a jug and the meat dried off with kitchen paper.

Now the recipe then called for some slices of unsmoked bacon, rind removed and the slices quartered, to be sizzled in a dry pan until there’s enough liquid to cook the beef in two batches.

It occurred to me, as I was waiting for even remotely enough liquid to emerge, that this was bonkers. There was no bacon in the dish we ate last year in Nîmes.

The only reason this bacon was here, I concluded, was to create fat. In the Murrills book, olive oil is used.

The more I start thinking about this, though, the more I see it as unlikely. Why not just use a little lard? It’s difficult not to believe that the French themselves would use duck or goose fat, if not lard.

And where The Other Half had had some difficulty getting the meat properly brown when he’d cooked the dish previously, it’s much easier when you can safely get the fat as hot as is possible with lard.

I could, of course, be entirely wrong. But when you realise just how much the French do use natural fats – and their nose to tail philosophy too – then it’s difficult to imagine whole regional cuisines without such fat.

It’s equally easy to see the likes of Murrills and Ferguson as being persuaded that either such fats aren’t healthy or, more likely, I think, that publishers or readers in North America and the UK just won’t swallow the use of such saturated fats in their cooking.

As for the rest of the dish, I discarded the bacon, added the marinade to the browned meat, then some beef stock (enough to cover) and simmered it away for two hours before adding black olives and cooking for a further half hour.

You then take 50ml of cognac and beat into it a good couple of tablespoons of plain flour, and then add that to the pot, stirring until it’s all melted and gives you a thicker, glossy sauce.

Well, that’s the theory.

It wasn’t bad, but it still wasn’t a patch on the dish we had in Nîmes. I’ve got some way to go to find out just how they make something so fabulous.

And as for that unhealthy shopping basket, I’m now working on a scheme to create a dish that uses all those ingredients.

Because obviously, when people go on about how unhealthy those things are, they presumably imagine that everybody wants to eat nothing but those things, and in copious quantities, all together and all at once.

When did common sense go so out of fashion?

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