Cassoulet fraud

Cassoulet is delicious. Two of every animal go merrily into a pot of garlic and beans; and they bring you joy. It is also an absolute bugger to make. I don’t think I’ve ever brought it in under five hours. With the weather on the turn, however, I’ve been ruminating on a quick and dirty cassoulet hack, and yesterday I gave it a whirl.

The idea was to use tinned butterbeans and Toulouse sausages, with plenty of veg and some salami. It is, on one level a travesty. Cassoulet recipes may be contentious, but I think trying to call something a cassoulet that omitted both duck and haricots would unite the warring French villagers in trying to make a stew of my innards. Still, I felt that with faster cooking beans and less fiddly frying, I could probably get it down under two hours and still retain much of the joyous bean goo.

I was not substantially wrong.

Not substantially. Tesco were inexplicably out of butterbeans, and the closest sausages to Toulouse were a little suspect. It ended up with haricots after all, which piled a little on the cooking time, but I’m not too embarrassed by spending two and a half hours on a passable cassoulet pastiche.

The first thing is to set the sausages frying, in a big heavy stew pot, nice and low. Forget about them while you prepare everything else – rough chopped onions, carrots, celery, handfuls of herbs, some salami, tomatoes, a splash of stock, and lots and lots of garlic. After that, it’s really just a question of progressively adding things to he frying, and slopping in the liquid ingredients at the end. Then beans, then a hot oven for a few hours. It needs looking in on rather frequently, to make sure it hasn’t reduced too heavily, and to duck the sausages back under the beans, but i’s pretty simple. Breadcrumbs to finish, and you’re done. I wouldn’t risk less than two hours of oven time, though, even with good tinned haricots. Butterbeans, as intended, are probably going to work out somewhere between an hour, and an hour and a half.

It’s worth a try.

Stop! Haddock time.

I have a thing about smoked fish. It just seems to go so well with scowly, overcast evenings and daylight drawing in. It is also just meantto be with potatoes, and so I have recently been combining the two. Degrees of success have been varying, but always a distance from actually unpleasant. I just don’t think you can have a bad smoked-fish meets-potato experience. Not without straying out of the kitchen and into the realms of rather niche pornography, at least.The pick of the bunch is far and away the fish cakes. Traditional, too, which is something of a departure for me. I’m not normally a fan of what tends to be a joyless mulch of white fish, overcooked spuds, and those creepy 1980s school canteen yellow breadcrumbs. They’re fussy and mannered without meriting the effort in the slightest, and the antidote is to get wilfully careless:

Set some potatoes boiling, large chunks, skin on. At the same time, slowly fry some onions in a little butter until softening, and only just taking colour. You can use leeks, or even shredded cabbage, if you like; just keep it low and slow, so you can ignore it all and get on with the fish. Meanwhile, skin and roughly flake some smoked mackerel into a bowl. You can use really rather a lot since it’s both delicious and very, very cheap. Don’t worry about bones. You’ll feel any sturdy enough to pick out while you’re flaking, and the rest will seem to vanish in cooking.

When the potatoes are cooked dump them (skin on) on top of the fish, likewise the onions. Then go and do something else while it all cools a bit. I mean, you can just stand there, but I’d recommend watching Heroes instead. Or preparing some vegetables to go with it all – steamed kale is rather nifty, or something daft with a cream sauce from Silver Spoon. The “Fabulous Broccoli” is a good bet, and contains rather more leeks and cream than actual broccoli. It’s probably more effort than the fishcakes themselves, but a side with sauce can take the edge off any dryness. The oil of the fish means this isn’t a big problem, but it’s good for overall balance.

Once it’s all cool enough to handle, mash it roughly together, seasoning and chopping in some flat leaf parsley (or even dill) as you go. Shape into hefty chunks in the palm of a hand, flour if they’re a bit gooey, and fry until warm through with some crispyness to the outside.

Gooeyness shouldn’t be a problem since the potatoes had a fair chance to dry out, and they really are better without anything cluttering up the outside. Have them with beer.

The other thing I’ve tried in this vein is a layered bake of thin-sliced potatoes, smoked haddock, and leeks, with mustardy cream sauce. It’s got the lasagne cost/benefit problem, unfortunately, but I think there’s a usable recipe in there somewhere. Maybe an actual fish lasagne would be better, or even throwing the haddock and cream sauce in with some gnocchi…


Raining snouts and trotters

It’s been raining today; raining rather a lot. It’s been absolutely buggering it down. So much so that the only thing to do seems to be to retreat to a warm kitchen, make pastry and listen to Nina Simone. This is why there are currently in my oven – and pleasing me rather a lot – a batch of Melton Mowbray style pork pies, and a bubbling boeuf en daube. It smells fantastic – there’s an aroma of crisp, piggy, hot water crust spreading through the house, with an undertone of reduced wine and olives. I love days like today.Of course, it could very nearly have been different. The previous attempt at raised pies was a cussing and wailing, dinner with a scowl at half past ten kind of fiasco in which nothing at all seemed to come together. Hot water crust is superficially very simple, and feels like a dream to work with. It’s warm under the hand, and responsive to shaping. At least it was until I tried to slip it off the jam jars I was using to mould the scotch pies. To try and make something main course sized, I’d shaped them around the bases of large oiled jars, wrapped in a ring of greaseproof, and secured with a band of string. They looked wonderfully rustic, and this was in concept at least, exactly the right thing to do.

The fuck up was in the detail. The pastry was too thin, the oil insufficient, and the resting time too short to result in anything other than total pastry collapse. Seriously. When finally wrestled them off the “moulds” the impression was less of rough, hearth and home, pastry casing, and more discarded prophylactic. It’s not a good look at dinner. This time however, I was ready for the little bastards – with time to spare and dinner taken care of. Small jam jars, thick pastry, refrigeration, and patience – huzzah.

Unfortunately, there weren’t pigs’ trotters or any other miscellaneous hoofage to hand, so I’ve had to cheat with the jelly. A batch of rich-ish pork stock made out of spare swine bits, and the end of the week’s organic box with a few sheets of gelatine ought to do the trick. And as a bonus, I’ve been so busy with pie-related tasks that I didn’t fuck with the daube, rendering it slow-cooked, sticky, and delicious.

This is how the pork malarkey goes down:

The filling is around a kilo of pig – mostly shoulder with a bag of bacon offcuts thrown in for good measure. You chop about half of it quite fine, almost mincing. The rest goes into a blender, which is pushing towards gross, even though you stop a way short of puree. The idea is to get it very fine, some of it a little mushy, so that the pork entire holds together. Mix the pork together with a small bunch of chopped fresh sage, seasoning, and some thyme and allspice. The recipe I was cribbing from is from Angela Bogianno’s book Pie, and recommends a dash of anchovy essence. I chopped in a few whole ones, and dicked about with the herbs. I also take issue with some of the timings, but it’s essentially sound.

You pack the amalgamated pig mix into rounds of pastry, shaped in this case around small jars, and structured with string and greaseproof, reserving pastry for the lids. The bit that isn’t a hot water crusterfuck really is that easy. Eggwash and bake, fill with jelly, and have a well deserved glass of wine you didn’t use in the daube. I’m thinking about minced lamb and a, adobo sauce style toasted/rehydrated ancho chilli spice paste for the next attempt.

Getting off their land.

This weekend, this bank holiday Monday in fact, I had a rather enjoyable time arsing about in the English countryside. I peered at old churches, and was generally amused by the architectural diversity of tiny places with absurd little names. Long Melford, Kersey, Sudbury, Caught Frotting, that kind of thing. Seeing pretty things and telling people why they are not, in fact, interesting is diverting enough, but after a while I became nigh obsessed with an intriguing phenomenon: ethnic restaurants with incredibly unthreatening names.

The more you stray from hot running internet, delving into places where rodgering the stable boy is mass entertainment, the more it feels like you’re having lunch in the nineteen eighties. The Indian places are all called the Garden of India, or the Jewel of Bengal. The Asian places are strictly plastic-Chinese and probably called the Golden Something. It’s just a bit odd. There was an Austrian restaurant on the high street of Bishop’s Sodhammer that looked like it had been dumped from the set of Ashes to ashes, but I guess that’s progress of a sort.

Now ok, Cambridge is pretty white, pretty bourgeois, pretty stayed at times, but the only places you can get any kind of decent meal and still pay rent at the end of the month are mid-to-high standard ethnic. And they are not entirely styled to soothe the prejudices of blue-rinse racists.

In fact, I think it’s slid out the other side. Cook For You (an Asian takeaway I’m rather fond of ) has had a mention here before for its befuddling name. Is it an act of reclamation – a parody of the broken-English Chinaman stereotype? Is it broken English? Is it poised and ironic, the joke lying in the literalism and the difference to an expected restaurant name? I have no fucking clue. They’ve not been run out of town yet though.

I’m not suggesting that the denizens of Burnt Fisting like to round off the village fete with a maypole dance and a light lynching, but there’s an aura of internalised prejudice to the old style branding. It’s apologetic, slightly self effacing, almost playing to caricature. Not exactly living in fear, but the sense I get is of an assumed need to make something new and external (howbeit in demand) appear safe and acclimatised. There were, for instance, no non-English words on the signs of any non-English eatery I walked past.

I don’t know what the alternative is, and I’m too lazy to research the cultural norm for restaurant names in their cuisine’s cultures of origin, so this is hardly groundbreaking social commentary. Maybe that promising little Inuit place that just opened in Chipping Sphincter really would be called The Golden Igloo. But maybe it would be called something like Bob’s Bistro and Bob would feel a little happier if people just fucking tried to pronounce his name once in a while, and stopped staggering in half cut and making blubber jokes. Sorry – I’m having difficulty tidying my thoughts on the matter into anything more concise than a faint feeling that seeing one more place called the Garden of Cliché will make me piss pure hatred on the spot.

Something I’m more able to discuss with authority, and far less likely to soil myself over, is the last interesting thing I cooked myself. Not the bad soiling, at any rate. Briefly – because this is indulgent and spurious enough already – a vegetarian main course of pan-European mixed heritage:

Pound five or six cloves of garlic to a liquid-y paste, along with salt, pepper, and a lot of oregano (at least a tablespoon). Beat in oil, almost as though making aioli, and smear it all over thick aubergine slices for an hour or so. Bake or grill them until mostly tender, and finish under the grill, topped with a slice of halloumi. I opted for thick circular slices, three to a portion, with the Nigel Slater anchovy potatoes on the side. There was probably hummus too. There usually is.

Frying solo.

It is not entirely true – rillettes quesadillas notwithstanding – that left to my own devices, and without the restraining influence of others to cook for, and from whom to receive occasional censure, I will just cover things in cheese. Not entirely. Sometimes I cover things in chillies. It is again, not entirelytrue that but for the arch glances, and looks of blank, uncomprehending, moral terror, I would churn out endless portions of that pork with tuna sauce contrivance – a dish unique in receiving unanimous and eternal vetoes from all of my housemates. Pork in tuna sauce* is a lot of fuss to make; and it is possible to run out of cheese.

That just leaves chillies, and today’s hideous gastro-manchild indulgence was a more productive experiment than pulping up tuna, capers, anchovies, and egg yolks, then trying to pass it off as an Italian “Classic.”** It has also the distinction of being an experiment which might bear repeating. To wit: crispy chilli beef, shoddy Chinese takeaway style. The not-particularly-shoddy takeaway I had in mind was the gloriously named “Cook For You” (rendered, in my head, as a belligerent imperative: cleaver-waving, liminally racist caricature shouting.) which can be found on Cambridge’s unlovely Norfolk Street. They make the dish as an adhesive, fiestily piquant mass of slightly beef-ish cinders. It’s moreish, crunchy, and doled out in portions just under the fatal dose, for just under a fiver. I’m addicted. I am also emphatically not making a forty minute round trip in driving sleet, probably to find the place closed. No, experimentation it was to be, and a rousing success it turned out.

There’s probably finesse involved in doing this well, but a passable version is childishly simple. And I was, in any case, more interested in delivering something punchily spicy-sweet-crunchy. There is probably also a recipe somewhere in the house, now I think about it. But fumbling around was more fun, and a recipe would most likely have cautioned against the sort of quantity of chilli I had in mind. Tenderised, finely-shredded beef, possibly marinated, coated in cornflour and fried infernally hot until nigh-unappetisingly crispy; that’s the essence of it. The tail end of the stewing beef seemed to work, once it had been soundly beaten, and cut into very thin slices. I left it sitting in chilli powder, and a little lime juice which – whilst not actually counterproductive – didn’t really seem to help, and can probably be ignored. The slivers were tossed around in well-seasoned cornflour (chilli powder and black pepper, mostly) until thoroughly coated, and fried in small batches then kept warm in a low oven.

Next, to prepare the sauce. Well, goo. To prepare the goo. I’ve no idea of the quantities, but it was mostly honey, light soy, vinegar, and a spot of plum sauce on probably-redundant impulse. The final quantity was perhaps 100ml, maybe slightly more, and in hindsight it would accommodate some chilli sauce. In fact, if by the end there’s a stage where I haven’t added chilli, add some chilli.

So far, the preparation hasn’t taken very long, six or seven minutes of brutal frying per batch of beef, I would have thought, and the final stage is equally rapid. Soften some thinly sliced onion in oil, then crank up the heat and stir-fry briefly, adding ungodly quantities of similarly thin-sliced red chilli, garlic, and ginger. Toss the beef back in, then the liquid, letting it cook down to little more than a sticky coating. Fucking fantastic. Add chilli.

*Silver Spoon, pp 770. And don’t listen to these heathens, it’s divine.

** Though it is. Really, it is. Just an almost unmodified medieval one.

A quesadilla to vex and delight.

Last night I made indifferent fajitas. Nothing too flash – a basic spice paste, spinach, beef cooked in beer. They fell a little flat – most likely the bitterness from overcooked spinach, and the need for tomato. The core idea bears repeating though – crap beef, ultra fine-sliced, brutally browned, and de-glazed with then cooked in not-particularly-special ale for an hour or so, maybe with a handful of mirepoix accoutrements tossed in. This will produce a caricature-mexican standard mess of crumbly delicious meat and tasty stock as a base for something casual like quesadillas, or you could re-fry with boiled potato and green peppers, and cram it all up some enchiladas with loads of cumin. But this really isn’t the point.

The point is that I had leftover corn tortillas and feta cheese which required attention. The point is that I just had something utterly fucking stupid for lunch, and it was fantastic. Here’s how it goes: Flash fry finely sliced onions, plenty of garlic, and at least one of those long red chillies, also sliced. Toss through some cumin seeds, and (bear with me) a few dollops of rillettes. When it’s all amalgamated, use it as quesadilla filling, with lashings of feta. Marvellous. Eye-poppingly eclectic, but marvellous.

Taking the pulse(s)

Delicious Magazine – which is occasionally interesting – publish a bunch of books. One of them – which is also occasionally interesting -, Five Of The Best, contains a rather nifty chickpea recipe. Now, chickpeas, and mercilessly desecrating vegetarian recipes have to be two of my favourite things. So here goes.

The original is a ten-minute sure-fire hit of a dish. Chickpeas in a kind of spicy pulp with wilted spinach, to which my first thought was to add toasted pine nuts – maybe pack it into generous timbales, bitter leaves or slices of mozzarella on the side, as a starter. But that’s because I’m a prick. More interesting is to add chorizo, maybe bacon, and definitely more faffing.

The dish requires chickpeas, spinach, bread, stock (chicken probably) spices, garlic, chorizo, and bacon. The quantities are fairly flexible. A couple hundred grams of spinach, and a thick-ish slice of bread per tin of chickpeas is about the shape of it. Then as much chorizo as you can pack into your craw without sustaining serious injury. But this is far more impressionistic than pernickety. It is also yet another victory for the “bacon is a garnish” lobby.

Use a couple of tins of chickpeas, rinsed, and if (as I did) you open a tin of butterbeans because you weren’t paying attention, one of those too. It actually worked – they go pleasingly smooshy. Which is a word. This is very much a dish of errors – the pulses were warmed through in a splash of stock, as I’d defrosted too much. Oh, it helped, but you can see how the simplicity would be eroded by much more of this shoddy tosh.

Wilt and shred rather a lot (say, 500g) of spinach, pressing dry, but not entirely so, and set aside. Fry some thinly sliced chorizo and bacon in just a little oil, placing the meat to one side with the spinach, and reserving the fat for the next step. Which is to fry three or four cloves of chopped or crushed garlic in the oil for a moment, before adding a teaspoon or so each of cumin and paprika, then frying cubes of bread until heading towards crispy. I guess any kind of bread would do, but ciabatta felt right; four thick slices off a fairly small one, here. Blend (ie food processor) the pan contents with about half a pint of strong stock, maybe a bit more, and stir everything together. That’s basically it.

You could ditch the bacon for some mexicanesque boiled-then-fried pork, making the stock along the way, but this version’s basically sound. I would advise warming the pulses through, at least, and doing this in residual stock is the perfect chance to toss in ore garlic and a couple of cloves. Care, however, should be taken not to let them break up overmuch. I don’t know what exactly you would serve with this. More ciabatta? A salad? I guess it could even become fajita filling. Being a twist on a warm salad, it would – as Former Housemate Ms B pointed out – make a mighty lunch in case of leftovers, warmed through or otherwise. Leftovers are, I humbly opine, unlikely.

Not exactly apple pie and chips.

As a way of taking the taste out of my mouth, the Sacre Coeur (Theberton st. Islington) was fairly spiffy. Oh, it’s not a nigh-orgasmic, taste-tacular, gastro-coital funstorm, but it was pretty good if you ignore the starters.

A workmanlike onion soup (far too much cheese on the croutons) and a thoroughly enjoyable hunk of rare, seared, lamb in a rosemary jus all weighed in for little more than that bloody burger place, and made me far and away happier. This is a good thing. The French bistro feel was a little caricature, and the tables much too closely packed, but the ambience managed to work. It’s your standard Moules Frites and checked tablecloth joint, reminiscent of – though cheaper, more Francophile, and rather less good than – Cambridge’s lovely Backstreet Bistro. Oh, and the Backsteet’s floor plan doesn’t make sitting down into a sliding block puzzle. Seriously Sacre Coeur guys, you were rammed on a dreary weekday – lose four or five covers and let the customers breathe. Mostly though, it got me thinking about potatoes.

There’s something slightly cheeky about serving aggressively plain sauté potatoes on the side of more or less anything at a bistro. It’s taking the simplicity shtick and running with it, but it does teeter on the brink of taking it too far, of seeming tawdry/cheap. But what do you do when you’ve ruled out chips, and insisted upon a sauce? You turn – I would like to propose – to Nigella Lawson, who cannot be the first person to thing of this delicious chip-sauté compromise, but had the decency to put it in print where I could find it. And, indeed, think “Buggeration – why didn’t I think of that.”

Like the best of her recipes, it understands simplicity but gawps blankly at moderation. You take a load of potatoes – the long, thin, new or Anya type ideally – wrap them in a cloth, and beat the hell out of them with a rolling pin. This ought to produce fractured, funkily knobbly, but not obliterated potato chunks which can then be fried from raw, very, very, hot in a great deal of olive oil. Beautiful. I like to toss in a little chopped garlic and some chilli powder right at the end, just before taking them off the heat. I particularly like to do this, then cover them in salt and grated cheese, fashioning thereby a “light” lunch which would make even Ms Lawson look on askance.

It’s been a season for simple excess, in fact. I’ve taken to making big, syrupy tartes Tatin, and they’re a joy. The original idea – though as with the pseudo-chips it had probably been done without fanfare or kafuffle in countless homes for years – is said to hail from Lamotte-Beuvron, and the Hotel Tatin. It’s a rescued fuck-up in essence: heavily caramelised apples with a pastry layer slapped on top, all baked in heavy skillet, and upside-down. Stéphanie Tatin, the story goes, botched some apple pie filling, and her kick-yourself-it’s-so-simple blag took her into food history. Cute. The question which excised me however was: could this be blagged in turn without a serious, heavy, oven-safe frying pan of the kind I so dearly covet yet can so ill afford. Turns out – yes. You just have not to be particularly shy about the smell of burning caramel.

You can liberally butter a springform tin (we’ll come to why a springform) and top that off with the sugar, then the apples, and bake it all, fairly hot, to fill in for the stovetop section. Now, if you keep an eye on it, and sit it in an oven tray while it cooks, you can have it all passably caramelised within twenty or so minutes. Caramel will ooze out, hence the tray, but most springforms have enough of a lip to retain just about enough.

Yank it out of the oven, and cool quickly enough to get a pastry layer on there pretty darned snappy, stick it back for another twenty to thirty, and hurrah. After a little cooling you can turn it out by releasing the sides of the tin, placing a plate on top, and just flipping it, as you would with the frying pan version. The same ease can be achieved with far less loss of delicious sugary goo in a very shallow cake tin; or any old tin, side-height irrelevant, a plate with narrower cross-section, and a world-beating blend of luck and dexterity. Like the skillet, and indeed the low-sided large cake tin, this is not something I possess. But I wish joy and sparkly Tatin success to those who do. Bastards.

Adventures in eating out, part I in an occasional series.

A few days ago, by my computer, I found a hastily-scrawled note. Nothing unusual there. It was a reminder that I intended to depart briefly from tradition, and offer up a restaurant review. Fair enough. I don’t do it very often, I’m going to do it now and then, and I’d probably have forgotten – I’m full of plagues at the moment. Except that this was not what it actually said. What it said was:

“Fucking jam!”

and thereby hangs a tale.

The Gourmet Burger Kitchen, (located in this particular case on Regent St, Cambridge) is a shithole. Were it called The Shithole, it would still be over-selling itself. Now, it’s a chain, and a concept chain, so you steel yourself a little. But really. Absolutely fucking dire. Continue reading Adventures in eating out, part I in an occasional series.

How I learned to stop worrying and love barbecue

A few days ago, one of the supplements in The Guardian did a little ‘Barbecues – For Or Against?’ piece that utterly failed to wow me. On the one hand there was the ‘Most barbecues are awful, but…’ argument, which had me sold on pretty much everything before the ‘but’. On the other was a few columns of socially contentious guff about burnt freezer sausages, liberally immolated offer accelerant-laced hell pits, and tended all the while by burly, topless men, fending off the nigh-indistinguishable feral dogs and children snapping at their ankles. I should say something pithy and sympathetic here really, mention my own council estate childhood rather than making me sound like a dreadful sneering twat. But I’m not going to.No, the barbecues I grew up with typified by the gormless, rather vacant confusion with which much of Britain seems to greet food.

Ok, so the Australian solution touted in the article made me throw up in my mouth a little, but there’s only so much parboiling that even a man who likes to cook Mexican can take. Back in Blighty, we take probably our most unusual, certainly our most unfamiliar and seasonally fragile means of cooking, and put it in the hands of a chef selected purely on the basis of body-mass, then scratch our big manly chins over the process of making fire, before liberally littering it with the worst produce available. My parents, bless them, had got a little further, but were wedged firmly in the eighties. Theirs was a land of skewered pork with a mushroom at the end, and oily mustard marinades which smoked like all hell.

It’s no huge surprise, then, that my reaction to an ebullient “Let’s barbecue stuff!” from Mr C (who is, after all, a broad-shouldered man with a beard) followed a rough trajectory from “Thrice-sodomised Moses, have I not put that shit behind me,” through to “Fine [sigh] but I want it in writing that you wont take your shirt off.” Three or four attempts later, all more or less untroubled by pasta salad, bare nipples, or gang violence, I’m ready to recant.

Continue reading How I learned to stop worrying and love barbecue