Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Onion Soup

So, Sunday afternoon and I want to cook something I can have for lunch at work for a few days so I don't end up shelling out on shite.

If I make it veggie, then my partner can have some too. Possibility of brownie points in the offing, or more truthfully, it's a nice thing to do.

Just moved house so feeling rather skint, I remember that we had some stale bread and an end of £1 Camembert from the Co-Op in the fridge. Add into this mix that the new flat has an electric hob (Man miss fire. Man like burn.) so long slow cooking is easier. Onion soup it is.


6 medium sized onions (no, I don't know what a "medium sized onion" is. About as big as your fist maybe, if your fists are the same size as mine.)
4 cloves of garlic
A vegetable Oxo cube
A bay leaf
A small glass of red wine
Marmite (yes, really)
Stale bread
Leftover camembert (use what you like, I guess)

You're also going to need a pot with a lid big enough to hold the above. Or a pot you can balance a plate on.

Chop your onions as finely as you can be bothered, and really go for it on the chopping of the garlic. I tend to chop garlic and then sprinkle it with a bit of salt, partially to make it taste stronger but also to give my knife better grip so I can really grind it into the board.

Warm the butter and oil in a pan (how much? Enough to cook 6 onions slowly, I should think. Maybe 2 tbsps of oil and one of butter) then chuck in your onions, garlic and a bay leaf. Keep the hob on a low heat and cook the lot really slowly over 2 hours with the lid on. Stir it every 15 minutes or so to stop it catching on the bottom.

After a couple of hours the onions should have gone browny-yellow. At this point, make about half a litre of stock with your stock cube and add that, a teaspoon of Marmite (Oh all right, don't then. See if I care. I do it because it intensifies the flavour a bit I think) and the wine to the soup. Simmer for about 20 minutes with the lid off while you're turning your stale bread and leftover cheese into cheese on toast.

At this point, in theory, you put the soup in little overproof bowls and float the bread on top with the cheese and cook that in the oven. Who the fuck has little soup bowls that you can put under the grill though? Not I.

So, cheese on toast on the side, soup in bowls. Not bad, and the really slow cooked onions go quite sweet.

Cooking: what's the point?

No, seriously. I mean it. Why all the effort?

It is perfectly possible to subsist on take away food, tinned stuff and sandwiches. (Granted, if you go about it the wrong way you'll be relying on a mirror on a stick to see your naughty bits, but that's your look-out).

It's not about economy - crap food is cheap. Screw it, biscuits are always on offer in the Co-op. Get stuck in!

Cooking can be difficult and stressful. It certainly bloody is if you've got no fucking clue what you're doing, shonky equipment and the oven in your rented flat/cupboard isn't even roomy enough to properly asphyxiate yourself in.

It's not about an easy life.

Health! Fresh vegetables and shit like that. Popeye and spinach and, I dunno, 5-a-day (whatever). Maybe? No. Why are these TV chefs always noncing about with lumps of butter the size of your fist and glugging cream about all over the shop then? Most of them are lard-arses. Nigella's arse has probably got its own post code by now. (Note to self: enquire about moving there)

Not health either.

Fun. A smashing, glossy magazine style lifestyle. Cooks on the telly are always grinning and their friends are all so good looking it makes me want to punch myself in the face for even looking at them. In fact... there. That'll teach me for not having endless friends and family get-togethers in sunny gardens with barbecues and children and dogs and chickens and, I don't know, the local fucking farmer. Why not? He usually tips up at these things on the box, all rosy-faced with a bucket of cider and something to say about "local" produce.

It's all bollocks...

Or at least what we are being sold is bollocks. Solid gold bollocks.

Despite the bile and vitriol I've just painstakingly typed out, I try to cook. Nice stuff when I can, if I can afford it and if I can figure out a way to do it without the ridiculous "restaurant kitchen standard" stuff they use on the TV. Who has a fucking Aga anyway? Or a 6 hob range? Or a fucking farm nearby, come to that.

In what, in my mind, is becoming an increasingly pathetic attempt to justify myself, here's why I bother:

• I try to be healthy because I hate being overweight
• I try to do things cheaply because I've got a shit job, and I object to being told to spend £15 on a fucking chicken.
• I get a sense of accomplishment on the occasions when I don't fuck it up (something I don't get at work)
• When food tastes nice, it makes me happy (draw your own conclusions about my shallowness)
• More often than not the person/people (it's very rarely "people") that I cook for are the people I care most about, and being the person I am it's the best way I have to show that I care slightly.
• Come the Apocalypse, being able to do something practical might increase my chances of survival. At that point, my capacity for manipulating electric ones and zeroes is going to be worth the sum total of dick all.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Recipe: Butter, Sage, Parmesan, Spaghetti

It's Sunday evening, I'm knackered and can't be fannied with anything complicated and yet I tried this as inspired by both this dude:

and this dude:

A big dollop of butter (probably 4 tablespoons)
Small glug of oil
Enough spaghetti for 2 hungry people
25g of sage, stalks off (not sure why but they looked tough)
Parmesan (again, enough for 2 hungry people)

This is so simple it's laughable and yet managed to make me feel really silly by being tastier than some things I've spent all afternoon on (twatty soup recipes, I'm looking at you), and cheaper than pretty much anything I can think of that doesn't come in a tin (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Cook the spaghetti (duh).

Melt the butter with the oil. Not sure why, but I read somewhere that butter needs "protecting" when you heat it and I can't get that out of my head. Sling in the sage, all chopped up, give it a few minutes until the sage is a little bit brittle. The butter went a little bit brown when I did it, but it tasted nice.

Chuck the butter, oil and sage into the drained spaghetti and mix it around a bit. I did this to "Something Good" by the Utah Saints. My mixing was probably over-vigorous.

Grate over as much parmesan as you fancy. That's it.

Really nice dinner, very little effort and quite cheap - probably about a quid a head.

There. That was easy.

Reality Check

So, no posts in six and a half years, eh? Well, if anyone read this I'd apologise.

In that time, nothing has really changed. TV chefs still whitter on with little or no grasp on reality. Buy this £15 chicken; have a smashing dinner with your rent-a-mates; just hop in a cab to the deli "daaahling"; Eton-educated; comically-named; buy a farm; buy a bigger farm; oh you simply MUST go foraging; save the chickens, save the fish; be a geezer and make nob gags from your caravan while you're roughing it; make endless jams and pickles that no one will fucking eat - give them to people you hate at Christmas; and whatever you do try and turn it into reality TV. OMG, like, I totes didn't, like, realise that you had to kill a chicken to get, like, McNuggets. Tears. Tantrums. Soul-searching. Back to McDonalds.

I stopped watching TV cooking programmes, which loosely translates as "I stopped watching TV". I got more food-conscious and beat myself up about buying a chicken sandwich because I didn't know the chicken's name and perhaps it had been rudely beheaded before it had finished its crossword etc.

And then... Well, fuck it. Ok, try to eat ethically, try to be healthy. But for fuck's sake try not to beat yourself up about it. There are plenty of other reasons to be miserable.

Then someone pointed this guy out to me:

Things made sense again. Read his blog. Read the "About" section. That dude is impressive, and he gets it. Eat food you like. Don't be greedy and most importantly keep it simple and keep it within your own budget. If you can afford to spunk 15 notes on a chicken, be my guest. I can't, and even if I could, I wouldn't (I hope).

With that, I might try and blog a bit more, if I can get round to it...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Part Two in a Series on London's Best Roast Lunches...

My friend Katie and I headed south over the weekend to say goodbye to yet another Aussie heading home after making loads of money in IT. I wish I had studied IT.

I dislike going to award winning pubs and the White Horse in Parsons Green is the biggest winner of them all. I am not trying to be snobby; I just know that when a pub wins a “best in London” prize the posh masses will be there in a flash. And considering the White Horse is in the clientele are going to be even better heeled than normal. And I wasn’t wrong…

It was busy. Extremely busy. So busy that by 2pm they had run out of Sunday roast. So I can only go on what my fellow diners said – good quality meat, good veggies but not really enough on the plate to justify how much it cost. If I wasn’t going to have the roast I was going to have the fish and chips. But it had sold out. Third time lucky and I managed to get my order in for one of the last two pies.

It was a variation on the normal pub steak and Guinness combo, being a steak and Artois Bock pie served with my choice of chips, new potatoes or mash. I am happy to try out any drink suggestions so to accompany my pie I had a half pint of Artois Bock beer – very strong. So strong that when I asked for a pint the waiter and my friends stared at me – my friends because they know I get as tiddly as a grandmother and her Sunday sherry on a regular pint let along a pint of super-strength lager. The waiter gently suggested a half pint and I agreed.

The meal arrived and I was rather disappointed. All that was on the plate was a big mound of mash and a pie. The mash and the pie could have been the best mash and pie in the world but for £10 I think it is inexcusable not to add some greenery, at least some peas and carrots. Ah, for that I needed to order a side salad for £5. Grrrrrrrr!

The pie was good, big chunks of steak in gravy less bitter than it would be in a Guinness version. The pastry was really lovely and buttery and rather delicious. The mash was a bit too stodgy though, I found it hard to get through even half of what I was given. As I said above, a bit of shrubbery on the plate would have been good, it would break things up a bit. The beer was excellent and helped a little to cut through the heaviness, and for such a high alcohol content didn’t taste at all heavy. The White Horse has a massive range of lagers and ales on tap plus special guest beers that change regularly.

I was tempted by dessert but couldn’t afford it after the pie. My friends had cherry beer with chocolate cake. Interesting, but I will stick to coffee!

Whilst eating this meal my friends and I had great fun watching the natives. One tosser in head to toe designer gear was having great fun flying a remote-controlled plane into the traffic, nearly causing two accidents. Oh, how we laughed when a BMW ran over and crushed it and didn’t stop…

I’d go to the White Horse again for a pint some evening because of the range and because it’s a lovely, warm pub inside. But I think I will keep searching in my quest for the perfect Sunday roast lunch…

Friday, September 30, 2005

Eggs Benedict at Cecconi's

I have being doing some work with a restaurant in Mayfair called Cecconi's and I was there this morning doing some training when they offered me breakfast.

I don't usually eat breakfast as it feels like admitting that I am actually awake and productive in the morning, and that's a lie. However there are occaisons when breakfast can be taken and that is usually when staying in a decent hotel. I can't say I often go out for breakfast and breakfast meeting to me seems pure sadism.

On the rare occaison of a hotel breakfast I will invariably have eggs benedict. It's not a fancy or clever mixture of ingredients. Indeed eggs, bacon and a muffin seems almost fantastically dull. But then comes the Hollandaise and everything is simply surperb.

I am clearly a simple man as it made me very happy indeed, their orange juice was the best I've had in ages and they have simply the very best Earl Grey I've tasted. It is called Red Baron Earl Grey and is produced by the East India Tea House of London. I think you can buy retail packs of it at Harvey Nichols. If you like tea you MUST go and try this. Stunning.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Chorizo and Cannellini Bean Stew Thingy

Given that this is supposed to be a blog about food, I thought it was currently a bit light on recipes. So, I give you a recipe for this kind of chorizo and cannellini bean effort that I slung together the other weekend - more as a side dish than anything else, to accompany some big old chilli (Nigella Lawson's recipe from Feast, which I'll probably write about another time).

Anyway, it's a good week or so later and none of the brave chaps that dined on said have died yet (touch wood... dammit. Something wooden? Anything?... Door frame. Phew.).

Please also note, Jim will probably hate this, but my measurements are rather freestyle - so apologies if that bothers you.

Things you might need:
- A glug of olive oil
- A couple of chopped rashers of bacon (I used smoked streaky, mmm... fatty)
- A bay leaf
- Chopped rosemary (about a tbsp)
- Chopped thyme (ditto)
- 2 chopped cloves of garlic.
- Paprika (about a tbsp) - use any kind you like.
- A medium-sized onion, chopped.
- About a glass of red wine (more if you're feeling all Keith Floyd).
- 1 400g tin of chopped (organic ideally) tomatoes. British tomatoes are, sadly, pants.
- 1 400g tin of Cannellini beans, again preferably organic (hippies rejoice), drained, rinsed.
- About 8 inches of chorizo (insert obvious smutty joke, if appropriate) sliced into lozenges just less than a centimetre thick.
- Salt (of the Maldon Sea variety if you must), pepper (freshly-ground) and some nice fresh chopped parsley if you've got any handy. (NOT garnish. Bah.)

So, oil into a nice heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium heat, let it warm up and then in with the bacon and bay leaf for 2 minutes or so. Then in with Mr. Onion and stir a bit while the onion softens for 3 or 4 minutes. The idea is to get the bacon to brown and the onions to start to colour. If anything looks like it might go black or burn - turn down the gas. Duh.

In with the garlic, rosemary and thyme, and, once it smells all yummy, in with the wine and let it reduce down for a couple of minutes. Then add the tomatoes (out of the tin preferably) and their juice, plus the paprika (ooh, pretty colour).

Turn the heat down, pop a lid on and let it cook out for 4 or 5 minutes - by this time it should be looking pretty stewy. Lid off, and throw in the chorizo and beans. Season to taste, and pour in about a quarter of a pint of water, or more wine if you are already drunk.

Let this simmer for 5 minutes or more, basically until you are happy with the consistency, and (I stress, this is NOT garnish) stir in the parsley. Yes. All right. I realise it makes it look pretty too - but it's there for flavour. Honest.

That amount will serve two real human beings as a main course with some form of accompaniment, or as a side dish will do about six human beings, or four hundred and seven "cookbook people" who seem to be able to substist on three crumbs and thin air.

That is all.

(P.S. This is very loosely based on a stew featured in Mens Health magazine October 2005 - but I think mine tastes better. Well, I would - wouldn't I.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Coffee and a Croissant

You can class this as a mini rant if you like, but it is certainly not intended to be that. Not sure what it is really, so I suppose you can make your own mind up.

My point is this: why is it so flaming hard and expensive to get a decent espresso and, pushing out the boat a little perhaps, a pastry?

To illustrate my point, I refer you to the two following examples:

Example one, otherwise known as "Oh for crying out loud".

So, it's quarter past stupid in the morning and the walk into work has not been kind. You got up late, haven't eaten, barely showered, and there is more than a sneaking suspicion that the pants you are wearing may not actually be yours. And if they are, then they are certainly on backwards.

Having finally convinced both of your eyes to open at the same time and accept the concept of daylight, you approach the office without having uttered a word to anyone, other than the unrecognisable expletives that you may have tried to fire at the scooter that did all it could to splatter you across the road.

In the next ten minutes, you will be expected to speak to another real human being, and possibly respond in a meaningful way to, God forbid, a client.

The only way you stand more than a snowball's chance in Hell of getting away with it is to get a double espresso and something sweet into your cake-hole before your brain thinks better of it and shuts down on a more permanent basis.

So, holding firmly onto what is clearly your last hope, you heave your sorry frame into a cafe, and after a few seconds of concentration, the red mist clears and you mutter "Double-espresso-an'-a-cwassant-please" at the charming Eastern European barista. (Not a stereotype, or generalisation, but what actually happened today).

"Three pounds" she replies. Come again? Three English pounds, is that? Lordy Trousers - but no. Suck it up Stevie, this is going to save your life. But no. No. No and thrice no, it is not. The coffee is over-extracted, and manages to be both watery and burnt. The croissant is at best elderly, and at worst tough enough to kick the 'you know what' out of me and nick my wallet - not that there's anything in it now having surrendered my life savings in exchange for some industrial-grade poly-filler masquerading as breakfast.

So, demoralised, I enter the office, and proceed to make mistake after mistake. Granted this is probably because I'm a moron, rather than because I've eaten some slightly iffy patisserie, but it can't have helped.

Now, if you are still reading (and frankly, I'd be surprised), consider example two, or "Genius" as I believe I shall subtitle it:

Saturday morning (yes, I know, I didn't know there was one either) climb out of bed. Gently negotiating your tongue from the top of your mouth with a toothbrush, it becomes apparent that perhaps an ale or two may have been consumed the previous evening. Oh dear. Checking your phone messages, you discover that the reason you set your alarm (on repeat) was to get you up to go meet your parents who are coming into town to meet you. Early. Oh dear, oh dear.

Still, all ideas of washing and underpants thrust to the back of your mind, you can just about make it if you leave now. Just remember to keep breathing and maybe the walk will help clear your head, or at the very least stem the incessant waves of nausea. Apparently it doesn't. We have a potential emergency here.

However, as fate would have it, your rendez-vous point will take you past Borough Market. You step in, hoping that the beer fairy has been kind enough to leave you even a small amount of change to buy a... oh. Wait. A pound ten. Sod and bother. But NO. SAVED. Monmouth does take out double espresso for 60 pence, and a fresh croissant - fresh I tell you - is but 50. SAINTS BE PRAISED!! There is now every chance that you may live until at least midday.

SO - my question is this:

Why in the name of God can't someone open a decent, reasonably priced coffee shop anywhere near my flaming office?? Huh? I mean, there's an 'Apostrophe' nearish, but it's pricey, and I'm afraid I'll leave with armfuls of cakes as I am quite simply WEAK.

Sorry - but I hope you see my point. Rant over.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Ode to Fish Sauce

(Another one from Dani)

I’ve gotten into the habit recently of reading up on ingredients that really interest me so I can better understand how they work to make dishes taste great. I am not as fanatical as some people I know who can tell you the chemical breakdown of everything. I love reading about Heston Blumenthal’s ideas but I can only understand half of what he’s on about. I haven’t studied science since I was 15 and the science I do know is from archaeology at university – carbon dating isn’t that useful in cooking, no matter how much you’ve burnt your toast in the morning.

Mainly the things I’ve been looking at are ingredients not much used over here but common in kitchens back home in Australia because of our fondness for South East Asian cuisine. Fish sauce is more widely used over here than, say, ketjap manis (Indonesian soy sauce) and sambal olek (Indonesian chilli sauce). I make regular expeditions to Chinatown for these ingredients. I’ll share my musings on those condiments in another entry but for now I’ll bore you with my ponderings on fish sauce…

Ode to Fish Sauce

This is how much I love fish sauce: I’ve visited a factory making it and I still adore it. Fish sauce is made by fermenting really small fish in salt for a very long time. As you can imagine fish sauce factories smell really bad.

Fish sauce is like MSG – makes stuff taste great and found in just about anything in Thailand (see further reading notes). Fish sauce is used a lot like soy sauce in other Asian cuisines or salt in Western cuisines. It’s the cornerstone of Thai food and widely used in the rest of South East Asia. The Thai word for fish sauce is nam plagh or “fish water”.

It’s normally made from small, schooling saltwater fish, similar to anchovies, found in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. Fish sauce can be made from freshwater fish but having travelled around Thailand I wouldn’t recommend eating anything out of the rivers which are badly polluted by agriculture and sewage run-off.

Despite the fact everything is going to be turned into a stomach-turning rotting mess within a few days freshness is very important in making great fish sauce. The fish go straight from the boat to be rinsed and drained and mixed with sea salt in large earthenware jars lined with salt. The jar is topped off with a thick layer of salt and covered with a woven mat to stop the fish floating out. These are then left in the sun for up to a year to rot. Every now and again the jars are uncovered and exposed to direct sunlight, helping the fish to turn into fluid. I am not a scientist so I won’t explain the process here as I am bound to stuff it up. But I understand that exposing the rotting fish to sunlight periodically helps turn the resulting liquid a clear, reddish brown colour and a fragrant aroma. I mean fragrant too – fish sauce smells lovely, like the sea, and erm, fish.

After around a year the liquid is removed from the jars and any sediment are strained out with a clean cloth. The fish sauce is decanted into clean jars and allowed to air out; helping get rid of those stronger fish odours. It’s then bottled and there you have it, nam plagh.

This is the proper fish sauce, the best you can get, the extra virgin olive oil of fish water. Lesser grades of fish sauce are made by adding salt water to cover the fish remains and allowed to rot for just 2-3 months. Making natural, top-grade fish sauce is pretty time intensive – making it on a large scale requires big bucks. Therefore there are some fish sauces made from a process of hydrolysis in which some kind of enzyme or acid is added to hasten fermentation, while others are made by diluting natural or hydrolyzed fish sauce with salt water flavored and colored with sugar, caramel and MSG. To make sure you are using top quality fish sauce you should look for liquid that is a clear reddish brown color, a bit like sherry, with no sediment. If it’s dark or muddy brown it’s a lower grade or not naturally fermented. Good fish sauce adds flavour to your meal, but it shouldn’t make everything taste like fish. This is my favourite use for fish sauce – a simple, versatile dipping sauce which can also be used as a sauce for stir-fries and marinating meat. It’s called nuoc cham in Vietnamese. I recently used it when making roll-your-own Vietnamese spring rolls. You need to make it about an hour before serving.

I am bad at measuring things out precisely but this is how I do it:

¼ cup fish sauce
Juice of one small lime
Two crushed cloves of garlic
½ tsp sambal olek or a small amount of finely chopped red chilies to taste.

Mix together in a small bowl and serve.

(Nice little link to an article on MSG if you're interested: “If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?”)

Preem, Brick Lane

So, it's Friday evening, you've just left work and you fancy a curry. Having deftly avoided being roped into drinks with work, and roundly ignored your boss's final exhortations to actually achieve something in the course of your afternoon, you stride manfully (or indeed, womanfully) into the night.

But where to go? Um... well. Brick Lane presumably? I guess - I mean that's like curry central, right? Surely.

Surely, indeed.

At this point I could try to tell you precisely how many curry houses there are on Brick Lane, but me and counting have never really seen eye to eye, so I'm just going to go with 'lots'. I've been to a few of them now - granted not always in a suitably sober state for proper objective analysis - but the one I tend to choose when I can still see and form cogent sentences is Preem. Here are some of the reasons for which I like it:

1 - They don't try to lure you in with offers of discount nosh. They don't have to. Their food is genuinely tasty, in my humble opinion, so I guess there is no need for them to get involved in all that Ibiza-esque touting.

2- I really enjoy the food. I am a bit of a Lamb Dopiaza fan (please, let's not get into a discussion about authenticity of curry dishes. It's beyond that now. I don't care if it doesn't taste like it does in India - it's comfort food. I want a 'British curry'. Feel free to disagree.) and they do a nice tasty one. Tastier than some of the others I've had on that road. Hence my backing - for what little it's worth. Their Sag Aloo (spinach and potato thingy) is pretty yummy too.

3- Prompt, friendly, unassuming service. I know I don't know what some of the words mean, and that my pronunciation is rubbish - but that doesn't seem to bother them. I'm well aware that I may come across as an ignorant fool, but the waiters (there weren't any waitresses) didn't make me feel like that.

4- It's probably pricier than the other places, but I'd rather pay a little bit more and feel happier about what I'm eating. Possibly some weird old psychological thingy, and I'm being duped - but that's my paranoia again.