Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Wee Scottish Brekkie

Our haggis burst.

One second merrily bobbing away in barely simmering water, the next spilling its mealy guts into the pan. The pale casing constricted, growing opaque as it exuded its contents into what was seconds before clear water.

I fished out the quarter sized haggis, sliced it down the centre, spooned out the insides and plated it up onto a pile of buttery mash and roasted carrots. Underneath was a slick of creamy chicken velouté. I’d read somewhere that a whiskey based sauce was terribly gauche. Strictly for tourists only.

The meal was delicious enough for us both to comment that we should certainly be eating haggis more regularly and rue the fact that there was considerably less on the plate than there should be.

But what of the remainder, currently swelling and clouding the water in a pan on the hob?

The water was sieved and the resultant sludge strained overnight. By morning the swollen oats had turned sticky transforming the gloop into something resembling a cake. Some was spooned into the cats’ bowls – cupboards bereft of feline food - the rest moulded into a neat patty and fried in a little oil before being crowned with a poached egg.

The breakfast of Scottish champions. Which explains an awful lot.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Szechwan Tripe

In order to be rendered even vaguely edible, tripe must be cooked for at least three hours. And that’s only after it’s been soaked, disinfected and bleached.


Of course, unbleached, or green tripe, is available (most notably in France) but frankly the thought of eating something that until recently was in such close proximity to a vast quantity of cow shit is not that appealing in itself. Bring on all the bleaching agents possible, I say.

Having lost my offal training wheels some time ago (probably when I munched on brain) I felt sufficiently ready for tripe which seems to be making something of a comeback.

I’d barely finished editing the accompanying photos when I read this great piece on Word of Mouth. So now seems good time to plough this particular furrow. Or tap into the ‘tripegeist’, if you will (sorry).

Admittedly I was scared. The slab of tripe had been in the freezer for six months and I was convinced that the GF wouldn’t be able to stomach (sorry. Again) this particular adventure. Her trip to Vegas presented the perfect opportunity.

Trippa ala Romana (tripe cooked with onions, garlic and tomatoes) was initially at the top of my list but reading about Szechwan restaurant Chilli Cool convinced me otherwise.

Bird’s Eye chillies are notoriously hot and Szechwan peppercorns contain a compound called hydroxy alpha senshool which causes a numbing sensation in the mouth. Surely this heat/anasthesia combo would render the tripe so insignificant as to be at least bearable?


After cooking down some red onion, Thai chillies and ginger in a hot pan I added the sliced tripe and then the braising liquid of soy sauce, chicken stock and dark rice wine vinegar along with a hefty number of dried bird’s eye chillies and enough Szechwan peppercorns to mimic the effects of a stroke.

Even through all this the niff of the tripe was palpable. Damp and slightly fetid, it called to mind an old house with a leaky roof, home to a family of dogs and wet sheep. It wasn’t nausea inducing but certainly lodged itself in the nostrils.

It cooked for three hours at which point the tripe was removed and the cooking liquor strained and reduced to a syrupy consistency. I stir-fried some finely sliced ginger, garlic and onion then added the tripe to the wok before spooning over the reduced sauce and adding noodles. Just to make absolutely sure I would neither taste nor feel the tripe in went some more chillies and peppercorns.

It was finished with spring onions, roasted peanuts and even more spices then a spoonful of sugar and a squeeze of lime.

The smell had certainly subsided when eating time came around. It actually smelled and looked thoroughly appetising, especially after fortifying myself with a couple of beers.

In went an enthusiastically large mouthful.

And there it remained whilst I chewed. And chewed. And chewed. Long after the flavour had disappeared, the rubbery nugget persisted, moving from side to side and getting no more tender than a piece of cheap gum. I tried. I really did. But there was no way I was going to force this bouncy ball of cow’s stomach into my own.

Not only was the texture seemingly galvanized, the flavour of the tripe remained even through the atomic spices. Thanks to the numbing properties of the peppercorns I could happily have endured root canal surgery but there was still an underlying and noticeable taste, not quite unpleasant but certainly not nice.

The rest of the tripe was picked out and left on the side of the plate whilst the tasty noodles sated my hunger.

It wasn’t all bad. The noodle dish would be delicious with beef shin, pork belly or even chicken thighs but I’ve found my limit. Even the hardiest of holistic, nose-to-tail eaters have to draw a line somewhere and mine comes right before you need to crack open the bleach.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The mathematically perfect sandwich

Oh dear. We’ve been naughty. Again.

As if state-sanctioned unhealthiness wasn’t bad enough, it appears even parents can’t be trusted to feed their little ones decent lunches and the great collective mother is going to have to step in again.

Of the four million children who take a packed lunch to school, just 1% of those lunches meet the government’s recommendations for nutritional content. Shock and indeed horror?

Well, no. Not in the slightest (although I doubt that will prevent some arbitrary figure regarding nutritional content being pulled from the air like gristle from a twizzler and a blanket ban on pies, crisps and artificially sweetened drinks).

As someone who was subjected to packed lunches throughout my school career (and I say subjected for reasons that will become obvious shortly), it makes perfect sense that barely a hundredth of the little tykes are bringing with them a lunchbox containing wholemeal bread (or maybe gluten free rolls?), salads, fresh fruit and some granola.

That’s not what children eat. And I should know. I was one.

Although more recent adventures may suggest otherwise, my career as a bold food adventurer has not been a lifetime in the making. I was, in no uncertain terms, a fussy little blighter when I was younger.

Every day I would open my Transformers lunchbox with trepidation, wondering what horrors lurked within, my mind already devising elaborate plans for their disposal, none of which involved ingesting them.

As my fellow diners chewed their way through sliced white bread sandwiches filled with neon pink ham, a bag of Walkers crisps (back when they were actually salty) and maybe some Iced Gems to finish, I was left pondering my homemade bread rolls or adoringly prepared salads.

Cautious nibbling of the sort that would shame a sparrow invariably left me sitting alone with just the dinner ladies for company as the sounds of playground football filtered through the windows. On occasion I would sit there for an entire lunch break, the start of afternoon lessons ending the torture with the sound of a bell.

After a number of false starts (‘accidentally’ dropping my lunch on the floor rendering it inedible or shifting chunks of sandwich to my pockets as my dad did with his own school dinner dumplings) I finally hit upon a foolproof scheme.

Wrapping my butties in paper towels and disposing of them in the toilet bin prior to lunchtime (or even after school) worked for quite some time. I could proudly show my empty box to both teacher and mother then set upon the cereal as soon as I returned home.

I was rumbled only by illness.

The day I was off school, there were no sandwiches in the bin. My teacher (the fabulously named Mrs. Spooner) put two and two together with the skill of Magnum P.I. and phoned my mother to inform her of my untruths. I almost felt as if I’d been caught in an FBI style sting. Except the powers of analogy and metaphor were beyond me at the age of six.

Trouble came my way. After an apocolyptic bollocking I was sent to school the following day with no lunch. Not that it made much difference – I rarely ate it anyway and my fellow packed lunchers took pity on me offering me nibbles of their own offerings. I sat that day quite happily enjoying a diverse picnic comprising of Space Raiders, custard cream biscuits and triangles of Dairylea.

Soon after that I moved school (not as a result of my inability to consume lunch) and left the tiny village primary behind. Huge sports pitches and exotic new friends were a joy (‘Mum, what do Jews do?’ I asked after my first day) but the real deal breaker, the pièce de résistance , was that there we no lunch monitors. No teachers of Orwellian imaging watching every morsel that passed my lips and making sure I’d eaten ‘at least half’ of everything. I could dine, or not, without impunity.

I tested my theory by asking for a school dinner one day, soon after the start of term. Request granted, I helped myself to three slices of cucumber and a scoop of pickled beetroot – a lunch that would leave even Karen Carpenter asking for seconds.

I ate about half, expecting reproach. But there was no stern face, no admonishment, no repercussions. I was no longer in lunchtime limbo.

The perfect sandwich

I don’t know what psychological barrier I put up that rendered me incapable of eating lunch within the confines of a school but it was a significant one. Things are different now. Lunch is an integral part of my day, in the same way that breakfast, mid-afternoon snack, dinner and supper are. I also make the GF a lunch each morning to unshackle her from the confines of the local café thus saving around £100 a month. I can only assume she doesn’t wrap it in paper towels before throwing it away.

Despite last minute surges from the likes of soup, sushi or salads (or as prêt so nauseatingly insist on calling them, ‘breadless sandwiches’), the sandwich remains the undefeated champ. But making a truly killer butty is a skill in itself.

Thankfully there is an equation to ensure perfect results, every time:

S(√CM+C/P) x (B2)+(M1 +M2) = The perfect sandwich.

So, ‘Sandwich’ = ‘Salad’ multiplied by root of ‘cured meat’ plus ‘cheese’ divided by pickle(s) multiplied by ‘bread’ squared plus (mustard + mayonnaise). Easy.

There are also a few basic rules. Firstly the bread should, ideally, be sourdough and of large slices. The filling should at least equal the thickness of the two slices of bread and wet items (tomatoes, pickles) should be carefully placed between moisture repelling layers to avoid the sandwich eaters worst nightmare: soggy bread syndrome.

So, there you go – a mathematical solution to those lunchtime quandaries. If only my mum had known…

Friday, 8 January 2010

Leftover Panettone

Looked at objectively, panettone, a yeast-risen bready cake enriched with butter, egg yolks, sugar and dried fruit, is not a health food. But up against our own Christmas pud, the Italian festive offering looks like a lo-calorie Weightwatchers special.

Having said that, the sheer size of these vast, billowing, pillow like cakes does mean that there is inevitably some still floating around this side of Epiphany.

There are a number of recipes that advocate using it in place of sliced white when making a bread and butter pudding. Admittedly this does sound delicious albeit a little, shall we say, involved? Time-consuming? Elaborate?

A far better option is to dip it into an egg and sugar mix, fry it in some nicely foaming butter then finish it off with a light dusting of cinnamon. And more sugar. And maybe a little whipped cream. Health food no longer.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Honey Madeleines

Once again, Bourdain takes the blame.

‘England’s best hope for salvation...a warrior, pioneer, philosopher and fearless proponent for what’s good, and what’s always been good, about English cooking.’

High praise indeed.

This is his summation of Fergus Henderson as it appears in the ultimate food lover’s bible, A Cook’s Tour – the one book I wish I could have written. Forget Dostoyevsky. Move along Melville. Step aside Shakespeare. Let me travel, eat then write it up in shotgun gonzo style. Yes please.

Understandably, the monochrome delight that is Nose to Tail Eating, Henderson’s manifesto/cookbook, soon found its way into my collection swiftly followed by its successor, Beyond Nose to Tail – a similar affair but with an extended section on baking.

Those books were read and re-read. Not just the recipes but the snippets of gastro-philosophy that pepper them. The words and oddly exotic lists of ingredients pored over, mused upon and eventually cooked and eaten. The exotic ceased to be so and all that remained was The Tasty.

Bourdain’s gushing made sense.

Considering my affinity for his work, it took a surprisingly long time to actually eat at Henderson’s London restaurant, St. John. A last minute reservation meant we would eat late but we would eat and I would sample those dishes whose names were familiar but flavours alien.

Cue roasted bone marrow with parsley and caper salad. Langoustines with rich mayonnaise. Smoked eel and bacon. And thick slices of beef topside with boiled carrots.

I felt like an art lover finally laying eyes on a favourite painting previously seen only in reproduction.

The desire for something sweet was tempered by achingly full bellies. There was no room for Eccles cakes or doughnuts. There was barely room for a digestif. But a request to take away some sweet treats was met with a smile. Five minutes later we left, clutching a still warm paper bag, emblazoned with the outline of a pig, containing the famed Eccles cakes as well as half a dozen Madeleines.

They were eaten for breakfast.

St. John Madeleines

The Madeleine tray I bought the GF for Christmas (‘a bowling ball for Homer’, I think she referred to it as) is the most specific item of kitchen kit we own. It has a single, solitary use. But, oh, what a use.

There may be countless Madeleine recipes out there but for a first attempt there was only one to go for. It was deliriously easy and came together with such pleasure that I doubt we will turn elsewhere. Watching the small blobs of mixture spread, rise then bulge up into such a recognisable shapes was most satisfying.

They are also near ethereally light with a slightly malted flavour that comes from the caramelised honey, almost reminiscent of Horlicks.

Makes 12

Melt 70g of unsalted butter with a generous tablespoon of runny honey then simmer until the sugars caramelise (it didn’t seem to matter that it split).

Whisk together a large egg with 55g of caster sugar and a tablespoon of soft brown sugar until a trail can be left on the surface of the mixture. Sift in 70g of self raising flour then fold in along with the butter/honey mixture. Leave in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Grease the Madeleine moulds with butter and flour, tip out any excess then pop a spoonful of the mixture into each one. It won’t look like enough. It is. Honest.

Bake at 200 degrees C for about 10 minutes, marvel at how big they’ve got, delight at the fact they look just like Madeleines then enjoy with cups of tea. If you have any left, they still taste great the following day.

*Would you look at that – a whole piece about Madeleines and not a single mention of Proust. Oh, bollocks.