Sunday, 29 January 2012

Cometh the hour, cometh the cassoulet

It was July. The weather had been mixed as we had trundled from Bordeaux to Carcassonne by train. It was late afternoon when we disembarked, with no obvious method of getting to the hotel other than Shanks's Pony, so we walked, using iPhone 'sat-nav' to guide us.

After checking in, we'd walked over the bridge to the village that lies beneath the plug of rock that bears La Cité itself. Everything was shut. Reluctantly, we adjourned to the hotel restaurant and, expecting nothing to match the view as night descended on the ancient city, ordered cassoulet.

It went way beyond our expectations. We'd had the tinned stuff before, but this was a first 'proper' taste of a treasure of French regional and national cuisine.

Two days later, when we boarded a train for the mountains, we took with us a carefully wrapped cassole, the traditional earthenware cooking pot for the cassoulet.

Back home, in the autumn, I laid in duck confit, but the haricot bean - at the heart of this hearty dish - proved elusive. And then, just as the weather started its dip to the sort of temperatures one could expect in January in northern Europe, I found some.

The moment had arrived.

Cassoulet was, the great cook Prosper Montagné declared, "the god of south-western food" in France.

Initially, it would have been made with fresh broad beans, until white beans arrived from across the border in Spain in the 16th century. And the haricot had since become the established bean for the dish. It remains arguably one of remarkably few absolutely crucial ingredients.

This culinary adventure began in seemingly sensible manner - checking recipes in my own library.

I turned first to the version in Hot Sun Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills; then to one in Goose Fat & Garlic by Jeanne Strang and yet another in Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of South-West France.

Stephanie Alexander had produced her own version in Cooking & Travelling in South-West France, which was the last of my collection of books dedicated to that area - and, as far as I know, the only ones published in English.

If I was getting a little dizzy by now, it was but the start.

In French Country Cooking, the Roux brothers used pork and lamb and no confit. Joël Robuchon's version includes lamb shoulder and lamb neck, and involves topping the final dish with crushed melba toast mixed with parsley, which sounds close to heresy, if you ask me.

Bruno Loubet presents a simplified version in Cooking from l'Odeon, to be cooked not in a traditional earthenware pot, but in something like Le Creuset and presented at table in exactly that.

In The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, Auguste Escoffier gives instructions for a cassoulet dominated by mutton and with the option of "goose or chicken".

In European Peasant Cookery, Elisabeth Luard's version is informed by her year living in the Languedoc and the instruction of her neighbour there.

And of course, we cannot forget the divine Mrs David, whose French Provincial Cooking goes into some detail about the history of the dish, as well as providing relatively straightforward instructions from a period when Toulouse sausage was something you could only hope to find in a very limited number of shops.

Culinaria France crams it all into a very terse recipe, while The Food of France, like Murrills, simplifies.

Larousse Gastronomique prefers far more detail, and quotes Montagné as having said that cassoulet could be divided into three types - a 'Trinity'.

The 'Father' came from Castelnaudary. The oldest version, it included pork - loin, ham, leg, sausages and fresh rinds - with "perhaps some fresh goose".

The 'Son' of Carcassonne used leg of mutton and, in the shooting season, partridge.

The 'Holy Ghost' of Toulouse uses the same ingredients as in Carcassonne, but in smaller quantities and with the addition of "fresh lard, Toulouse sausage, mutton and duck or goose".

These are the main versions, but as Larousse makes clear, it is far from being a finite list. There is even a salt cod version, with the fish replacing the duck or goose.

But while this so clearly reveals its peasant roots, the French being the French, there has had to be some formalising of what was already a classic - well beyond its home region - into an institution.

In 1966, the États Généraux de la Gastronomie française decreed that a cassoulet had to be made up of at least 30% pork (which could include sausage), mutton or preserved goose, together with 70% haricot beans and stock, fresh rinds, herbs and flavourings.

All of which still leaves things about as clear as mud for the beginner.

So, which path did I follow?

In the end, it was largely Luard, with hints from Robuchon and David.

Prep had started yesterday with the beans. I usually use tinned ones, so I was grateful to read on the packet that 40g of dried haricot would turn into 80g of cooked pulses, which is generally regarded as a 'portion'. Seeing 80g weighed out, I decided to add another 20g for good measure. These was then decanted into a bowl with plenty of cold water and left overnight.

And so to this afternoon.

The pulses were rinsed, drained and popped into a large pan with plenty of cold water, a peeled and sliced carrot, a stick of sliced celery, an onion studded with two cloves, a sachet of bouquet garni, six crushed garlic cloves and the small amount of pork fat Matthew had been able to give me yesterday.

It's heated quickly and then, just before it starts to boil, the temperature is reduced to leave it barely simmering. And so it stays for an hour.

In the meantime, the meats are prepared. Now, this was dinner for two people with smallish appetites, so I'd got a small piece of lean pork, which I diced, plus two Toulouse sausages.

One of the confited duck legs was placed, dripping, into a frying pan, where it gave off all of it's coating of creamy fat, before being removed to a plate. Then the pork and the sausages were fried in this fat, together with another four crushed garlic cloves.

The duck leg was stepped of its flaking meat; the sausages were sliced thickly. A diced onion was cooked in the fat after the meats had all been removed.

Don't throw the fat away - you need it later.

Next up, skin, deseed and chop a large, beefy tomato.

Heat your oven to 120˚C.

When the beans are ready, strain. Get rid of the vegetables and bouquet garni. Keep the pork fat.

Take your pot/casserole and put the fat in the bottom, fat side down. The theory is that, starting with some beans, you layer the ingredients. For just two of us, that meant a layer of beans, then everything else forming on thick layer, to be topped with more beans.

Oops. A problem. There were nowhere near enough haricot to top the dish. It was rather too late to contemplate a minimum four-hour soak for more beans, followed by an hour simmering.

I cheated in the only way possible, rinsing of a tin of cannellini beans and using them to fill in the gaps.

The dish is covered (with foil, if you don't have a lid) and placed in the oven for two hours. Check a couple of times and, if the beans look a little too dry, add a little boiling water.

After two hours, remove from the oven and turn up the heat to 160˚C. Spread a layer of breadcrumbs over the top and drizzle with the melted goose/duck fat from the duck confit that you'd reserved.

Leave the lid off and pop back in the oven. Give it 30 minutes, by which time it should have a nice, golden crust, then remove and stir the breadcrumbs gently into the beans. Back in the oven it goes for at least another half an hour.

The key here is patience. But every 10 to 15 minutes, give it another stir.

This breaking the crust is considered to be really authentique: they do it seven times in Castelnaudary and eight in Toulouse. It's now been set at three times in Hackney.

Remove, serve and eat.

For a first effort, I was very pleased. It wasn't perfect - the shortage of haricot being an obvious point. But I'd also be inclined to increase the initial bean cooking time by 30 minutes, as suggested in at least one recipe, to ensure they're just a little softer.

And the pork and sausages need to be cooked initially for a shorter time but at a higher heat.

But that apart, I was chuffed. My first effort was no insult to the lovely, half-glazed dish that has graced the kitchen since our return last August. And it certainly won't be long before I give it another go.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Dealing with a case of SAD. Or is it EOF?

It could be the all-pervading gloom and a dose of SAD; it could be a hangover from the festive period. It might be the knowledge that the clock is now ticking on the final year of my forties.

But one way or the other, I have not been myself of late. And the nearest description I can offer is that it has felt like a case of Early Onset Frumpiness.

Is this what women mean when they talk of suddenly feeling invisible as they reach A Certain Age?

At home, I slob around in casual gear – and feel perfectly happy doing so. But elsewhere, I have been feeling distinctly dowdy and dumpy.

After allowing this mood to dominate me for a week or so, I realised that there were things that I could do. Mostly, it was about finding ways of feeling that I was taking back control.

Step one seemed obvious. Ever since getting less than a pound back from a tenner for a single packet of fags at WS Smith at Glasgow Airport in November, my smoking days had been numbered.

I hadn’t set a time frame – it was too frenetic a period to be adding in something like that – and then stocked up in France on the basis that, once the Gauloise were finished, I would be too, as a smoker.

In the event, it took a packet more, but on Monday, I pressed a patch onto my arm and threw away the remaining ciggies.

It is nearly the end of day five now and we are progressing well. And I haven’t had increased munchies either (which will calm my father, who is more worried that I will turn into a veritable beach ball of elephantine proportions than improve my bank balance and my cardiovascular health).

Step two – book a hair appointment. And that was late this afternoon – fresh colour to cover the grey and a short, sharp cut to make me feel modern again.

I never have been able to do the long hair that, in the UK, seems to be de rigeur for every woman who doesn’t want to be assumed to be a raving bull dyke.

Why this obsession with long hair, I don’t know: why this belief that the only 'properly' feminine hair is long hair? There seems to be far greater variety of length in France than here. Personally, my hair has always been far too fine – and a halfway house between curly and straight – to do much with it if I do let it grow.

Yet more than one hairdresser down the years has baulked at cutting it short. Not Ian, though, who always does a very nice job. And the whole experience – not just the wonderful head massage – is deeply relaxing.

Step three – think about the wardrobe. Not quite as easy. I am, in many ways, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in two ways at present.

On the one hand, I’m a traditionalist in matters sartorial – my mother had me looking like a junior Miss Marple in my teens, so it’s well rooted – but there's a part of me that yearns to be far more bohemian. After all, I’m ‘A Creative’, don’t y’know!

On top of that, the clothes problem isn’t helped at present by being ‘between sizes’ as I very slowly lose weight.

But what could be done easily was remembering to wear some heels in a morning rather than opting for the rather flat boots I’ve been living in. It might sound daft, but even a small heel can put a bit more spring in your step.

And then, in a take-hold-of-the-situation-and-shake-the-cobwebs-out-of-it sort of way, I set about a day of deep cleaning in the flat.

It might not have been good for my hands, but it was certainly good for our abode. And the exertion was a good wrench out of the lethargy that seems to have been hanging around with all that grey cloud.

I had allowed myself to slump into laziness. Other little things had been allowed to slip too – like a decent skin care routine.

The only thing that is clear is that, five days after embarking on this attempt to invigorate myself, I feel a lot better. Now if only the blue skies stay overhead, I can finally step properly into the new(ish) year.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Pep up the midweek food

Can you eat well but cheaply? It’s a question that has been exercising more than a few minds in the last few years, as the county slumps from recession to recession and families find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

And indeed, what does "well" mean within that construction? Does it simply mean healthily? Does it simply mean 'enough to keep you going'? Or can it mean something more?

More than one person has observed that the last time we were a really healthy nation was during rationing – so perhaps there’s hope now? And more than one person has decided that suggesting frugal food solutions can be a money spinner.

Yeah. Well, that might be more than a tad boring, looking back at some of what people ate during WWII and in the immediate years after.

But there’s a point here – and it’s not totally unrelated to what I posted about earlier this week.

Perhaps cash concerns can be beneficial to health – and pleasure?

With the general idea I discussed there in mind, I try to have at least two meat-free days a week.

Actually, I should be a bit more specific here. It’s very rare for my lunch to include meat. Occasionally, my breakfast might include meat. So it’s primarily a question of dinner being meatless a couple of times a week. Of fishless, for that matter.

Tuesday was just such a night.

I have decided that, even though this is not one of The Other Half’s favourite dishes, he can put up with it occasionally. It’s not far distant from an arrabiata – and he certainly enjoys a pomodoro – so he has little excuse.

This recipe, although essentially traditional, originally came from a little book of 32 pasta recipes from Lidl, which cost me peanuts – a book that continues to be a delightful source of dishes.

So this is my ever-so-slightly tweaked version.

Take some big tomatoes – you want really fleshy ones: big Italian plum tomatoes are the best, but they’re not easy to get, so the sort of beefy ones that my local Turkish shops sell are the business.

I used five tomatoes for two people. Halve them and scoop out the seeds, then leave them to drain on some kitchen paper.

Take a couple of romano peppers – they’re the long ones and so much sweeter than the standard bell peppers. Halve and remove the seeds. Do the same with a couple of red chillies.

Heat your grill and put the shelf around 10cm below.

If the fruits have been in the fridge and the skins are damp with condensation, wipe them dry carefully. Better yet, make sure they've been out of the fridge for a good 20 minutes before you start preparation.

Pop everything on a foil-lined baking tray, skin side up. And under the grill it goes.

It’ll take a minimum of 10 minutes for the skins to scorch and blacken. Once you’ve reached that point (see the picture above) bring them out and let them cool until you can handle them comfortably. Then you can peel the skins off.

In the meantime, pop a saucer under the grill with a layer of ground almonds on it. You’ll need to watch this because it can get burnt very quickly, and you just want it when it’s started turning golden.

Right. Now you can put everything in a pan and give it a very gently blitz with a hand-held blender – or give it just a tiny process in a processor.

Otherwise, just chop the fruits roughly and mix with the toasted nuts.

That’s it, in essence. If it’s a bit stiff, you can loosen it with olive oil, but otherwise, simply heat gently and serve with the pasta of your choice.

Easy, tasty, healthy and inexpensive. Given word associations, it seems churlish to describe it as ‘frugal food’, but it’s certainly not a bank breaker!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Enlightened self interest and pleasure

It didn’t take long for the first bit of bad food news of the year to appear.

On Friday – just as you were looking forward to a weekend brekkie with the full works – the media revealed that processed meats cause cancer. That bacon butty can kill you! And let's not mention the sausages!

Well, actually, behind that tabloidesque comment – and the headlines that were on display – was research that suggested that the risk of pancreatic cancer can be increased by around 19% by eating approximately one sausage a day.

But pancreatic cancer is, itself, rare. And there appear to be other factors – known and unknown – that could have an impact.

Yet the World Cancer Research Fund has advised people to completely avoid processed meat – which seems to be the most crass and counter-productive piece of advice ever.

Actually, what’s counter-productive are these sort of stories in general.

Some years ago, I had been commissioned to write an article about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I contacted one of the charities involved. One thing that emerged from conversations was how they hate it when stories about cancer get into the general media.

It’s not that they think that the results of surveys should be hidden, but rather that a steady diet of ‘this gives you cancer’ and ‘that gives you cancer’ might not actually give you cancer, but it will quite probably make you feel so fatalistic that you’ll stop any reasonable efforts you’re making to avoid obvious risks.

They noted that, whenever such a story emerges – this was around the time of ‘you’ll get cancer if you work night shifts’ – they actually found that fewer people called them for advice, precisely because of the fatalism that such stories create.

If so many things in life can give you cancer, then what’s the point of trying to be healthy? You’re going to get it anyway.

What's more, many of the research that is reported is being taken out of its scientific context and, therefore, usually manages to sound much more frightening than it actually is.

Should it be reported in the mainstream media, then? Well there's a question – and particularly at a time when media ethics is being examined in great detail by the Leveson inquiry that has followed revelations about phone hacking by parts of our news media.

Perhaps the question that should be asked before publication is does the sum of these stories – see above – outweigh any possible advantages. I wonder if there's a single story like this that has resulted in a saved life.

But back to this one specifically.

I doubt that any sensible person wants to increase their chances of getting cancer – I certainly don't. I might have started getting waves of the sense of my own mortality at the cliché-ridden age of 40, and I might have known – and know – a horrifyingly large number of people who have had to deal with or are dealing with cancer, but I have no desire to see whether I would be as heroic, under such circumstances, as they have been.

So what about the question of meat consumption?

It’s probably fair to suggest that, although we are omnivores – and therefore evolved to eat meat – we are omnivores. In other words, we can eat more than meat. Indeed, our ancient ancestors probably didn’t get a big kill and eat meat every day.

Unlike Boudi, Otto and Loki, we don't actually need meat (or fish) at every meal.

Perhaps the real problem is that meat has become so cheap that many people consider it a staple for every day – indeed, even for every meal.

Isn't that cheapness a good thing?

Well, perhaps not. Look at what it can mean. The £2 chicken has probably spent its brief life sitting in its own shit, unable to move and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and other drugs.

Setting aside any question of animal welfare, why would anyone want to eat that?

We know that swine flu evolved via intensive factory production of pork products. Why would anyone want to eat pork reared in such an environment?

But if we look a bit further, we can also see that cheapness is a bit of a con.

Take bacon. It's not difficult to find a pack of six rashers for around £1.99. But since those rashers shrink massively during cooking, spewing white gunk into the pan – water that the meat has been pumped full of in the first place – and never gets crisp properly, then wouldn't it be better to buy six rashers of quality bacon for double the price, and ensure almost zero shrinkage, none of the gunk and rind that will crisp?

In fact, if you look at it like that, the prices must be close to equal.

But what I didn't mention there is another factor – taste.

There is a good argument for animal welfare on the basis of taste alone. Call it enlightened self interest, if you will. Because meat from animals and birds that have been raised decently will taste a lot, lot better. That £2 chicken might not actually taste of shit, but then it won't taste of anything at all, so you'll need to swamp it in a sauce to make it edible.

But better meat is more expensive. In which case, why don't we simply buy less and, therefore, make it easier to afford the better product?

Meat-free days are really not the purgatory some might imagine – even to a committed meat eater like me. There's always fish – and even vegetables are nice!

Yet by opting for the best flavour possible, instead of the cheapest product, and by then cutting the amount of meat we eat in order to find the best possible stuff, we possibly even manage to do ourselves some good from a health perspective.

Pleasure can be good for you.

Telling people that they shouldn't eat a popular and enormously enjoyable foodstuff, at all, ever – and even of the best quality – is just plain stupid, and doomed to fail.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The start of a wintery weekend

Friends – it is the weekend. The time of the week when I sit down to start contemplating food – as if I don't do it at other times! But there are fewer distractions over the coming days.

I managed to get back to Broadway Market on Friday before Henry Tidiman, our rather good, traditional local butcher, had closed, and thus have something fresh for the evening to get things going with a bang.

Otto, who enquired about the food question the moment I walked through the door, was sated somewhat with a tin of sardine and mackerel from Waitrose – she had to share it with Boudi and Loki, of course, but it made them all a tad calmer.

They mostly eat biscuit, but I have to give in to feline demands occasionally. And this particular example of tinned food always looks so good when you open it – no brown 'mush' – that I'm tempted myself.

That done, it was down to contemplating exactly what to do with the chicken thighs that I had bought.

The temperature is finally fallen to something closer to what you'd expect in January, so it's entirely fitting to feel that need for comforting food.

I know some of you don’t like the cold, but two things strike me: first, when we had the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, it was due in part to having had a number of mild winters in the preceding years. A proper cold spell is needed to kill of a number of nasty things.

And second, before the more recent series of wintery winters, The Other Half and I had spent a new year in Amsterdam.

We’d bought thermals for the purpose – and needed them. But among a number of weather-related memories from that trip, a walk in Vondel Park on New Year’s Eve in the morning stands out: with the small lakes iced over, everyone had come out to play.

There were children and adults on ancient skates and sleds. It might have been a grayish day – high cloud, however – but it was joyous.

And after four days, I returned to London feeling really refreshed and invigorated.

Now, the arrival of genuinely seasonal weather also makes the prospect of sitting down to browse assorted cookbooks even more alluring.

I skinned and boned the chicken – really easy – and then cut it into strips and browned these in a little lard.

Removing to a plate, a diced onion took the place of the meat. When that had been softened, plain flour was added, cooked for a minute or so, and then the pan was deglazed with white wine and white wine vinegar.

Once everything was blended, there was a substantial squirt of tomato purée, a good amount of black pepper, an even better amount of a smoked paprika and some chicken stock.

The chicken went back in the pan, together with some sliced mushrooms and the shredded remains of a cabbage from a couple of days previously. And it was all left to simmer away, under a lid, for half an hour or so.

Once everything was cooked, it simply remained to add a couple of dollops of sour cream, stir in gently and reheat just as gently – and the job’s a good one. Serve with rice.

Yesterday morning it was cold – not a namby pamby southern cold, but cold with real frost and beautifully blue skies.

Cheered enormously, and with a list in my pocket, it was time to head back to Broadway Market, which is slowly returning to normal after the break over new year.

With bags full, it was back home and into the kitchen – after a break to provide Otto with the second fuss session of the day.

In this weather, soup is perfection.

Yesterday, I decided to do a River Café one – rustic and chunky, and as comforting as a big woolly sweater.

Diced butternut squash, chopped garlic, a chopped potato and a tin of tomatoes are added to a pan, together with a little light stock and some crushed fennel seeds.

The recipe says tinned tomatoes are fine – but to drain and not use the juice in the can. Now to me, that’s daft. I tin the lot in and rinse out the remaining juice – I don’t have tinned tomatoes with any junk added anyway. And then I use a little less of any other liquid.

Then let it cook. When the potato is done, mash gently. Serve with a drizzle of good, virgin oil, a dollop of Mascarpone and some grated Parmesan. Lovely.

In the evening, it was a return to trying to improve my fish cookery. Cod again – and I came close to messing it up completely – it wasn’t over-cooked, but I seem utterly incapable of turning fish from the skin side to the non-skin side when it’s been cooked initially on the former.

It doesn’t make things any easier – and it made me a lot swearier – when the skin simply stuck to the pan or came off on my fish slice.

Was the pan hot? Yes. Was the oil (rapeseed) hot too? Yes! The fish was at room temperature and nice and dry. You’d really think that something like that would be so simple, wouldn’t you?

We had some leek, some fine beans (a very rare concession to something other than season, UK veg) and some plain, boiled spuds, with butter and good lemon.

But even my annoyance at the less-than-perfect fish presentation, it was warming, comforting food.

If this weather keeps up, there’ll be more where that came from.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

It's deconstruction Jacques, but not as we know it

So: it's the middle of the week. There's the remains of a leg of lamb sitting in the fridge, but we've already had a post-roast dinner of cold cuts, so how best to use some more of the meat?

The obvious thing was a shepherd's pie.

But an intervention of sorts had come via copy of Food Presenting Secrets by Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury, a copy of which had landed only a couple of days ago.

One of the first ideas I'd noticed was a 'tower' of puréed potato. In essence, the potato is cooked as normal, then put through the ricer and beaten into smooth perfection with butter and good double cream, but then it's packed into buttered rings on a parchment-lined baking tray, before being cooked further in the oven at 200˚C for 20 minutes.

So that was already in mind.

Two small problems had struck me when I'd been making cottage or shepherd's pies in the last few months: first, that the diced carrot needed pre-cooking to get the right texture. Second, that the most natural dish I had to cook it in always encouraged me to make too much.

Slowly but surely, an idea dawned. I've also noticed that using a ring for presentation purposes is actually quite a good way of helping limit portion size.

Put two and two together and what do you get?

I started toying with the idea of a deconstructed shepherd's pie, but after such a thought had flittered through my mind, hot on its heels came a sort of: 'err, exactly what is a deconstructed dish?'

A trendy phrase, but what does it actually mean?

Simply, it's a dish where the ingredients have been separated out - the rather obvious deconstruction bit - but the way it's reconstructed is just as important, while the flavours should still give you a sense of the traditional version.

An interesting challenge.

First, some of the remaining lamb from Sunday's roast was minced. An onion was chopped finely and softened in a little rapeseed oil, before the mince was added and cooking continued at a low heat.

Because it had already been cooked, the meat was dry. I added a little water to moisten, plus a shake of HP sauce.

In the meantime, three potatoes were peeled and boiled, while a carrot was also peeled, cut into slices just over half a centimetre thick and cooked in salted water for around eight minutes - until the point of a sharp knife entered easily. These were then rinsed under cold water and drained.

The oven was pre-heated and my largest rings buttered and placed on a prepared tray. The cooled meat mixture was shared between the rings and packed down, before the potato followed. It was dotted with butter and sprinkled with fleur de sel before being popped into the oven.

Next up, butter is melted gently in a pan and the carrot slices, which have now been cut into small dice, are finished off, with a touch of seasoning. It takes around five minutes.

A small amount of peas were also boiled.

The final question was gravy/sauce. I decided to try a little experiment and thinned down a small amount of HP sauce with some dipping Balsamico. Finding it tasted okay, I made up a bit more.

Plating up was easy. A palate knife was perfect to lift the rings from baking tray to plate. The gravy was easy to dot around - plenty of space on a big plate - and the carrot and peas fitted in easily after that, with a sprig of thyme to top it all off.

It looked great, but it tasted good too. The meat was still a little dry, but it was full of flavour. The potato worked well. The carrot was much better cooked than in my previous, traditional versions. The gravy worked well and added a bit of necessary punch.

Perhaps surprisingly, it didn't take any longer than the usual version. In this case, for instance, I didn't need to pre-cook the peas.

And it was certainly good on the eye!

It might not be deconstructionism as Derrida meant it, but it wasn't bad at all for a first effort.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Some educative cooking

In his book, A Life in the Kitchen, Michel Roux Jr comments on the danger of basic losing culinary skills. Developing his theme, he suggests that, while anyone can make a dessert from a recipe, a declining number of people really know how to cook meat or fish.

He has a point. There’s an extent to which much baking and patisserie, for instance, has such a near-scientific precision that it’s not impossible to simply follow a recipe carefully – although that doesn’t mean that no skills are required and no calamities possible (as I’ve found, more than once).

But where and how do you learn those things about cooking meat? For instance, where you learn how to test for doneness with your finger?

Browning meat properly and getting a maillard reaction is more difficult than it seems – or certainly if you haven’t been brought up simply knowing how to do it as a habit so it becomes instinct.

I made some steps forward this last year – not least on getting a maillard reaction. That was massively thanks to Raymond Blanc, as I’ve explained here more than once. And his advice is illustrative of why it’s possibly difficult to learn such things – because the key is to engage more than one of our senses when cooking, and it takes a bit of practise to learn to do this and then to remember to do it every time. Well, it does for me!

But with all this in mind, I’d already decided that I would try to improve some apparently basic skills this year.

First up – fish. Now I love fish, but frequently feel that I’m not much cop at cooking it – and that it’s easy enough to mess up. Meat is a tad more forgiving.

But what had started to dawn in the final months of last year had been the realisation that it also helps if you cook something regularly – not just once every couple of months.

Because of those feelings of piscine inadequacy, I had rather lapsed into cooking fish less frequently. When I did, the emphasis was on poached salmon or pan-fried tuna, with very occasional sole or plaice, grilled with a little butter.

But in recent months, after reading Nigel Slater on the subject, I’ve made a couple of attempts to pan fry cod – with largely improved results.

So on Saturday, taking a lead from Joël Robuchon, I tried the same approach with salmon.

It involved slashing the fillets on the skin side, to just beneath the skin. Then seasoning – and then frying in a small amount of hot, neutral oil for three minutes on the skin side and then a recommended one on the other side – with an allowance that if you want it a bit better done, a further minute is acceptable before it is overcooked.

Such precision in instructions can really help. The result was not bad at all – far better than the last time I attempted to pan fry salmon.

It was served on a bed of Savoy cabbage, which, like sprouts, gets the blanching treatment by Robuchon. Cutting the cabbage up – removing the leaves one at a time and then slicing the core out – it dawned on me how many people probably don’t do that, but then boil it either not enough to properly cook that tough stalk or too much for the more delicate leaf.

The blanching process also helps keep a vibrant colour. After its pre-cooking, the cabbage is squeezed dry and later, cooked for a few minutes in a little butter, before having seasonings and crème fraîche added, lending it a buttery quality, but without too much sweetness.

With a sharp sauce of sherry vinegar, white wine and shallots, finished to glossy glory with crème fraîche and a little butter, this was a pleasing dish. And one that I felt I learned things from.

Continuing the educational theme, for Sunday, I’d bought a leg of lamb. I usually use Delia’s timings – which mean 30 minutes at 190˚C (fan oven) and then 30 minutes per 450g at 160˚C.

I had considered taking Robuchon’s instructions – a much shorter cooking time at a much higher temperature (240˚C – ordinary oven) – but chickened out on the basis of my fears about my oven’s apparent ability to cook things in the time given in some recipes.

However, I did put some lamb trimmings in the roasting dish, and oiled and seasoned the meat à la Robuchon, using sprigs of thyme instead of my old standby of rosemary.

When it was done. I left it on a rack to drain, seasoned with a little fleur de sel, under a tent of foil for 20 minutes, while I finished off everything else.

The trimmings are removed from the roasting tin, together with most of the fat. Add eight tablespoons of water, stir round to scrape any meat from the dish and pop back into the oven, which you’ve turned off.

By the time your meat has rested and you've plated up, you’re left with a very pleasant jus.

In the meantime, there were a couple of potatoes to purée and some sprouts to finish, à la Robuchon again. Getting them to within five minutes of completion earlier in the afternoon was a helpful prep thing. To the pan of seasonings and melted butter I also added four halved artichoke hearts.

And remember what I mentioned a few days ago about how Robuchon asserts that such a process helps digestion? Well, yet again, there was none of the 'traditional' after effect of sprouts. Perhaps he's right? Even ignoring the fart effect – or lack thereof – they taste great: cooked properly, yet with some bite left. Love it!

To finish, I’d made a little sauce, simmering redcurrants in a little water and with a tiny amount of sugar and a couple of sprigs of thyme until it was fit to strain through a sieve.

It was completed with a touch more sugar and some drizzling Balsamico, and then gently reheated just before serving. And very pleasing it was too, contrasting very well with the sweet meat and also adding a shot of vivid colour to the plate.

It wasn’t from any specific recipe, but what gave me a lot of satisfaction was that making it suggested I’d inwardly digested a couple of skills and also some sense of flavour and of combining flavours.

The lamb, I have to say, was wonderful, with utterly glorious fat – crisp and sweet and light as air. Personally, I had just two smallish slices – the fat makes me feel so delightfully sated so quickly. And there's loads left for the coming days.

I will try roasting lamb the Robuchon way – and if I do it relatively soon, so that hopefully it will mean that I can remember this one well enough to understand the differences and make comparisons.

Education is good for you. Good food is possibly even better.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Your January diet of diet stories – digested

Being the start of a new year, with all those resolutions flying around, it’s apparently a good time for people to consider diets.

So with that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that a glut of stories on the subject has hit the media in recent days.

In France, a diet ‘guru’ has urged the government to partly grade university students on their weight.

Well of course! After all, being good at your subject is absolutely the same as being a few pounds overweight.

The French are way behind Brits in the fat stakes, but obesity is rising there too, so hence the issue raising its head – including with such idiotic ‘solutions’.

A story from the BBC about entrepreneurs in the US making money by catering for the growing numbers of big people in that country ignored the massive profits made by the entire diet industry, which is as dependent on people being overweight as a drug addict is for their next fix.

The diet industry needs people to be unable to shift that weight permanently and so frequently resort to weight-reduction programmes; and it needs people to be so worried about how they look and their body shape etc that they become repeat customers.

The article and comments section did, however, give some people the opportunity to show off just how nasty, rude and ignorant they can be when the subject at hand is those dangerous fatties who are obviously threatening the entire nation because of their greed and laziness.

What do you mean – you didn’t realise it was that much of a problem?

But fear not – help is at hand: the government has boosted the ongoing Change4Life campaign – with help from supermarkets offering cheaper healthy foods to help families cook cheap but healthy meals.

Good old Ainsley Harriott is involved too, producing a recipe book.

Now the statistics certainly show a big rise in obesity in the UK – British women are the heaviest in Europe, with men in second place for their sex.

And the health problems associated with this are entirely real.

But, setting aside the dire nature of the website itself – is this the answer? Let’s take a bit of a deeper look.

The supermarkets in question are Aldi, Asda and the Co-op.

At the time of writing, the offers at Asda include bagged salads, Auntie Bessie’s “finely chopped vegetables” (£1.50 for 700g), reduced-fat sausages (with assorted additives and only 65% pork), two varieties of oven chips and a kilo of chicken for £2.48; breakfast cereals with sugar and salt, various WeightWatchers products, lashings of Activia and Müller yogurts, and loads of fruit-based drinks with additives aplenty.

Bargain chain Aldi has six items on offer – cabbage, celery, Chantenay carrots, onions, swede and tomatoes – while the Co-op includes bagged salads, lots of Müller yogurts, lots of Co-op yogurts, bags of prepared stir fry veg (£1, reduced from £1.50, for 450g) and bags of vegetables for steaming (two for £2), plus a ‘three for a tenner’ deal on chicken products (including a full bird of almost 1.5kg).

In other words, Aldi apart, there are a lot of 'added value' products being offered as cheap and healthy alternatives here: that is, processed foods that, by nature of being processed, give the producer/retailer better returns.

The supermarket pages also include links to all the rest of the chains’ ranges – so for instance, at the Co-op, you get specific links for “bread and cakes”, “beers and ciders” etc.

Given the fact that most supermarkets are always running (and advertising) offers anyway, isn’t this just another case of the government providing free advertising for big business?

I’m all for encouraging people to cook from scratch, but why this emphasis on supermarkets?

The website aims to get you started with seven “supermeal” recipes that are “low-cost, quick and easy”. Apparently, your ‘supermeal’ for Monday could be “grilled plaintain with fresh salsa”. At just 94 calories, it doesn’t say what else you’re going to need to eat to keep hunger at bay.

Wednesday is cauliflower cheese at under 300cals. Are these really supposed to be a main evening meal?

If so, what are you eating for the rest of the day? Is it assumed you’ll have been tucking into a Maccy D for lunch?

This so-called promotion makes absolutely no inroads on the question of cooking skills, which many people lack.

And frankly, if you want to inspire people to cook more – and in many cases, actually learn to cook – then it might be an idea to make the suggested meals a tad more appetising than Tuesday’s “tasty tuna and sweetcorn pasta”.

Tinned tuna is bland, while many people can’t even digest sweetcorn – and you can buy fresh veg that are cheaper than anything in tins.

This is, in essence, uninspiring student food.

And if these are supposed to be recipes that are cheap, then it might be an idea to work out what to do with the rest of the ingredients that it suggests buying – for instance, you won’t be able to purchase “three celery sticks” on their own, even when that’s all that’s needed of that ingredient for Saturday’s sweet and sour chicken.

There are also two celery sticks required for Thursday’s pork with apples and celery, but that’s it for the week, yet with no explanation of what to with the rest of your celery or where to buy just the five “sticks” required for that week’s recipes.

Strangely enough, people who need to watch pennies as well as the pounds can’t afford to buy ingredients and then throw half of them away.

Monday requires three spring onions and a quarter of a cucumber, while Sunday requires half a savoy cabbage. Guess what – there are no explanations of where you’ll buy these amounts or how to use them up if you have to buy the full amounts.

The example of a week’s planned menus is neither appetising nor coherent.

If you wanted to do the latter, it would be better to start with a Sunday dinner and plan for a piece of meat that will leave you with leftovers that can then be used in the coming days.

So if you have a piece of roast pork, for instance, then you can use some of the pork for a casserole on Monday. If you’ve got some sprouts and spuds left over, you keep them for bubble and squeak.

It’s difficult to see that this is anything except a thinly-disguised attempt to boost big businesses that don’t need it.

In the meantime, as the obsession with how we look shows no signs of letting up, it seems that increasing numbers of British women are having either full cosmetic surgery or non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

At this point, I am going to break my resolution to make no resolutions: I promise that I am not going to have botox (it’s a poison, for fecks sake!) or go under the knife or have my skin stretched to try to look like an expressionless, middle-aged impersonation of a baby.

The line has been drawn at having colour put in my hair, moisturising my skin and tweezing away the moustache that threatens to break out over my top lip: facial hair looks great on men, but I remain unconvinced of it as a female thing.

For better or for worse, my lines and the bits of me that sag where once they didn’t are me; they show some of the story of who I am and who I have been.

And with my fiftieth year now under way, I am damned well not going to buy into the cult of an imagined, airbrushed, artificial eternal youth. Why on Earth would I want to?

When did we become so uncomfortable in our own skins that we started to spend our lives trying to be what we’re not?

Okay, that’s not the reason for the rise in obesity, but perhaps it’s not unconnected. Perhaps part of the problem is that people feel less control in their lives than ever; in feeling that they cannot match the ‘perfection’ that is increasingly demanded of them, they simply give up?

Perhaps too, people are so sick and fed up with being spoon fed the sort of pap that the Change4Life campaign dishes out, as well as the sheer nastiness of the people who, in typical cowardly fashion, hide beneath the anonymity of the internet to mete out their bile against those who are overweight, that they simply stick two fingers up to it all and, if they want to eat nothing but deep-fried Mars bars, do so?

I have no concrete solutions to offer, but at the end of the day, is anyone made even a shred happier by all this?

If there is a key, then, perhaps it’s actually pleasure: pleasure in what you eat – which obviates the desire to eat junk anyway – and a pleasure in the experience of life itself.

Perhaps I should publish something on that theme – a voluptuous manifesto, in other words.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Going German in the kitchen again

With the new year now well under way, it’s nice to find something different to eat.

Boxing Day left behind it a wake of ham: a boiled ham with sour brown shallot sauce is our one guaranteed Christmas eating tradition – and the only one with big left overs.

We started with ham, with jacket potatoes and pickles on the side – the pear chutney I’d made back in September was finally opened and proved to have lovely depth of flavour.

Then there was ham, egg and chips – with the latter cooked in dripping from Mary.

It's worth pointing out (again) at this point that real chips are just so, so much better than the frozen ones – and cooking them now involves no more hopeful cubes of bread tossed into the fat to see if it’s hot enough. This time, I remembered that one of my cook’s thermometers would tell me exactly the right moment.

Ham, of course, can go between slabs of bread. And it can sit on a plate with sautéed potatoes and carrots à la Robuchon.

These are sliced no thicker than 0.5cm and cooked gently for 25 minutes in a pan with butter, sugar, a pinch of salt and water just to cover, and topped with a disc of parchment paper that’s cut to shape and has four holes speared into it.

The disc is then removed and the cooking continued at a slightly higher temperature for a further five minutes.

And then there are the pickles again.

By which point, one is getting a tad bored of ham – thank goodness it’s now done!

And what better way to celebrate the end of something that started with a German dish – that sour brown shallot sauce gets a mention in Thomas Mann’s Nobel-cited Buddenbrooks – than with another German dish?

Indeed, some of you may have spotted that, for all my love of French food, lunch on Christmas Day was a bit northern European/Baltic in fashion.

Much as I am a Francophile in so many ways, the older I get, the more I feel a sense of northern-central European roots.

So today was the perfect time for herring with a bacon gravy – or Hering mit speckstippe as it is properly known.

It is a dish that I was introduced to some years ago by George, and it combines sweet with sharp quite beautifully. It's also enormously comforting.

Dice some streaky bacon – smoked or not, that’s your choice.

Take an onion or two and chop to similar-sized dice – not too small, because you don’t want this all to melt away.

Pop these into a pan with a little fat and cook very gently until they’re soft and caramelised.

When he ontroduced me to the dish, George suggested vegetable oil: I suspect he realised that, at that stage in my culinary development, lard would have been a step too far.

Serve over plain boiled potatoes and herrings decanted from the container you bought them in.

I used Mrs Elswood's sweet herring fillets (£3.99 for 500g). You'll often find them in the kosher sections of shops.

The bacon was unsmoked (12 rashers for £1.85). I used six.

I admit that the onions were a bit of a treat – I'd spotted Roscoff onions in La Bouche just before new year and bought a string; many chefs recommend them. Okay, not as cheap as your usual onion (they actually have AOC recognition in France), but boy, are they gorgeously sweet!

So was it good? Was it ever!

It's a magnificent, simple dish – but not one you're likely to find in any cookbook. And thus I have George to thank for telling me about it in the first place – and thus being allowed to spread the word.

I did some frozen peas on the side too, so that it provided two portions of fruit and veg for the day, plus loads of other goodies. And as illustrated above, it's not expensive.

But it really is a wonderful dish.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Being resolved

This time of year, by tradition, involves resolutions. Well, not here, of course – apart from a sense of resolve that no resolutions will be made and, therefore, none broken.

Have you noticed how the bulk of the resolutions that you hear about are negative? In effect, they are about denial; about changing behaviour that was, presumably, quite enjoyable, to behaviour that is, following this logic, less enjoyable.

So someone’s giving up booze, for instance, or chocolates. Or going on a general diet.

Why now? Do a massive number of people really eat and drink so much over the festive period that they actually need to diet just to get back to where they were before Advent?

And if they do, will these be some of the same people who, after the flush of new year’s resolution self-satisfaction has worn off, will find Lent cropping up to keep them on the straight and narrow?

If anything, Lent is even more confusing than these new year resolutions.

In recent years, one of the glories of the internet has been the discovery that the popularity of Lent seems to be growing among those who have no religious interest in it.

It has become a time to give up something for something you don’t believe in.

Unless, of course, you do believe in it – and then you get to play pick and mix. I recall an incident a few years ago of a young woman on an internet forum arriving online to declare, with great pride (a sin, surely?) that she was giving up something or other for the duration.

Now, this was someone who had also declared, more than once, her core religiosity.

So, because sometimes I can post faster than it takes my brain to re-think myself out of writing something, I asked whether she hadn’t considered giving up sex outside marriage first (or at least contraception) since these two were far higher on the list of her chosen religion’s ‘bad list’ than the consumption of a few Mars bars.

Then, just as you’ve reached Easter and been able to cheer yourself up a bit, it’s time for the new diet to give you your ‘beach body’.

If you’re really desperate, there’s the much-advertised one where you substitute two proper meals a day for a bowl of torn cardboard pieces, as recommended by a certain major manufacturer of said cardboard bits in a nod in entirely the opposite direction to really sensible and sustainable eating habits.

So it seems that culturally, we spend half the year at least in a state of denial of pleasure – and let’s face it, in the UK, ‘use up your flour and eggs) doesn’t even offer a meaningful blow-out before Lent kicks in.

It all begs a few questions. A cycle of binge, purge, binge, purge is no more healthy than binge, binge – so why not just get your lifestyle sorted out if you really believe that’s a problem?

But then again, is it any coincidence that so many resolutions – at new year and later – involve dieting?

In Western Europe, sales of weight-loss products, excluding prescription medications, topped £900 in 2009. In the US, the weight-loss industry is apparently worth more than $50bn – that’s a whopping £32.4bn. [Story]

The cycle of diet and binge may not do us any good, but it's not bad for some businesses and, therefore, for the economy as a whole.

And when we realise that faddy diets, the desire to be ultra skinny and the obsession with celebrities’ weight are not new, but can, in part at least, be viewed as products of an era that has been characterised as generally puritanical, then it’s hard not to see something inherently unhealthy and unbalanced in the entire matter.

So the only thing I’m going to resolve this January is to try to make this as voluptuous a year as possible.

Here’s to 2012.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Learning with the two Rs

One of the things that materialised in my Christmas stocking last year was a copy of Michel Roux’s new volume, Desserts.

With Sauces, Eggs and Pastry having already more than proved their worth in the kitchen, this was a most welcome addition – and it didn’t take long before it was being put to practical use.

The first experiment hardly seemed particularly challenging – individual, cardamon-scented rice puddings with caramel.

Rice pudding has been on my to-do list for some time. I only have vague memories of it from childhood and, to be honest, can’t really remember whether those are of maternal efforts or of school dinners.

So there was an unopened bag of pudding rice in the cupboard, together with all the other necessary ingredients.

Suffice it to say that it was a disaster. Well, the caramel worked well enough – much easier now I have a proper thermometer so I can see what’s going on in the pan in terms of temperature (a boon too when I made chips a day or so later).

But when I went to decant them, the rice had sunk to the bottom, with the milk above, with only a thinnish skin on top.

The key problem, I think, was in mis-interpreting an instruction to cook the rice and milk gently as too gently.

But there you go: you learn by your mistakes.

The following day, I tried something different. This time, a pear and chestnut ‘minestrone’. Now I have no idea why M Roux called it that, but that's what it it is called.

The dish involved puréed pear with cinnamon, topped with diced, poached pear and caremalised chestnut pieces. The nut was perhaps overdone, but the pear was lovely.

So for my next experiment, I moved onto jelly. Very grown-up jelly, it’s worth noting: it’s made from Sauternes, but with tiny pieces of citrus fruit ‘floating’ in it.

You soften the gelatine leaves in cold water and then, having squeezed them, add them to a small amount of your wine, which has been carefully warmed.

Give it 10 minutes and then add that to the rest of the wine and sit the bowl in a bigger bowl of iced water. Stir every two or three minutes and wait for it to start thickening.

In the meantime, you’ve segmented a pink grapefruit and a lemon, then cut the segments into smaller pieces and popped them into the fridge to chill.

The glasses I was using were already chilling in the freezer.

Commeth the moment when the wine has started becoming syrupy, it’s time to decant it into the glasses and start poking bits of the well-drained fruit into each glass with a knife or skewer.

I had a test glass ready too, so after the first attempt saw the fruit float back to the surface, I knew to leave it a little longer. When it’s ready, then getting the fruit where you want it is quite easy – and it looks lovely.

This was the starting point for the New Year's Day dessert. To go with it, I made another chocolate mousse - the same basic Roux recipe I'd used for Christmas Day.

Then it was simply a case of using more of the mandarin dust and the candied citrus peel, with a cape gooseberry to garnish and a few careful dots of double cream. Hey presto!

The jelly was very lightly set and had a sweet freshness, which contrasted well ith the bitter richness of the mousse.

But I also realised that learning from one great R was not enough – and decided that it was also time to start learning from another one: Joël Robuchon.

The Complete Robuchon has been on the shelf since last Christmas, but I haven’t invested the time needed to start really benefiting from it. It’s not, after all, a book with a single illustration in.

This holiday, I’ve spent a little time reading it. And the thing you start to realise quite early is that it’s not just haute cuisine. Indeed, far from it.

I tried a potato dish. Take your spuds, peel and then slice thinly – no thicker than 0.5cm. Rinse and dry them. For this one, you don’t want the starch.

Melt some lard in a pan – around 50g, so not just a tiny amount. Then you cook the potato in the lard, with lardons and a sprig of rosemary. Works very well.

But his recipies for vegetables intrigued me the most. After all, this is a man with a record 26 Michelin stars, so if he suggests an apparently complex way of poking sprouts, there's probably a reason.

The first thing I tried wasa rack of lamb for New Year's Day - but I should have either added a further 10 minutes to compensate for my oven or even switched it to grill or a final blast.

I don't like my meat overdone, but this was going to the other extreme, even though I'd followed the instructions of medium rare.

Mind, experience tells me it'll have been the oven - I just don't know how and what to factor in for any given dish: doing a créme caramel today, I had to give them an extra 15 minutes - but in that circumstance, you don't have other things waiting.

We saved half the lamb for today and I stuck it under a hot grill for five minutes, turning once, as the flesh cooked through properly and the fat crisped up from the rather jelly-like texture it had had. Indeed, it was utterly gorgeous - I don't know whether it had actually benefitted from being cooked in two stages over 24 hours or whether it was just a stunning good piece of meat. It was the first lamb I've bought from The Ginger Pig at Borough Market.

On the side, I sautéed some left-over potatoes - and then decided to concentrate some attention on Robuchon's sprouts.

After the usual prep, they spend about two minutes in a bowl of cold water with malt vinegar - two tablespoons to a litre of water. Then they go into boiling salted water for one minute.

Decant into cold water resting in a bowl of ice. Bring a fresh pan of salted water to the boil. Give them 20 minutes at a very gentle simmer.

Stop the cooking again by popping them carefully into icy water, then rinsing, draining and patting dry very gently in kitchen paper, before finishing off for five minutes in melted butter, with a couple of pinches of salt and one pinch of pepper - yes, the seasoning is that specific too.

Amazingly, given the cooking time, the sprouts were cooked but still with bite, as well as being very tasty.

Robuchon's says that some vegetables benefit from the blanching because it aids digestion. Well, I can only say that there has been no evidence of the notorious side effect of sprouts since dinner. So perhaps this approach has a serious point.

One thing's for certain - I'll be cooking with both the Rs again. And it won't be long before I do so either.