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Friday, September 29, 2006

Eggplants at Turnips

As a teenager I maintained a feverish correspondance with a friend that involved all sorts of games about decorating the envelopes in various ways.
At one point she unearthed a collection of vegetal poems that made their way to me, one on the back of each letter. I have forgotten them all, but the image of the glamourous aubergine in its purple zootsuit lingers.
As an adult I have managed to calm my passion for purple clothing but a fondness for the enigmatic aubergine remains.
It’s an odd vegetable, beautiful when whole but distinctly plain when sliced and cooked, turning into unattractive soggy beige slices. Some people think it has little flavour, but to my palate it is very distinct if unassertive. I love its soft squidginess, finding it comforting and soothing.
Older cookbooks (including Elizabeth David) are stern in their instructions to salt the slices to ‘draw out the bitterness’ but no modern variety I have come across requires this treatment. I have read that this salting treatment, which removes some of the moisture, can make them less sponge-like when it comes to soaking up oil, but then I quite like the greasiness of a slice of aubergine thoroughly drenched in good quality olive oil.
If you want a less fattening way to deal with them, you could cut small aubergines in half lengthwise, then spread miso paste over the cut face and put under the grill.
Baba Ghanoush, that lovely smokey aubergine dip from the middle East, is possibly the best thing to do with your purple beauty.
Roast or grill a whole aubergine until it’s soft (if you have a gas hob, try charring the skin before cooking it for that smokiness); cut it open and scoop out its innards, discarding the skin.
Blend the pulp with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt and sesame seeds. The proportions are entirely a question of taste, as is the texture. Experiment with extra ingredients such as cumin, chilli, yoghurt, spring onions, sour cream, oregano, anything you like really.
Serve as a dip or in pita bread.
Mmm. I think I’ll go back to Turnip to buy some aubergines and spend the weekend experimenting.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Not for fish haters!

The main reason I took the Billingsgate course was that I have always felt intimidated by the idea of buying, preparing and cooking fish; I hoped that being shown exactly what needs to be done to a fish would give me confidence when faced with a fishmonger’s slab.
Yesterday I put this to the test, buying sea bream and accompanying ingredients , asking the fishmonger just to scale the fish (I did once own a fish-scaler but I only bought it because I didn’t know what it was and I lost it before I worked out its purpose - being keen on gadgets is not the same as having common sense).
Inspired by suggestions from CJ Jackson, director of the Billingsgate school, I thought I could do a vaguely South-East Asian arrangement of flavours, with chilli, ginger , coriander and sesame oil.
Gutting the fish turned out to be just as easy as it had been under supervision, which was a relief - I had worried that I might end up in tears with horrendously torn fish and fish guts disgustingly spread all over the kitchen as my knife turned out to be inadequate and the fish malevolently different from the tidy fish provided in the school. The fish slit easily down the belly, with only a little hitch at the breast bone, and the guts pulled out equally smoothly, heart and stomach and unidentifiable bloody thing all cossetted in a duvet of fish farm fat.
The only difference was that I realised that between the membrane that covers the bloodline and the fillet was a layer of white fat that could be squeezed away easily with a finger.
Wrapping them in circles of baking paper took some practice (I threw away a couple of metres of the stuff after making too much of a mess of it to retrieve) but I got there in the end. My only quibble, which may be due to a problem with my oven rather than the recipe, was that it took much longer than expected to cook, and then I think I may have overcooked it.
Nonetheless, the fish was delicious, full of flavour, melting off the bone, with the skin pulling away neatly and easily and the skeleton lifting beautifully off the fillet as a perfect cartoon fish with head intact and every bone articulated.
The school asked us to fill in a questionnaire at the end of the day that included the query ‘did this do what you expected?’ My answer must be a resounding yes!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The promised recipe

This is a heavily adapted version of the recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese in my favourite cookbook of all time, The Joy of Cooking.

Joy of Cooking Spaghetti Bolognese

2 rashers of bacon
1 carrot
1 onion
500g mince
2 tbsp tomato purée
2/3 cup stock or white wine
strip of lemon peel
2 bay leaves
grated nutmeg
100ml double cream

Mince or chop finely the first three ingredients and fry them gently in butter until soft. Add and brown the mince, then add the rest of the ingredients, except for the cream, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for an hour uncovered, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the lemon peel and bay leaves, and stir in the cream.

The amounts are very approximate and the method is fairly robust. If you don’t have an hour to simmer it, a half an hour will do. If you can make it the day before, the flavour will improve noticeably with 24 hours in the fridge. It’s worth getting good mince (ie fairly low fat). If not, you should pour the exuded fat off the browned mince before adding the tomato purée, stock etc.

The trouble with waiting

Last night I offered to cook, planning nothing elaborate. However, the Man said he wouldn't be free till 9 o'clock (which translates in real time as 'Sometime before ten, probably') so I ended up with a couple of hours on my hands.
Most people would sensibly use this time to catch up on other important tasks, calling friends, relaxing with a book or a film. Foolish compulsive cooks see this as an opportunity to expand the original bowl of pasta into a three course meal. The first step was to consult the cookbooks, since I knew without even checking that there was nothing in the fridge but some cherry tomatoes, which would have been scorned instantly, and some parmesan.
Am I the only person so indecisive that I will prepare two alternative menus, each with its own shopping list, to put off the decision? What decided me last night to go for the spaghetti bolognese (I'll post the recipe later) instead of pad thai was that I found a recipe for gooey chocolate puddings that could allegedly be prepared in minutes. Anybody else follow that reasoning? It helped that I knew I wouldn't find Phuket crackers - the Thai version of prawn crackers, but vastly superior, and it's pronounced Poo-kett, for those of you sniggering at the back - on the Holloway Road.
So off to the supermarket for the ingredients for a menu as follows: antipasti, spaghetti bolognese and green salad, gooey chocolate puddings. But the indecision was not resolved - and here is where it can be an advantage: the local supermarket had a special offer on ripe figs, as well as some rather good (though very expensive) buffalo mozzarella. Vague 'antipasti' were instantly binned and a fig, basil and mozzarella salad conceived.
Here are the results:
All that's added is balsamic vinegar and lots of black pepper. We mopped up the juice that had exuded from the mozzarella and somehow emulsified itself with the balsamic vinegar with German-style light rye bread.
The chocolate puddings were a success, although my previous opinion was confirmed that Nigella Lawson's idea of how much rich chocolatey goo it is possible to consume in one session is wildly exaggerated.
If I'd had longer to wait, I could have made soup and provided a cheese course....

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Afternoon tea

Apparently it was a duchess (Anna, Duchess of Bedford) who invented the tradition of afternoon tea to help her through the longueurs of the eighteenth century. “A sinking feeling” around four or five could be staved off by having tea and some light snacks brought to her room.
Its place in English culture is undisputed, but for the Anglo-Irish it could be seen as even more emblematic. Allegedly those taking tea in the Shelbourne Hotel during the Easter Rising in 1916 were so unmoved by the bloody events taking place outside that only when a stray shot hit a clock in the hotel drawing room did they retire to another room at the back of the hotel. This story demonstrates nicely both the attractive aspects of the culture (there is something admirable in this impeturbability and how could you not like people whose main ritual centres round tea and cake?) and their extraordinary distance from the vast majority of people in their country.
In literature, the two best afternoon tea scenes are in the same play, also by an Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde. The first scene established forever the centrality of cucumber sandwiches to the meal, while the second is an invaluable demonstration of the use of polite ritual to be unforgivably rude. I am of course talking about The Importance of Being Earnest - if you are not familiar with this work of genius, I recommend the film with Edith Evans.
My maternal grandparents held the meal in great respect, with a Victoria sponge baked every day and usually fed to the Pekes - at least when I attended; I’ve never cared much for cake and it was a great treat to watch the dogs perform their tricks for the jam-filled reward.
Now most hotels with any pretensions to style will serve afternoon tea. In Dublin, the Shelbourne’s offering has been superceded by that of the Merrion, which is delicious and vastly overgenerous, as well as being consumed in saloons decorated with an excellent collection of Irish art, while being regaled by a harpist.
In London, I used to take tea at the Cadogan Hotel (site of Oscar Wilde’s arrest) when looking for a rendezvous, delighted by the cucumber sandwiches and white-gloved, white-haired butler, but it is a little bit out of my usual circuit, so I am experimenting with alternatives.
Claridges is famous for its afternoon tea, but it is fabulously expensive, so it makes champagne seem like a cheap option. The restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery has a wonderful view but the tea is made with tea-bags, the cake is too cloying and the sandwiches lack the delicacy that luxury requires.
I will keep you posted on further research.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Just shut up and eat.

At the moment, food seems to be the subject of much media debate here in the UK, and is possibly even a common topic in discussions between real people.
Mostly these are positive debates that look at aspects of food and people’s attitudes to it, but recently there is also a thread of the argument that says “Food is just functional. Just shut up and eat.”
In some ways this is a compelling argument. Comparing white balsamic vinegar with yuzu juice is a decadent pastime, spending hundreds of pounds on a meal is a shocking denial of the reality of our unfair world and a society that is simultaneously struggling with an obesity epidemic and fears about anorexic models is seriously dysfunctional. Perhaps we should just be grateful that we have enough to eat and be quiet about it.
Of course I don’t agree. Food fascinates me, not just because I love the experience of eating, enjoy the flavours and aromas, the textures and the satiety, but because it is so important in so many ways.
Every one needs to eat. The unfair way that our global food supply is distributed is largely a political issue. The methods used to produce our food help to shape the physical world we inhabit. Our cuisines are defined by our cultural history and much of the dynamics of family life, both positive and negative, revolve around food.
A Poetry Society publication that combines poetry and recipes stresses the positive aspects of both the cultural and psychological power of food - it is a lovely book, but its unrelenting cheerfulness left me wondering about whether poets ever write about the painful sides of food.
In Like Water for Chocolate, the heroine’s emotions are the most powerful ingredients in her cooking; this seems to me a more honest depiction of the way that food and self interact.
It is still incomplete, though: we can express emotion through cooking, but equally emotion can affect our experience of food. After a traumatic life event a couple of years ago, not only did I lose my appetite (though not my palate and enjoyment of food) for nearly a year, but my ability to tolerate sweetness and bitterness changed dramatically and permanently.
Perhaps we can think about Western society’s attitude to food as being like its attitude to women’s breasts. Their primary function of nourishing infants still exists, but in most people’s minds, for most of the time, it has been overlaid by the secondary function of sexuality and all the complex ramifications of that. A feminism that insists that breasts only exist to feed babies is trying to deny the reality of a vast layer of Western culture, and therefore failing to engage with the issues raised within that, even though in evolutionary terms it may be correct.
Similarly, food is fundamental for survival, but it has also come to serve many other important functions in our lives. Saying “just shut up and eat” may be tempting after one too many Sunday supplements proposing the merits of seasonal cooking or blueberries as a superfood, but it is a reductionist response to an interesting if sometimes overblown discourse.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish

Yesterday’s silence was due to utter but happy exhaustion after a day at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School . Rising at five is not my favourite way to start the day, and I wouldn’t normally consider eating jellied eel before eight o’clock in the morning, but it was all part of a wonderful day learning more than you would have thought possible in a single morning on the subject of fish.
Among the fruits of my labours was a pair of Dover sole, skinned and with the fillets ‘lifted’ by myself, so that I could stuff them with pesto made in concert with Dean, who got stuck with me as a desk partner. Inspired by instructor CJ Jackson’s accounts of adding langoustines to the mix, I put prawns down the centre, with the result you can see above.
At a later date I will write at greater length about how tuna is sampled with a cheese iron, the fennel scent of fresh seabass, the filing cabinet full of live eels and most of all CJ’s inspiring teaching, but for tonight I will just leave you with the image of snapping off a gurnard’s head so that the swim bladder suddenly pops up, a tiny opaque white balloon emerging from the body cavity with a sickening squelch. Perhaps you’d rather not know about how much fun it is then to turn the head back on the body, pulling it down so that the skin peels neatly off the body like the paper from an ice lolly.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Italian treats?

With twenty minutes to kill between lunch in a Lebanese fast food joint on the Edgeware Road and a press conference near Marble Arch, I decided to have a coffee. Instead of resorting to a coffee-chain such as I could patronise any day, it seemed like a nice idea to go to a little independent café on New Quebec St.
It seemed promising that the waitress greeted the customer ahead of me familiarly, in Italian. They discussed what should go in his sandwich - he wanted prosciutto and formaggio, but couldn’t decide what cheese, so he was offered tasters of the different options. He insisted that the most important thing was that it be made with love; she assured him it would be made with love. It was all delightfully Italianate, even though I think he was actually English.
I suddenly realised the downside of this authentic Italian jollity. By Italian standards, it was far too late to ask for a cappucino. Although it wouldn’t be my normal choice, I had already drunk much too much black coffee this morning to be able to contemplate yet more unadulterated dark stuff. I cravenly asked for a machiato, which they served without blinking.
This emboldened me to explore the possibilities of the pastries that were obviously the specialities of the place. Unfortunately I was not sufficiently emboldened to ask what exactly an Aragostina was - trusting that it was more interesting than the deep-fried croissant it looked like, I ordered one without enquiring.
Well, it was definitely more to my taste than the crumbly dry biscuity things (including but not limited to biscotti) that were the alternatives, but I was deeply disappointed to discover that it was simply a crispy pastry filled with Nuttella. A sort of overweight, hazelnut-free Ferrero Rocher. Back to square one in my quest to appreciate Italian cuisine.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Squash to the left of me, courgettes to the right...

In mid to late summer, my mother spends her time racing to keep up with the courgettes as they attempt to take over the garden. Unfortunately the usual summer inhabitants of our home are mostly my father’s family, all of whom despise vegetables. In Borough Market today I found a display that shows what happens if you give in to the in-laws and fail to gather the courgettes.
It had never occurred to me that squashes and pumpkins belong to the same family (Cucurbitaceae) as cucumbers and melons, but once it’s pointed out, it makes a lot of sense. Their seeds are virtually identical (although no-one’s ever tried to make me eat toasted watermelon seeds) and it also explains the cursed sweetness of many squashes.
I have always been appalled by the idea of the traditional American pumpkin pie with marshmallows, an obligatory part of the Thanksgiving dinner, but it is a recognition of the undeniable sugariness of the orange globe.
I have recently given in to the blandishments of the butternut squash, but only those recipes that use chilli, cheese or citrus flavours to offset the sweetness really convince me. Puréed squash on its own is too cloying for my palate.
A soup of butternut squash with toasted hazelnuts, fresh ginger and lemon is delicious, although I slightly have the feeling that this is because the added ingredients successfully disguise the flavour. That’s not a good sign. Perhaps I should stick to the decorative squashes my mother started to grow this year, assuaging her desire to grow the vegetables without putting pressure on her relationship with those who sit at the table saying “Ugh. Zucchini. Ugh.”

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Stone soup

There is a Portugese folk story of the wily beggar who gets the most miserly woman in the village to supply him with the ingredients for a delicious soup from what she alleges is an empty larder. He claims to be able to make the soup from nothing but a magic stone and some water. A carrot, some seasoning, the odd onion or hambone that she might find discarded at the back of her larder would make it even more delicious… in some versions he even manages to sell her the stone after they have drunk the soup!
Some people take this as a parable about co-operation in difficult circumstances. I see it as a serving suggestion.
When you find yourself contemplating an empty fridge, it’s easy to give up and order pizza, but when your bank account is in the parlous state mine is in, and you pride yourself on your ability to produce good food, it’s time to implement the stone soup system.
My magic stone that transforms the scraps into an edible dish is pen and paper. A hunk of dried cheddar, the remains of some chicken gravy from the weekend, some slightly sweaty mushrooms: this are not inspiring to look at, but write down the list without the descriptions, add anything you may have in the freezer or store cupboard, and the likelihood is that you will be inspired. Even if it were just a dried out chunk of cheddar, a little bit of butter and milk and some frozen peas, that could be turned into a passable macaroni cheese with the aid of some nutmeg and a bayleaf.
Tonight’s list, after I had thrown out the soggy tomato, drooping carrot and a half and the remains of an elderly salsa, consisted of: spring onions, cream, créme fraîche, parsely, stewed plums and (in the freezer) some prawns.
The results you can see above - at least the main course. I had gobbled the plums and cream before I thought of preserving their image for posterity!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The scent of apples

As a devotee of heritage apple varieties - and no one is more delighted than I am when the fragrant boxes start to appear at farmers' markets and outside Neal's Yard Dairy - I am supposed to despise Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Pink Lady and other such plastic-bag-packed, supermarket waxed, varieties.
But outside of September and November, when I spend most of my time crunching on Norfolk Russets or Nutmeg Pippins, I do occasionally have a yen for a soft, sweet-scented Golden Delicious, spraying sugary juice as you bite into it, or a crisp, plastic-skinned Granny Smith, whose acid flesh was always paired in my adolescent midnight snacks with processed red cheddar. Pink Ladies are a more recent introduction and so have no childhood memories to soften my perception that they are a scary apple clone, intended to satisfy the minimum requirements of an apple and therefore quell our desire for the wild and inefficient variety of oddly sized, differingly flavoured, sometimes scabby or misshapen apples that are the natural heritage of anyone brought up in the temperate climes of north-west Europe.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Oooh saucy!

I have eaten in a couple of fantastic restaurants recently where excellent service and imaginatively used ingredients were undermined by a failure to balance the main ingredient with the sauce. At Zuma, a seaweed salad came drenched in a tahini sauce that not only beat the subtle flavour of the sea vegetable into submission, but left the succulent, rubbery texture bedraggled and unattractive.
The signature dish of marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf, while obviously the finest fish you could wish for, was again overpowered by a sweetish sauce that simply did not give the fish room to express itself. Mixing rice into the sauce did lighten the mixture so that one could see the point, but given the way the menu was set out (very Atkins friendly), it would have been easy not to order any carbohydrate at all.
I should say that the sashimi was delicious, the soft-shell crab with wasabi mayonnaise dreamy and the service assiduous without being intrusive. My notes say that we also had grilled tuna with barbecue sauce and grilled chillies. I remember the tuna (fish that good is hard to forget), but the barbecue sauce has passed from my memory and is not visible anywhere on the menu.
Lunch today at Café Studio Delfina (pictured) was as delightful as I have come to expect from this interesting outpost of culture, both visual and culinary, behind London Bridge. The starter of tempura Monte Enebro goat's cheese drizzled with lavender honey and almond nibs next to a salad of bitter leaves was beautifully judged. The balance between unctuous and delicate, salty and sweet, lush and bitter, brought all the ingredients together in a complex system of flavour and mouthfeel.
However, the lemon sole with strawberry and Thai herb sauce, served with rice, displayed the same failing as the Zuma dishes. Excellent ingredients, thoughtfully combined (the sweetness of the strawberry sauce was beautifully cut by the anise of the Thai basil), were just in the wrong proportions. The delicate sole was swamped in the bright pink gravy, both texture and flavour dampened by too much sauce.
At least this time rice came as part of the deal, but it was served in a bowl alongside, consisting of fat, undersalted grains, failing to fully serve its purpose as a soaker-up of unnecessary sauce.
A friend of mine has accused me of being anti-sauce, but I'm confident this is not the case. As a devotee of French cuisine, I am sometimes even concerned that I am too much given to smothering my food with sauce, but I do try to make sure that the underlying component can stand up to the overlay. Perhaps I just need to prioritise the carbohydrates on my restaurant plate - or perhaps fashionable chefs need to spend more time thinking about the structure of their dishes as eaten by the customers, instead of concerning themselves only with the checklist of flavours.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A friend in need makes pie

What's the best way to be a supportive friend? When a distressed pianist rang me up to say that the female pianist he had been seeing had severed relations (because she liked him too much. This is typical of musician-logic. Never get involved emotionally with a musician!), I naturally offered the most comforting response I could think of.
"Come and have a drink, and then let's cook supper together."
Luckily I had spent the afternoon experimenting with my pastry-making abilities; I've never liked short pastry but have always assumed that flaky pastry was both too difficult and too arduous for me to make. A Darina Allen recipe that promised infallible results provided the instructions were followed meticulously, combined with an empty Sunday afternoon, had inspired me, so a beautiful pat of raw flaky pastry was resting in my fridge, just right for providing aid and succour to heartbroken keyboardists.
We didn't follow a recipe for the filling (although we did glance at a couple of Nigella recipes for inspiration), but relied heavily on the contents of the musical fridge. The fridge and the local Turkish convenience store provided the ingredients for a broccoli, bacon and cheese pie, with red chilli to add zing visually and orally, and an egg to hold it all together.
Add some salad and red wine and it certainly softened the blow of being dumped.
Technical notes: I used unsalted butter in the pastry, which was a mistake as it left the pastry a little bit bland, and I was too proud of my pastry to bring myself to trim it properly - hence the odd triangles folded over the top of the pie. That was another mistake, as it left undercooked wodges of pastry under the triangles. I'll know better for next time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Birthday cake blog

You already know the recipe , so let's be specific about the baking of this particular cake.
I arrived home last night, confident that I had all the ingredients for Granny Grene Chocolate Cake, which I needed to prepare for this morning. My plan was clear and achievable: make the cake, put it in the oven, spend 20-25 minutes pottering over some chores, take the cake out of the oven and go to bed well before midnight. This would have made it easy to get up early, ice the cake and deliver it before going to work.
This all went swimmingly until it came time to measure out the flour and cocoa . I knew for a fact that I owned (in the sense of paid for and have not yet used) 1 1/2 small pots of Green & Black's Cocoa , and a large pot of supermarket own brand cocoa. Unfortunately I had not bothered to pack them in the last move, so they are all sitting in a kitchen cupboard in Chelsea, an hour's bike ride away.
Not a disaster. Put jeans on instead of pyjama bottoms, hop on bike, up to late night shop. Nearest LNS closed; go to the next one. Next two also closed. Head down Green Lanes (a lively or dangerous road, depending on your sense of adventure) to the 24-hour convenience store. First one: no cocoa. Second one: five different varieties of drinking chocolate, still no cocoa.
Back on the bike to get to another shop - this one I'm confident will provide.
But the nice police constable politely asks me to wait while the police photograph the crime scene between me and the final shop. Finally traffic is allowed through and I gingerly cycle past, not liking to stop and peer at what I think are bloodsoaked rags behind the police incident tape.
The last shop has cocoa!
Invigorated by my success, I zoom home to complete the interrupted baking.
After this adventure, it scarcely seems worth commenting on the actual baking, icing, decorating and eating of the cake. I would just like to say that my fan oven, which up till now I have found unsatisfactory, seems to bake cake beautifully.
Happy birthday, Jack!

Monday, September 11, 2006

How to stay thin and maintain your foodie status

What makes a diet successful, if you discount any of the pseudo-scientific babble about blood-groups, star signs, or the evolution of our digestive tracts? A successful diet gives its followers a framework for eating less, allows them to spend their entire time thinking about food and gets them to consume fewer calories.
Unlike most fashionable diets, my favoured method of staying thin has no claim to be backed by any scientific theory (although if pressed, I could probably come up with some improvisation about it using the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy). But it does allow, or rather command, you to eat delicious food.
The principle is that any food you eat should be delicious. It works if you concede a number of underlying assumptions: freshly prepared food is better; seasonal food (often organic) tastes nicer; with most foodstuffs, if you pay more you get better quality. Most importantly, once you have eaten more than a small amount, even caviar will slip from the pinnacle of deliciousness to being just very nice fish jam. The one thing forbidden by this diet is excess of quantity.
With this diet, you can eat whatever you like, whether it be foie gras or fried egg sandwiches, provided it is truly delicious. There are several ways in which this guards against over-consumption. First of all, you can’t afford to eat enormous amounts, because even a frugal-seeming plate of antipasto for two can blow a week’s budget if you’re buying the very best San Daniele prosciutto and marinated artichoke hearts.
Then, you will spend so much time choosing and preparing the food that you will have less time to munch as distraction from being bored.
Both of these factors are limiting in themselves, but they will also result in your having a more respectful attitude to the food that has cost you such an effort. You will appreciate it more, savour the flavours more carefully and eat less for more pleasure.
The only danger is that you become obsessed and start spending your time doing things like making flaky pastry or stuffing almonds into olives. Life is full of risks.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fear of fish

Every fish recipe you’ve ever read tells you how easy it is to cook fish. So why do I find it so hard? Even buying fish is difficult - there is so much choice (I’m never good with choice) and they don’t come with instructions. I often go to the fishmongers with the best of intentions and then come over all funny at the thought of coming to terms with red mullet or line-caught wild seabass, and have to run away to the butcher instead.
Having bought the fish, the next step is to find a recipe. This I also find intimidating, because they always tell me how easy and simple it’s going to be.
I never trust anyone or anything who tell me something will be easy. That just means that when it goes wrong, it will be for some unidentifiable but fundamental reason that is probably caused by my having bad karma. A complicated recipe is more likely to come out edible, because getting one step wrong (or forgetting it entirely - that happens often) is unlikely to spoil the whole thing.
Last week I tried a Nigella recipe for mackerel poached in cider; although it wasn’t inedible, it did end up overcooked and certainly not worth the effort I put into it.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason I can’t cook fish is that I don’t like fish. It’s certainly true that I am never tempted by the idea - my food fantasies are usually based on meat or cheese - but many of the best meals I have ever had in restaurants have been fish.
In attempt to get over this block, I will spend a day learning to face my fishy fears at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School . After this, I will either be capable of producing delicious fish or confident enough to say that I just don’t like eating things without legs.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Back or streaky?

Shouldn't bacon be streaky and smoked for maximum flavour? Until this morning, that was my belief. Then the Man cooked me breakfast with this bacon taken from the backs of happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs, with a layer of white fat significantly thicker than the meat.
He cooked it very gently so there was just a barely golden surface slipping off the fat, and accompanied it with entirely unncessary (but very nice) fried eggs.
The first mouthful did not appeal, because it was very different from my idea of bacon, but by half-way through the second mouthful, I understood and was in awe. The mouthfeel is extraordinary - light greasiness wrapping the subtle crunch of the unmelted fat - and the flavour required no smoking, no added sweetness. It was savoury without being salty, subtle without being elusive.