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

The End of the Anchovy

Another of those Sundays. Flounce around, tidy the kitchen, watch old episodes of Buffy, good things. I get up at about midday, having spent most of the night finishing Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y, and by the time I realise we’ve bugger all food in the house, I’m still chewing over whether or not it’s actually any good.

It’s got the book-about-books shtick, more in the lightly gothic mould of Shadow of the Wind than anything, with spades of Philip Pullman-esque cod Quantum, over emphasised, not quite so well executed, and worst of all, dragged wailing into view via Derrida. But it does have one or two rather lovely sentences. There’s Lovecraftian dream-walking in the nebulous beyonds, a light excess of mercifully underwritten sex, and a mouse god on a moped. I think, on balance, it all stands up, even if it does all wind up just a bit pat at the end – the writers own epilogue worries over it being read as a “Shaggy God story”. I take the point, and think she probably should have too, but it otherwise makes a fair stab at living up to its rather eye-catching binding.

All this, of course, brings us no closer to tacking the problem of dinner, or explaining exactly what did become of all those carrots. The first part’s easy. Tapenade is good. Once you’ve got that far, there’s really only so much more you need to know between now and the eventual utter depletion of global anchovy stocks. Less fatuously, I hastily made some Pappardelle, and dressed it with some onions, peppers, and mushrooms, fried and let simmer for half an hour in a Tapenade-light tomato sauce. Actually, the sauce has the beginnings of a promising soup. It’s just a puree of tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic, a tin of anchovies, and a few handfuls of black olives. Good stuff.

Soup, of course, brings us to the fate of the carrots. My father used, on tipsy occasion, to talk about one day making a chocolate pizza, and it is that simple fact that I turn to for security and perspective whenever I fear that I may have gone too far. Carrot and Pig soup seems fairly sensible when “Capers and Marshmallow! Together at last.” Looms on the horizon.

Oddly enough, do try this at home. It’s just the Mexican-ish stock thing taken to an extreme. Sauté the carrots in chunks with some onions, allowing to brown a little. Toast some dried chillies and garlic, rehydrating the blackened chillies in a little vegetable stock. Add cumin seeds, black pepper, and allspice to the mix, frying a little, then a load of water and plenty of salt. So far, so soupy. Throw in the chopped stalks of the handful of fresh coriander you’ll need later, a chopped potato or two, most of the garlic, the chilli broth and chopped chillies, and a few large bits of pork. After an hour or so of simmering, the pork comes out to cool and eventually shred. Crank up the heat and reduce a little if it’s still all watery, otherwise, blend until smooth, cram it full of coriander and some extra cumin, and serve scattered with shreds of pork. Actually, I’d be tempted to include crumbled feta, too.

It is, I freely own, a freak of prodigious mutancy, but the spicy-sweet kick worked quite well, and all that generic-Mex spice puts in the much-needed savoury that a lot of carrot soups lack. Plain old carrot and coriander has its charms, and all, but it doesn’t push those big, deep, earthy buttons. To do that, make sure the chillies are Chipotle, and really get some brown on the carrots.

Tomorrow, the queer film backlog, and possibly some real pizza to flush out the memory.