Thyme And Thyme Again

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”

So begins one of the loveliest and headiest passages of poetry William Shakespeare ever wrote.  It hails, of course, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and is spoken by Oberon, King of the Fairies.

thyme_pestle

It’s absolutely right and proper that such an intoxicating speech should begin with a reference to thyme. This evergreen herb has almost magical properties in the kitchen, and a fair number of medicinal uses as well. Continue reading “Thyme And Thyme Again”

Feeding Your Feelings In The Lonely Kitchen

Okay, so my name is Patrick and I’m a single foodie. By which I don’t mean I’m one single foodie among thousands (or millions if we’re talking about social media – I’m looking at you, Instagrammers), but rather that I’m a foodie and single.

And most of the time that’s a delicious way to live.  I can eat what I like when I like in whatever combination or volume strikes my fancy. I don’t have to watch my weight for some theoretical partner because their opinions about my weight or shape are also purely theoretical. As the old song goes, I don’t have to share a pair of pork chops when I crave champagne and cheese.

And I never, ever, have to cook broccoli.

Broccoli Continue reading “Feeding Your Feelings In The Lonely Kitchen”

Summer Time Is Sexy Food Time

Summer has well and truly arrived here in London. The temperatures have soared into the 90s (Fahrenheit)  then not backing down much and the humidity levels have been keeping pace. It’s that hot and sweaty time of year when you know who’s wearing deodorant and who isn’t, and when the commute to work can become a battle for breath.

sumemr_coupleBut it’s also PLAY time.  Sex is everywhere in the summer.

It’s right on front of you when couples are canoodling in the park. It reveals itself in the flash of sexy white skin that denotes a hot summer tan line. It confronts you in the stifling, airless night when you desperately need something, something, to completely exhaust and deplete you and bring sleep.

And finally – let me tell you, food is also at its sexiest in summer.

Summer food is lighter, fresher, and much more playful.

summer_grill Three-course dinner parties become informal barbeques; sit-down meals are replaced with street food on the go; and the flavours? Well they’re suddenly all about freshness and smoke, salt and tang and heat. All of which set you up nicely for Summertime Sexy Time.

Now there are a great many summer foods one can might think of as being sexy:

  • There’s ice cream, of which I am not personally a fan (I don’t like claggy creamy things in summer, although there’s certainly something to be said for licking that little puddle of good vanilla ice cream from the hollow at the base of your lover’s throat).
  • Or there are peaches and nectarines in their full juicy yielding tangy sweetness in the height of summer.
  • Or there’s a good steak, flame-grilled for mere moments until it’s as black and blue as I’d hope to be after a good summer night session.

But sexy as they are, none of the above are the foods that really equate- or inspire- summer sex for me. So here, in ascending order, are my favourite Summertime Sexy foods:

Number 5: Asparagus

asparagusIs there a more obvious summer sex food than asparagus? Probably not, but there’s a damn good reason for that. Loaded as it is with iron and other sexy nutrients, asparagus would be damn sexy already. But it’s also blessed with that fabulously phallic form.  And this positively priapic pillar of veg has its glorious season in the British summer.  You can boil it (if you must), but get steamy and steam it instead, or just grill it, with a brushing of olive oil and chilies. Or saute in butter, or have a foaming Hollandaise on hand to take the imagery even further.

Eat it with your hands. Asparagus shouldn’t be surgically attacked with a knife and fork (unless you have issues). It should be picked up, and inserted lovingly-head first-into your mouth. Then nibble or suck as lovingly as you please. One final note? Don’t go for those fiddly little strands of “fine asparagus” that will wilt away to stringy nothingness the minute they hit heat. Go for the full-size meaty heads, and let them cook just long enough to lose crunch but retain a meaty bite. When it comes to asparagus, it’s more than okay to be a size queen.

Number 4: Noodles

You might think there’d be no place for something as carb-heavy as pasta on this sexy list, but you’d be wrong. You’re gonna need some carbs to keep you going for the hot sweaty session that awaits…

Noodles are sexy; anything you slurp into your mouth is sexy. And who says noodles must be hot, or covered in a thick, claggy sauce. Cold Udon or Soba noodles with a chili-sharp sesame dressing, manipulated with a pair of sexily skinny chopsticks? Hot in mood but not temperature – perfect to share on a hot summer night.  Or a simple spaghetti aglio olio et pepperoncino shared in bed – a pleasurable break from more strenuous pleasurable activities. Or  that Italian classic; linguine with crab and chili – oil-slicked , fresh and fiery, slithering down your throat.

Just keep the portions light. Otherwise sleep may come a BIT too soon.

Number 3: Strawberries

You might think strawberries are as innocent as an an Eton Mess. If so, you probably have no idea of what goes on at Eton. The very act of eating a strawberry correctly  -holding it by the stem and caressing its puckered nether end with your lips, is just like that first exploratory kiss that’s about to turn into a full-on snog. Or, better, it’s like starting a pleasingly nasty round of mouth-on-nipple play.

But like those lips – or that nipple- that strawberry must be warm from the sun. Do not, for the love of all that is fruity, allow your strawberries to get anywhere near a refrigerator. Like tomatoes, they are hot weather fruits, and only give out their full treasures under the heat of a summer sun. Think of an afternoon in the park on a blanket with your lover, with cold white wine, and warm strawberries, and a conveniently close thicket for some impromptu entanglements…

Number 2: Shellfish

Ya gotta have some protein, right? And shellfish is the way to go in the hot summer months. Light, fresh with an ocean-side ozone tang, what’s sexier than that?  And the pure animal pleasure of tearing those hard shells off a lobster claw, or a crab leg, or the just ripping of  the entire carapace off a juicily plump shrimp or crayfish? Especially when it’s already been blackened with hot and spicy seasoning, or when there’s a sexy pot of drawn butter near by? Or both?  It’s the smoky salty hit of a night on a summer beach.

And anything you eat with your hands and makes you lick your fingers is damn sexy.

Or better yet, oysters that you hit with a dash of mignonette, or a squeeze of lemon, or a spike of chili ( if you hit them with anything at all- going nude for oysters is more than okay by me), and then just allow to make their briny way down your gullet with a caress from your tongue as they go.

Number 1: Chilies

chilies_summerChilies? Did I say chilies? You bet I did. Because when that big old summer sun is turning your world into a furnace – baby, it’s time to fight fire with fire. Now, I’m not talking “blow your head off” chili heat here. For my money, food should never be, regardless of season, some macho endurance contest. And you certainly don’t want to spend the next morning mournfully humming the tune to “Ring Of Fire.” But spiking your food with just enough chili to tingle your mouth and plump your lips, to wake up your senses and get your blood pumping, is the best dietary path to a summer full of sexy awareness.

Did you ever wonder why the people who live in the hottest climates eat the hottest food? Because it does two great things. First, it actually cools you down. Sure, eating chili-spiced food will initially make your head sweat. It’s a phenomenon called “gustatory facial sweating,” (which is quite a mouthful, especially if your mouth is already full). It means your body is is heating up to match the outside temperature, which will actually make you feel cooler as you sweat.  Second, and best for our topic today, sweating ups pheromone excretion and that’s something – knowingly or unknowingly – we all react to. And  in the heat of summer – we react with blazing abandon.

There are lots of many ways to add a little chili heat to your food and your life.

  • Sprinkle some Tabasco sauce on your morning eggs (which I actually do throughout the year)
  • add a pinch of chili flakes to any bbq marinade
  • eat your dang chocolate with chili!

After all, it’s Summer!  we’re all going to sweat so we might as well have fun while we’re doing it. And we should all be doing it.

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What American Food Means To Me

Earlier today, on the eve of that Birthday of the United States of America, the 4th of July, Deborah posed a real, well, poser of a question:   “What is American food?”

On the surface, this was a very easy question to answer. “Hamburgers!” “Hot dogs!” “Apple pie!” “Chop suey!” “Barbeque!” “Pizza!” were amongst the most vociferously voiced suggestions. And despite the fact that each of those originated in another continent (if not country), I completely agree.

americanfood

But as an amateur food historian, I could counter those with “Popcorn!””Peanut butter!” “Turkey!” “Cranberries!” as each of those foods are actually native to the USA. Well, … Okay, so peanuts are actually native to South America, and the peanut butter we eat today was possibly loosely based on a Cuban culinary practice-but it became peanut butter in the USA. And no, it was not invented by George Washington Carver, but I’ve covered that story here.)

peanutbutter

And anyway, I started to think about the question in a different, more personal, way. I thought about:

  • how I’m half American and have a deeply British side;
  • how-visits aside- I’ve only lived 4 of my 48 years in the USA; how I drink tea rather than coffee;
  • how I have a deeply emotional connection to Marmite and find the idea of mint or cranberry jelly rather than sauce unspeakable;
  • how I can be a tad snooty about the difference between Italian and Italian-American cuisine;
  • and how the only apple pie I’ve ever actually liked is made by my fully Irish aunt.

But then I thought about:

  • how whenever I move to a new neighborhood in London my first field trip is all about locating the nearest source of American peanut butter (the British version is at best tolerable);
  • how, about every three months, I have to have a Big Mac, or at least a good burger (it really doesn’t matter which);
  • how both sodas and beers to me are somewhat depressing unless they are ice cold;
  • how, for all their ingenuity in finding new flavors for crisps (potato chips, natch), the British have yet match the so-wrong-it’s-right deliciousness of the Cool Ranch Dorito;
  • and how I firmly believe that no party is complete without California Dip.

So what what then is American food to me? Is it just burgers and chips rather than crisps?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized  that for me American food is not just about examples of given foodstuffs, but rather about context. It’s about the experience; how eating (or drinking-what’s a better example of epicurean Americana than root beer?) makes me feel American when I’m not there, or makes me absolutely certain I’m in the right place when I am. It’s about combinations of food and drink, and most certainly all about the situations too.

Because culturally (and personally) all food is more than the sum of its ingredients. It becomes cultural because of when we eat it, when we share it, and who we share it with. Food becomes cultural because of how we feel about it.

So, with that realization in mind,  let me dish up some examples of what American food means to me:

  • It means sharing a big tub of over-buttered popcorn  for a Hollywood blockbuster, but nursing an iced coffee for an arthouse film.
  • It means a plain beef burger cooked at a friend’s backyard barbeque, with my choice of toppings.
  • It means being asked to bring a potato salad for that barbeque.
  • It means turkey at Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
  • It means eating cold Chinese food- with chopsticks- out of a cardboard takeout carton the morning after a heavy night.

  • It also means cold pizza the morning after a heavy night.
  • It means peanuts and popcorn on the bar to keep me thirsty, that heavy night before.
  • It means pumpkin, not apple, pie, damn it.
  • It means ordering a starter as a main course, because the portions are too big for me.
  • It means having a big old baked potato and sour cream with my steak, instead of “frites”.
  • It means pancakes with maple syrup, not sugar and lemon.
  • It means having those pancakes with maple syrup at a diner at 3am.
  • It means a near stranger telling me to sit down and stay for dinner when I’m one more than they had cooked for.
  • It means them Cool Ranch Doritos and a big glass of Hawaiian Punch over ice while I spend an afternoon watching American soaps.
  • It means donuts doused in powdered sugar.
  • It means at least two bowls of Apple Jacks while I’m watching old Looney Tunes cartoons.
  • It means the big smile on a host’s face when I ask for second helpings.
  • It means tearing corn off the cob with my teeth and not caring how much butter drips down my chin, or how many niblets are wedged in my gums.
  • It means arguing vehemently about what makes the perfect tuna salad sandwich and tt means having that tuna salad sandwich with a chocolate milkshake.
  • It means hot dogs that taste best outside on a chilly night, and bought on the street from some guy with a cart.
  • It means that singular chilly smell when you step into an American supermarket on a hot summer’s day.
  • It means iced tea on a hot summer afternoon and Long Island Iced Tea on a hot summer night.
  • It means piling all the junk food I can manage into the car when I’m off on a road trip with friends.
  • It means stopping off on that road trip for a roast beef sandwich with extra onions at the first Roy Rogers Restaurant I see.
  • It means lemonade so sour my stomach puckers.
  • It means tearing a lobster apart at a beach side shack while I’m wearing a plastic bib.
  • It means egg nog at Christmas parties.
  • It means having too much when I’m there and missing too much when I’m not.

I’m feeling quite American homesick now. But that’s okay. Because American food does on occasion still manage to be a moveable feast even outside its borders. I may not be spending the 4th of July eating junk food on a road trip to a shack where I can get lobster. And I won’t be having iced tea of either variety. But though I am here in the UK, I am going to an American barbeque, so that burger- just the way I want it, with my choice of toppings- is in my future. And yes, I’m bringing a potato salad.

Happy 4th of July folks! And if you’ve got a minute between mouthfuls, what does American food mean to you?

Summer’s Greatest Hits

The temperatures are finally heading up, up, up! And while I will no doubt complain about the heat once the novelty has worn off, I’m reveling in it at the moment.

Once it does get warmly tedious however, I offer these summer time treats, cool ideas and useful seasonal information. A round up of classic summer posts from the Fabulous Foodie archives. Just re-reading some of these can make me feel cooler.

Raisins D’Etre

I remember the day well.

oat_raisinI was nine years old, we were living in Lagos Nigeria, and my mother was baking oatmeal raisin cookies for a school bake sale or somesuch. I imagine she’d chosen those cookies because snickerdoodles or chocolate chip cookies wouldn’t be safe around us kids, and these cookies were certainly not for us. But nine-year olds can be greedy, and I was hanging around the kitchen hoping I’d be able to snaffle at least one cookie as they cooled. My mother, however, was vigilant. Even the slightly scorched cookies were going to a better cause. At last, as my mother was pulling the final baking sheet out of the oven, I spotted my chance. There, in the corner of the sheet was a stray raisin.

Surely I could at least have that? As my mother’s head was turned, I plucked it off the baking sheet and into my mouth.

Something was instantly very wrong. As I pulled little crispy legs out of my mouth I realized that this was no raisin. This was a bug that had somehow flown into the oven and met a hellish end. So my little nine-year old self promptly spat the rest out and screamed the house down.

I have been deeply suspicious of raisins ever since.

I don’t think I’d really felt one way or the other about raisins before that. I hadn’t grown up with those little boxes of Sun Maid raisins that little kids take to school for snacks, and I was certainly too young to appreciate the joys of a mince pie, though I do recall having been briefly fond of Raisin Bran cereal. But the Insect Immolation Incident  of 1976 put paid to that.

In certain contexts, I don’t feel one way or the other about raisins now. They’re certainly an integral ingredient

  • in mince pies, which I adore;
  • in rugelach, which I quite like;
  • and in that traditionally Southern US carrot and raisin salad, which I traditionally avoid. (Raisins in mayonnaise? I ask you…)

The point is that in those dishes and delicacies I’ve just mentioned, the raisin is front and center. There’s a reason for the raisin. You expect to find raisins in a mince pie just as you would in an oatmeal-raisin cookie (assuming that it is a raisin), or in a bowl of Raisin Bran. In fact, against the tree-bark dryness of the bran flakes, the squishy sweetness of the raisin is something of a blessed relief. If you didn’t find raisins in your rum-raisin ice cream, you might be disappointed. Well, you might. I’d be more likely to pass on the raisins and the ice cream and head straight for the rum. But with all of these comestibles, you know in advance that the raisin is there. The clue is in the title, so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to go there, raisin-wise.

black-raisins-13024817Because raisins are not for everyone. In a recent survey held on a statistically sophisticated internet site (otherwise known as Facebook), I found that people are fairly evenly split on the subject of raisins. Although roughly half the surveyed respondents (aka my friends and relatives) professed great enthusiasm for those diddy dessicated grapes, pretty much an equal number shared an equal level of loathing. And it’s not difficult to see why.

Raisins are intensely sweet (up to 72% sugar by weight, just fyi), have an odd chewy-yet-squishy texture, (spend 45 minutes in a mindfulness meditation class contemplating a raisin and you’ll be intimately familiar with both) and can frequently be mistaken (not just by me) for something else. Show me a man who will eat a raisin off the floor and I’ll show you a man who has never kept a rabbit as an indoor pet.

The problem is that raisins – like winged tropical insects- turn up in the most unlikely places. In salads, in stuffings, in Jewish-Italian pasta dishes and in Moroccan tagines. Okay, I’ll give the Venetian Jews and the Moroccans a pass. Tradition is tradition, and these are hot countries. High summer, ya forget to put ya grapes in the shade, and ten minutes later ya got raisins. So needs must. But when people add raisins to stuffings and salads and the like, I get confused. I don’t see the point. The raisin always feels to me like that extra and unnecessary ingredient that’s been thrown in to fancy the dish up a little. Sort of like that Dorothy Parker quote: “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

Now I’m all for a note of sweetness amongst the savory. In fact as I’ve matured as a cook (and eater) I’ve realized its absolute necessity. But it’s more of a textural issue for me. That uniquely peculiar texture of a raisin can come as quite an unpleasant shock if you’re not expecting it. And there’s the rub. As a dear friend of mine put it, raisins lurk.

No foodstuff should ever lurk. But raisins do. They have an odd ability to remain indiscernible until they’re already on your fork-or worse- in your mouth. And raisins lurk in two principle ways:

1. They lurk under different names. You think that currant is a variant of those little red or black berries of which the British are so peculiarly fond? Nope. It’s a raisin. Did you think that a sultana was perhaps an exotic fruit from the spice-scented subcontinent? Nope. It’s a raisin. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a raisin by any other name is still as shriveled.

2.  They bring out a streak of dishonesty in those who put them in strange culinary places. It’s true. In this age where chefs and foodies alike list an entree by naming every possible ingredient, up to and including the stretch of coast from whence they sourced the sea salt (I’m as guilty of this particular bout of gastronomic pretension as, well, the next gastronome), somehow the inclusion of raisins is all too often left un-mentioned. Perhaps to avoid the following putative burst of conversation:

“I’m serving poached Whitstable oysters in a Provencal tarragon butter with smoked Orkney sea salt and raisins.”

“It has raisins in it?”

“Why, yes!”

“Why?”

It’s as though those who like to use raisins in their food have a niggling feeling that just maybe there are people out there who don’t. So they just don’t tell you. They sneak (yes SNEAK) them into the aforementioned stuffings and salads without giving you a word of warning. Even worse, there are those of a sufficiently psychotic bent to sneak them into a brownie, which is an affront to all that is good and proper in a brownie. So the diner is left to manfully struggle through eating that raisin-redolent dish while attempting manfully to mask their repeated shock at encountering what to them is an unpleasant and unexpected additional texture (if not possibly a winged tropical insect). I personally believe that raisins, like gluten and nuts, should be vociferously announced before consumption of same shall occur.

So please, people. Let’s be reasonable about raisins. Whether by tradition or taste and texture, let there be a rational reason for the raisin.  If there are raisins in a dish you’re serving to anyone other than yourself, let your diners know. The raisin should be respected. Raisins are delicious in the right culinary context, and raisins are a great way to preserve grapes. (Although there’s a far greater way to preserve grapes. It’s called wine.) So we should be kind to raisins. After all, as that great line from the movie “Benny And Joon” puts it: “Raisins… they’re just humiliated grapes.

Fabulous Finds for Your Favourite Foodie

It’s holiday time and once again we wrack our brains trying to come up with gifts that will be both appropriate and appreciated (and let’s be honest, not too expensive). For the foodie in your life, this usually comes in the shape of a cookbook or some culinary gadget. But how many whisks does one kitchen need (even whisks with egg heads or handles in the shape of pigs). So here’s a few ideas that might push the envelope a bit without breaking the bank.

normal_haribo-starmix-sweet-tree-square-vaseBBC Good Food has a gift guide – having gone out and collected links to products they like. You can search by category (baking, gadgets, kids, etc) or price range (and with 81 products under £15, it’s worth a look)

Not the High Street as quite a nice gifts for foodies selection that runs from £3 milk chocolate letters to a £170 monthly wine club membership. There’s a ton of reasonably priced goodies in between so even if you don’t find something for someone else, you might find a little something to treat yourself. Go on, you deserve it.

It’s sale season so it’s worth checking out the Gifts For Foodies at Lakeland. I admit that sometimes the prices here give me pause but during the holiday sale season, something a bit special is a bit more within reach.

I confess that my favourite thing at that particular site isn’t food-related at all. It’s the Grammar Grumble Mugs. I want ALL of them.

Naturally the newspapers, magazines and food websites have their round-ups as well but they seem, in the case of newspapers anyway, to be going for the goofy gadget angle or just see how pricey a list they can compile. But every now and again, there is something that sparks an idea.

fairy-tale-feasts-a-literary-cookbook-3451-p[ekm]250x250[ekm]Literary Gift Company has some unusual and fun cookbooks that you can almost guarantee your foodie won’t have:

Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook £20.00

The Bloomsbury Cookbook £24.95

The Jane Austen Cookbook £9.95

The Shakespeare Cookbook £10.99

Obviously this is just the tip of the holiday gift iceberg. I’ll be putting together other lists *(Cookbooks, Gadgets, Food Writing, etc) over the next couple of weeks. All out of the goodness of my heart, of course. And not because I just love online browsing. Not at all 🙂

Some later additions I found on other food blogs and are TOTALLY worth checking out

The Ultimate Foodies Christmas Gift Guide from FabFood4All

2014 Christmas Gifts for Foodies – Part 1 and of course, 2014 Christmas Gifts For Foodies – Part 2

Obviously this is just the tip of the holiday gift iceberg. I’ll be putting together other lists *(Cookbooks, Gadgets, Food Writing, etc) over the next couple of weeks. All out of the goodness of my heart, of course. And not because I just love online browsing. Not at all 🙂

Investing In Home Made Stocks

Making a good stock may be all about reduction,
but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

Every few months I invest in a day of contemplation in the kitchen. And that day usually starts with opening the freezer door and contemplating the fact that I’ve got enough carcasses in there to give the Donner Party a run for their money.

Now before you go thinking that this blog is getting too dark for your tastes, let me assure you that I speak of chicken carcasses. Whenever I roast a chicken, I wrap the remnants in clingfilm and stuff them in my freezer, ready for when I need to make chicken stock. So every few months, when my current supply is about to run out, I invest a day in making a fresh batch.

I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a few years now, and of all the foodie habits I’ve picked up, it’s possibly the most useful and rewarding. Useful, because not only has it taught me about the patience necessary in learning to respect the processes of cooking well, but it’s also taught me to make use of the bits I might otherwise throw away. It’s also useful because it gives me that time, when I can’t stray too far from the kitchen or for too long, to indulge myself in fabulously foodie contemplations. As for the rewards, they’re perhaps like dividends; not so obviously immediate, but all the more rewarding when they do come home to roost.

Investing the Time

Now I use the term “invest” advisedly, because making a good chicken stock (or any stock, really) does take about a full day from start to finish. It’s not that making stock is difficult, or even that you have to pay it close attention throughout, but it does take a very long time to cook- about seven hours- and you do have to be around to skim from time to time, and then to sieve, and then to skim again, and finally to pour into suitable containers and freeze. Making stock is a bit like a day spent doing laundry; most of the time you’re not actually needed, but you do occasionally need to fluff and fold.

So why do I do it? Why do I give over a whole day to cooking something I’m not even going to eat that night, or the next night, or might not even use for weeks to come?

Well like I said, it’s an investment. That day will probably yield about 12 cups worth of chicken stock, which may not seem much. But those 12 cups will more than cover gravies for Thanksgiving and Christmas (not to mention any other roast chicken dinners in between), perhaps a risotto or even two, or , maybe an emergency chicken soup for a sick flatmate or friend,and most certainly a fabulous poaching liquid for chicken breasts. A poaching liquid that is not only recycle-able, but that even improves with every use. Excellent dividends indeed.

Which leads me to an excellent example of investing in stock. When I was but a college junior, before I could even call myself a foodie, I spent a summer working at an upmarket deli in Washington DC named Food & Co. One of my allotted tasks there was to poach chicken breasts. That process involved taking huge amounts of amber jelly from a tub in the fridge, bringing it up to heat,and then poaching the chicken breasts for about 10 minutes. The first time I completed the task I was about to pour the liquid down the drain when the owner (a wonderful woman named Elisabeth Siber) shrieked in horror and threw herself between me and the sink.

“I’ve been working on that stock for YEARS!”, she cried. “Do you have ANY idea what that stock is WORTH?”

It turned out she had been nurturing that stock, and using it time and again to poach more and more chicken breasts, which not only gave that bland avian white meat incredible flavor, but also served to deepen the flavor of the stock itself. Which would, in turn, yield yet more flavorsome breasts. Talk about protecting your capital. And it’s worth noting that she was by no means the only culinary professional to follow this practice. In fact the opposite is true. Probably the single most highly valued foodstuff in any decent restaurant kitchen is the stock. It ain’t there on sale or return, nor is it a high-end seasonal ingredient. But it’s the base of any good sauce, or soup, or risotto. It’s in fact the flavor backbone of such a wide variety of dishes that it is  a good stock on which most chefs depend. And so they husband their stocks with extreme care. After all, a professional stock can take five days to prepare.

Creating Culinary Value

So compared to five, what is one day? Especially when just that one day turns your culinary liabilities- that leftover chicken carcass, that last onion, those straggly bits of parsley, and that aging carrot that have been cluttering up your fridge- into fabulous liquid assets.  The only real financial outlay I ever encounter when making stock is having to buy celery, which although unpleasant, is certainly not expensive. If, unlike me, you can actually abide celery in any other context, then you probably already have some anyway! And the process of making the stock- simmering that huge pot gently for five hours or so, and then sieving it and simmering it again for another hour at a higher heat to reduce it- may leave you with less than you started out with, but if the quantity of your stock has diminished, it has actually intensified greatly in flavor. It has far greater value than when you started. We’re talking going from culinary penny to epicurean blue chip here.

veggiestockAnd you can diversify. I usually only make chicken stock because it’s it’s such a great all-rounder. But you can make vegetable stock with any leftover legumes you’ve got hanging around. Try mushroom stock! You can make beef, lamb, pork, or even ham stock from any meat you cook that still  has bones. All you need is water, heat,  those veg and herbs and seasoning and patience, and you can make culinary capital out of almost any gastronomic investment you’ve already ( made.

Yes, you can buy pre-made chicken stock (although that famous canned low sodium chicken broth that American tv cooks sing praises to is not readily available here in the UK, where the Oxo cube still reigns supreme). But why spend instead of investing? Your freezer may be small (mine is, and I share it with two others), but isn’t it better to stuff it with what you’ve made rather than what you’ve bought? After all, as a frozen asset home made stock thaws beautifully. So you can share.

Because that stock in which I’ve invested a day is all about shares. Yes, I cook for myself, and yes, I make stock for myself because I love that I can . But I know full well that when I’m glorifying in my little pots of gold at the end of the stock-making process, I will be sharing them with people I love. They will become the gravies at Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as sauces at dinners in between. Or it may become soup to share or give away. Making a good stock may be all about reduction,but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.

So I am more than happy to invest a day, every few months, in making stock. And that day – when I have to be nearby to skim from time to time, to watch the vociferousness of the bubble and maybe turn the burner up or down a tad under the pot – that day gives me that day of contemplation I first mentioned. That day we all need from time to time, when you contemplate what you’ve got, and what you’ll make of it.

And shouldn’t we all invest a day, now and then, in taking-if not making- stock?

 

My Daily Grind

I’m just not a gadget-oriented person. I’m not against them, by any means. But they just don’t seem to work for me. I’m not smart enough for my smart phone, the complexities of your average in-home coffee or latte making machine defeat me, and not once in my life have I got a food processor or blender to process or blend successfully on the first go.

gadgetsSo I’m usually stumped when people ask me “What is your favorite kitchen gadget?” My natural clumsiness (alongside what I’ve long suspected is a paranormal ability to short-circuit any electrical device within fifty feet of me) has kept me steering well clear of  most modern kitchen inventions throughout my cooking life. An electric carving knife? Streets would run with blood. The George Foreman Grill? A hospital would name a burns unit after me. That said, I did manage to keep one of my two (don’t ask) ice-cream makers working until it went to a home with more freezer space, and I am also in possession of a fully operational coffee grinder, largely due to the fact that I almost never grind coffee beans unless it’s for the tail-end of a dinner party, and even then I usually get a willing guest to do it.

But the question remains; what is my favorite kitchen gadget? Answering this question honestly meant, for me, re-thinking the word “gadget”, and instead opting for the earlier (and less power grid-reliant) term “tool.”

And suddenly the answer was crystal clear. It wasn’t my knives, which I indeed have in hand pretty much every day and keep very well sharpened, and it wasn’t the oven thermometer, which is an incredibly useful tool  to keep to hand for ferreting out the true nature of any given oven. Nor was it my mandolin, which I use often, but only when wearing Kevlar mitts on both hands.

mandpMy favorite kitchen tool is something far more basic and simple. But it’s also the very tool that makes me feel the most like a real grown-up cook in the kitchen.

Without a doubt my favorite kitchen tool is that vessel with the pestle.

I’m talking about that most humble-yet venerated across the globe- kitchen tool, the mortar and pestle. That tough little bowl (that would be the mortar,by the way) in which you grind all kinds of ingredients with an equally tough little club (and there’s the pestle) and create all kinds of flavor and texture.

I am forever using my mortar and pestle. I use it to grind garlic into a paste just about every night. A pinch of salt thrown into the mortar with the garlic cloves not only breaks the garlic down, but also kills that acrid edge that can make raw garlic too aggressive. Plus there’s no fiddling about with your garlic crusher and scraping out the un-crushed bits of clove that are, frankly, a waste of allium heaven. Whenever I use dried herbs, which I do more often than I use fresh herbs (cooking most often for one as I do pretty much precludes the use of fresh herbs on a daily basis unless you are green of thumb, which I alas am not), I give them a good grind with my mortar and pestle first.  This releases the remnants of oil in those dessicated woody shreds, and in so doing releases bagloads of flavor. In fact I often throw some dried oregano or thyme or rosemary (and lemon rind!) in with the garlic I’m grinding on a basically daily basis, and all I then need is a slug of olive oil for either an instant marinade for pork, chicken, lamb, or fish, or a light dressing for pasta or veg. And the difference between using pre-ground spices like coriander or cumin or cinnamon, and then toasting and grinding the whole spices yourself is frankly like culinary night and day.

There truly is an exponential difference in aroma and flavor when you’re grinding whole spices, and the really great thing about that (aside from your delicious end result of a dish) is that you can feel and smell it as you’re grinding away. As those nubbly seeds or bits of bark break down under your relentless punishment you can feel the texture change to powder, and the air around you becomes positively miasmic with their scent. Like dough that you’re kneading with your hands into that perfect consistency for pastry, or arborio rice that you’re patiently stirring into a risotto, you can quite literally sense it coming to life.

And that’s what I really love about my mortar and pestle. I love that bit of human effort that really connects me with the food I’m preparing. It’s basic, and elemental. Now I’m not quite so pretentious as to claim this brings me a kinship to the peasant women who have been grinding grains for their porridge since the dawn of time (the day you find out I’m now grinding my own corn is the day you find out I’m now doing time on a prison farm in Tegucigalpa), but I do love that very personal involvement. Yes, you have to put your back into a bit, and yes, it may take a tad longer, but it’s far more satisfying than just dumping things into some device and then hitting a button. That personal commitment to the physical effort of getting all possible flavor out of any ingredient is what makes me feel like a true grown-up cook.

Besides, it’s also an excellent way to grind out those irritations of my day. I picture someone’s face, I start to grind…

And yes, pretentious sense of kinship or no, I do appreciate that this most basic of kitchen implements has been used in different forms since before we had kitchens, and has always been an intrinsic part of every human culture in the world, from the culinary to the medicinal and the downright spooky. After all, apothecaries used mortars and pestles to grind medicines, and we all know the tales of witches grinding together potions and notions. Most infamous of these is that terrifying witch of Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga, who according to legend flew through the skies in a mortar, using the pestle as her rudder.

Witches and apothecaries aside, don’t forget that the mortar and pestle is sexy. Just like that kneading of dough, and also the tossing of a salad with your hands, it’s tactile, and it makes you look sexy. Who doesn’t look sexy while grinding? Your biceps pump up, the look on your face is intense, and all the while you’re creating magical aromas and flavors. And that mortar and pestle even looks sexy on its own. There are no clumsy trailing wires, and it’s usually small enough to sit proudly on your kitchen counter. It doesn’t need to be packed away into an an already crowded cupboard when not in use. I’d even go so far as to say that having a mortar and pestle on display in your kitchen makes you look like a better cook than you actually may be. It makes you look like you mean business in the kitchen.

So if you don’t own a mortar and pestle, please do go and avail yourself of one now. Pick one that’s the right size for the size of meals you usually cook (bearing in mind, of course, Julia Child’s sage advice to always start with a larger bowl than you think you’ll need), and preferably one made of rough porcelain or stoneware. Wooden mortars tend to absorb oils, and therefore stain and keep hold of flavors. Pick one that feels almost that bit too heavy for you to cart about. It’ll stay in place while you’re grinding away with that pestle. And while it’s staying in place, it’ll set you free to use whole spices, and control textures of garlic and ginger, and let you loose on a whole new way of cooking. It’s a true culinary vehicle.

herbs_pestle

In short, using a mortar and pestle can really take you places. If you don’t believe me, just ask Baba Yaga.

Pairing Whines With Food

In every blogger’s life there comes a time when your positive approach to your chosen subject matter just runs out of steam; when every time you sit down at your battered old typewriter (who am I kidding? your battered old pc), the joy and inspiration you’re supposed to feel just isn’t there. It’s not necessarily that you having nothing to say, but really just that you have nothing nice, or at least positive  or constructive to say.

So sometimes you wait until that feeling- or lack thereof- passes. But if you’re not paying attention, that feeling can last for much longer than you might think, and you eventually find that you haven’t written anything for months, all because you felt you had to sugar whatever pill you were going to serve up. Of course that not good for either a blogger or a blog.

Sometimes you just have to accept that you’ll be writing in the negative – with squid ink, so to speak. At least that will get any food-related grizzles and gristle off your chest, and who knows? You might find that there’s a world of people out there who agree with you. So in that spirit of complaint and ventilation, I am now going to whine about this foodie’s current pet peeves in the culinary world:

1. THE PEJORATIVE USE OF THE TERM “FOODIE”

Of course “foodies” can be “snobs”, and of course “foodies” are meant to be “knowledgeable” about “food”. But we ain’t all  “It’s farmer’s market organic bio-dynamically grown or you can stick it in the bin and that’s the wrong wine for that course” meanies. Personally, I take the term “foodie” to mean “someone who has an enthusiastic interest in food as a hobby”.

I make no claims to high-flown tastes (I loathe caviar, and even if I didn’t, the tub of Strawberry Nesquik in my cupboard would give the lie to that) but I am just fascinated by food, from taste and texture to origin and history and just why we eat and like what we do. But most importantly for me, IT’S FUN.

Of course like most foodies I believe in certain rules, such as “If you want your steak well done, cook something else.” But I completely accept that many of these rules are actually personal, such as “If you want to serve me fish pie and then have sex, serve something else.”

2. BEETROOT

beetroot1This wouldn’t have made my current pet peeve list if it weren’t “The Vegetable That Will Not Die”. It seems like a decade ago that I first wrote about the current British cheffy obsession with the beet, but unlike goat’s cheese and rocket, both of which have settled into a less pervasive culinary sphere, this taproot is stubbornly sticking – like  a blood stain – to British TV and restaurant kitchens.

Its “vibrant colour” and “earthy flavour” are still being touted to this day, and contestants on shows like “Masterchef” are still presenting  dishes called “Roast venison with textures of beetroot.” I don’t want beetroot one way, let alone five. And that whole “sneak beetroot into chocolate cakes and brownies so kids won’t know they’re eating a vegetable” thing? I can only refer you back to that “earthy flavour”. I’m not personally a big fan of chocolate, but I’m even less a fan of chocolate that tastes like mud.

3. TEXTURES OF …

There is no current cheffy restaurant trend that annoys me more than “four ways to serve you a side of onions”. I adore onions. I like most vegetables (aside from broccoli and the one listed above), but I don’t want endless variations on one vegetable theme on my plate.  It’s even found its annoying way into desserts. Just imagine “Clotted Cream With Textures Of Strawberry”. And anyway, the very term “textures of” is distastefully reminiscent of sifting through carpet samples.

4. THE CURRENT STATE OF BRITISH TV COOKERY

Things just ain’t good this year in the British TV Kitchen. Yes, of course there’s the annual “Great British Bake-Off” treat, but even that show just ain’t rising to its previous fluffy heights for me. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc remain fabulous hosts, and Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry judge as astutely as ever, so it’s probably just that I’m not really warming to any of the contestants this year- with the possible exception of Martha The Scary Teen, who has a rather fetching habit of staring at her competitors’ bakes like she’s working on her  Stephen King style “Carrie” skills.

But other shows are faring much worse for this foodie’s palate. The UK version of “The Taste“, whilst being much better than its US predecessor, still fundamentally failed to connect with either the contestants or- more importantly- the food. Tom Kerridge’s “Proper Pub Food” may improve with a second series as he’s an affable presenter (though not yet comfortable with lifting scripted bits off the page), but  proper pub food is something for which people go to a proper pub, not something they want to cook at home.

There’s that gap of basic accessibility at play there, much as there is with Rachel Khoo’s  “My Pretentious Paris Kitchen”, or the new-found BBC oeuvre of “Former Models Cook For You” – Sophie Dahl? Lorraine Pascale? Though Ms Pascale certainly makes for a more convincing cook. It’s just that she has no viewpoint other than “My cooking is slightly less bland than me.” Over on Channel 4, the indefatigable Ms Perkins does her level best to liven up “Cook’s Questions“, but not even Perkins Power can  make charmless professional chefs teaching overwrought recipes to a roomful of “foodies” who look like they’re waiting for jury duty down at the municipal court feel at all inclusive for your average  (or even true “foodie”) viewer.

S_MFor my money, the only British cookery show of real note in the last year or so has been “The Incredible Spice Men” on BBC2, which took fantastic chefs Cyrus Todiwala and Tony Singh, and set them on a journey across Britain, bringing Asian techniques, spices and flavours to traditional British food. It was funny, it was inspiring, and most of all, it had personality and a true point of view. It tackled this country’s traditional attitudes to  foods, and therefore said a lot about this country. Yes, it was “Two Fat Ladies” recast with two Asian gentlemen, but that in itself is a genius idea, and it remains the only cookery show of recent years that has made me want to buy the book, and cook from that book.

5. CLAFOUTIS

Never mind that the very name on paper reads like the kind of physical infection that affect one’s personal bits and cause an unpleasant discharge (“I see you have a nasty case of Clafoutis”), there’s something neither here nor there about the Clafoutis. To me it’s not quite a pastry and not quite a pie and not quite a quiche. It may be that I’ve never sampled one that was cooked correctly, but I’ve always found it to be either soggy or a flan with the texture (there’s that word again) of flannel. And that name! I refer you to the Wikipedia article on the subject, in which one sentence reads: “Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.”

6. BRITISH BREASTS

chickenbreastsI am not referring here to the mammarian state of British womanhood, but rather the near quixotic-ness of going to a British supermarket in the hopes of purchasing a chicken breast that still retains either its skin or its bone or both. It truly is seemingly impossible. You can buy thighs, drumsticks, and even the full legs with all their flavor-giving skin and bones intact, but Julia Child help you if you’re looking for the same in breasts.

Personally, I blame it on the advent of the “skinless chicken breast as a way to get low calorie though almost certainly flavourless protein into your diet because you’d only eat this if you were trying to lose weight” school of dietary propaganda. One can blame supermarkets and food halls all one likes, but the depressing fact is that market forces prevail.  White chicken meat is so separated from dark in the current UK  culinary world that you either have to adapt a recipe to such extents that it no longer resembles ( or tastes like) what you wanted to achieve in the first place, or you have to make the extra effort to find an actual butcher who sells actual bone-in skin-on chicken breasts.  For which you will pay a hefty premium. Does this same problem exist in the US?

So those are my current foodie whines. Agree? Disagree? What’s been getting your culinary goat lately?  Other than the cheese, please. That is so eight years ago. NB. I whine about the UK  in foodie terms only because I live, shop, cook, watch tv and eat here. Were I to live in the US,  I would no doubt have other (or possibly the same) gripes. Possibly in larger portions.