Carne-val

It is, of course, Pancake Day, Shrove or more pleasingly Fat Tuesday, more romantically Mardi Gras, time for Carnival, carne-val, when we prepare for the month-long renunciation of meat and much else that is the Lenten Fast by stuffing ourselves silly with all of the things that will soon be forbidden – except we don’t, really, because few people – outside, presumably, of monasteries and convents – go the full Catholic hog any more, the asceticism of the Roman tradition having withered along with some of its mystery in the hearty CofE. A Good Catholic Boy I used to work with once told me (I think I’ve got this right) that although most people give up something for Lent, in the ‘modern’ Church it is considered more as an opportunity to take something up, whether a useful and improving hobby or generic good works – like that Good Deed A Day book you had to keep as a Cub Scout, but just for a month.

 

The Coptic Christians of, chiefly, Ethiopia and Egypt, desert-forged by the tribulations of St Anthony (of Flaubert and Dali fame) keep a calendar which involves fasting of some kind for, I think, around two-thirds of the year; it’s believed that their often meatless diet gave us falafel, fuul medames, and other vegetarian staples of the Middle East. I have no idea what they do for Lent, but I assume it is strict. Although some people of my acquaintance do renounce some little thing for a month – Creme Eggs, takeaway pizzas, casual sex – for most of us happily godless heathens, today is just another day in the slow trundle towards easeful death. If we have a yearly fast, it is the grey feast-weary month of January; personally, I don’t believe in ever giving anything up at all. I still, for example, eat Babybel.

 

However, it wouldn’t do to throw the baby out with the metaphor, particularly if that baby (bear with me here) is a foodstuff. Today entirely deserves its modern British appellation, lacking though it might the weight and glamour of history; it is the day on which, without guilt or fear of reproach, you can eat pancakes. For DINNER. Recent years have seen the fat American pancake, fluffy with buttermilk and baking powder, make inroads into our breakfast culture; this is ok. Breakfast (or brunch, more accurately) is a time to be frivolous, to have bacon and banana and blueberries on a fat, syrup-soaked drop scone. I have made thousands of these pancakes over the last few years, and I still enjoy eating them; that is high praise. You have all year to eat those, though. Pancake Day is for the eating, at dinner, of crepes. I, for one, have never made a crepe on any other day – though I have been guilty of off-season galettes.

 

While galettes (especially the buckwheat variety) are good with shredded ham and good strong cheese, crepes should be eaten with lemon and sugar; in this Ed Smith and I are in agreement. As the redoubtable M. de Courchamps noted, even jam is an “affectation”. (Thanks to Bee Wilson for that piece of wisdom). In my younger days I would add to this duo golden syrup; I still might, if I didn’t find the bother of keeping the tin and its surroundings clean to be more trouble than the contents seem worth. As for treacle – pff! There is not world enough, and time – but I suppose that is rather beside the point. No one in their right mind would put treacle on a pancake. If we agree that lemon and sugar – and in small quantities – are the only necessities for crepe-topping, then Pancake Day becomes a very affordable feast, one which could have been achieved with only the store-cupboard ingredients on Ready Steady Cook, leaving you a fiver to buy a Django Reinhardt CD to cook to – essential for the preparation of crepes.

 

All of this makes the proliferation of those pancake mix kits all the more baffling; there are several brands in my local Spar, from Peppa Pig to retro Americana. Presumably food companies have realised that an unexploited feast-day is lost profit for them, and hastily put a quite astonishing mark-up on homeopathic amounts of cheap, plentiful ingredients; perhaps they’re simply trying to bring the joy of pancakes to households lacking the time or wherewithal to measure things. Assuming you have both of these luxuries, making pancakes is really extremely easy; pancakes of some sort, being an incredibly primitive form of bread, must have been some of our species’ earliest processed foods. I’d take Ed’s advice, above, and use St Delia’s recipe. This is the kind of thing she’s best at. Just remember that the first one is always the worst, that flipping is all in the wrist, and that you’ll eat more than you need but less than you want, and you can’t really go wrong.

Detox, Retox

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I know a lot of my recipes are rather time-consuming, long, involved processes that can stretch over a few days, and I do find this style of cooking very satisfying – there is something quite exciting about watching the gradual formation of carbon dioxide in a sourdough, or the slow maceration of garlic in vinegar. There is a time and a place for such procedures, however, and a hungover New Year’s Day is not it.

It baffles me why people decide to start diets on one of the most wretched days of the year. Kale granola is all very well for your long-term health prospects, but is no use at all in wrestling a hangover to the ground. You need filth, fat and protein and carbs, and most importantly, you need them quickly. Given time to sink in, the hangover will easily get the better of you – get the jump on it, though, and you’ll soon see it off. This is a brunch menu that can be prepared quickly, easily, and with your eyes half-closed.

BRUNCH

For two large hangovers

STAGE 1

2l sparkling water (the rising bubbles help remove the hideous taste from your mouth)

a large bottle of tomato juice (I used Big Tom, which is spiced and seasoned; if unavailable, go for something thick, and add salt, pepper, vinegar, and Tabasco)

1 pot of espresso

Full-fat milk

two pieces of toast

Pour the tomato juice into glasses, and the coffee into cups, topping up the latter with some milk (black coffee=heartburn city). The water should be drunk straight from the bottle. Consume in alternating gulps until all are gone, nibbling at the toast in a desultory fashion. This is your detox, so don’t enjoy it too much.

STAGE 2

4 slices of bread

2 large eggs

a small jar of pate, preferably pork liver

6 cloves pickled garlic, sliced

butter

salt, pepper, chilli flakes

Fry the eggs in butter, sprinkling with seasoning and chilli. Toast the bread. Spread with butter, and then two slices with pate, sprinkling over the garlic. Construct two sandwiches, and eat greedily.

STAGE 3

2 slices of Christmas cake

the pan you cooked the eggs in, with leftover butter

Maldon’s salt

Fry the cake very gently on each side, sprinkling over a little salt. The marzipan and nuts should be caramelised and golden brown.

Goodbye hangover; hello a new and better you.
Happy New Year!

Eggs Dracule

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Reading food writing all the time, it’s easy to think that recipes spring, fully-formed, from nowhere; that other people’s lives are parades of perfect meal after perfect meal, crafted and styled. Even leftovers are never chucked in a sandwich or in the bin, but instead reimagined, ‘upcycled’ into hashes and pilafs, fritters and arancini. “I always make extra, just for the leftovers!” they cry, and you curse them from your pit of crisps and shame.

 

Of course, no-one lives like this in reality, or at least no-one who has anything else to do with their time. The lifestyle we are shown in cookery books, blogs and TV shows is a fantasy, even for those who espouse it; Nigel Slater recounts, in the middle of his Kitchen Diaries (otherwise full of farmers’ markets, trips to Chinatown, odes to his herb garden), being publically accosted while carrying a bag of frozen peas, and fleeing in shame. Nothing wrong with frozen peas, of course, but the message behind this careful lifting of the mask is clear. “I am like you”, he says. “I am human too.”

 

In the interests of transparency, then, I feel I should say that my breakfast yesterday consisted of a co-op ham and cheese sandwich and some crisps. The gas was off, the house was freezing, and I stayed in bed until hunger drove me out; there was nothing to eat in the house that didn’t need cooking. That, however, doesn’t make for a very good blog post, at least not on a food blog. Brunch today, then, is what I will write about. While a little fancier, it was still born of necessity, surplus, and experiment, an off-the-cuff meal that turned out quite well.

 

I have a lot of dried blood left after making black pudding, and had been searching for things to do with it. I remembered reading about some research done by the Nordic Food Lab, in which they had discovered that blood has a very similar make-up to eggs, and so this dish was born.

 

EGGS DRACULE

a fine romantic brunch for two

4 eggs

2 English muffins

4 slices of good ham

a little chopped parsley or chives

PIG BLOOD HOLLANDAISE

50g butter

2 tblspn dried blood

50ml water

25ml red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a small, lipped pan, and leave to settle a little. Put a pan of water on to boil. In a heatproof bowl, whisk together the blood, water and vinegar with a pinch of salt until the blood is dissolved.

When the water comes to a boil, put the bowl over it, turn off the hear, and start whisking. When frothy and thickened slightly, start adding the butter in a slow stream, whisking as you go. When it’s all added (leaving behind the white solids) you should have a light, glossy sauce. Season, and leave over the hot water while you construct brunch.

Poach the eggs according to your usual method, unless your usual method is terrible, in which case get someone else to do it. Split, toast, and butter the muffins, and put a slice of ham on each half. A poached egg on that, a blanket of sauce, and a sprinkle of herbs, and there you go.

 

Egg, potato, onion

I think it’s fair to say that I am not generally a fan of fusion cuisines, especially when they are perpetrated unthinkingly. Culinary traditions are rich cultural artefacts, developed over hundreds or thousands of years; to interfere in that simply for the sake of dinner seems trivial, insulting. Pasta used as a dumping ground for leftovers, bacon flung irresponsibly into couscous; worst of all, fashionably exotic food terms flung around menus, misapplied until they lose their meaning (a ceviche of shallots, a carpaccio of pretty much anything), seem like cultural vandalism, a colonialist looting of an alluring past. (Yes, I have been told that I take things too seriously).

Having said that, everyone needs a go-to dish, a vehicle for the current contents of your fridge, a base around which to build supper or a lazy lunch when the shops are too far away or too closed and you don’t give a damn about culinary traditions. Brunch is a good occasion for such dishes; the whole affair suggests a cheerful dissolution, and disparate ingredients can be brought together with the unifying influence of toast or egg. I’m a big fan of the hash in this context, and many differences can be resolved with a base of toasted bread, but my favourite catch-all dish is probably a tortilla. A sturdy structure of potato, onion and egg can be adapted to almost any cuisine, sharpened with chilli or spice, warmed with chunks or strands of cheese, enriched with little nuggets of sausage or black pudding or ham, freshened with clean herbs and vegetables. I’m sure the Spanish would be outraged, and when I’m feeling particularly high-minded I try to justify this bastardisation, pointing to the tortilla-equivalents across the world – the markode of Algeria, the Arabic eggeh, the Italian frittata, the Persian kuku – but fundamentally I don’t really care. Tortilla are pretty much universally delicious, the sweet, umami-rich combination of potato, onion and egg hiding any weakness in the rest of the ingredients.

i’m not going to give a recipe for tortilla, as that is not really how something like this is cooked – quantities depend on what else you want to throw in, which in turn depends on mood and resources. Even the basic method is up for debate. I will, however give a few general observations on tortilla-making. I’ve eaten a lot in my time.

ESSENTIALS

onion

potato

egg

For your own sake, the onion and potato should be cut as fine as possible. I like the onion diced, and the potato first halved lengthways and then sliced across, but that is a personal preference. Sweet Spanish onions and small waxy potatoes are the way to go, I think; the potatoes need to hold their own in the cooking process.

Never boil the potatoes first – you lose so much flavour (yes, potatoes have flavour) and so much of their protein-enhancing umami that way, as well as missing out on the beautiful, fudgy texture they get from a purely oil-based cooking. Chips are tastier than boiled potatoes. Learn from this. Sweat the potatoes together with the onions in plenty of olive oil (nice olive oil – you can always reuse it) and a good amount of salt until they are tender. If you’re adding meat you might want to put it in now so everyone gets to know each other.

You want to eat this delicious combination as the main event. The egg should be the binding agent, not the star of the show; it’s not an omelette in that sense. Two or three eggs to a 10-inch pan is fine. Let the onion-potato mix cool a bit before you stir in the eggs, to avoid weird lumps. Add other bits like fresh herbs and cheese at this point too.

I know it’s wrong, but I always start my tortilla on the hob and finish in the oven – it skips the whole messy hassle of flipping it. If you do this, let it set and colour on the bottom before putting it in the oven, which will help it slip out of the pan later. If you must flip the tortilla, on your own head be it. Don’t have the oven too hot. Let the whole thing cool a bit before you take it out of the pan, and then some more before you eat it.

EXTRAS

I’ve got a Turkish-style tortilla in the oven at the moment, with bits of halloumi, sucuk sausage, green chilli, and plenty of herbs. Other things I have added in the past include –

ham hock

black pudding

pork sausage

merguez sausage

chunks of manchego

grated manchego

grated Dapple

roasted peppers

pickled chillies

marinated artichokes

handfuls of dill

paper-thin courgette slices

tiny broad beans

frozen peas

and probably loads of other things I’ve forgotten. 

Have a go.