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.

Just Enough

Eggs, really, are little miracles – so much more useful than chickens. Neatly packaged and compartmentalised by nature, they are, appropriately, a starting point in the wider world of food, fed to babies and invalids and anyone who needs to (re)learn the pleasures of eating; proverbially if not actually easy to cook, they are the first ingredient a lot of us work with, a fact we pay homage to every day at breakfast (“we” not including the unfortunate cereal-munchers and toast-snatchers of this world). Go to work on an egg, they said, and it was good advice – but they’re even better for long, lazy mornings. The meal of brunch could not exist without the emulsifying presence of the egg to combine its disparate parts, its salads and sandwiches, hashes, leftovers and toast. Egg (or more particularly its yolk) is a great match-maker.

What magician first made a mayonnaise? What was she (probably not he) doing? How did she know? It can’t have taken a Heston to work out the effect that breadcrumbs or ground nuts (which we still occasionally use in bread sauce, in picadas) would have when thrown into a stew; but to bring together two liquids and end up with something thicker than either – we can only bow down to this long-lost innovator, who should be the patron saint of the kitchen. Perhaps you don’t make mayonnaise at home (you should). Think about a cooked yolk, then – the way, mixed with cream, it bakes or simmers into a silken whole, occupying a perfect liminal space between solid and liquid. A well-made quiche, quivering plainly in a buttery shell, is a beautiful thing – a bad one a disaster. Eggs are difficult to cook. When such things were still fashionable, a soufflé used to be considered a real test of skill – Anthony Bourdain describes the soufflé station as the ultimate ordeal of his education at the confusingly-named CIA – which is a testament to the tricky versatility of the egg. Essentially a yolk-enriched béchamel mixed with extraordinary amounts of air, a soufflé showcases the egg white, its ability to become something both extremely rich and toyingly light, decadently ephemeral. If this seems to circle around French cooking, that’s no coincidence. If there’s one area of cuisine that the French can really claim to have raised to an art, it’s egg cookery. From the humble omelette to the most delicate creations of the saucier, the egg, more than butter, wine, or garlic, is the real hero of the French kitchen, the symbol of its gift for complete transformation.

Eggs, for all their work behind the scenes, are capable of standing on their own in a way that flour, say, is not. I just ate two fried eggs, cooked in butter with salt and pepper; I’d happily eat them again. Maybe poached are more your thing – fair enough, though butter isn’t bad for you any more. Scrambled, although laden with bad memories, are wonderful if done well (which, for me, means extremely sloppily), and particularly good if you don’t have any bread – there’s no escaping yolk that needs mopping up. Leave them alone and you have a kind of omelette. Even a boiled egg can be a fine thing. None of these, however, are particularly easy to do. The difficulties are obvious with scrambled – just take them out of the pan quickly and you should be fine. Boiled eggs never take the time that anyone says they do – they are a struggle between you and your cooker, mediated by the pan, which might take years to resolve itself – and even plain old fried are a delicate balancing act between soft yolk and set white. The trick, generally, is to cook them a lot cooler than you think you should (ridiculous advice, once you’ve started taking it). Egg will cook if left alone in a hot place.

Eggs are so homely, so comforting, that it always comes as a surprise to see them abroad – although it shouldn’t be, given all of the above. A chicken is a present help to any family, fits easily in even urban gardens (‘yardbird’) and can be eaten when it gets old; mad-eyed squawking idiots that they are, they have spread from India and abundantly populated the world (although what percentage of that population exists in battery farms I don’t dare imagine). So we have avgolemeno soups and dressings, shakshuka, tortilla, egg-and-kofte tagines, egg curries, eggs on pizza and omelettes on sushi and egg-fried rice, we have egg salad and gala pies and pickled eggs to go alongside or before or after pastries and cakes and sauces, meringues and curds and ice-creams; we can eat eggs from terrible French hotel buffets, magnificent New York diners (the closest the egg has to a temple), shacks and stalls and counters across the world. Never trust anyone who doesn’t like eggs, and pity those allergic to them.

A Pinch Of Salt

In my experience, the most common way to express praise for someone’s cooking (after furious consumption) is to ask for the recipe, by which they often mean a list of ingredients. This is odd. It could be construed as mildly insulting (as if the recipe was the only good thing about the dish), and at the least it displays an almost wilful ignorance as to the mechanics of cooking. This is especially noticeable in restaurants. Yes, they have better equipment, more cooks, and often much better ingredients than you would normally use at home – but the main difference is that the people who work there are better at cooking than you. People sometimes seem to think they’re being tricked when this is pointed out to them. They ask how you make your scrambled eggs, as if there was one secret ingredient only available to the trade, and are disappointed when they hear the answer – “eggs and butter”. And “extremely well”. This is a charade that a lot of cookery writers are involved in. Not wanting to admit that cooking requires skill and effort, and a lot of practice and cock-ups of various kinds, we are told that all you need to do is buy the best, the free-rangest, the rarest – helpful in constructing a tomato salad, less so in making, say, a soufflé, though I guess nobody makes soufflés any more. A loaf of sourdough, say. Yes, good flour is better, and of course you need your well-fed, bubbling SCOBY, but your bread will still be awful if you don’t know how to knead it properly – worse, in fact, than a loaf made with dried yeast, because wet, recalcitrant natural leaven is quite difficult, or at least frustrating, to work with.

In fairness, baking books suffer the least from this affectation, but only because baking (especially bread-baking) is seen as inherently “different” from cooking (by which is meant roasting, braising, sautéing, grilling, and so on), being more scientific, precise, a boys’ game (only bread-baking), a craft requiring patience and graft, totally unlike the free-form expression of personal genius one finds, say, in the construction of an omelette. (You might have guessed from my tone that I find this position a little immature.) It might be true that a sourdough boule requires greater precision of execution than a “rustic” (horrible word) stew, but that doesn’t mean that the latter requires none – only that the consequences of imprecision are more obvious, and less fixable, in the former. Baking is a high-stakes game. Mess up at any one stage – kneading, proving, even (especially) in the proper feeding of your yeast source, before the recipe begins – and you have probably messed it up for good. No amount of prodding and tweaking will rescue it. This is important, and it’s what people mean when they say that baking is more of a “science” – but it doesn’t follow that stewing (braising, sautéing) is a free-for-all. The many opportunities for personal intervention only really offer more opportunities to mess the whole thing up. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t – but the same is true of baking. It’s just easier to master the basics of stewing, which – depending as it does on controlled interactions between heat, protein, acids and salt – is just as much of a science as baking.

Anyway. The consequences of this, for the average cookbook user, are that while some (not all) baking books, (to which I might add brewing and barbecuing – notice a trend?) as purveyors of a specialised craft, are happy to give technical instruction to an almost exhaustive degree, most (nearly all) cookery books, on the other hand, are content to give almost none – or to give the pretence of it in a way that is almost useless. Sweat, sauté, sear; it is assumed that we (I mean you) know the difference between all of these, their particular applications and circumstances. But – and this is the paradox of food writing – if you did, you wouldn’t need the cookbook at all. What you would require is a list of ingredients and the instruction “make a stew (fricassee, daube, whatever)”. A smattering of technical language lets you feel you’re in the club, and ignore the fact you’re reading a recipe that takes two pages to reiterate a basic technique, and add cardamom. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but only a little. This does, however, ignore the real reason we (I) read recipe books, which is for the recipe introductions, sparsely evocative, lushly hedonistic or winningly self-deprecating, which I’m told are a particular forte of British food writers. (In America, where practicality and competence are not considered personal defects, recipes do tend more toward the technical.)

This trend for inclusivity is a relatively new one. Look at old books of “receipts”, as they are still called by the kind of person who says “sparrowgrass” and owns waistcoats, and you will find a shorthand written by and for professional, or experienced domestic, cooks. These are, in the main, just lists of ingredients, which assume you know how to perform a plethora of kitchen tasks (cake-baking, pastry-making, braises and sauces and so on), and need no instructions; often, quantities and timings aren’t given, at least not precisely – the assumption is that you can judge for yourself how much pastry you need for your joint of lamb, or whatever. Partly, I’m sure, this reflects the now-broken oral tradition of “real” “peasant” cooking, handed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter; equally, though, it’s just that cooking has got more complicated. A pastry designed half as glue and half as insulation, and not at all as edible, can be a little rough around the edges – add enough water to make the flour stick together, and you’re done. A pastry designed to hold a rich, golden custard through baking without cracking, and then to melt into butter in the mouth, needs a little more precision. Or take thickeners. A handful of breadcrumbs or ground nuts, added to a sauce, has an effect that is both intuitive and quickly obvious; the amount of slightly cooked egg yolk, stabilised yoghurt, roux, cornflour, or agar agar that might have a similar but more refined effect is less easy to judge by eye – and, as with baking, a mistake does more lasting damage. There is a tendency to a sort of Golden Age view of cooking which ignores the steady technical progress in the field.

All of this, really, avoids the original question, because the answer is quite unpalatable. Yes, I am better at scrambling eggs than you; I know the texture, the look, when to take off the heat and when to return, when to quickly shuffle out of the pan – and when to chuck the lot away and start again. Yes, my eggs are better, larger, fresher, their yolks more golden, their hens happier – but I also use a lot more butter and particularly salt than you would care to think about. It’s a sad fact, but people who will scour the outer reaches of Waitrose for the most obscure of Ottolenghi’s demands are often scared of simple brute seasoning – a shame, when the way to improve on almost any recipe is to take it with a big, three-fingered pinch of coarse sea salt.

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.

 

How Do You Like Your Eggs?

“How would you like your eggs?”
“Over-medium, please – ”
“Just poached, fried, or scrambled, sir”

“Why are Americans so picky about eggs?”

Good question. I think my reply was something along the lines of “eggs are more of a thing over there – diners all do them to order, as you like” which wasn’t really an answer, just another way of saying “Americans are picky about eggs”. I did him his eggs over-medium, anyway, partly because I like American pickiness about eggs, and partly because I didn’t want him to think we had all the eggs pre-cooked, sunny-side-up, in a congealing proteinous mass under the hot-lamps. I kept thinking, though – why are Americans so picky about eggs?

An easy answer would be that they aren’t, particularly – maybe they are just more vocal than the reticent British about their pickiness, more active in getting what they want; I don’t think this is true, though. A hungover Englishman is perfectly capable of being quite vocally and unpleasantly picky about his breakfast, although this more often seems to manifest itself in a lust for the exact shade of burntness on a sausage, or a peculiar hatred of black pudding. When they do make specific egg requests, perhaps remembering the lost estate of their mother’s fry-up, or some half-forgotten greasy spoon, they will fumble for the words; a Brit could never coolly ask for “eggs over-medium” – instead, you get semi-coherent requests for “er, flipped, but sort-of runny”, “something between a fried egg and an omelette”; occasionally, someone will ask for their egg sunny-side-up, because they saw it in a movie, only to discover they meant over-easy, if they meant anything at all. We lack the vocabulary to be picky about eggs.

More generally, and setting aside professional and keen amateur cooks, I think we lack a vocabulary to talk about the processes of food. I saw, recently, on a cafe menu that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook, a bagel filled with (among other things) “minced” onion. I just don’t think you’d see that on a menu here; most people would not know or, more importantly, care what “minced” meant in that context. “Onion” would suffice – the process by which it got into a bagel is irrelevant.

Why we don’t seem to have developed a layman’s vocabulary for talking about one of the most fundamental activities of life is another matter. In America, I think, eating is a much more public activity than it is here. In England, there seems to be a strong divide between eating in private, which can be a pleasurable, even hedonistic, experience (yes, I know we have a very lively restaurant scene, but I consider that a form of semi-privacy), and eating in public, which must be functional, food-as-fuel, and hopefully a little unpleasant. I’m talking about eating on the street, at service stations, in shopping centres, even diners or whatever – places or occasions where you eat out because you are out and you need to eat, not because you have gone out to eat.

Take a petrol station sandwich – sliced bread, margarine, some imitation of cheese, perhaps the ghost of ham, the wilting corpse of salad, all packaged at some indeterminate location some indeterminate time ago. There is no enjoyment here at any level. This is fibre and protein, designed to stop you feeling hungry so you can carry on with whatever you’re doing. It’s barely even nutrition, just fuel, bought along with your petrol. The vast majority of gas stations, on the other hand – or at least the ones that I went to – have their own deli counters, where your sandwich will be made for you, to order, to your specifications, with a choice of breads, of cheese, of meats… These are not places where people go to eat; they fulfil the same function as the shops at service stations, they just do so much better, with attention to detail and some kind of deep-seated belief that all food should be worth eating. Yes, of course there is also an America of chains and mall food courts, but that is relatively new and not, I think, as pervasive as the back-road small-town America of grocery store delis and of diners where you can get your eggs or your burger or your steak cooked any damn way you please, and where that is not pickiness but simply a reasonable thing to expect of food that is being cooked for you in exchange for money.

There are, I’m sure, any number of reasons why this is lacking in Britain – a hangover from Victorian uneasiness about taking pleasure in food, a class-based distaste for the service industry in general, our supposed love of privacy in our pleasures – and it is, perhaps, gradually changing, although it is telling that the current crop of more casual, cheaper eateries (Pitt Cue Co., the Polpo group, Yalla Yalla) all look East or West for their food and decor. Yes, we have farmers’ markets and delis and food vans, but until we are no longer expected to eat a day-old parody of a sandwich entombed in plastic as a punishment for wanting to eat in public, we will not have a ‘food culture’, just an eerily accurate impression of one.