Monday, 31 October 2011

After the game, some game

As we’ve trundled into autumn, with the weather playing its tricks, but the shortening days belying the great temperature con, a new Saturday routine has taken shape more concretely than ever before.

Previous football seasons have seen Manchester City’s schedule jostled all over the place, with several matches moved to a Monday night for the TV.

That means it pretty much impossible for me to make it. But this term – so far at least – we’ve only had one Monday night home fixture and I’ve made every other home league game (plus one stop-over for our midweek Champions’ League debut).

So I’ve been able to develop a routine around match days. Start with a cuppa in my ‘City ’til I die’ mug, do a few bits and pieces and then out of the house at around 10am, getting home approximately 11 hours later, with the light fading to the west.

What this also means is that The Other Half has to do the weekend’s shopping.

This last weekend, I had left suggestions for Sunday’s main meal fairly open-ended: either some venison for a classic stew is Andy was on the market or some beef for the pot if he wasn’t.

A bottle of decent plonk, some herbs and vegetables and you have some darned good autumnal fodder.

What he’d picked up was a packet of venison, osso buco style. Since it’s not a dish that I’m familiar with, first thing yesterday morning it was time to play hunt the recipe.

Osso buco is Italian and means ‘bone with a hole’ – which for those who are interested in these sorts of things, doesn’t seem that far from ossuary, which is pretty much a hole with bones.

In culinary terms, it’s a classic dish from Milan, made of cross-cut veal shanks, which are braised with vegetables, white wine and broth, and often garnished with gremolata, a mix of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest.

The original version was flavoured with cinnamon, bay and the gremolata, while the modern version uses tomatoes, without the spicing. The gremolata is optional.

But sure enough, I found a recipe for using venison in a very similar way – and then found myself adjusting.

There was no wine in the version I based the dish on, but because of how it includes sugar, it does need something to deglaze. And after I’d resolved that, I felt that the flavours mitigated against the gremolata.

But here’s my version, anyway.

Heat the oven to 140˚C (that’s for a fan oven).

Take some shallots and peel and halve or quarter them, depending on size (around four shallots or small onions per person).

Chop some cloves of garlic – I used three really fat ones.

Now, heat a round a tablespoon of dripping or lard – oh go on, you can use butter if you want – in a heavy casserole dish and brown the meat. I had around 670g of venison with bone.

Take the meat out and pop the shallots in, together with a generous teaspoon of demerara sugar. Add the garlic and stir gently – and then give it a slug of sherry or red wine vinegar to get any meat off the pan and to absorb the sugar.

Tip in two tins of tomatoes, add a drop or two of beef stock and a spoon of redcurrant jelly, pop the meat back in, bring to the boil, pop the lid in and put into the oven.

After around three hours, take it out, check and then season as necessary.

Relax for another 45 minutes or so and then put some rice on – I used basmati.

After a total of four hours, eat.

The soothing gentleness of the fragrant rice is a perfect foil for the slightly sweet and sour tastes of the dish. The meat was well cooked and seriously flavoursome.

I used all the meat in the dish, but it would have done for three portions – and indeed, I’m saving a portion for later in the week, as we’ll be taking it in turns to work from home in coming days, so it’ll do for a lunch.

That means that, at £5.50 for the meat, it works out at £1.83 per portion – and the cost of the garlic, onion, tinned tomato, vinegar, seasonings and rice won’t have added a lot to that.

In other words, a proper meal, using fresh game, that didn’t take long to prepare and cost barely over £2 a head.

Out of curiosity, I looked at a couple of supermarket websites. Ocado, which delivers for Waitrose, had nothing strictly comparable, but it had 250g of handmade venison tortelloni for £5.99, a pack of two 75g tranches of venison paté with Shetland gin for £3.25 (Welsh Dragon venison liver paté is £3.96 for 120g) and a 1.15kg rack of New Zealand venison is typically £40.24.

The ingredients for the tortelloni were:

    Pasta 66%: ‘00’ Wheat Flour 40%, Durum Wheat Semolina, Free Range Egg 20%, Water, Added Salt 2%.
    Filling 34%: Venison 25% & Beef Cooked in Red Wine and Herbs, Carrots, Onions, Parmigiano Reggiano (Milk, Salt and Curd), Butter, Salt, Vegetable Broth (Salt, Yeast Extract, Non-Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Dehydrated Vegetables: Carrots, Onions, Parsley, Leek, Garlic, Tomato), Garlic, Black Pepper, Nutmeg.

Sainsbury’s had some farmed venison steaks at £6.49 for two of 240g each; 340g of “diced wild venison” for £4 and half a dozen venison sausages for £2.59.

The ingredients for the sausages were:

    Venison (41%), Pork (39%), Redcurrant Jelly (Sugar, Water, Redcurrant Juice from Concentrate, Pectin), Red Wine (6%), Breadcrumb (Wheat Flour, Yeast, Salt), Fresh Sage, Salt, Fresh Garlic, Ground Black Pepper; Cracked Black Pepper, Preservative: Sodium Metabisulphite; Antioxidant: Ascorbic Acid; Clove. Filled into Natural Pork Casings.
    Meat content 80%. Filled into natural pork casings.

Tesco has a venison Wellington at £10 for 530g; a 750g venison and sloe gin hot pot for £7 (on special offer until 8/11/2011, when it becomes £8 again). It’s a fiver for 350g of diced venison, £2.99 for six sausages and £2.12 for two venison burgers of 227g each.

The ingredients in the burgers are:

    Venison (90%), Water, Breadcrumbs (Wholemeal Wheat Flour; Yeast; Salt), Salt, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Spices, Tomato Powder, Sage, TempText1.

For the hot pot:

    Potato, Venison (26%), Parsnip, Red Wine, Carrot, Smoked Bacon, Onion, Vegetable Oil, Redcurrant Jelly, Sloe Gin, Chicken Stock, Cornflour, Muscovado Sugar, Tomato Purée, Pectin, Salt, Garlic Purée, Cocoa Powder, Black Pepper, Bay Leaf. Smoked Bacon contains Pork, Water, Salt, TempText1. Redcurrant Jelly contains Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Redcurrant Juice, Sugar, Pectin, Citric Acid, TempText2. Stock contains, Chicken, Sugar, Water, Salt, Cornflour, Onion Concentrate, Chicken Fat.

Why sugar and cornflour in a stock?

Just to throw a bit more context into this: I bought four large venison burgers from Andy last autumn. They were £4 and they contained only one ingredient: venison. Two did us more than adequately for one meal and I froze the others for a midweek supper.

And on Saturday, The Other Half also picked up a pack of sausages from the same stall. £4.50 for nine venison, basil and tomato sausages. Weight (including packing) 496g. Ingredients? What it says on the label.

Now someone remind me – why do some people think that processed and supermarket food are so great?

And why on Earth do we let 'them' get away with it?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Homage to the humble crumble

Although Friday was National Apple Day, this fruit has dominated my culinary efforts for the past week – not, though, any other activities. I’d have to be beyond terminal boredom to have done this.

Leaving the apple pie to our friends across the Pond, for whom it has its own special cultural meaning, let’s turn to the humble crumble.

With Sunday’s belly pork cooking away ever so gently, I pulled out Delia’s Complete Cookery Course and turned to the section on puddings.

There is the basic recipe for a crumble topping, with my own calculations beside it for the reduced version for two people.

So, take 25g of diced, unsalted butter at room temperature and rub together with 75g of plain flour, using your hands.

The thing with this is that you need to do it as quickly as possible, so that your hands don’t get over hot and melt the butter further.

Once that’s done, mix in 25g of brown sugar.

That’s all there is to it – your crumble mix is ready to go.

I took three small apples out of the basket, peeled, cored and sliced them quite chunkily. They went into a small pan with a few drops of water and about one heaped dessert spoon of brown sugar, and then were cooked gently for a few minutes until softened.

I had decided to make individual crumbles rather than a large one and greased two small ramekins.

The fruit went in and was patted down, before the crumble mix was sprinkled generously on top, and in they went to a oven preheated to 160˚C, where they stayed for around 40 minutes, before being eaten, from the little pots, with a little very thick double cream on the side.

And they were nice – although I wasn’t completely satisfied with the topping.

Then came the quandary: there was still loads of the topping mix left. What to do? Throw it away, freeze it or …?

I decided to make another one the following day.

One of the things about learning to cook in the home, as opposed to professionally – and perhaps it’s particularly the case when you start late in life – is that you don’t get constant practice on any one dish.

You’re trying to vary what you eat; you’re trying new things. And personally, I obsess about serving up a variety of meals; that it’s some sort of duty to provide a wide range.

It’s only in the last year that I’ve really found that I’ve cooked a few dishes often enough now that I can do so without recourse to a recipe book.

But since we’ve never been a big pudding/dessert household, every time I get the urge to make something, it’s almost like starting from scratch again. And with a big gap until the next time you do it, it’s also difficult to remember any lessons you might have been aware of the last time.

On Monday, I nipped into Waitrose after work for a cat food run. Since they had some there, I picked up a large Bramley cooking apple. Unfortunately, while there are still English strawberries around (grown in polytunnels, presumably), there seems to be a shortage of blackberries, so my plan of a mixed crumble fell at the first hurdle.

Back at home, I prepped the apple and popped it in a pan with the same amount of sugar – and then had the idea that adding some of the left-over cider from Sunday’s belly pork roast, instead of water, might be a neat idea.

The fruit was cooked gently but for a little longer (not deliberately – I wasn’t timing it). Cooking apples – which had gone out of favour a few years ago until a TV chef had caused their revival – cook down much faster. It was pretty much a compote before I knew it.

But there’s no great problem with that. Instead of the cliché of nutmeg, I added a little ground ginger and then decanted the mix into the buttered ramekins for baking in the same way as the day before.

Feeling a tad lazy, I had also bought a tub of custard – there isn’t even any Bird’s in the cupboard. When the crumbles were nearing completion, some of that was whacked into a pan and gently heated through.

Perhaps because the cooking apple had been pre-cooked for longer and had, therefore, collapsed into more of a pulp, it was hotter – seriously, piping hot. Using ginger as the spice works perfectly well.

And so to Friday. After I’d found some blackberries (currently losing out in the shops to blueberries, which seem to be this year’s faddy fav), it was time for an apple and blackberry crumble.

But this time, I also changed the topping proportions, using 100g plain flour and 50g butter, with 25g sugar.

And I made sure too that the sugar was demerara – it had been a soft brown sugar in the previous versions.

The fruit was precooked with just a little water and a dessertspoon of that soft brown sugar, until it was just softened.

Decanted again into ramekins, it was topped and cooked for 45 minutes at 160˚C (temperatures are for a fan oven).

The topping on this version was much more as I expected and wanted – far crumblier, if you will.

The fruit combination is a classic for a good reason – and the inky colour from the blackberries is magnificent.

This was the best of the week – and was the perfect argument against my addiction to variety and for trying things regularly.

Monday, 17 October 2011

An apple a day ...

It’s apparently National Apple Day today – which seems like the perfect excuse to look at this wonderful fruit.

When you look at an apple, it’s hard to believe it holds such a prominent position at the heart of bad things within our culture.

Not only was an apple the fruit with which Eve tempted Adam in the Bible, but it was also the method of delivering poison to Snow White in the fairy tale of that name.

In terms of religion, it seems that the poor old apple has been at the core of the story of the Fall simply because of a misunderstanding of Latin.

But once that had happened – well, that was it. The prominent larynx in men is known as the ‘Adam’s apple’ from the rather picturesque idea that it had been caused by the fruit of forbidden knowledge getting stuck in Adam’s throat.

Different languages and interpretations mean that what Eve handed over might have been a grape, a tomato (originally considered poisonous), a pomegranate or even a fig – the latter being a long-standing symbol of female sexuality, which at least makes more sense than blaming a Granny Smith.

And after all, in apparent contradiction of all this, we also have the little saying about an 'apple a day keeps the doctor away', while being the apple of someone's eye is hardly an insult. On the other hand, bringing taking an apple to school for teacher might make you unpopular with your fellow pupils.

In A Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, there are nearly 50 varieties listed in the index, with some lovely, evocative names, such as Dabinett, Howgate Wonder and Sweet Coppin.

Mark, my organic veg supplier on the market, told me the other week that there were once thousands of different varieties of apple grown in the UK – possible evidence that it wasn’t really a source of great knowledge – but we’ve whittled it an awful lot in recent decades.

To be honest, until around seven years ago, I was only barely aware of a miniscule number of them.

The change, when it came, was simply the first autumn of the revived Broadway Market.

Now obviously I knew about Cox Pippin – and if pushed, I’d have been able to name a Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and possibly Braeburn. But even though time can play distorting tricks on memory, I cannot think of any other that I would have been familiar with.

But now I’m familiar too with varieties such as Spartan and Russet – while there haven’t been any Granny Smiths or any Golden Delicious in the house for years, let alone any Pink Lady.

When I was growing up, ours was not a particularly fruitily inclined household.

There would be a small glass of fruit juice at breakfast and banana sandwiches on the normal Saturday morning.

If it were an abnormal weekend when we were having a full-blown brunch, then it would begin with a half of grapefruit in a bowl, the segments already having been cut away from the pith and skin by a special, serrated knife, ready for the sugar-sprinkled fruit to be consumed with teaspoons.

As a slight aside, it possibly says something that, while my mother taught me almost nothing about cooking, when I went away to college, I was sent with one of the grapefruit knives as well as a serrated tomato knife.

But to return to our subject – it was never a place where there was a fruit bowl around, so I never gained a habit of just picking up and apple and biting in any more than I gained a habit of picking up a piece of confectionary and nibbling away when peckish.

Food was far more formal than that – always needing to be portioned out by my mother at the properly appointed times.

When we lived in Mossley, we had a couple each of gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes. My mother would make crumbles and something that I remember as a Charlotte – although it was nothing like any dish I’ve seen a recipe for since.

What I remember – albeit vaguely – was something more like a crispy crumble topping. Perhaps it was breadcrumbs and coarse brown sugar combined? I shall have to ask.

We’d also occasionally have a fruit salad, which would always involve sliced banana and grated apple, along with whatever else was around, including tinned peach slices and those little mandarin segments.

She’d make fruit flans sometimes too, with fruit set in jelly in a bought sponge flan case.

And then there was rhubarb, which could also be made into crumbles when it wasn’t being stewed gently and served hot with Bird’s Eye custard or cold with your breakfast cereal.

But now is certainly the season of the apple, and I cooked a piece of belly pork on a ‘trivet’ of onion and apple halves on Sunday, with decent quality cider to form a sort of jus with the fruit and the juices from the meat.

It worked rather well – but with the nights pulling in and the temperatures now having fallen to something much more seasonal, there is nothing like a proper English pudding to warm and comfort.

And so began a little experiment to see just how to make a decent crumble. Watch this space!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Getting passionate with Raymond Blanc

Another Saturday, another glorious autumn morning travelling north. Although these are long days, I enjoy the journeys, as they give me time to think and write, with the catharsis of football as the filling in the middle of this particular sandwich.

It's been a funny old week for various reasons, but a major highlight was meeting Raymond Blanc on Thursday evening.

He was taking part in a conversation at the Arts Theatre - a 'conversation', that is, pretty much in name only. Because as soon as broadcaster Fiona Lindsay asked him a single question, he would be off on a train of memories, anecdote and opinions.

Blanc is an endearing character; utterly charming (it seems genetic with French men) and self deprecating, with the enthusiasm of a child and a tendency to get giggly.

All of which seems at odds with the culinary genius - and the passion. Because while he can tease and cajole and amuse, he is utterly passionate about the state of food in Britain, and there's no fooling around when he hits his straps on that subject.

I'm familiar with Blanc's essential food philosophy - but to hear him expound it himself, and to be one of those to whom he was using the opportunity to direct a specific clarion call for action, is quite different. The fervour is almost evangelical.

I had the opportunity for a brief chat afterwards - as he signed a book for me, explaining briefly how A Taste of My Life had impacted on my own life, with its comments on how we need to rediscover our capacity to really taste food, and also about learning to smell and even listen when you're cooking.

His response was to emphasise, with more of that passion, the vital importance of our sensual selves when we're preparing and eating food.

It was a most enjoyable evening - but it doesn't stand in some sort of splendid isolation.

The end of the week saw an announcement from health secretary Andrew Lansley that the way to solve the UK's obesity epidemic is if we all just ate about 80 calories less a day, cutting a few billion off our collective daily intake.

There are times I want to tear my hair out. Such an analysis is simplistic in the extreme - and indeed, it actually helps to promote one of the biggest fallacies of the last few decades: that of calories in, calories out.

At it's simplest, it seems that one of the biggest issues is the nature of the calories you take in - not the number. In other words, where you get those calories from.

For many years, the basic - 'official', if you will - mantra of dieting was that you should cut out as much fat as possible and fill up instead with complex (starchy) carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, pasta, rice etc.

There's just one little problem. Calories consumed that way are more likely to make you put weight on than lose it. As a simple example: distance runners 'carbo load' before a run - that big bowl of pasta is designed to get them through a very great deal of physical activity: not half an hour in the gym.

And saturated fat, as we've mentioned before, has the advantage of making us feel sated sooner than that bowl of pasta.

This was the point at which another celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, waded in to the argument, slamming the health secretary's comments.

He wants more concrete action - possibly even a 'fat tax', just as Denmark has just created.

I have a number of problems with this. First, since fat is not the chief problem, why tax it - and indeed, why send out the signal, yet again, that it is the central problem?

Lansley may himself entirely believe that calorie intake is the key - there are plenty in the medical profession who still hold to such simplistic views and most health advice from professionals and scientists still tallies with this approach.

Perhaps that's because they imagine that we're not intelligent enough to deal with an issue that is multi-faceted in its complexity.

Exercise is an issue - but not in the sense that we all need to become gym bunnies. I find myself a little shocked by how many people of all ages I see in London getting on a bus to go just one or two stops - and these are not people with any obvious physical disability that prevents them walking those few hundred metres.

Similarly, as a nation we're wedded to the car in a way that sees us turn the ignition key simply to nip around the corner for the paper or a pint of milk - or ferry the children to school.

But we also snack more than, say, the French, while we eat poorly in terms of sitting down with a proper meal. Instead of doing so, many of us prefer to eat while we do something 'more important', such as work or watching TV.

Convenience food is a serious issue - stuffed with additives and rubbish, plus sugar and salt in substantial amounts. I read somewhere recently that some foodstuffs have MSG added in vastly larger quantities than it's used in soy sauce, and that in such amounts, it apparently 'switches off' the body's capacity to announce that it's sated.

Then there are all those man-made fats: liquid oils turned into solid spreads by hydrogenation and marketed so often as 'healthy' alternatives to natural fats. For the most part, they're more expensive too - which might tell you something.

These are just a few things that spring straight to mind. The point is that we don't know the exact reasons that some people get fat and others don't. But we continue to behave as though we do - even when what we think we do know is deeply flawed itself.

Because the authorities - political and medical - have both, in general, fallen for and continued to feed us the same bad advice for so long, I'm far from convinced that either is capable, at present, of producing an answer.

But for the former particularly, with its record of friendship with big business - in this case, particularly the vast food manufacturers and retailers, and even, as I've illustrated previously, its willingness to promote such corporate bodies - one is highly dubious of motives.

Does anything need to be done? Surely what we eat is a matter of personal choice?

Well yes - up to a point. But that's a little more difficult to argue when we're talking about children who are fed rubbish.

There's also the point that, if rising obesity creates problems for the state - and not just via the health system - than it is surely a matter for the state.

But it might also need to involve a level playing field of some sort - and when it comes to food in the UK, there isn't one. Corporations can pour billions into advertising their products; into offering 'free' toys to entice children (to nag their parents to buy).

Big producers can afford to do deals with supermarkets to give their products prominence or put them on special offers.

Successive governments have helped to exacerbate the problem by supporting and helping to promote the bad advice that some in the medical world have also pushed.

And all the time, the great, supermarket-inspired belief that food should be cheap, cheaper and cheaper again, coupled with the con that convenience food is cheaper than fresh ingredients and the time it takes to make those into a meal. It's so absurd that it could have come straight out of a play by Éugene Ionesco.

And there, always at the back of this, of all these things, is Blanc's oft-stated belief that we British have lost our culinary heritage, our relationship with the seasons, with the land - with our land - with our families and with that very sensual, celebratory pleasure of food itself: that we are foundering around in a culinary sea.

Can we do anything about it? Should we do anything about it? And if so, then what?

Perhaps it says everything that it takes a Frenchman to have even pinpointed the heart of the matter. And perhaps that also suggests the solution.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

In a stew about gravy

Some things are best forgotten; left well hidden in the attic of memory, buried away behind the other clutter.

But memories, no matter how deeply interred, have a habit of popping up unexpectedly and coming back to haunt you.

Slouched in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon, wind rattling the plane trees outside, i was delighting to the joys of Nigel Slater's Eating for England, when a brief section suddenly threw the words 'gravy granules' out from the page and directly at me.

From the tender comforts of nostalgia for custard creams and mint cracknel - the latter of which I hadn't hear of in years, the former of which the same book has had me wanting instantly - I found myself slapped across the face by the wet fish of embarrassing memory.

I have to admit that there was a time when the kitchen cupboard housed tubs of beef, chicken and vegetable gravy granules.

That was bad enough, but then more detail flooded through: memories of serving Birds Eye frozen chicken burgers (the breadcrumbed ones, not those with something like Rice Crispies over them).

I felt mortified at the thought. But at least it serves as an illustration of what a difference a decade or so can make.

Mr Slater has a lot to answer for. But he also provided me with the roots of an interesting challenge this weekend.

The first chapterette in the aforementioned book talks of stew - of the great English stew a creation of diced meat, diced vegetables, a jug of water and a bay leaf, all of which comes together as something that is, almost at best, bland.

He compares it, pithily, to the casserole traditions of France, Italy and Spain, with the addition of booze (in the first case, at least) and the use of various herbs and spices.

Returning to the attic of memory - but deliberately this time, and with care - I rooted around for memories of maternal stews.

She cooked a stew rarely and, when she did, it was on a Saturday for a late lunch: it would have some meat of other, together with assorted veg, pearl barley and liquid.

I remember nothing more specific - except the slices of bread that we mopped up with at the end.

As I've mentioned before, she didn't believe in onion - not in an atheistic way, of course, but I have never known her have one in the house, whether a cooking onion ordinaire, one of the red variety or even the milder shallot.

Her culinary belief system did seem to understand that onions were occasionally required, but that was achieved by rehydrating some Whitworths dried fragments in an old, enamelled tin mug and then popping it in the cooking pot.

Well a least that's how I remember things - and I'm not getting the ladder back out and going back into that attic right now to see if I can find more detail.

But all this set me to considering a stew for Sunday, instead of the pot roast I had been contemplating as a way of christening the Le Crueset oval casserole.

I wanted to cook without any specific recipe, but that didn't mean a lack of research before I stepped into the kitchen this afternoon.

Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Food offered clues in a number of recipes for classic dishes that seemed a tad more authentic than most versions I'd seen before.

For instance, meat was usually caramelised in lard or dripping instead of the currently obligatory 'healthy' option of oil - Which? magazine actually once criticised a Rick Stein book for including dishes involving cream and butter.

And the cooking time was also often considerably longer than I'd usually seen: for instance, I'd never seen a recipe for a daube that saw it cooked for four hours at 120˚C. That was information that I stored for use.

I've also got poor - albeit gradually improving - understanding of cuts of meat. More research suggested that for such a dish, I should use blade (or chuck, as it's also) known. Sure enough, Matthew had some.

It was beautiful meat, delightfully marbled (see picture at the top). This afternoon, I cut it into pieces (large bite size) and then diced onion, celery and carrot - the holy trinity of the mirepoix - plus parsnip.

The meat was browned in dripping first, then removed and replaced with the vegetables.

Once they were softened and a little golden, a tablespoon of plain flour was added, stirred in and allowed to cook through for. Minute, before I started deglazing with Wychwood's Scarecrow organic golden pale ale.

Once it had stopped thickening, I added a couple of springs of thyme, some seasoning and then the meat, topping up the liquid to just cover.

Then it went into the pre-heated over at 115˚C, since I was using a fan oven.

After tasting on 90 minutes, it was a rather bitter - but not in the way the beer would have been if you'd been drinking it out of a glass. I sprinkled in a little demerera, drizzled on a little Maggi sauce, stirred in a decent squirt of tomato purée and turned up the temperature about five degrees. An hour later, this seemed to have sweetened matters - a little.

Later still, something hit me: all the remaining bitterness had gone, leaving something with lovely layers of developing flavour, a general sweetness at the front and a hint of sourness later.

In the past, I've wondered whether I've done something wrong when I've tried meat 'n' beer dishes: they always seemed to have that bitterness. Is that really what the Flemish intended with the traditional carbonade?

The problem, I now realise, is that most modern recipes in the UK seem to regard 'long, slow cooking' as meaning two hours at the max. Presumably, British cooks are assumed to be somehow incapable of cooking anything for any longer – are we too impatient?

For the final 45 minute's cooking, I added dumplings, made of self-raising flour, mustard powder, shredded suet, seasoning, chopped parsley and a little chilled water.

Having left this dish for over four hours, it took a mere one bite to realise that there's a substantial difference when you seriously cook for longer.

I've been curious about slow cooking for some time, but had been struggling to find recipes that seemed to involve anything that was genuinely slow – apart from a Heston Blumenthal belly pork dish that took nine hours.

What a shame I hadn't bothered studying Luard's book earlier and in more detail! With the feeling that I've enjoyed a really tasty success today, I'm going to be studying the book further and actually trying some of the specific recipes - not the least the daube. No wonder my previous efforts have never tasted as I know, in my gut, the dish should!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Well that takes the biscuit

It was a back-to-normal Broadway Market today, with no crime scenes to disturb anything. Well okay – perhaps "normal" is overdoing it a tad when you look at some of the characters that materialise at the weekend.

And then, quite apart from anything else, is there another market anywhere that is always so rammed not simply with shoppers, but also with a plethora of bikes and buggies, dogs, small children and the widest range of wheeled toys to be found outside Hamleys in the run up to Christmas?

Which is why I try to get up there as early as possible on a Saturday. Today I was a little tardy after sleeping longer than usual, so it was busy by the time I arrived.

Fortunately, as I still had game on my mind, Andy was back - and I was tempted by the opportunity to try wild duck breast for a change, thinking it couldn't be much different from the farmed variety that I'm used to.

My next piece of luck was in spotting that Mark's organic stall had the first quinces of the season. Two are now sitting in the kitchen, hopefully to ripen a little in the coming days.

The third good break came when I found, with unexpected ease, rice flour.

My mind had turned shortbread on my most recent train trip, where I'd been served a small packet with a cup of tea.

As has become habit, I casually cast a glance at the wrapper. Perhaps rather perversely for a shortbread made in Scotland, it was branded under the name Brönte and included clotted cream among the ingredients. More disturbing, though, was the mention of additional 'flavourings'.

Now what on Earth does that mean?

Unless it's a particularly exotic specimen, with vanilla or even chocolate involved, then what other flavouring are required in addition to butter and sugar?

And then, I had been inspired by the nostalgia of Nigel Slater's Eating for England and decided to try my hand at baking some.

I have tried it before, but it was in the dim and distant past and I have no particular memories of it being a great success - which is probably why I haven't made any since: until today.

Felicity Cloake writes a series of articles for the Guardian where she examines 'how to make perfect' versions of some classic culinary confection or other. Surfing for shortbread recipes, I found her take on the matter.

Not only did it have some interesting facts about the history of this queen amongst biscuits, but she had also road-tested a number of different recipes to see which was best.

And that was how I discovered that ground rice or rice flour, used with plain flour, is the great cook's secret ingredient to help give shortbread that slightly gritty quality.

The other main pointer that I discovered was not to roll the bread out with a pin - it makes it too dense - but to pat gently with you hands, trying to keep them as cool as possible.

There's nothing difficult about Cloake's eventual recipe - it's nice and easy to follow.

Cream the butter - and make it really good butter - and then beat in a pinch of salt an some caster sugar, before sifting the flours over and mixing thoroughly.

But I did have to add more butter to get the mix to hold together at all.

It's a deceptive matter. I emptied the crumbly mixture into a lined and greased baking tray, and patted away as delicately as possible. I wasn't sure whether it would actually hold together. But after the required 15 minutes in the fridge, it went into an oven heated to 150˚C for around an hour.

My fan oven being legendarily bloody minded, it took longer. But the result, when it emerged, was pleasingly golden and had smoothed out in the process of cooking.

I sprinkled some demerara sugar over and then left it for a couple of minutes, before transferring to a rack. Remarkably, it held together, although it was clearly fragile.

The smell was divine – and it wasn't long before temptation became too much. A very pleasing effort: crumbly and richly buttery, with the right sort of graininess that I mentioned early, and nicely light.

So pleasing, in fact, that there isn't much left.

I'm curious as to how people make shortbread that doesn't crumble quite as quickly – but then that would hardly be a commercial proposition.

Presumably, for mass production purposes, the lightness has to be compromised in order to get a great tightness that makes it possible to pack and then sell.

I'll be making more – quite possibly tomorrow. It's insanely easy and utterly delicious. And who needs extra 'flavourings'?

Friday, 7 October 2011

Comfort food required

After the unexpected encore of summer, autumn has returned. It's not simply a case of the shortening days reflecting the season, the temperature has now dropped.

Although it was beautifully bright at the end of the afternoon, it was more than a tad nippy. Waiting for a bus on Euston Road, my still-sandalled feet were jolly cold by the time we got home.

Which was the signal to change into the sort of comforting snuggly clothing I haven't worn in months - and prepare some equally comforting food.

We had popped into a small, local supermarket before getting the bus and, with the need for comfort and the desire for ease in mind, had picked up a pack of frankfurters. Everything else was already in the fridge and cupboards at home.

Sauerkraut is an acquired taste, but it's a taste we acquired some years ago on our first trip to Berlin.

It's easy enough to find in the UK these days and there was already a partly-used jar in the fridge.

It took me some time to find a way of cooking it that The Other Half enjoys, but the following seems to work.

Take your sauerkraut, rinse, drain and then squeeze it to remove as much excess water as possible.

Heat a little lard and very gently sauté the vegetable. At this point, I also added a peeled, cored and finely chopped apple, plus a bay leaf. Finely grated carrot is another good option and if you want to go for a really serious central European taste, then a few crushed caraway seeds won't go amiss.

Barely cover with water or chicken stock and cook very gently for 20-30 minutes, checking the liquid doesn't entirely evaporate too quickly. Season to taste.

The packet of franks suggested cooking in a microwave or grilling or frying. Better yet is the following, far more authentic method.

Pop them in a pan that's large enough for them to lie in. Cover with water and bring gently to boil - you don't want to split them - then put the lid on and leave, off the heat, for 10 minutes.

Serve with boiled potatoes and good German mustard - the first mustard I learned to enjoy, having come from a background that eschewed it, just as any other
Articulately strong tastes were eschewed (no horseradish either).

So, excellent comfort food and easy to cook. And sauerkraut afficionados will tell you that not only is it absolutely NOT pickled cabbage, but is fermented, it's seriously healthy too.

Indeed, there is a long history of the liquor from sauerkraut being consumed as a health drink.

There are inevitably questions over whether mass production methods reduce any of these health benefits - so perhaps sauerkraut should join the list of foods that I intend to try making myself?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

What makes the French laugh?

If you’ve ever wondered whether the French laugh at us Brits for our attitude toward food, then I think I’ve found the confirmation.

A neat little book arrived for me today: I had ordered the now out-of-print Le Creuset Cookbook less for the recipes and more for the promise of details of just how to get the most out of your cast iron cookware.

Since I’ve bothered to invest in some (and then spent part of the weekend tidying out some cupboards to house it – ‘my god, when did I buy this and what is it?’), I decided that a further small investment would be worthwhile.

It’s written by Elisa Vergne and chef David Rathgeber, with food porn photos by Thomas Duval, and was published in France.

I soon spotted the brief section on “A few easy-to-follow healthy cooking rules”.

This included instructions on trimming as much fat as possible off ingredients, adding a minimum of “grease” to any dish (and absolutely not “butter, lard or pork fat”, all of which are “rich in saturated fatty acids”; draining any foods that have initially been fried or sautéed and discarding any fat left in the pan etc.

You get the gist, I’m sure. The message is simple: saturated fat is bad.

Okay. If that’s the way you want to play it …

But then, the recipes start, and the fifth is for foie gras in a terrine.

The eighth is a chicken liver terrine.

Other joyous celebrations of fabulous fattiness include pork belly with buttered cabbage – boy, do I want to try that one! – and, on the following page, ham hock with foie gras.

There’s a blanquette of veal, which includes double cream and egg yolks, and a free-range chicken with cream – a lot of it, judging by the very sexy picture.

And that’s before we reach the baking and desserts sections, on which fatty levels you’ll have to trust me.

This, I admit, tickled me pink. I imagine – and of course I could be wrong – that that original introductory note about naughty fats was designed to placate the US market, for which the book was originally produced.

After which, the French authors, knowingly and with a sly shared wink, went about the business of imparting some recipes that were simply about seriously good food.

In the office today, I bumped into someone I only meet a couple of times a year. The first thing she noted was that I’d lost weight.

We stood around the tea point gassing and sharing stories. She has no illusions about becoming skinny – and doesn’t want to – but is attending a slimmers’ group at present to help with some weight loss.

She asked what my ‘secret’ was – and seemed surprised when I told her that, having given up dieting 12 years ago, I simply ate what I fancied, but that it has involved less and less processed rubbish as the years have gone by and my late-blooming love affair with food has developed.

I suspect the French authors of that book would be less shocked than she was.

On the same general theme, I now have to make a big, big declaration of thanks to Mary – a regular reader who, having noted that I was struggling to find lard locally, brought down 500g of the lovely stuff from the west midlands when she arrived for UNISON’s NEC yesterday, plus 500g of dripping for good measure.

Mary – you’re an absolute gem. And tonight, some of it was used in a midweek toad in the hole, which I sort of borrowed from Nigel Slater and adapted a bit. Thus:

Take six decent butcher’s sausages for two people and, very carefully, skin them.

Wrap the sausages in pancetta or Serrano or streaky bacon.

Sift 125g of plain flour into a bowl with two eggs, 150ml of milk and 150ml of cold water and seasoning. Whisk this up and leave to rest for 15-30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 220˚C.

Pop a gratin dish into the oven with three tablespoons of dripping or lard in it. Once that’s smokingly hot, pour in the batter mix and then lay the wrapped sausages in, together with three stalks of rosemary.

Pop back into the oven and cook for around 25-30 minutes.

In the meantime, slice an onion and soften in oil. Add a tablespoon of plain flour and cook for a minute or so. Then add red wine until I stops thickening. Cook until you need it.

And that, my friends, is a damned fine midweek supper. And one that I don’t think the French would scoff at.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

What's really British?

With British Food Fortnight now over for 2011, it seems the ideal time to consider just what British food really is.

It's fair to say that, in restaurant terms, it's probably never been better. The influence of the Roux brothers and Raymond Blanc in particular has had a massive impact - not simply in terms of record levels of Michelin stars held by establishments on this side of the Channel, but in an approach to cooking that has spread considerably beyond the upper reaches of eating out.

The ideas of seasonality and regional ingredients have become a mantra in the restaurant - and in the home.

But it is not something that has spread to every corner of Britain's food.

Nigel Slater's Eating for England is a collection of pithy essayettes on the cuisine of these islands.

Slater increasingly seems to be to food writing what Alan Bennett is to literature and the stage, with a sense of Englishness at it's most poignant as well as it's most ridiculous, and an understanding of memory and time and place that, in his case, can make you yearn less for a madeleine and more for a custard cream.

Like his volume of autobiography, Toast, much of this book is filled with a sense of nostalgia for the quirkily British foods that we remember from childhood: rice pudding to Murray Mints; the best biscuits for dunking and the sheer regional variety and creativity of the British when it comes to cakes.

But don't get too cosy, basking in the warm glow of nostalgia, because Slater peppers the book with withering comments on the other side of British food; the perennially grey stew; the stock cube that works against the taste of the meat; the high street butchers that are a dying breed because we shop online from our sofas ...

And that is where I start to feel depressed about the state of British food.

Watching Stephen Fry's latest series on language, another thing hit me. He was showing how the words we use have a cultural significance, describing national or regional attitudes.

One of his illustrations of this was a visit to the Basque region of Spain, looking at it's vocabulary and its food. All well and good.

But there's an even better example. Look at all those French phrases about the love of food: bon vivant, bon viveur, gourmand, gourmet and so on. We know these words because we have adopted them.

Try to think of an Anglo-Saxon phrase that describes the same thing - in general, let alone with the different subtleties that the words and phrases convey. We don't have the concept, so we have had to import the words and phrases wholesale.

I'm stymied. 'Foodie' is very recent and, for many, slightly deprecating - which tells its own story.

And that, to me, is the problem. These islands produce some fantastic food, yet most people ignore that and go to the supermarket.

Today, I bought some gilt head bream that was brought ashore in Cornwall only yesterday. If you found anything comparable in a supermarket, it would have been at least a day or two later, given the nature of supermarkets' centralised systems of distribution.

I grilled the fish for around five minutes a side. And served it with some carrot and broccoli. Simples. And very nice.

In the meantime, most people on these islands will probably have pulled something from the freezer, bunged it into the microwave and then sat and eaten while watching the TV.

And that, for me, is always going to be disappointing.

But in the meantime, I continue to enjoy a Yorkshire tea loaf that I tried out on Sunday. Lovely, as it happened! Moist and fruity sweet. And very, very easy.

So here, as an homage to British food, is my recipe for a Yorkshire tea loaf.

Take 500g of mixed fruit and pop it in a bowl with 230g sugar.

Just cover with hot tea (I used three tea bags of Earl Gray) – this should be around 570ml.

Leave overnight.

The next day, heat up your oven to 180˚C (fan oven).

Sift 454g self raising flour into the fruit and tea, together with two eggs. Mix well.

Then share the mixture out between two loaf tins that you've greased, lined, and greased again.

Pop in the oven for five minutes and then turn down the temperature to 140˚C (fan oven).

Leave for an hour – and then test with a skewer. If the skewer doesn't come away clean, then give the loaf another 10-15 minutes.

When the skewer comes out clean, remove the tins and leave for five minutes before lifting the loaves onto a rack and leaving to cool. Then eat with good butter.

This, I promise you, is British food at its best. And I think that Mr Slater would agree.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Summertime in the autumn

It has been a crazy few days. There we were, slipping into the autumn, with long-term weather forecasts predicting a tough, cold winter – and one that will start early in October – and what happens?

Summer pops it's face back above the parapet and we find ourselves enjoying glorious sunshine and sizzling temperatures.

Yesterday morning, with condensation dotting parked cars and a bank of mist suspended just above the grass in Haggerston Park, the towering buildings of the City beyond seemed almost spectral in the stunning light. The day warmed rapidly and even the night was muggier than any in the usually sweaty August.

There are no complaints here at this reprise of heat and light, but nonetheless, it's had me in a spin on the food front.

There I was, having accepted the departure of summer and starting to relish the bounty of the new season.

We had watched from the office window at work as a white wagtail had stopped for a rest on the nearby sedum roof; a breather on its journey to Africa - the blustery weather had even been sending migrating birds off course.

I was contemplating roasts and casseroles, mushroom heaven, baking blitzes on chilled Sunday afternoons, warming soups and even advance preparations for That Festival at the End of the Year.

And then, in what might sportingly be referred to as a curveball out of left field, our crazy weather forced all that back out of sight, leaving me foundering around with a feeling that I needed to prepare summer dishes again - but with a completely changed larder.

So just what do you eat in such confusing weather? On Saturday morning, sitting outside in the garden in shorts, with notepad and pen, I leafed through Gordon Ramsey's A Chef for All Seasons, hunting inspiration.

It is, I realised – gazing with pleasure on page after page of food porn – not really that difficult.

Ramsey is not a cook who really go in for massively heavy dishes, so even his autumn dishes, making the most of the seasonal produce, are not overwhelming. Pigeon breasts, for instance, which I've been enjoying throughout the summer, would still be perfect now.

With a list drawn up, it was off to Broadway Market.

Then it emerged that Andy was not there with his game stall, which meant a rethink. And at the top end of the street, across the road from London Fields, was a scene of chaos.

It looked like someone had taken one of those huge bins and strewn the contents everywhere. Empty bottles and cans lay all over the place, behind a wide cordon of crime scene tape and police.

It seems that the heat had been bringing people out to party for the previous three nights. In the early hours of Saturday morning, however, it had turned from a boozy street party into someone more serious, as shots were fired and a woman was caught in the crossfire. She is in hospital. It was the third shooting in the borough in a week.

Good old Hackney. However trendy the area becomes, there are still the gangs and there are still the guns; and there are still youngsters with no apparent hope or self respect beyond what they believe such things offer them.

And like August's rooters and looters, torching people's homes and wrecking small businesses only a little further away, they don't give a damn about anyone else getting caught up in their spiral of self-hating and self-destructive violence.

Depressed, I turned away and tried to concentrate on the shopping, but was distracted enough that I forgot the butter and actually had to return a short while later.

Fortunately, an afternoon spent 'watching', via the internet, as Manchester City overcame the week's tribulations by beating Blackburn Rovers 4-0 away from home, cheered me.

But what were today's culinary solutions?

First, for lunch, a salad of endive, with wafer thin red onion, a small Cox apple, blushing pink inside when it was cored and sliced, shavings of Montgomery Cheddar, cob nuts and a dressing of lemon juice, virgin oil and honey.

Full of taste and textural contrasts, and a perfect celebration of English ingredients to mark both the end of British Food Fortnight and British Cheese Week. Seasonal, yet light. It can be done.

It was inspired by a recipe but didn't follow it to the letter – the Cheddar instead of blue cheese, and no blue cheese dressing, cob nuts instead of walnuts.

And the evening presented a similar opportunity. I had been intended to do Ramsey's pan-roasted cod, served on a bed of garlic potato purée, with ceps.

But there was no cod, so I picked up some of Vicki's beautiful smoked haddock instead and did a little adjusting.

In this case, I roasted the fish in a gratin dish, dotted with plenty of butter and covered in foil, at about 155˚C for 20 minutes.

The potato was cooked, pressed through the ricer and then had butter and good double cream beaten into it.

The ceps were thinly sliced and cooked gently in a little butter, before a good squeeze of lemon was added, the pan shaken carefully and then left to heat back up.

And that was pretty much that - except instead of adding garlic to the potato, I seasoned it and the ceps with a little of the truffle salt that I'd bought in Carcassone back in July.

All in all, it was scummy. And suitably seasonal but not too heavy. And also not simply taken straight from a written recipe.

For dessert, a combination of seasonal pear – and downright unseasonable (but English!) strawberries: a match that seemed to completely exemplify the situation.

Later, as The Other Half and I sat outside in the dark, smoking, neighbours enjoyed a barbeque while watching The X Factor on a portable TV. At least not all partying in Hackney is violent.