Sloppy Thinking


It’s surprising (to me, anyway) how difficult it is to make a luxurious dessert from cocoa powder and pig blood. The problem, I’m convinced, is the powdered blood I’m using, the jars of impossibly fine purple powder which sit on the shelves like something in an alchemist’s workshop; no matter what combination of temperature, hydration and whisking I use to produce a thick, black liquid blood, there always seems to be a slight grainy residue on the back of the tongue – though perhaps this is a residual squeamishness from thoughts of scabs, clots, stains and streaks. Eaten incognito, maybe this blood custard would seem the creamiest of desserts.

It always seems to be this issue of texture – that is to say, of the precise feeling in the mouth – which divides people over certain meats and offal. Take tripe. A beautiful shade of marble-white, the bleached and pre-cooked stomach lining has, once stewed in its usual heavy accompaniments of abundant onion or heavy tomato sauces, little distinct taste of any kind, let alone an offensive one; but the texture! Either rug-hairy or covered in soft, giving spikes, above all rubbery, it can seem like chewing on some chimerical alien’s hide; I find it edible, but I can’t say it’s something I would seek out very often – unless I was in Rome.

We don’t tend, in this country, to particularly value sloppiness – unless it is mitigated by a surrounding crunch. Jellyfish and sea cucumber have never made inroads here, and nor, really, have gelatinous okra, fermented beans, or the slimier of sea vegetables. Put it in a fritter, though, and that’s a different matter! I find simply poached brains, with their creamy, spreadable texture, intriguing if not overwhelmingly enjoyable; but deep-fried brains! Beautiful clouds, with a perfect surrounding crunch. While any sloppy meat – cheek, foot, belly, chest – does well in a croquette or similar situation, nothing matches the absolute transformation of the brain from worthy curiosity to pure, golden joy.

I suppose, really, that this is just a late adolescence of the palate, the start of a parallel journey to the one from chicken nuggets, turkey burgers and fish fingers to un-breaded protein; I need to go back to those spreadable brains, and see if the fritters have taught me their value. I suppose the lesson here is that anything can be made delicious by deep-frying, which we all knew anyway. Apologies for taking up your time. Now, where did I put those rabbit eyes?

With Relish

Despite repeated resolutions to the contrary, I don’t really use cookbooks. I own a lot, and I read them all and often look at the pictures; apart from a select few, covered in cake mix and butter and blood and tomato, which I know and love and trust, I don’t really follow their recipes. I think I do, though. “That sounds nice”, I say to myself on the sofa, “I’ll try making it sometime.” When that time comes, of course, I don’t have the book to hand – and if I did, I wouldn’t have half the ingredients – so I cook from memory, which is to say I make it up. Only after months of cooking a dish do I look back at the book at realise that my recipe has become something entirely other, related to the original book only in the manner of folk songs or language – tangentially, driftingly.

If, sometimes, this can be limiting – it means that you rarely stray outside your own idiom and technical comfort zone – then it can also be liberating. It is certainly convenient; few cookbooks are actually easy and pleasant to use for their intended purpose. Anyway, here is a recipe I remain convinced comes from Diana Henry, despite her original (itself an imagined version of a never-tasted Turkish dish) containing, it turns out, coriander (don’t much care for it) and green olives (totally forgot about them). That, I suppose, is how cooking works. Conveniently, this goes extremely well with octopus.

GREEN CHILLI RELISH

15 green chillies (or a mix of red and green), thinly sliced

6 cloves of garlic, crushed with salt

about a tbsp caster sugar

a slosh of sweet white vinegar

a big handful each of mint and parsley, chopped across a couple of times, to encourage them to join in

Mix together everything except the herbs, scrunching a bit to dissolve the sugar. Add the herbs and toss and scrunch some more. WASH YOUR HANDS. An hour or so hanging around mellows things out, but much longer and it’ll go a bit manky.

Eight Legs Better

 

 I’m fairly comfortable with my meat-eating, generally speaking. I don’t buy a huge amount, and when I do it’s often game, or odder cuts from well-reared animals; having been vegetarian for 10 years, I’m conscious of the ethical arguments, but feel that informed meat-eating is a better choice than the outright protest of vegetarianism, quite apart from the ecological ramifications of removing the entire meat industry (and I’m conscious there’s a counter-argument to that, thank you). We’re lucky in this country that animal farming is comparatively well-regulated, and that while the horrors of battery farming still continue, its products are easy enough to avoid; if we keep making informed decisions, perhaps it will wither away – although that may be a trifle optimistic.

Fish-eating, in comparison, is a bloody minefield. Although we have the MSC certifications and so forth, the actual state of fish stocks change so frequently and vary so much from sea to sea that the best of intentions often go astray. I get round this by almost never buying fish – something of a copout. At the restaurant we’re lucky in having a small fishmonger (his operation, I mean – he’s of average size) who deals only with dayboats and sustainable sources; he makes the informed choices so we don’t have to, which is good, and means we often use things we might not have otherwise tried, such as sand soles, cuttlefish, and fresh, British octopus.

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for the argument that we shouldn’t eat the more intelligent animals. The intelligence of dogs is, I think, highly overrated, and while I’d happily eat them I don’t think their meat would taste very nice. There’s a reason we don’t generally eat carnivorous mammals. Pigs, while smart, are also quite smart enough to up and leave if they aren’t happy with the situation; there’s a good argument that their ‘domestication’ was something of a reciprocal arrangement in the first place. At any rate, pigs are quite happy to eat their own young if the situation requires it, so I don’t think they’re squeamish about such things. So much for pigs.

The intelligence of the octopus seems of a quite other order. The more I read about them, the more chillingly intelligent they seem. When captured, they refuse to participate in research which could teach us more about them; they escape from their tanks in the dead of night through holes the size of their beak, walking on dry land if necessary to reach their goal; in the wild, they decorate their homes, they use tools, they communicate. They are an intelligent alien life form, and when they rise up out of the sea with their stolen weaponry, I fully expect to be held to account. The problem is, they’re just so tasty. 

Maybe it’s their intelligence that makes them so delicious. Just as pigs are, objectively speaking, the tastiest of animals, so the flesh of the octopus is nicer by far than that of their dumb, brutish cousins the squid and the cuttlefish, really rich and sweet, capable of standing up to the thick, beefy flavours of stifado as well as the subtle astringency of a celery and potato salad. If we don’t get them much here, I think it’s because people are rather afraid of cooking them. There’s all kinds of nonsense about how to tenderise their flesh – beat with a hammer, dry on a clothesline, add corks to the cooking liquor – but the best way to do it is just to stick them in the freezer as soon as you get them, and leave them at least overnight. The violent effect this has on their cells, undesirable in delicate white fish, tenderises them perfectly.

The next day, I normally braise them in oil, wine and herbs before chopping their tentacles and adding to salads, or leaving them whole and blackening on a hot grill; if you clean them properly (brains out, beak off) you can cook them directly in your tomato and purple olive ragu, and so much the better for everyone. Just be prepared for the day when the sea-spiders rise up and come seeking revenge.

 

I contain multitudes 

The kitchen is alive at the moment. Better than alive; it is thriving. Under the sinks, in a space just high enough for the airlocks, there are two demijohns of bubbling honey-water; on the warm shelf on top of the pass are jars of carrots, asparagus and turnips, each brined with its particular citrus and spice, and murkier pots of peel and trim, ageing into edibility. A bowl of plain water and strong flour teems with fungus and bacteria. Today it smells good and sour, reminiscent of rye and pickle and milk – tomorrow it will smell of yeast, of warmth and buns and baking. In the hot dark, squid entrails slowly change.

We chop and pound dead matter, sow it with salt and starve it of oxygen – and life springs up from these airlocked graves. It’s like bloody Dracula. Maybe the whole coffin-full-of-native-earth thing was to keep him stocked up on the bacteria and fungi which supported his particular microbiome; perhaps a vampire is merely a highly advanced form of pickle. There is certainly something (as they say) of the night about the whole process – if you want to look at it that way. I prefer to see it as a creation myth. Various cultures have given us worlds birthed from the brains of giants, the testicles of elder gods, raven shit and living clay; we create a squawling life from compost and salt – our breath moving over the cabbagey waters.

Chop stalks of kale, broccoli, or kohlrabi; mix in 100g of salt and 50 of sugar to every kilo of vegetable. Squeeze and crush it in, and leave overnight.

Tomorrow, make a paste of green chillies, garlic, spring onion, mint, and fish sauce or seaweed; mix and pound that in, too. Pack into jars, seal tight, and leave for a week. It lives!

Cabbages (and things)

  
Dinner last night, after a weekend of fairly gluttonous feasting, was a nearly meat-free dish of white cabbage wedges, thickly pot-roast on a bed of beans, bacon and leeks; taking around an hour and a half of hands-off cooking, it was reasonably delicious, although it would have been more so if the cabbage had been fermented first. The deep umami flavours of sauerkraut cooked with cured pork are quite extraordinary, something the Poles, the Germans, the Alsatians and indeed the Luxembourgeois know full well.

 

The week before we had eaten a pot-roast red cabbage, simply browned in lard and then cooked slowly in its own juices; served with stewed apple and a heaping dollop of creme fraiche, it was a revelation, with meaty, giving textures and a real depth of flavour, from charred and peppery to rich, sweet mustard – but what else would you expect from Stephen Harris? The Sportsman head chef’s recipes, which express the elegant precision of his cooking in simple language and accurate instructions, are a great gift to both the lay and the professional cook; almost as great as his grotty, rundown pub by the sea.

 

One of the reasons Fergus Henderson has become such a towering figure, aside from his revolutionary cooking, his unimprovable restaurants, and his remarkable dress sense, is the work of his acolytes across London and beyond. Justin Gelattly, James Lowe, Claire Ptak, Lee Tiernan; if these were the only cooks to have passed through his kitchen his legacy would be assured. They aren’t, of course. Noble Rot, a dark and odd wine bar in Bloomsbury which approaches, between the colfondo prosecco and the violent espresso, its own particular perfection, has a kitchen headed up by one Paul Weaver, who has done time under both St Fergus and Stephen Harris, who also consults on the menu.

 

Now, I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and possess neither the patience nor the vocabulary to be one; look elsewhere for a fuller appreciation of this excellent, terse menu, which raises a brasserie menu du jour to a particular, vibrant beauty. I’m still thinking about the Comte tart, warm and quivering, with a custard that offers no resistance to the edge of a fork and a pastry which crumbles in all the right places; of the salad of red chicories and pickled walnuts, sweet and bitter and razor-sharp. It is the sort of thing that you eat in an anonymous station bistro with a glass of rose and dream about for the rest of your life; to have it easily available in West London seems cheating, somehow, but also glorious.

Tears and Memory


Fermenting sprouts, it turns out, smell exactly as you might expect them to smell; they will convince no-one of that brassica’s deliciousness. The chopped stalks of cavolo nero, on the other hand, fermented kimchi-style with green chilli and garlic, after an initial period of cabbagey pungence, enter a sort of late imperial phase during which they smell strongly of truffles (or at least of truffle oil), which, as everyone knows, in turn smell strongly of pig testicles.

 

Smell (and therefore flavour) is, like poetry, composed of a set of seemingly abstract and subjective connexions which turn out, on closer inspection, to be absolutely concrete and precise. Truffles do not just happen to smell like pig testicles; they have evolved that way to attract the rooting attention which, buried underground, allows their spores to spread. Nor, really, do they just smell like pig testicles; they smell of them, evolution having precisely replicated the chemical component of that heady musk. Remember that when some gourmand invites you to sniff his knobbly fungus.

 

It is a common piece of inverted snobbery to laugh at the descriptors on wine labels, with their vanillas and leathers and fruits; “it smells of red grapes to me!” is, to be sure, a fine and time-honoured dad joke, and if it keeps him out of the good stuff then all the better, but it ignores the chemical complexity of fermentation and aging, the interplay between grape, yeast, bacteria and wood which makes wine smell, in fact, almost nothing like grape juice. The reason, for example, that this particular red has a strong taste of vanilla is because it contains quantities of vanillin, the same ingredient found in the bean and synthesised for the flavouring, which is thrown up by the wine-making process.

 

More readily understood is the fact that similar-tasting plants often contain amounts of the same chemical flavourants; the mustardiness of cabbage comes from the same source as that of mustard; anise, aniseed, fennel, dill, tarragon and chervil all have a similar make-up. This might seem obvious, but it is only recently being understood. It’s what leads Heston to things like salmon in liquorice; at a less exalted level, it’s behind the current-ish fad for herbs in desserts, as well as the precise amplification of flavours which marks a lot of good modern cooking.

 

So what, you may well ask; well, I thought it was interesting, but what I’d really like to know is –

a) what made that kimchi smell of truffles?

b) will the smell ever come out of the jar?

c) can I use it to attract pigs, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn?

 

Rolo Pilaf

There is more to seasonality than the comings and goings of fickle vegetation. Alongside the inexorable march of the sun, our own petty customs and habits might seem small and insignificant, but they can have just as great an effect on the patterns of our diets. Some things, while not seasonal as such, are tied by temperature or texture to the weather outside – ice cream and granita, mashed potato and gravy – while others stake a place in one of our various religious calendars, which may be more or less related to the movements of the heavens.

 

Ramadan and its associate Eids are tied to the Islamic lunar calendar, for example; the daily cycle of fast and feast might take place in scorching heat or in autumn rains, which doesn’t seem to effect the consumption of harira and those little date things. Christian festivities, on the other hand, align suspiciously closely to pagan celebrations and thus to the seasons; at any rate, although they are marked at the same time each year, the food is not fantastically seasonal. You could eat a goose any damn time you choose, I suppose, and brassicas seem to grow at any time and any place; when we get to Mars, I suspect we will find that a small pernicious cabbage has go there first.

 

At any rate, this dish, traditionally consumed on the feast of St Valentine – after using most of the packet in cooking, the cook would offer her loved one “the last rolo” – has become, in recent decades, thoroughly associated with Easter, or rather, Yeaster, the Sunday after Holy Week. In the middle ages, Yeaster Sunday would start with a great slaughter of all the tame rabbits bought as Easter gifts, which were then cooked inside a brioche of tremendous proportions. Gradually, the practice died out, and households would instead hold a great feast of all the unconsumed chocolate in the pantry. It is this practice that has given us the chocolate mousse, the chocolate eclair, hare and chocolate ragu, chocolate mole, toad-in-the-hole, and Badger Surprise (the inspiration for the better known, and less surprising, Kinder). Whenever eaten, this dish is in itself a remarkable remnant of the fusion fad of Victorian Britain, which gave us kedgeree, ketchup and kumquat. A real taste of history.

 

ROLO PILAF

serves 4

CHOCOLATE STOCK – CHOCK

2kg chicken necks or coxcombs

4 onions, halved and then peeled

carrots and so on

at least 6 easter eggs in their wrapping

Place all the chock ingredients in a saucepan, cover with water, place the saucepan full of ingredients and water on a lit or otherwise operative hob, and leave for 6 hours. Strain.

ROLO PILAF

2 onions, fine dice

2 carrots, fine dice

2 sticks of celery, fine dice

12 cloves of garlic, minced

400g basmati rice (Tilda is best)

100g wild spaghetti, broken into 1-inch pieces

1l of chock (see above)

200g salted caramel spread (Bon Maman do a good one)

1 packet of rolos, the last removed, the rest julienned

lard

Melt some lard in a wide-bottomed pan, and cook the onion, carrot and celery until nicely softened and starting to colour. Wipe the garlic around the rim of the pan. When the edges start to sizzle, stir in the rice, counterclockwise, until each grain is vaguely translucent and fully coated in lard. Stir in the broken spaghetti (standard tree will do if you can’t find wild). Add the chock, bring to a boil, and let it bubble away until you can see holes start to appear. Put on a lid, turn the heat down and leave for 5 minutes. The rice should be cooked through and dry. Check for seasoning, remembering the salted caramel spread will be salty, then ripple it through and turn into a bowl. Pour the rice into another bowl, garnish with the julienned rolos, and let sit for 8 minutes before serving immediately. With a green crisp salad and a bottle of chocolate stout, this is a complete meal.