Sunday, 21 December 2008

Merry Christmas

I'm not sure if I will get a chance to post between now and 27th/28th - we are off on our round-the country jaunt to try and see as many people as possible in the smallest possible time frame. I might manage the occasional tweet (www.twitter.com/justcookit) but it is unlikely if I will manage to get to a computer.

We started our celebrations last night with foie gras and truffles with home made bread followed by duck and potato dauphinoise. If the festivities continue in a similar vein I will be very, very happy indeed.


And so, all that remains to say is have a very merry Christmas, yuletide or Saturnalia (depending on your religious, or otherwise, persuasion) and get busy nomming some top class foodage. The diet can start in '09.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Ten Greatest Albums of 2008

Regular readers of this blog (thank you all, you are wonderful people) will probably know that aside from food, music is the other great passion of my life. It is a rare occurrence when the house is silent whether I am working, cooking, writing, reading or even (occasionally) sleeping.

I even have a little widget in the sidebar (somewhere down there, see) that tells you exactly what tunes are supplementing my life at any given moment. ‘At the moment I am cooking to the sounds of…’

2008 has been a very good year in music and there have been a whole bunch of albums that have rocked my world. But in a long running game I play with a good friend, these have to be distilled right down to a hyper-concentrated top ten – a dense and chewy countdown of the best sounds of the year, the definitive aural odyssey of the last twelve months.

What does this have to do with food? Well, in my eyes food and cooking are inextricably linked. They each form key aspects of the creative process. They are about passion. They are about feeling and expression. They are about placing your soul on a plate and waiting for others to judge what you have made. They are not about TV phone ins and soul-less, ball-less, over-produced, mis-understood, exploitative, heavy-handed cover versions of Leonard Cohen songs. But anyway I digress. Here’s my top ten. Feel free to add you own.

10. Saturnalia by the Gutter Twins


9. The Evening Descends by Evangelicals


8. Dear Science by TV on the Radio


7. Only by the Night by Kings of Leon


6. Do You Like Rock Music by British Sea Power


5. Glasvegas by Glasvegas


4. Red of Tooth and Claw by Murder by Death


3. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver


2. In The Future by Black Mountain


1. Keep Your Eyes Ahead by The Helio Sequence

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Curse of the Christmas Cake

T’was the week before Christmas and all through the house
The cook was a-stressing like a scared and trapped mouse

Right, so poetry might not be my forte but where my rhyming abilities fail me, I am supposed to be able to compensate by successfully fashioning near perfect culinary creations.

But I am increasingly starting to think I may have wronged a gypsy at some point over the last couple of years because it appears that my attempts to make Christmas cake are cursed.

For those that don’t know, a traditional Christmas cake is a dense, rich and heavy construction made from much dried fruit, butter, sugar, eggs and a little flour to bind it all together. It is flavoured, rather generously, with brandy or other tasty and strong spirit. It is almost the densest substance known to man and there is a theory that each one is a miniature black hole.

It is exactly the sort of dessert that you don’t want after eating an entire roast dinner, Christmas pudding, mince pies, stilton and far too much chocolate but if there is one thing us Brits do well it is traditions and this is one that will not be ignored. Even it often results in instant sleep and indigestion.

If you would be so kind as to accompany me on a journey back in time then I’d like to whisk you away, way back to Christmas 2006. This was the first time I attempted to make this most rich of cakes. And it was a total success. I followed Nigel Slater’s recipe from the superb book The Kitchen Diaries and everything went well. The resultant cake was moist, dark, tasty and so very good with cheese (honestly – fruit cake and cheese is a winning combo).

Fast forward to Christmas 2007. I was still residing in the family seat at this point (I use the expression metaphorically – we don’t own vast swathes of land or a country estate anywhere), living with my parents. ‘Seen as the cake was so good lat year, why don’t you make it again?’ Said my mother.

I couldn’t wait. I got to work chopping and mixing and stirring and making merry and festive in the kitchen. Once the thick dark mixture had been poured into a large cake tin I was advised to wrap it in dark paper to slow down the cooking process. Which I did. But I didn’t wrap it tightly enough and as I tried to lift it into the oven it all went a bit wrong.

‘Alex,’ said my dad in a calm voice, ‘why is the Christmas cake on the floor?’ The paper had remained in my oven-gloved hands, in a near perfect circle. The cake, however, had fallen to the floor and was rapidly leaking from its tin, spreading tide-like over the tiled floor.

Despite the mess, the mixture was (just about) salvageable and we managed to get it into the oven, relieved that nothing more had gone wrong.

My parents have an Aga at home, a wonderful and warming oven that is an absolute delight to cook on with a hot oven at the top and a cooler one at the bottom which makes slow cooking an effortless pleasure. We decided to cook the cake slowly, hoping that a good six hours would leave it moist and supremely tasty.

We were surprised, therefore, to find it the following day with a black layer on the top looking as if it had been put through a cremation oven. Eventually we found the culprit. ‘I didn’t think it was cooking,’ said my dad sheepishly. ‘I thought it would be ok for a few minutes in the hot oven.’ Not so.

After shaving the thick black layer off the cake like an overly enthusiastic archaeologist, we were left with a slightly smaller but satisfyingly tasty treat that served us well through the festive period.

And then we come to this year. I was optimistic: We had some good organic fruit, we had our own freshly laid eggs. We had a winning recipe and we had the right equipment – a brilliant Kenwood Chef machine from the 1970s that my grandmother donated to us when we moved in.

Things started well. Ingredients were measured out and weighed. The cake tin was prepared and the mixer was ready. And then it all went quite wrong and I had to make a rapid trip to the emergency surgery to get my finger checked out due to a slip with the Big Knife (it’s all OK, I shall be nail-less for some months but it’s fine).

A day later, and dosed up on super-strength painkillers, it was time to try again. I (slowly) chopped the rest of the dried fruit and gradually the mixture came together. Finally it was time to put it all into the oven to cook nice and slowly. Thinking we had plenty of time we went next door for a drink. And then had another. And another. And another.

By the time we wobbled back home, the cake (despite having been in no longer than it should, at a temperature lower than recommended) had taken on a rather black and dry appearance. I think it might, might, be shave-able but I am not holding my breath because it looks a lot worse than last year’s. Oh dear. I dread to think what misadventures Christmas Cake 2009 will bring. Perhaps some things are best left to the professionals…

Roast Chicken and Other Stories

I know I haven’t had much chance to talk about Paris – things have been a bit ker-razy since we got back.

We had some great food. Really amazing food. We had some deeply average food too but the good stuff outweighed the OK stuff by a ratio of about 4:1 so I like to concentrate on the positives.

There were a couple of occasions where we forgot to eat lunch and by the time hunger pangs and low blood sugar started to cause the onset of grumpiness, every single eatery was closed apart from Greek and Middle Eastern places that had enormous rotating elephant’s feet in the window. Doner kebab is fine, providing you have imbibed a significant amount of alcohol but at three in the afternoon it is less appealing.

I will (shamefully) admit that we resorted to falafel.

The best meal we had was probably at a tiny restaurant in Les Halles. We stumbled upon it just as the hunger was starting to cause a little tetchiness and it was a welcome site indeed. The menu was written up on a chalkboard and consisted of two choices – one of which had sold out. It was perfection.



We both had brochette d’onglet, a supremely tasty cut of meat that, although not famed for tenderness, is one of the most delicious cuts of beef I think there is. It is hard to get here but if you ask your butcher for skirt then you wouldn’t be far off. Cook it fast and hot and no more than medium rare or else you will end up with something to re-sole your shoes. What’s more, it’s cheap so perfect for these lean times.

We washed it down with a bottle of fresh Beaujolais, barely two weeks old and spent the afternoon ambling the streets in a warm and happy fuzz.

For the first half of our trip we were lucky to have the use of an apartment complete with cooking facilities which we chose to make full use of.

Like many other fellow foodies, I have something of a bee in my bonnet about chicken. We simply don’t buy intensively raised birds. They taste bad. Really bad. They are unnatural, full of a disgusting cocktails of drugs, hormones, growth promoters and antibiotics and generally lead a pretty shoddy life before they get the chop.

But we are so used to seeing these Frankenstein’s monster type birds in the supermarkets, with their wet flesh and odd proportions (thanks to selective breeding we now end up with chickens with very large breasts. When was this a good thing? Who requested this? The rest of the bird tastes much better) that when we see a proper chicken, it can seem a little strange.

But French chicken is awesome. No doubt they have some dubious farming practices as well but on the whole, quality of food is so important that even if they cared little for animal welfare, they wouldn’t stoop so low as to eat something that tasted bad. And intensively reared chicken tastes bad.

We decided to invest in a proper chicken to take home and roast. Our budget didn’t quite stretch to the famed Poulet de Bresse (although this is definitely on my list of things to eat before I die) but we bought a wonderful looking chicken from a butcher on Rue Mouffetard and took it back to the apartment.

Since cooking a chicken Thomas Keller’s way (keep it very, very simple) we’ve vowed never to try any other method. No lemons up bums, no garlic in the hold, no herbs, no butter, no oil – just salt and pepper and a hot oven. If you have great chicken you need do nothing with it, just let nature take hold and allow the ingredients to sing.



So that’s exactly what we did. Served with nothing more than bread and butter and a glass of chilled Sauvignon, it was as close to food heaven as I think it is possible to get without actually eating the gods’ own Ambrosia.

And don’t forget, you can now follow my culinary adventures on Twitter: www.twitter.com/justcookit

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A little kitchen mishap

Today was the day I was (finally) due to make the Christmas cake. I laid out an measured all the ingredients - flour, butter, sugar, booze and a kilo of dried fruit that needed chopping.

The radio was on, the kitchen was warm and I was feeling thoroughly festive, ready to fill the house with the delicious smells of a slow baking fruit cake, dense and delicious.

And then I lost concentration, for just a second, and managed to have a little accident with a large knife. As a result I am zoned out on the strongest painkillers it is possible to swallow, in a significant amount of pain and under strict instructions from the nurse not to do any typing or cooking AT ALL for 48 hours.

To say that this has put a spanner in the works would be something of an understatement but my ability to think and come up with a witty metaphor has been shot thanks to a wonderful cocktail of pills and the inability to use one hand.

In short I'm fine. My hand hurts like nothing I've ever experienced before ('There's a reason torturers concentrate on finger nails' said the doctor. I can now see why) but everything is OK and I shall live to cook an write another day. Maybe no tomorrow but probably the day after.

Messages of sympathy are positively encouraged.

Oh, and I now have a twitter account which is more likely to be updated whilst I lie here in agony catching up on a few movies I've been meaning to watch.

Simply go to www.twitter.com/justcookit for more culinary fun in just 140 characters

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Paris, Je t'aime

‘I’ve seen at least three Ladurée bags since we got here. I think they might be clichéd,’ said my girlfriend, her tone heavy with disappointment, clearly thinking of her own small pink bag tucked away at the bottom of the suitcase.



We were at Gare du Nord waiting to board the train that would take us back to London. Back home.

‘Darling,’ I replied. ‘We watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle and light the skyline on the hour. We walked hand in hand down the Champs Elysees. We ate onglet steak in Les Halles. We took photos of the Louvre’s great glass pyramid. We drank fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau. We sipped short and strong coffees in Les Deux Moulins were Amelie waitressed tables. We admired the books in Shakespeare and Co. The whole of Paris is a cliché.’

And it is. But what a glorious cliché.



Despite never visiting this wonderful city before, I couldn’t quell the feelings of familiarity that radiated from almost every street corner. Paris has inspired so many great works of artistic merit that one feels at home here even before you step into the fractured metropolis.

Books and celluloid have captured the unique feel of the city more than any other place on earth. Before Sunset, Paris, Je T’aime, Amelie, Hemingway, Orwell, and countless others have managed to, each in their own way, make permanent the fluctuating romance of the French capital.

But it is a romance that pervades still, and only becomes tangible when you see these places first hand.

The narrow streets and grand boulevards, the tiny cafés and large brasseries, the small specialist shops and grand department stores are all somehow uniquely French and quintessentially Parisian.

And each of these dichotomous elements manages to be a neat concentration of the city itself which is at once a sprawling conurbation and a collection of small, independent and unique villages.

And the food is pretty good too.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A return to the molecular kitchen

A while ago I wrote about the el Bulli Texturas kit which was (and still is) probably the best present I have ever received.

Initial experiments resulted in, erm, indeterminate results and my attempts at spherification seemed to be as successful as a Mormon monogamy pledge.

I soon discovered (ok, ok, my girlfriend discovered) that as we live in a hard water area, the algin was likely reacting with the salt we use in our water softener which was what was causing the less than successful blobs as opposed to the smooth orbs of perfection that grace the plates of restaurants that espouse such methods.

Since the initial failures, I have had little time to ponce about with edible chemicals in an attempt to create new and wonderful bursts of flavour, preferring instead to concentrate on meals that have a little more nutritional value.

Part of the problem was the, shall we say, vague nature of the book that the kit came with. I say book, but leaflet would be a more accurate description.

It simply wasn’t detailed enough.

And being somewhat limited in the understanding of chemistry I felt a little out of my depth.

Which was why I was delighted and excited and babbling like Ralph Wiggum on crystal meth when I spotted this particular tome in a Parisian bookshop.



But not just any bookshop, a bookshop dedicated entirely to food and drink and cooking and gastronomy and all things wonderful.

Although their English language section was small, there was plenty to keep me interested and I even managed to get my grubby eager paws on a copy of The Fat Duck Cookbook – the first time I’ve ever seen the silver gilded oversized bible.

But back to Librairie Gourmonde and Anne Cazor’s excellent little book, Petit Precis de Cuisine Moleculaire which explains 20 techniques (including the thus far elusive spherification) and 40 recipes to those who aren’t in possession of a lab coat, let alone a PhD in bio-chemistry.

This is swiftly going onto my Christmas list and I can’t wait to share the results come the New Year.

Oh, and Paris? It was freaking awesome. I’ll tell you about it sometime…

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Greetings from Paris

Hello from Paris. Foreboding skies have done little to quell our sense of adventure and intrigue both culturally and gastronomically. There is much to follow when we return next week but until then we must onward to Sacre Coeur, Montmarte, the Latin Quarter and a multitude of other places each equally exciting and promising stories to delight and amuse.

Stinky St. Felicien, odd boudin noirs, Laduree macaroons, much cheap wine, tasty rillettes, goose cassoulet, brochette d'onglet and beacoup du pain (bread, not physcial hurt) have been sampled thus far. Stay tuned for much, much more.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Game on...

It’s only recently that I’ve been aware of game. Not in a completely blinkered way where I was totally blind to its existence but in a more immediate fashion. I’ve always known that pheasants and rabbits and venison were available but rarely did they feature on the menu at home and even when they did, they invariably came pre-packaged in neat little portions, in no discernable pattern at various points in the year.

And whenever we ate it, I enjoyed it. Venison steaks are an absolute joy, especially when served achingly rare with a sweet sauce. Game casserole was also a favourite although it never made it onto the table more than two or three times a year.

It was only when I started writing about food and in turn reading more about the joys of cooking, seasonality and provenance that I became more aware of the importance and pleasure inherent in game.

Seasonality, an aspect of cooking that is of paramount importance to me, is perhaps most prominent with game. Fruit and vegetables exist at the fickle whim of the weather – too much rain, too little sun or a late frost can push back or bring forward the first potatoes of the year or halt the rise of the young and tender asparagus stems. We know broadly when spring lamb is going to be ready or the time of year when trout is at its best. But there are no absolutes.

The appearance of game, on the other hand, is so firmly set in the calendar that you could set an atomic clock to it. It is not just certain months or weeks when you can expect to see the first few partridges or pheasants – you can be sure of the exact day, days that are set in stone in The Calendar and are as important to some as Royal Ascot, The Henley Regattta or The Wimbledon Final.

‘The Season’ kicks off on August 12th, the Glorious Twelfth as it is known, which marks the first day you are able to shoot grouse. Duck, goose and partridge follow on September 1st and pheasants are fair game a month later.



By the end of February many of these are once again off the menu until the months roll around and the whole thing starts again.

For an enthusiastic cook, this is indeed a glorious time of year. Game is everything food should be – slow bred, wild, able to wander around the countryside and free from any insidious hormones and growth promoters. It is a world away from the intensively farmed, pre-packaged meats that have come to dominate the supermarket shelves and now form most people’s idea of what meat is.

With game, even if you buy it ‘oven-ready’ there is a connection to the land and an awareness that what you are about to consume was, until recently, running or flying round rural Britain. There is a purity to it and an almost unfathomable desire to treat it with respect.

This desire is only accentuated when you get hold of something only recently dispatched – head, feathers and guts in tact. This is hands-on food that offers an experience that every meat eater should consider trying if only to appreciate the moral implications of consuming the flesh of another animal.



I’m not going to pretend I am an expert at this. The only time I have been shooting was with an air rifle whilst in the Cub Scouts and then the target was round, paper and lifeless rather than bird-shaped, fleshy and living. Nor am I going to moralise on the rights and wrongs of being a carnivore. My personal belief is that eating meat does come with a necessary need to think about animal welfare and the connection between a burger and a cow or a pork chop and a pig but that is for another day.

What I would suggest is trying to get hold of a complete bird, just once, to experience what it is like to turn something that looks like it was once alive into something resembling a meal. Because it is a great experience that only gets easier with time and practice.

The first time I did the necessary prep work on a pheasant was a few months back (you can read about it here) and, I am happy to admit, it was not an easy process. Like Lady Macbeth frantically and desperately washing her hands, I tried for two days to remove the smell from my fingers although I am sure that it was almost certainly psychological. The mental images, too, are still strong and I approached the whole process with a degree of some fear and trepidation.

But nevertheless I was ball-bouncingly excited when I heard that a colleague of my girlfriend’s was going shooting last weekend because I knew what the result would be.

Sure enough, on Monday evening she arrived home with a heavy bag containing two freshly despatched pheasants: one young hen and one hefty cock whose large spurs and considerable size suggested he was something of a battle weary veteran.



They hung in the garage for two days before I decided to settle down and ‘do the deed’. Fortified with nothing more than strong coffee (last time required wine, much wine) I settled down and started plucking, a process that is almost therapeutic and quickly transforms a recognisable bird into something that resembles meat.

Once naked and the head has been removed, the gutting is a grim inevitability but, honestly, after the first time it presents little problem and within moments I had two birds ready to be washed and butchered as well as a plate of giblets, perfect for making a rich stock along with the bones.

The whole process from start to finish took close to an hour, not bad considering that I managed to prevaricate for almost two the first time I was presented with a complete pheasant. At the end of it I had four sizeable breast portions and a large handful of meat, ideal for creating a rich winter pie to eat in front of a crackling fire with a large glass of something red and warming. Game on indeed.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Soy Seed Nibbles

One of the best things about Friday is being able to collapse into the sofa, guilt-free, with something faintly alcoholic filling your glass in large measure.

Unless we are planning on eating spicy food, we rarely have beer in the house. Wine we tend to save for drinking with food too, so when it comes down to just having a drink, something to enjoy in its own right, the spirits cupboard is where I tend to migrate towards.

I shy away from sweet drinks and prefer something more refreshing with a bit of bite and a distinct sourness so a vodka or gin and tonic with plenty of ice and a hefty squeeze of fresh lemon and lime is damn near perfect.

But, as thousands of bartenders around the world know, with drinks such as this must come nibbles.



Olives and nuts have long been favourites, partly because their saltiness compliments many drinks so well (and leaves you feeling thirsty and thus more likely to order a second and a third and a…) and this same principle is behind by new favourite drink nibble: soy roasted seeds.



When my girlfriend first made these we had to roast a new batch within minutes of the first because I demolished them so quickly. They are easy, quick, finger-lickingly tasty and so more-ish that they could be offered to crack addicts in an effort to help wean them off the demon rocks.



The principle is simple – toss a few handfuls of pumpkin and sunflower seeds in soy sauce and roast them for about ten minutes in a hot oven until they dry out and puff up into little crunchy, salty bubbles of deliciousness. To pep them up a little you could add some dried chilli flakes or any one of numerous other spices – cumin, nutmeg, coriander. The possibilities are manifold.

One final tip is to make more than you think you might actually need. Any left over seeds (yeah, right) will keep just fine in an airtight container.

Please welcome to the stage...

A full two months ago I introduced you to Marx and Eggels, the two most revolutionary chicks this side of Cuba. We bought these two hens when they were a mere 15 weeks old and since then they’ve done little but stalk around the garden and eat raisins. They’ve certainly not been earning their keep by laying any eggs.



Not a single one.

It became something of a running joke: perhaps in the revolutionary spirit they downed tools in some passive act of insurrection. ‘We shall lay no eggs until the demands of the proletariat have been met. Death to the bourgeoisie!’ We even toyed with the idea of getting another chicken to try to placate them. She would have been called Henin.

We tried putting a ping-pong ball in their nest box in the vague hope that something resembling an egg might trigger a hitherto dormant desire to lay. This failed too – they merely kicked it out of their little house and proceeded to kick it around their run and peck it into oblivion. We’d even started discussing the possibility of maybe, maybe having one or both of them for Sunday lunch, but I’m still not sure whether the notion was ever a serious one.

And now it doesn’t matter because this morning there was something warm and distinctly egg shaped sat atop the straw.

So without further ado, I am delighted to be able to introduce you to Sheldon, our very first egg and currently the most expensive ova I have ever had the pleasure to hold – I think, when you factor in the cost of their house, the chickens themselves and the copious amounts of food they nom through, this single egg is worth more than Sevruga caviar.



But it is worth every penny because this is the first and I dare say it will make the smallest, tastiest omelette ever created.

www.justcookit.co.uk

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Cherry Tree and Fresh Bread

In the front garden, within good sight of the desk where I work, is an ornamental cherry tree. Due to the fact that it is of a non-edible variety and its leaves litter the lawn in vast brown swathes, its days are numbered. Soon it will make way for another vegetable patch.



But while gazing out of the window this afternoon I noticed the sun shining through the only leaf left on the naked, angular branches. It looked great so I thought I’d take a picture.

Also, the loaf is ready. Real life still life.

The Little Things

I’m not entirely sure how to start this post. I’ve written and deleted the first line that many times that I can’t remember the original point I was trying to make.

I think that I wanted to talk about the non-linear process of cooking and how our experience of reading about food presents a distortion from the reality of cooking and eating, which happen in many more dimensions than two.

Ah, yes that was it, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about.

I wanted to write about how the process of writing about cooking can be to the detriment of the actual act of culinary creation and how trying to capture the sequence of events that takes place when making a meal or dish is nigh on impossible. And I was sure that I had thought of a way to illustrate this but now I can’t remember that either.

Which is most frustrating.

I think what I am trying to say is that the vast majority of food writing seems to focus on the end result, the final product sitting happily on a plate and nicely lit, bathed in sun and captured for a single moment before being devoured. Whereas anyone who reads food writing, and I assume therefore, has a passing interest in the subject, knows that this is not the main attraction of the culinary arts.

The main attraction is in the creation: the process from conception to mouth, which is different for everybody and makes food writing, to a certain extent, a largely moot topic. We can try all we can to describe smells, tastes and textures but ultimately eating is the most subjective of actions that has to be experienced to truly be understood.

I am conscious of this, and have been for some time, which is why I try to focus less on the finished items that emerge from the kitchen five or six times a week and more on the process, the philosophy, the ideas and the incidental details because (aside from a few exceptions) I imagine you’d find it boring to read about what I ate last night in the same way you’d find it boring to discover that I took a shower or put in my contact lenses.

In short, because eating is so subjective, I try to find some common ground, try to pick out the relevant aspects of what I do in order to make this as interesting as possible to as many people as possible.

I don’t want this to be a record of the meals I’ve cooked and eaten, more an exploration of as many aspects of the culinary world as possible, rooted in reality and entrenched in experience. Because those are what we hold in common.

To bring this whole thing round to something more tangible, there are two things cooking in my oven at the moment: a ragu sauce and a loaf of bread.

I am fairly certain that nearly all of you have a favourite, tried and tested, recipe for making a Bolognese sauce and (if you are at all like me) there is nothing, nothing I can do to convince you that yours is not the best in the world. There is no point in posting the recipe I use because you will read it, utter something like ‘Idiota! I cannot believe he uses pancetta!’ or ‘He should add milk!’, and then move swiftly on. And the last thing the world needs is another meat sauce recipe

Likewise, you will have a bread recipe and method that you are unwilling to deviate from so there is little point to me saying ‘Don’t forget to add a teaspoon of salt’ or ‘try using a little rendered duck fat in your dough, it adds an incredible flavour’. You will utter an audible ‘pah’ and click off.

Instead I shall focus on the little things, things that are interesting and mostly relevant, things that can offer a little extra. Things like Soffrito.



In Italy there are two holy trinities: the first has something to do with the church but the second, and more important one, refers to the combination of finely chopped carrot, onion and celery that, when lightly sautéed, forms the foundation of countless dishes.

To many Italians it would be unthinkable to attempt to make a ragu without this trio of ingredients (much like the French version, Mirepoix, only cut much, much smaller) that add flavour and body in wonderful abundance.

Having watched many episodes of The Sopranos, I can safely say that I wouldn’t dare to argue with an Italian about something as important as food, consequently whenever I make a meat sauce, soffrito is always the first thing in the pan (I could launch into a lengthy diatribe about the importance of browning the mince, the addition of red wine and the absolute, unshakeable necessity of cooking for at least two hours, but I shall spare you that).

If you decide to try this can I make once teeny suggestion? Chop it all as finely as you possibly can – I use a grater for the carrot and celery – because chunks of vegetables in a ragu are a big no no.



OK, onto bread. Bread is mostly flour. With the price of grain currently pushing the cost of a loaf over a pound I would instead suggest that you try making bread at least once. It’s fun. It’s easy and it’s cheap: you buy top quality organic flour hand ground by Cistercian Monks on solid gold grinding stones and it is still going to be cheaper than buying a loaf.



Even when you factor in the cost of the extra ingredients, you can have three or four freshly baked loaves for the cost of a single supermarket one. Plus all those wonderful smells wafting through your house and the overwhelming sense of smugness/satisfaction when you pull your freshly baked loaf from the oven, slice off a chunk, smother it with butter and tear into it eagerly. An experience that no shop can provide.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Friday Nibbles - Salt

Salt has had a bad press recently with more and more dieticians and nutritionists advising us to cut our salt intake and use alternative seasonings, which is fine. If you don’t like food.



I can’t say it any simpler – food without salt is almost universally bland. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like my food salty but I know what a difference even a tiny amount can make to the flavour of a dish. In the wrong hands it can be a travesty with everything tasting like a mouthful of seawater but used correctly, salt is merely a flavour enhancer, used to help develop and boost the inherent deliciousness of so many foods.

Not only is it an essential ingredient in the kitchen, without it we would die a rather slow and painful death suffering through fatigue, muscle cramps and other such delights as our bodies struggle to regulate their water content.

In its simplest form, salt is a compound of Sodium Chloride (NaCl) but there are so many variations that a number of top restaurants have started specialising in gourmet salts, using samples from various parts of the world to complement certain dishes. Sel Gris (Grey Salt) and Fleur de Sel both hand harvested from France are two of the more popular gourmet salts and they have a rounder, softer taste to the standard table salt, which many find too harsh and overly salty.

To see for yourself how salt can give an explosion of flavour cut a couple of slices of a fresh tomato. Leave one unseasoned and sprinkle a little salt on the other before tasting each one. You should be able to tell the difference immediately with the second tasting distinctly more tomato-ey and even sweeter than the first. You can do a similar thing when you are making caramel – just a little sprinkling will give a significantly and noticeably more powerful flavour helping to accentuate the other elements in a way that isn’t possible without the salt.



So why has this magnificent little seasoning found itself demonised recently? Excess salt consumption has been linked to hypertension (high blood pressure) although there is no concrete evidence as yet. But the key word there is excess. An excess of anything is unlikely to do you much good. Too many bananas will give you potassium poisoning. Too many glasses of wine will give you a hangover and too many fried breakfasts will give you all manner of difficulties. Moderation is the key, as with most things.

Unless we are making a brine (which happens rarely), we tend to stay away from table salt which is cheap and, to my palate, too synthetically salty. Instead we have a little jar of Malden sea salt: delightfully soft flakes that are great rubbed over a finished dish at the final moment just before serving. In addition to this we have a small jar of rock salt too. This has a less brackish flavour still and is great for seasoning during the cooking process allowing some degree of grace if you slip and add a little too much (If you’ve over salted a dish there isn’t a great deal you can do which is why it pays to add it a little at a time. You can try compensating with other flavours: lemon juice and sugar to balance the saltiness but it’s best just to take a little extra care).



There’s no doubt in my mind that salt is one of the absolute essential ingredients in any kitchen, possibly the number one ingredient thanks to its ability to lift almost all other foods to the loftiest of heights. It may not be a stand alone food stuff but its inherent capacity to act as an ‘enabler’ for everything else in the kitchen to live up to their potential means that it deserves its own chapter in the hall of fame.

Updates and a request

Oh boy, it’s been a while. A whole week, in fact, which is almost inexcusable, and a fortnight since I gave you a ‘nibble’ (I just typoed that as ‘nobble’ and toyed with the idea of keeping it in because it looks like a great word. There you go, you can have both).

Before I do write up a regular Friday posting I’ve just got a couple of announcements and one itsy bitsy teeny tiny request.

First up, I’ve been graced with a rather fabulous award from the delightful Hopie at the equally delightful blog Hopie’s Kitchen. She very kindly rated my little corner of cyberspace E for Excellent for which I am very grateful indeed.



Numero two-so – I’ve recently started the preliminary work on a cookbook in collaboration with two wonderful chefs. More information to follow in due course.

Thirdly, I've just launched my very own website: alexrushmerwriting.com - Please feel free to scoot on over and invite your friends.

Finally, we are taking some well-deserved time out (my girlfriend probably deserves it more than me, but I’m not complaining) and have booked a trip to Paris, a city I’ve not yet had the pleasure to explore. We have almost a week to play with so thought I would open up to you great people and see if you had any tips, must sees or, more importantly, could recommend some truly amazing places to eat.

All advice would be appreciated and I look forward to hearing from you. Stay tuned for ‘nibbles’ very soon.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Home Charcuterie Part Two – Making Pâté

After whetting my charcuterie whistle with a rip-roaring rillettes success, I thought the creation of something a little more adventurous might be in order. Being without certain items such as a meat grinder, nitrates and sausage casings, salamis and their ilk were out. I didn’t fancy smoking anything (not on a week night, at least) and I didn’t have the patience for curing. This left pâté.

If you have ever felt the pressing urge to experience life as a mentally unhinged doctor from a late Victorian gothic horror or empathise with the deranged protagonist in a David Cronenberg movie, then making pâté is an excellent place to start.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to see your food neatly packaged in cellophane bearing no resemblance to any living creature or are liable to feel a little nauseous at the sight of blood and guts then I’d advise you stay away. Well away. This isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak of constitution.

All good pâté begins with liver. Liver, like all offal, is a foodstuff that featured rarely in my childhood and only now am I tip-toeing into this murky world. My only memory of liver was being presented with a seething brown mass topped with a hemi-sphere of mashed potato during one school dinner. It’s liver, I was told.

With a trembling fork I lifted the tiniest possible piece to my mouth and took it between my teeth. I remember the harsh ferric smell and the gritty texture. I remember the dark brown colour and the slimy grey onions in the drab gravy. And I remember a swelling tide of bile making its way up my gullet as the weird meat like substance shifted around my mouth. I sat there for what felt like days whilst it congealed and grew cold on my plate. Just eat half, said my primary school teacher. Half? Oh good god, please no.

I don’t remember the outcome, perhaps I blacked out or have packaged away the memory somewhere deep in my sub-conscious but that was my last experience with liver: as a timid six year old far, far away from the comforts of my mother’s cooking surrounded by giant teachers and snotty nosed compatriots who all seemed to be able to eat the disgusting bubbling brown mess on their plates without too much trouble. I went home that day and asked, nay demanded, that I take a packed lunch to school every day.

But the scars could not have been that deep because last week while at the butchers I spotted some fresh pig’s liver on the counter and was intrigued enough to buy it. Much like with rillettes, the constituent parts of pâté are cheap. For a little under three pounds I was able to buy a kilo of organically reared Gloucestershire Old Spot liver from a pig I was assured had led a happy life. This would be enough to make a large loaf of pâté, about a kilo and a half in total. Considering you pay about three quid for a tiny slice of the good stuff in a deli, this was too good a bargain to miss.

Having only ever made chicken liver pâté, I assumed, wrongly, that the process would be the same no matter which animal’s dark organ was lying on the counter. Slice, fry in butter, add booze, blitz in a food processor then leave in the fridge covered in a layer of melted butter.

It soon became apparent that this wasn’t the case. Instead the liver needed to be picked over (to remove any weird bits of I don’t know what), sliced and processed along with some breadcrumbs, milk, onion and a little pork shoulder to add a more meaty texture. This is fine when you are in possession of a full sized food processor. When you have one of these:



…it becomes a little trickier and a lot more time consuming.

I used the catch-all recipe from HFW’s River Cottage Meat Book and so was prepared to get a little mucky during the process. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how sticky raw liver is. It behaves like some weird 1950s B-movie monster gradually sliding across the plate, finding its own level and seemingly multiplying at will. By the time it had been picked over and sliced, it appeared to have doubled in volume and I was growing increasingly concerned as to whether it would fit into the loaf tin I had prepared.

The next step was to blitz up the various ingredients in my tiny food processor. Fine, I thought, no problems here. The resultant gloop (half an hour of whizzing, pouring, scraping and refilling) was, quite frankly, disturbing and if you’ve never tried to mince pork shoulder with a stick blender I don’t recommend trying. By the time everything had been thoroughly mixed and blitzed and processed I was slightly concerned that my sleep time would be plagued with horrific visions.

Regular readers will know that I don’t squeam easily. I’ve gutted things, I’ve cooked trotters and ears, I’ve sniffed and munched on durian, I’ve tried century eggs and even come very, very close to eating salted bugs (until a small Thai lady shook her head with a slightly concerned expression on her face) but a pork liver smoothie was almost too much. Almost. Thee are no pictures, for obvious reasons.

For the cooking, the mixture (‘pretend it’s a cake, pretend it’s a cake, pretend it’s a cake…oh jeez it’s pink and lumpy and smells like wet rust) was seasoned and poured (more like slopped) into a loaf tin and covered with a double layer of buttered foil before being placed into a roasting pan filled with water. After an hour or so in the oven, warm meaty smells were starting to fill the kitchen and it was removed from the bain marie ready to be pressed (cue enormous heavy wooden chopping board) and cooled.

By this time it was getting late and the prospect of homemade pâté that had only recently looked like a special effect was not too appealing, so I waited hoping that time and a sleep would ease my prejudice.



Which is exactly what happened. I had my first slice for lunch the following day and was completely, utterly, totally and unashamedly won over by the flavour and general texture. It wasn’t coarse like a pâté de campagne but nor was it too smooth. It had enough resistance to be meaty and a subtle taste that was nothing like the iron-y tang of liver. Definitely one to be recommended.

www.justcookit.co.uk

Monday, 3 November 2008

Home Charcuterie Part One - Making Rillettes

Charcuterie is an aspect of the culinary arts that has long interested me both theoretically and on a more practical level. I find it truly wonderful that something that began as a necessity grew into the art form that we know today.

On the broadest level it encompasses the vast gamut of skills from curing and smoking to drying and salting. In short it is about preservation. It was about making sure that precious parts of an animal that would spoil quickly were not wasted and could be eaten throughout the year, long after the prime cuts had been roasted and consumed. It was about thrift. It was about economy. It was about the reality of slaughter and respect for the animal that had just been killed, making sure that as little as possible was wasted.

In the days before refrigeration and deep freezing, our ancestors had to come up with myriad other ways in which to preserve the meat from the pig or cow or sheep that was far too large to eat within the few short weeks (days sometimes) before the meat started to spoil.

Thankfully, these were tasty and delicious enough for the practice to continue and flourish even after technology made it possible to preserve meat simply with the application of cold temperatures and even now we still enjoy the salamis, hams, pâtés, terrines and other items that they perfected over generations.

But charcuterie is not a practice that many home cooks embrace and it is becoming a lost art beyond the specialist. Which is a shame because many aspects of the practice are easy enough to replicate in any domestic kitchen – not to mention, incredibly cheap.

This surprises some people – pâtés, terrines and salamis are expensive when bought in delicatessens – but the components themselves are the cheaper cuts of meat, those which could not be simply roasted over hot coals: the tough bits, the offal, the bits that need a little more care and attention in order to become delicious.

In the spirit of adventure we set about attempting the charcutier’s art for ourselves this weekend. Keen to keep things relatively simple we shied away from chorizos, salamis or cured hams (plus we really don’t have the space to hang a full pig’s leg just yet) and chose instead to make a pâté and some rillettes, which are one of my single favourites in the charcutier’s entire armoury.



The first time I ever had rillettes was when I lived and worked in west London and invariably got my lunch from the best deli-café I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in (sadly now a hair salon). They are rich, decadent and so tasty that even the mere mention can bring a smile to my face (see above for Tony Bourdain’s rather excellent summation of this glorious food).

Made with either duck, goose or pork cooked long and slow in fat they are not for those who view calorific items with scorn or trepidation but given the scarcity with which they are eaten, and the all-natural origin of the ingredients, I personally don’t think this is an issue – I’d much rather eat a few spoons of this sort of food once a week than gorge on a microwave chicken tikka masala or other such culinary monstrosity.



For our version of this classic French pâté type preparation we used pork belly and shoulder to be cooked down in some back fat. Once the belly had been skinned (which we use to make pork scratchings – nothing wasted here) it was cubed and placed in a large pot with the cubed shoulder cuts (often used to make high grade sausages) and the rendered fat. After the addition of a little water and a bouquet garni it was cooking time. And it takes a while. Three hours at a tremulous simmer so that the occasional bubble will make its way to the surface before bursting is necessary in order to cook the pork to the ideal texture.



Once cool, the pork was then shredded, seasoned with salt, pepper and a little allspice, before being left for a day or so to allow the flavours to develop, meld together and take on that distinctive Gallic character.

This is food alchemy at its finest. The gradual transformation of base ingredients into a finished product that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts and just to be sure, we made a lot. Certainly enough to keep us, and others, dwelling in happy porcine reverie until well into the New Year. Mmm, rillettes.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Friday Nibbles, Special Edition - Turkey

With Christmas barely eight weeks away, and Thanksgiving just around the corner for my American brethren, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk turkeys, not least because I spent yesterday on a genuine working turkey farm just south of Cambridge (OK, it’s a tenuous segway and I know Christmas is actually a while away but I wanted to get it written down while it was all still fresh in my mind, plus I got some cool pictures that I wanted to show you).



I can now say from extensive empirical research through close proximity that turkeys are big birds and when there are several hundred of them staring down at you, it can all too easily feel a little bit Hitchcock for comfort (although I think the movie would have taken on a slightly more comedic slapstick feel had turkeys been the vengeful flock in question).

They are also fiendishly ugly with odd folds of skin that appear to be taking over their distinctly reptilian features and a general look of permanent annoyance, much like a Daily Mail reader glancing over a story about how Jonathon Ross’s salary has caused the rise/fall/stagnation of house prices or other such nonsense (if you aren’t familiar with The Daily Mail, think National Enquirer, only with a more questionable ethics and less concern for fact or journalistic integrity).



But I’ve never been one to judge books by their covers or turkeys by their wattles for that matter and despite their unattractive exterior they are friendly and placid birds that live comfortably in large groups.

I should say from the off that the farm I went to was not an intensive battery operation where the young chicks are fed a horrific cocktail of hormones, additives, drugs and growth promoters in order to fatten them up in little over three months. This was very much a free-range operation where the birds had access to locally sourced feed and as much sunlight as they wanted. They were free to spend all day running their little claws off, should they so wish. The lack of nasties in their diet means that it takes them twice as long to reach maturity but the result is a much tastier bird with a far superior texture, a world away from the dried out examples that blight so many Christmases.

The bird itself is native to Mexico and the eastern United States and although there is no historical evidence that the early Pilgrim Fathers ate one in their first Thanksgiving dinner, by the 19th century the tradition had been galvanized. Now a roasted (or deep fried (!?)) turkey is as much a part of the day as pumpkin pie and the NFL. Over 250 million are bred for the table each year and 20 per cent of those are consumed on a single day. It is not known how many people actually like turkey and how many eat it because they have to. A bit like a Brussels sprout.



Those which I met yesterday at the Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop were a rare breed called Kelly Bronze favoured and bred for a more traditional flavour and texture and a favourite of self-proclaimed domestic goddess Nigella Lawson. Personally, I think she sits somewhere on the annoyance scale between ‘patronising’ and ‘odious’ but she seems to know her stuff so I might take her advice on this one. As long as she ties her bloody hair back when she cooks it. Those luscious L’oreal locks are all well and good but not when extracting one from the depths of your throat.

So, in summary, what have we learnt? Turkeys originally resided across the pond, they are tasty enough to warrant an annual eating and don’t let Nigella Lawson cook you a soufflé.

Joking aside, when hunting out your turkey there are a few key words to look out for and a number of tips I can now offer you, having spoken to someone who really knows that they are talking about. Look for the words ‘slow-maturing’ or ‘rare-breed’. Try to buy one that hasn’t had to travel too far and has managed to see at least a semblance of daylight. The more they’ve run around and the less they’ve been pumped full of chemicals like some gross futuristic nightmare, the tastier they will be. In short, apply the same rules when buying your turkey as you would any other meat. If you’re only going to eat it once a year, might as well make it a good one, no?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Food for Free - Hawthorn Fruit Leathers

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while but a near constant stream of things seems to have got in the way including a minor run in with a large bus (funnily enough, the car came off worse) and a couple of days spent down on various farms chatting with pig breeders and turkey farmers, amongst others (full reports to follow shortly, I promise).

As a means of preservation, fruit leathers are an ancient art and were traditionally used as a means of transforming a summer glut into something that could be eaten throughout the year. It is a method that almost certainly goes back to the Palaeolithic and is still used by hunter-gatherer societies today.

Throughout September and into October, the fruit of the Hawthorn tree (haws – no sniggering at the back please) is in wanton abundance throughout the English countryside. I was inspired to have a crack at making a ‘haw leather’ (tee hee) by a wonderful post by Nick Weston on his equally wonderful blog Hunter-Gatherer Cook.



I’d seen the small red fruits burst from the branches of the Hawthorn trees that scatter the open land around our house but was wary of the berries themselves. I knew they were edible but having cautiously nibbled on a few raw ones, I wasn’t overly impressed by their rather dull taste and disproportionately large stone. They were far too much hassle to be of any use, surely?

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that I was wrong.

So, armed with my trusty Thai tote bag and an iPod for company, I went foraging in the chill warmth of an early autumn afternoon. Half an hour’s picking yielded at least a kilo of berries, more than enough for a first attempt at making a haw jelly, or leather.

The first step is to transform these little berries into a gloopy mush. I used a large bowl and pestle (or mortar, I never know which is which) and then proceeded to break the bowl thanks to overly vigorous pounding. Thankfully by that point it was time adopt a more hands on approach and so after transferring the mixture, rolling up my sleeves and adding a little water to the now brown sludge, I squeezed and mashed the thick gloop with my fingers. A little more water and a little more mixing and the required consistency was reached without too much effort or any more broken bowls.

Instead of merely forcing the mashed fruit through a sieve – to separate out the stones and bits of twig et cetera – and leaving it to set, I decided to freestyle a little by adding a little apple juice, sugar and cinnamon and heating it gently in the hope that a softer and sweeter taste would emerge.

Being staggeringly high in pectin, haw ‘jelly’ will set without the addition of any sugar or any form of boiling. Within minutes you will notice the mixture thickening and taking on a far more solid feel. After an hour or so you should be able to slice the resultant cake.

After warming the jelly over a gentle heat and adding the extra ingredients, the colour and texture became increasingly fudge-like and the slight bitterness softened thanks to the addition of sweet apple juice and a little sugar.



Once cool, the jelly was sliced thinly and dried out in a low oven overnight to remove the water and give the leathers a near endless lifespan. Traditionally fruit like this would have been dried out in the sun and then offered essential nutrition throughout the winter months when fresh fruits were in stark supply. Things aren’t quite that bad for us, but small pieces of the haw leather stirred into warm porridge should be a tasty treat come the colder months.

www.justcookit.co.uk

How the other half live...

As a writer I tend to spend a large chunk of my time staring in the general direction of the window waiting for the elusive muse to rain down gifts of inspiration upon me. Yesterday as I was doing just that, I saw a pheasant casually padding round our front garden, pecking at the ground and generally minding his own business.

This isn’t unusual in itself but he then made his way round the back and seemed to be as interested in Marx and Eggels, the chickens, as they were in him. I managed to grab the camera and rattle off a few pictures before he ran off into the field. I just loved the contrast of the caged chickens (not that they are permanently incarcerated) and the very much free-range pheasant.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

New banner and explanation

There it is in all its shining glory. Look, just up there. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while and every time I’ve opened the page my eyes have drifted upwards and done the visual equivalent of a sigh when I’ve looked at the vague ineptitude of the image that was there before.

But no longer. Now you can actually see the name of the blog as well as a few favourite pictures which may, or may not, change according to the seasons.

There is also a new logo up there, see? Well, new in one sense. It’s actually my old logo but it is new to this site. I designed it a couple of years ago to compliment my first business venture which I hoped would make me millions. Ultimately it just made me stressed and poor but it was fun.

The company, also called Just Cook It, was set up in the hope of encouraging people to cook from their very own personalised cookbooks. Instead of buying a recipe book and only cooking two or three meals from it, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a cookbook where every recipe was tailored to your exact requirements?

And so Just Cook It was born. Customers could subscribe and make requests, however specific, and we would create a recipe or dinner party menu based on their exact requirements which would then be emailed or sent to them along with wine suggestions and other miscellaneous information. As far as I could tell, at the time it was the only service of its kind in the world. Perhaps there was a reason for that…

But the bottom line was the bottom line and for now at least, the only thing that remains is the logo, a hammer and sickle pastiche played out with a pan and whisk designed to signify the democratisation of the kitchen and compliment the simplicity of the name. Just Cook It. That was the message.

And to a large extent it still is. This blog isn’t about endless lists of recipes or restaurant reviews or the occasional post about what I had for my meal last night. It’s about food and cooking in a more general way and I do try to put those centre stage. Naturally it is about my experiences with food but I do try to put something of a spin on my writing to make things both interesting and relevant to as many people as possible because, as a writer, that is pretty much my raison d’etre.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Olive Oil

For almost as long as there has been civilisation, there has been olive oil. The liquid gold that runs from these small fruits has been used by countless generations for a monumental chunk of our collective history whether for food, for washing, for lighting, for trading or a host of other reasons.

Archaeological evidence suggests that by the Neolithic era (about 8,000BCE) our ancestors in modern day Turkey had realised that the fruit from the olive tree tasted pretty good. The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to more sedentary groups reliant on farming led to the domestication of the plant about 2,000 years later in either Asia Minor or Mesopotamia (what we know now as Iraq).

From there, the tree spread throughout the Mediterranean and quickly became essential to the Etruscan, Minoan, Greek and Roman empires. Oil extracted from the olives could be turned into soap, used as fuel for lanterns and, of course, eaten which explains its central role in cuisines stretching from The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, across Europe and all the way into North Africa.



Now the vast majority of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain, Italy and Greece with Spain alone responsible for just over a third and the International Olive Oil Council is based in the country’s capital, Madrid. Suffice to say that they take things quite seriously over there, seriously enough to consume 13 kilos of oil per person per year.

The first pressing of the olives results in extra virgin olive oil, this is the good stuff that hasn’t been messed about with, the sort of oil you want to dip some seriously fresh bread into and eat all on its own for lunch whilst sat under an awning and gazing at the Umbrian Hills or over the Mediterranean sea. Much like wine or whiskey, different oils possess different flavours and textures. Don’t be surprised to hear someone banging on about peppery or honey notes balanced with a gentle acidity, in much the same manner an oenophile would when eulogising over a rare Bordeaux.

In terms of absolute kitchen essentials, olive oil tops my list, much as it does that of numerous other cooks, food writers and chefs. I dare say that I use it more than any other item in the kitchen whether it is for frying a piece of meat, dribbling over a plate of fresh tomatoes, making a batch of aioli or any of a thousand other uses. And what’s more, it’s staggeringly good for you, which, in my book anyway, makes it a near perfect ingredient.

Lunch - Fried Tomatoes and Bacon

I know it’s Friday and today’s nibble is on the way but I just wanted to write up a quick post about lunch and simplicity.

We had some bacon offcuts left over (we tend to buy them to put into soups, stews and ragus. They are insanely cheap and just as tasty as the real deal) and they either needed to be frozen or eaten sharpish before they turned a disgusting shade of ming and made their way to the outside bin.



So I fried them up in their own rendered fat and then stuck in a couple of tomatoes I was given yesterday (another story for another day – I spent a couple of hours on a pig farm chatting to the delightful Simon and Amanda of Pigs in Parcels) and served it all with a hunk of home baked bread and a dollop of brown sauce.

I know this is little more than a bacon sandwich with a rustic shaped ego but it was so very tasty. Highly recommended, plus the chunks of bacon offer more bite and, ultimately, a modicum more satisfaction thanks to their thick meatiness. It's not big, fancy or clever but sometimes simplicity is all that's needed.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Updates and excuses and tasty bread.

Some of you may be aware of a discernable dip in output of late, certainly in comparison to the voracity with which I was churning out culinary tales over the summer months. This is not due to a waning interest in matters gastronomic nor a declining desire to write. On the contrary, it is precisely for this reason that I’ve had a little less time to craft the various food stories that grace these electronic pages.

As much as I adore welcoming you into my metaphorical bosom and telling tales of pheasants, pigs’ ears, delis and other such delights, the remuneration package is not particularly attractive. I dare say that I might be able to earn more money stitching Nike footballs in a Singaporean sweatshop.

As a result I’ve had to partake in a little moonlighting. Not only have I started tutoring again but I’ve also had my head down working on a collection of short stories as well as making a start on a novel and, sadly, I only have so many hours in my day. The short stories should be finished within the next couple of months, the novel will take considerably longer but they will come. And you wonderful people will be the first to know.



I have been cooking, I promise. There is a beef, onion and porcini pie baking in the oven and two fresh loaves cooling temptingly in the kitchen as I write these very words (pictorial proof supplied above). I’m off to meet some pig farmers and spend a couple of hours on a turkey farm tomorrow and with a (hopefully) crisp autumn and winter ahead of us there should be plenty of opportunity to both eat and write about some hearty comfort food.

But in the mean time, please bear with me whilst I get my head down, adopt the saddened tone and gaunt features of an impoverished writer and try, desperately, to make this work so that we can afford to heat the house this winter (cue violins).

Friday, 17 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Garlic

After last week’s jaunt into vaguely luxurious territory, I’ve chosen to bring things back down to earth a little with today’s ‘Nibble’. I started doing this series a couple of months ago in order to create a semblance of structure to my seemingly incoherent culinary rambles but they’ve quickly become one of my favourite aspects of the blog.

Naturally, it’s wonderful to launch into a few paragraphs explaining my views on molecular gastronomy or extolling the virtues of delicatessens, but these are far removed from the majority of my experiences in the kitchen. I really wish that I spent my days experimenting with spherification techniques, trying to find the perfect salami or eating in fabulous restaurants but, alas, this isn’t the case.

Which is how ‘Friday Nibbles’ were born. They are about examining the unsung heroes of the kitchen and trying to explain why they are just as interesting or just as important as the latest fad or fashion or restaurant or recipe. Personally, I think there is too little written about the apparently mundane aspects of cookery. They tend to be glossed over in favour of the things that seem more glamorous but actually strike a chord with far fewer people.

Not everyone gets the chance to eat at Per Se or WD-50 but everybody has a kitchen of their own. So these are an attempt to redress the balance slightly and look at those wonderful items that no cook, professional or domestic, could possibly live without. So without further delay, let’s celebrate the simple.



I’ve been saving garlic for a few weeks now (as a topic as opposed to a weird collection). Even before I did the very first ‘Nibble’ I knew that garlic would feature at some point but I wanted to get into a stride before eulogising over this amazing plant.

I cannot imagine what direction cooking could possibly take if it weren’t for this pungent little allium which adds its unique flavour to countless dishes from all over the world.

It is unknown from where the ancestral progenitor of garlic originated although it is likely to have been somewhere in Asia. From there it spread rapidly to almost all corners of the world to a point where it now features in more global cuisine than any other ingredient I can possibly think of. In fact, the only area I can recall that doesn’t feature garlic in its traditional regional cooking is northern Europe where the presence of a harsh climate would likely have prevented the plant from becoming truly domesticated.

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic from the tightly packed and highly pungent Purple White to the delightfully named Elephant Garlic with its distinctive large cloves and milder flavour. Most are relatively simple to grow in the garden or in small pots on the windowsill and now is a good time to get them planted, just before the first frost. Incidentally, frost is essential to the formation of garlic cloves: without a cold snap, you’d end up with a large garlic ‘onion’ as opposed to the separate sections we all know and love.

But what can you do with it? I honestly don’t think I have the time to go into this. You could write entire books on the uses of garlic and you’d barely manage to get out of Europe. You’d struggle to get beyond France, in fact, and Italy would be an entire series on its own and that’s without even mentioning south east Asia.

Suffice to say it is, in my opinion, the most versatile and essential ingredient that it is possible to have in the kitchen. From utter simplicity – think spaghetti tossed with olive oil, garlic and chilli – to deep rich and complex winter stews, garlic is virtually the first ingredient in the pan and one that I keep a constant supply of in the kitchen. It doesn’t even make it to the cupboard, but rather sits happily on the windowsill in a little copper pan.

And don’t think it stops with savouries. I recently had lunch at a two star restaurant in Cambridge where, for dessert, we had a spiced apple tarte tatin served with the subtlest and most delicious foam I have ever tasted. Subtle and delicious garlic flavoured foam. Not that I’ve tasted many foams, but still.

Anyway, here’s to garlic. Have a great weekend and for more, don't forget the other blogs: Candid Food which exposes the seedy underbelly of food modelling, and Alex Rushmer, a collection of miscellaneous musings