Saturday, April 16, 2005

"What's the most important thing in the world? Food!"

I've been reading George Orwell's account of Industrialism and its effects on England in 'the Road to Wigan Pier' published in 1937 and particularly it's affect on the industrialised Northen towns of Leeds, Sheffield and Yorkshire in general. His comments throughout strike so true for the condition of England today, particular with regards to diets and the way that wealth affects the palate and on the industrialisation of food and wastage, its hard to believe that these observations were made in 1937 and ring so true of 2005:

To begin with, there is the frightful debauchery of taste that has already been effected by a century of mechanization. This is almost too obvious and too generally admitted to need pointing out. But as a single instance, take taste in its narrowest sense—the taste for decent food. In the highly mechanized countries, thanks to tinned food, cold storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate is almost a dead organ. As you can see by looking at any greengrocer’s shop, what the majority of English people mean by an apple is a lump of highly-coloured cotton wool from America or Australia; they will devour these things, apparently with pleasure, and let the English apples rot under the trees. It is the shiny, standardized, machine-made look of the American apple that appeals to them; the superior taste of the English apple is something they simply do not notice. Or look at the factory-made, foil-wrapped cheese and ‘blended’ butter in any grocer’s; look at the hideous rows of tins which usurp more and more of the space in any food-shop, even a dairy; look at a sixpenny Swiss roll or a twopenny ice-cream; look at the filthy chemical by-product that people will pour down their throats under the name of beer. Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still tastes of something other than sawdust. And what applies to food applies also to furniture, houses, clothes, books, amusements, and everything else that makes up our environment. There are now millions of people, and they are increasing every year, to whom the blaring of a radio is not only a more accept-able but a more normal background to their thoughts than the lowing of cattle or the song of birds. The mechanization of the world could never proceed very far while taste, even the taste-buds of the tongue, remained uncorrupted, be-cause in that case most of the products of the machine would be simply unwanted.

Asides from an incredibly interesting social history of English industrialisation, it's very readable and Orwell really casts his amazing observations and captures the essence of what it was like being amongst the coal-miners. However, it pains me and amazes me that they could be about any British supermarket of today. Mechanized 'convinience food'..protein 'shapes'..It's horrific when you really sit down and think about the impact it has on the diet. You can read the extract in its entirety here:

Mid-week Roast Chicken

They say that a restaurant kitchen stnads or falls on it's roast chicken. Its something that seems fiendishly simple in it's execution, being so humdrum and everyday. Chicken is so much an 'everyday'-ish sort of meat. But it needn't be. This is mid-week roast chicken from a recipe adapted from Meathenge roasting/grilling guru. The roasting method really does matter here to ensure a moist, crisp-skinned bird, I used to roast it under foil and in a tray, which is pretty much the conventional way of doing it, but this method actually allows the meat to steam as opposed to roast. This means that the underside gets all soggy and the skin never really crisps up in the best rotisserie fashion.

Rub: Lemon thyme, rosemary and tarragon, salt and pepper.
Method: Lay the chicken breast side down on a rack, underneath slide a tray to catch the drippings for a great gravy.
Oven: At 220C to start and then down to 190C for around 40 minutes, turn the bird the right way up for the last 15 minutes.

This really was a revelation to eat and made such a difference with rack-roasting to the texture, which remained meltingly moist and firm, but with a delicious crusty skin.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Chicken and Chargrilled Pepper Homemade Pizza

I'm unable to wax lyrical about the art of pizzas and pizza making in general, having not sampled the range out there to have a good judgement of what constitutes 'good', after all there are infinite categrories, thin-crust Italian, variations amongst the Italian-type crust, the American adaptations, inter-regional varities including the famous Chicago 'pie', deep pan, fast food, gourmet...In anycase, I would reccomend the wisdom of SliceNY has reviews by the slice and I'll definitely be consulting it as a resource for a pizza safari in New York in the future. On to the homemade bit; the dough recipe was adapted from something I found at Epicurious, I halved the ingredients to make just one thin-crust pizza, around 15 inches.

  • 220 grams flour
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon active dried yeast
  • 200 ml warm water
  • salt
  • italian herbs/oregano

Knead until elastic and leave to rise for 40 minutes with a smear of olive oil, then press out with fingertips, or a rolling pin.

Tomato sauce was a simmered combination of chopped plum tomatoes, garlic, 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper in a pot until thick and spreadable.

Toppings of chicken breast fillet in strips, onion, mozarella and chargrilled red pepper.. Admiteddly, the mozzarella could've, should've been of better quality, but I think the supermarket version worked jsut as well but with a different melting point in texture and mouthfeel. It came out tasty, with a crips base and a foldable crumb.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Rhubarb Custard Almond Tarte with Ginger and Lemon

In pursuit of something sour and comforting at the same time, I decided to muck about with some rhubarb I had lying in the fridge, pre-destined for a crumble affair with creme anglaise but was looking decidedly worse for wear. A disguise was in order for the pink vegetable with fruit pretensions. Soaking the rhubarb before hand in some bicarbonate of soda seems to counteract the tooth-furring quality of rhubarb that sometimes makes you feel as though youv'e sucked on stainless steel straws or have been licking pennies. This is due to the high levels of oxalycic acid present in the vegetable, which cna be successfully tempered by a sweetening or diverting flavour such as orange juice or ginger.
I followed a standard shortcrust pastry omitting flour in place of ground almonds for a richer taste, plus grated lemon zest and mixed spice. I've yet to taste this, meanwhile waiting for Mr VA to get back so we can tuck in.

  • 100 grams ground almonds
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp sugar, pinch of salt
  • lemon zest
  • mixed baking spice
  • ice cold water
  • 1 lb rhubarb
  • sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 200 ml milk/cream
  • 2 coin sized pieces of minced ginger
  • nutmeg

Arrange rhubarb in pastry. Beat two eggs with sugar and heat milk in saucepan with ginger and spices until warm, pour milk into the beaten egg and stir. Pour over rhubarb in into the oven for 15 minutes at 200C or until the custard is set and a knifepoint, or finger(!) comes out clean in the center. Leave to cool, refridgerate and serve with vanilla ice cream or something warm like a raspberry coulis.

A baked custard, following a basic creme brulee custard recipe, poured still hot into the pre-baked crust which meant that the resulting texture was water-tight and not prone to sogginess.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Asparagus season isn't really yet upon us, but I couldn't resist getting a bunch for dinner. These look ominous but tasted fantastic lightly steamed with hollandaise sauce. A simple supper with some field mushroom baked with pesto and balsamic vinegar. It reminded me of being in Barcelona as an 18 year old and eating loaves of white bread smeared with freshly made basil pesto in the searing heat by the beach.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Friday Supper and Zen: the Art of the Noodle.

Red-Braised Gammon Shank Noodle Soup with Sweet and Sour Tofu and Mangetout.

I rarely cook noodles. The overriding importance in any noodle soup I find, rests not on the wheat/rice component but on the quality of the stock its cooked in. A great stock can elevate the lowliest of noodles to a major eating experience, of which raises the level of competitiveness between noddle stalls all over SE Asia (Watch the film 'Tampopo'!). I've read of a Vietnamese beef pho noddle stand that has kept its beef stock going for over 40 years. I can't imagine how rich that must taste. But how wonderful for someone visiting the same stand after a decade and re-discovering a taste of the past..

Tonight's efforts began sometime yesterday afternoon when I made Red Cooked Pork Shank, a stew made with the hock end of the pig, an animal much loved by the Chinese. Its very much a comfort food thing for me, the long-cooking time and the subsequent and unfashionable gelatinous nature of the casserole really bring back smells that fill my home with a fragrance of somewhere and sometime else. The key ingredients are: star anise, ginger, chili bean paste, soy sauce (dark and light), salt and sugar and water. All in a pot with the lid on and simmer for at least 4 hours..or 4 days. Its failsafe cooking and the meat falls away from the bone and goes deliciously soft. Its not much to look at, so decorate with some chopped scallion before bringing to the table.

Left over from a pot of shabu shabu the other night, I also made sweet and sour tofu stirfried with mangetout. Chinese cooking and the 'stirfry' seems to be some kind of holy grail of quick cookery, and rightfully so. But the crucial ingredient lies not in MSG or any secret marinade, but more in the use of FIRE. I have an electric hob in the kitchen, being a student and renting means that installing gas would be like waving a red rag at a chip pan fire, this doens't bide well for really great stir-frying. Getting the wok insanely hot and flavouring the oil with ginger and garlic means everything gets chopped and prepared beforehand is pretty much all the secret preparation there is. And as for the mysterious ingredient behind the 'sweet and sour' restaurant flavour? Tomato ketchup. Takeaways often try to replicate 'homestyle' dishes, lemon this, sweet and sour that, black bean everything. Its really not very nice, at least as it is sold in this country where Chinese food really doesn't have the same status as the exoticism of Thai cuisine and you get the feeling that these businesses wouldn't be eating anything like what they sell in their homes.It all comes down to what sells though and I think that attitude rests on basic ignorance of the variance of cuisine within a landmass larger than Europe. Like anything it will slowly change as developments in the East get under way in the next few decades and food knowledge becomes more egalitarian and not just hte preserve of the well-travelled and epicurious.

Fail-safe Sweet and Sour Tofu with Mangetout

  • Firm tofu, cubed.
  • Trimmed mangetout
  • 1 tbsp ginger and garlic/spring onion
  • 3 tablespoons of each: vinegar, tomato ketchup or puree, sugar
  • 1 tbsp of water
  • salt and white pepper
  • 1 tsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water(optional)

Heat wok as high as it will go with some oil, put tofu into the pan and cook on all sides until brown, the patterns that begin to form on tofu start to go doily like and start to look chintzy, which is your cue to lift it out and put somewhere safe. Re-heat the wok and briefly fry the ginger/garlic/spring onion alliums until fragrant. Chuck in mangetout and stir fry, the colours really come alive at this point. Tip in the cooked tofu and add the mixed marinade of vinegar, tomato, sugar. Mix until everything takes on that reddish colour we all know and love, at this point you can add the cornflour to thicken into a sauce, but I often find that it doesn't need it. But if you must, the longer you cook it, the goopier it becomes with the flour addition.

I love these bowls, they cost around 2 pounds from most Chinese supermarkets and the fish motif always makes me smile.

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