Monday, 29 October 2012
Earlier this year, I was asked if I would like to submit a short piece on the subject of omelettes to a food magazine; which I did and then sort of forgot about. I wasn’t paid or anything, I was just happy for the opportunity to get my work in print. However, as far as I am aware, the following eight hundred words never made the light of day, which is shame. I think this was down to the fact that the publication went under, which is also a shame. I can't be sure.* So I thought I might as well pop them on here, to provide a little light relief on a Monday morning. Although once you get past the third paragraph, it might not be appropriate to use the term ‘light relief’. Whatevs man, have a little butchers anyway.
To make the perfect omelette these days, it seems that you have to commit certain acts of violence and impropriety. Or so you would think; if the methods of James Martin and his cohorts on Saturday morning telly are anything to go by. Many a time now, there have been occasions where I have found myself lounging casually on the sofa, in a lazy weekend daze, supine and cosy, watching the screen, when suddenly I’ll leap up and recoil in horror. And as events unfold in front of my very eyes, I’ll often find myself reaching for the nearest cushion.
It’s the chef’s challenge to whip up an omelette in ten seconds flat that always gets me because it truly is a gruesome thing to watch. To start, we are treated with nervous grins and banter and then bang, the gun goes off. Butter browns and burns immediately in blistering pans. Shells are smashed and yolks are plunged into bowls with fragments flying. Competitors execute a tenuous stir and throw forth their viscous, yellow fluid like cold tea from a builder’s mug. Then the sweaty panic begins and the air is punctuated with grunts and clatter as pans frantically jig back and forth. Cameras focus on faces, furiously frowning, gurning, spilling lolling wet tongues. Finally, an alien-like, greasy, gooey mass is expunged onto the plate, brows are wiped and the supposed omelette gets dissected with an apprehensive, prodding fork.
To be frank, watching the whole affair makes me feel quite sordid. As if I’ve witnessed some initiation ceremony, at the back of some dusty dorm, in some nameless public school.
But how did it come to this? Surely the art of cooking an omelette is all about finesse, deftness of touch, and care and attention. The French folded omelette is a simple one to master but it does take time getting there and it’s no wonder that this classic remains the litmus test for any chef entering a new kitchen. Get the pan hot, add a generous knob of butter and pour in a couple of vigorously beaten eggs, seasoned with salt. As it begins to set, lift the edges to allow any liquid to run underneath, continue lifting and gently shake. With a plate (or palate knife, if feeling confident) flip and lightly brown the other side. Ease the omelette back on the plate, fold over and you are done. Now where’s the wham, bam, thank you ma’am in that?
Personally, I favour the more robust versions of omelette, the Spanish tortillas and the Italian frittatas where the egg serves to bind a family of ingredients and flavours together. And when you consider food waste, these types of dishes are a boon. I found this out at university. Remember that dry, dilated half onion on the top shelf of the fridge, that wizened, shrunken pepper on the bottom of the fridge and that solitary potato with tubular creeping shoots, crawling out from underneath? All ingredients way past their best but sliced up and fried and laid out under a blanket of whipped golden protein, seasoned with herbs, vegetables such as these can be transformed in something magical.
Frittatas, in fact, became my signature dish and at the end of a boozy night out, house-mates would gladly donate whatever rotten, stale, half-eaten morsels they had, so long as there was a box of relatively fresh eggs hanging about. Those 3am feasts soon came to an end though. I neglected my post one night, taking to the comfort of a sticky, lanolin floor because my head became too heavy. However, piercing screams from our fire alarm soon roused me from my slumber and as smoke filled the kitchen, I looked up at the oven hob and I could tell from the flames that: a) we weren’t going to be eating that night and b) I had just lost a sizeable chunk of my damage deposit.
Stalin, somewhat apocryphally, is often attributed with coming up with the idiom, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Which does lean a dark and sinister bent to proceedings. When standing at the kitchen side, in front of glass bowl, with an egg in one hand and a whisk in the other, the atrocities of a madman couldn’t be any further from my mind.
But there have been times, when I’ve happily cracked that egg and then spied a piece of shell, floating atop a quivering pool of albumen. Well, the rage that erupts from inside, the seething tumult that explodes within; the inner voices that proclaim that all of humanity is puerile, is soiled and must be extinguished. Well, it’s terrifying. And it does make you think, when you consider the inherent violence of making one, that sometimes, nothing ever good can come from an omelette.
*Notice that I have steered away from the notion that the piece might not have been good enough.
*Notice that I have steered away from the notion that the piece might not have been good enough.
Saturday, 27 October 2012
It's not often I find myself in agreement with chief pudding fondler, Gregg Wallace but I fondly remember the occasion when on MasterChef a few seasons ago, he slapped a damning verbal indictment on some poor contenders spag bol.
"You know what, even before I taste this, I know this ragu isn't going to be up to scratch," he said to the hapless, wide-eyed soul, barely concealing his contempt before following up with:
"A good ragu needs to be left overnight."
And with that, he slammed his fork down like a choleric judge passing verdict and the contestant shattered into a million pieces. It was a harsh thing to do but to my point of view, it was fair. Because surely, everyone knows that the longer you leave cooked food, the better it tastes. OK, I am not talking about that pot of leftover Haddock mornay, or pan of devilled kidneys; I am talking about about things like soups, stews, tagines, rendangs, chille con carne and the ubiquitous spag bol. Left quiet and alone, to congeal and coagulate whilst covered in the fridge, these frugal liquid dishes will almost always grow in stature and flavour. I say almost because there is a tipping point. Over the hill and far away lies a land of uncertainty, stomach cramps, vomitus, bum gravy and possible death, so you do have to be careful. Saying that, a chef once confided in me that if he found a foil tray of chicken vindaloo behind the sofa, forgotten, a week after drunken purchase, he would be more than happy to eat it. Provided that it was heated beyond 75°C. Harold McGee might have something to say about that and personally, I wouldn't take the risk. I get twitchy after around day 4 and unless I have the foresight to freeze (which often goes out of my head) into the bin I throw, like a naughty, naughty food waster. Tut tut tut.
But still, there is something interesting about the mechanics behind it all, the chemistry, the alchemy of this developing flavour. Science suggests things like oxidisation and that the processes of heating and cooling play a large part; it could even be down to the invasion of those dreaded microorganisms. Excreting bacteria may well add a certain je ne sais pas pourquoi to your Saturday night daube when eaten on a Tuesday morning. But I like to think that something more magical is happening. Something more intangible and serene. When I made a lamb tagine earlier this week, I like to think that the ingredients I introduced to each other were initially shy and that the room was full of pregnant pauses. But over time, they got to know each other, shared a few stories and found common interest. They then went on to have a few drinks and let their hair down. The star anise got off with the apricot and the raisins, chilli and cinnamon all did the conga around the glass bowl. The onion, lightweight that he is, was found draped over a cubed shoulder of lamb and he proudly declared at some point to the tomatoes and the chickpeas, that they were are all his bestish pals. Before falling over and passing out.
The party however, sadly, came to an end yesterday but it certainly finished on a high note as I scraped the last remaining morsels onto my plate, thoroughly heated through of course. And I have to say, what started off as a good, standard Moroccan stew anyway certainly transformed over time. It's hard to describe without delving into a world of terminological food wankery but, yes, in comparison to the first session of eating, the flavours definitely became more denser, richer, warmer and vibrant. Absolutely and indubitably, oh yes. So please do have a crack at this lovely tagine but do leave it for a couple of days before serving up. The rewards will be greater and well deserved.
Even if you do find yourself muttering at the table, hissing through gritted teeth, that Gregg was right.
The recipe for this Lamb Tagine is by Geoffrey Smeddle and can be found here at Great British Chefs.
Lamb Terrine with Lemon Cous Cous and Pickled Chillies
Leftovers - the best bit
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Now just to preface my remarks: I am not at all against innovation and evolution of eating paraphrenalia. In fact I adore my set of knorks. They are beautiful, well balanced and eminently well engineered. Nor do I bewail the proliferation of finger foods and things eaten with hands. I prefer to eat with my hands for the sheer sensual pleasure of doing so.
So the Obol arrived in the mail today with much fanfare. My 15 year old son immediately volunteered to test it with frosted flakes or some such crap. The whole idea is that the cereal stays dry and the milk is below. You scoop the cereal into the milk as you go, No Sog. The idea is ingenious. My son said in terms of sheer engineering it is a marvel. Revolutionary! But then I thought, would I want to eat anything out of a blue bowl? With a spoon that looks like a baby rattle? From a bowl that is cheap plastic, however well balanced? I don't think I can do it. If this were clay, wood, even metal, in warm appealing tone, I might get really excited. It so reminds me of what we used to feed my sons when they were babies, that I don't think I could bring myself to eat out of it without nausea. Final score 15 year old: 10. 47 year old: 0. I guess you now know your market folks.
Saturday, 20 October 2012
P.S. They are beans.
Monday, 15 October 2012
What is the traditional way to consume hawthorn in China, apart from its medicinal use. What is this dish called in Chinese and English and why?
Friday, 12 October 2012
Wavering, unsteady and unsure of foot, the Food Urchin stands atop a hill and he stands alone. The sky is dark yet pierced by a halo of rising amber light and casting through this hue is a mist of fine rain, which coats the Food Urchin’s face like a heavy, wet flannel; he is soaked through but he is happy. And he is happy because after an impromptu repose upon a speeding train, known to some as ‘The Vomit Comet’, the Food Urchin managed to get off at the right stop this time around. And not at some godforsaken coastal town at the end of the line. Smiling, he looks up through the brume, trying to view the stars but there is too much light pollution. So the Food Urchin moves on, steadying himself against the incline, leaning back to counter gravity and promptly trips and falls over as he steps off the kerb.
Eventually, the Food Urchin makes it to the front door and after some intense negotiation with a key and a Yale lock; he quietly tiptoes across the threshold, gently dropping his keys to the side. Suddenly a clatter of metal shatters the silence and under his breath, the Food Urchin curses the radiator for being on the wrong side of the hall. Thirsty, he staggers forth into the kitchen, opens a cupboard in the blackness and with trembling fingers, reaches in, moving objects from side to side. Unable to find a proper receptacle, the Food Urchin settles for a jar of some description, pops the lid and walks to the sink to fill it up with water. After gulping down the sweet, lumpy, raspberry flavoured liquid, he turns and leans on the side and ponders for a moment. He was sure that the glass cabinet was always on the right hand side.
Releasing some indiscreet wind from yonder and with stomach grumbling, the Food Urchin steps forward to the humming cupboard. He taps and listens and then opens the door and is immediately bathed in bright, white, glorious light. With eyes widened in beatific joy, the Food Urchin surveys the many, many marvellous things to eat. A plate of cling film wrapped roast chicken. A jar of pickled eggs. A ramekin of strange, creamy, glutinous matter. And then he sees it; the cheeses, the cheeses that was sent days before and shared at a recent dinner party. Beautiful, wonderful, soft, flinty, nutty cheeses. Cheeses that raised eyebrows and rolled eyeballs with each delicate bite, echoing groans of pleasure around the room. Orgasmic cheeses.
“Hmm cheeses,” the Food Urchin whispers to himself and so he leans forward and grabs the remaining piece of Old Lochnagar; a fine, mature, lingering cheese and finishes it without thought. Like the wild, feral caveman he is. Squinting at a clock hanging in the gloom, the Food Urchin shakes his head and then stands and brushes crumbs of cheese from his chest onto the floor. He unbuttons his shirt, pulls down his jeans, wiggles and kicks his y-fronts across the room and then walks upstairs to his boudoir, naked as the day he was born, except for the odd pair of socks that remain on his feet, releasing more indiscreet wind along the way.
Sinking his head into the pillow, the Food Urchin drifts into a deep sleep almost immediately and as the curtain of unconsciousness falls, a paracosmic world rises up to meet him, catching and enveloping him in a blanket in the form of a fluffy cloud. Unaware of his predicament or any sense of reality, the Food Urchin wakes and peers over the side and surveys a strange land beneath him. A land of rolling hills and vast vistas, of huge mountains and enormous lakes, forest meets dessert which then bleeds into roaming savannas. And in the distance, shines a golden shimmering sun. That the star is rich and yellow does not seem strange to the Food Urchin but the palette of the scenery does, which runs through a spectrum from cream to red with the odd flash of thin blue. The hills look waxy and scarlet; the vistas are pale with cracks of copper blue. The mountains tower in dusky orange and the lakes ripple with warm ochre.
Slowly, as he descends, the Food Urchin begins to see more clearly. And then the penny drops. And so does the cloud, which suddenly swoops down, almost in recognition of the fact. With arms aloft, the Food Urchin bellows out a triumphant yell.
“This is must the fabled Land of Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!”
Now speeding at speeds close to the speed of sound, the cloud zeroes in on a massive, triangular chunk of Swiss cheese and deposits the Food Urchin into one its many holes with a veritable plop. Sliding further downwards, as though riding a gigantic flume, twisting and turning from left to right, the Food Urchin emits a squeal of pure happiness before looping 360 and coughing up a little bit of sick. Faster and faster still, he carries on, shooting down and down and with the wind whistling past his ears, the Food Urchin begins to panic. And then, from out of nowhere a hole appears in the distance like a white hot penny which grows and grows, until finally, the Food Urchin is shot out like a cork into the air. Now, tumbling like a rag doll, the Food Urchin is screaming but his landing is soft and sure and a cheer rings out in tumultuous applause.
Blinking, it takes the Food Urchin a short while to get used to his surroundings but he is soon aware that of dozens of eyes are set upon him. And that he is sat square, right in middle of a huge round of camembert, all sticky and gooey. Cautiously, tentatively, he rises.
The crowd roars “Welcome to the Land of Cheese!” And a large piece of Montgomery Cheddar steps forward, with open hand and says, “We’ve been expecting you.”
Feeling curiously at ease, the Food Urchin steps down and waves at the odd-looking bunch standing before him. Essentially, the figures all look like various varieties of cheese. Except these cheeses have arms and legs, with a face at their centre; like some character from a children’s book. Like Roger Hargreaves’ long forgotten Mr Cheese. And one by one they step forward. A tall cylindrical fellow introduces themselves as Mr Ragstone. A squat, tough looking chap firmly grasps the Food Urchin’s hand before barking “Berkswells’ the name, unpasteurised is the game.” And a pleasant looking Mrs Kirkham winks a curt “Ow do” before swanning off into the background.
Before long, Montgomery, who seems to be the leader of the gang, makes a signal and music springs out of nowhere.
“Let’s get this party started!” he yells and everyone simultaneously starts dancing, getting into the groove; raving as if the end of the world were nigh. Swept up by the emotions of the scenes unfolding, the Food Urchin can’t help but join in, punching the air with every thudding baseline. With arms wrapped around his new found compadres, the Food Urchin’s heart pounds and waves of euphoria wash over him as he and his fellow cheese friends begin to bounce in perfect unison.
“You’re one of us bro! You’re one of us!” shouts a lively character known as The Bishop, who wafts in and out, pungently cutting moves, throwing shapes. Big fish, little fish, cardboard box. The vibe drops for just one second as a moody and mouldy veined hunk of cheese barges past, shouldering the Food Urchin in the chest but Montgomery is on hand to calm things down.
“Don’t mind Mr Stichelton, he’s still raw about not getting the same PDO as Mr Stilton, don’t worry he’ll get over it.”
So the Food Urchin simply shrugs and gets on with the business of executing some awe-inspiring body popping to the frenzied whoops of the crowd.
As is always the case, good things must come to an end and after what seems like hours and hours of dancing, one by one, the cheeses, sweating, happy yet exhausted drift off and disappear into the background. Mr Brie from Cornwall is so runny from the night’s efforts that he simply dribbles into the ground. The music fades away and the Food Urchin, dripping and fragrant, smelling mostly of cheese, finds himself standing all alone again, staring up into the sky.
In the corner of his eye, the Food Urchin spots a doorway situated in a massive truckle of Black Bomber, a doorway he hadn’t noticed before. So he walks up, turns the handle and walks straight through and finds himself in a strangely familiar room, a kitchen in fact, adorned with fairy lights with walls swathed in blood red paint.
A voice breaks the silence and seductively purrs. “Hello FU, I’ve been waiting for you.” And out of the shadows steps Nigella Lawson, wearing a figure hugging black dress with plunging neckline and holding a saucepan.
“I thought we could have a midnight feast. You do like fondue, don’t you, FU?”
Grinning a lopsided grin and with lazy eye, the Food Urchin simply nods and then gulps as Nigella lifts a finger and delicately plunges an index finger into the pan. As she pulls her finger out, the Food Urchin groans inwardly. Slowly she brings the glistening, molten cheese coated digit up to her mouth and with a wicked glint in her eye, licks her finger clean. Abashed, nervous and anxious, the Food Urchin looks down, to discover that he is wearing nothing but his socks, his odd socks. Like a cat, stalking her prey, Nigella walks up towards the Food Urchin swinging the pan to her side, unconcerned that liquid cheese is flying everywhere.
The Food Urchin tries to interject. “Nigella, the fondue, its going everyw…..” But she silences him by pressing a finger to his lips and drops the pan to the floor. Placing her arms on his broad shoulders, Nigella shakes her hair and stares at the Food Urchin with those big brown eyes. The Food Urchin knows what is going to happen, it’s inevitable, things have gone past the point of no return. So he steps forward, with one foot stepping into a puddle of warm, curdling cheese and he does what he has to do. He kisses her, with tongues.
Writhing in the throes of passion, Nigella grips the Food Urchin’s head and begins to run her hands over his naked, sweaty, cheesy back, clawing him, willing him, wanting him. Gasping, the Food Urchin surfaces for air before sucking back down onto her hot, hot lips and Nigella begins to run a finger, one solitary finger down his neck, down his back and down in between his buttocks. This comes as quite a shock.
“Nigella! No! I am not that kinda guy,” the Food Urchin pants, delirious with lust and fever and so he takes a moment to focus, to focus on those beautiful brown eyes.
Except Nigella isn’t in his arms anymore. The brown eyes remain the same but something isn’t quite right. It’s something to do with the beard.
And then realisation dawns and to the Food Urchin’s horror, Nigella Lawson has changed into Russell Brand and the Food Urchin is locked firmly in his embrace.
“WHAT THE HELL? NIGELLA? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH NIGELLA?”
“What do you mean what have I done with Nigella? What slander! I AM NIGELLA! Now come here and let me slip my elongated digitus secundus manus in between your perpendiculars!”
Screaming, the Food Urchin tries to free himself from the former sex addicts’ grasp, using all his strength, all his might but Russell is too strong, having seemingly wrapped himself around the Food Urchin. Choking, smothering, squeezing, throttling, voices laughing, hairy chest, flashing teeth, gnashing at chunks of cheese, pungent, dripping, into the black, fading, fading, into the black, screaming, drowning, drowning…….
A firm hand plunges in and grabs the Food Urchin even more firmly by the scruff of the neck and whips him back out, out of this nightmare, out from underneath the duvet. Into the cool, calm, quiet of a night on planet Earth and far, far away from the Land of Cheese.
“Are you OK Dan?”
“Ah, ah, yeah, yeah, I’m OK.”
“What time did you get in?”
“I….I don’t know…”
“Did you eat some cheese again before coming to bed?”
“Yeah, I.. I think I did.”
“I don’t know why you do it to yourself. I really don’t. Now c’mon, try to get some sleep.”
And after laying his throbbing head back onto his sodden pillow, the Food Urchin vows to never ever do that again, to eat cheese before bed.
Never, ever again.
Many thanks goes to Farmison.com for sending me a range of their cheeses to sample. The Old Lochnagar, Golden Cross, Dunsyre Blue and aptly named Finn were all absolutely delicious. Apologies however for not going ahead with a more straight forward sort of review. I sort of got carried away.
I blame your cheeses.
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Tuesday, 9 October 2012
At the moment, we are standing at a crossroad of indecision. Actually, make that a fork in the road. We are wearing cheap, inefficient cagoules, holding a sodden map, the wind is howling, kicking the leaves up into our faces and we are standing at a fork of indecision. Down one path lies a route of hardship and toil, of time consuming effort when time is in short supply; a trail of blisters and soreness and a continuing battle against weeds. Down the other road, life looks to be more simpler and relaxing. However, it will be a journey of convenience and plastic bags and kowtowing to the supermarket, a journey that one suspects will not be so fulfilling or satisfying. It's October, the rents are due at the allotment, a whole £26.00 and this year we have found ourselves asking the question, can we carry on with this?
This season has been a strange one and a pretty crap one actually. Yields are down and the quality of our veg has suffered, largely due to the weather and largely due to our own management. The potatoes came under attack from blight, the corn was under-developed and the gooseberries were overrun by proliferation of knotweed which strangled the life out of the bushes. Elsewhere, a lot of the crops simply bolted and ran because we weren't keeping up with picking the produce. When a plant goes to seed, it's coming to the end of it's cycle and opportunities for harvesting disappear. And that's the kicker, because you spend all this time growing and nuturing seedlings (well my Dad does) and you spend all this time digging over and preparing the ground (that's my job) and for what? Fruit and veg that you grow is supposed to be eaten, not grown for ornamental purposes. So this year, we really do feel like we've missed a trick because time is the factor when running a plot; if you don't have the time to invest, then what's the point?
However, we have decided to give the plot one more crack at the whip and to pay up for another season. Given our collective sense of belligerence, which is largely down to the fact that we've transformed the plot from overgrown jungle into a state of fairly ordered semblance, we'd feel damned to give it up just yet. And now that the twins are in school (HOORAY!) we are hoping that we should be able to devote more of that magical thing called 'time' to the pleasurable pastime of growing vegetables.
Because it is fun, believe it or not, especially when you have pedantic, geriatric, allotment committee members to deal with. I popped down the there the other day to pull up some red cabbages that had heartened up into absolute beauties, they were one of the few successes we've had in fact; and one grey haired, moustachoied chap popped over and presented this line of questioning:
"Hello there, I don't suppose you've seen a brown car come in this morning have you?"
"No, I haven't seen anyone else this morning."
"Oh, well, it's just that some fool has turned the padlock inwards on the front gate and locked it in such a way that makes it very hard for some people to unlock. I've just spent 15 minutes trying to get in and there's a chap who drives a brown car who I know does it all the time, the damned idiot."
"Well I haven't seen a brown car, or like I said, anyone else for that matter. So it was probably me, sorry."
Grey Haired Moustachoied Chap looks up and down the allotment and then replies:
"Oh no, I am sure it wasn't you, you don't look that stupid."
And off he went, leaving yours truly feeling properly berated, albeit in a very passive, aggressive manner.
I simply turned and giggled and dug up the rest of the cabbages, vowing to make next year a better one. And to maybe conceal a rake or fork in the undergrowth of someone's plot in the hope that someone trips and breaks their neck.