Monday, 27 July 2009
Plenty to write about including making pizza in a furnace and probably a video post too so you poor, poor people get to see and hear me as well as read my culinary ramblings.
Fairly busy week coming up so it may be a few days before I get the chance to start the write ups but you are so wonderfully patient, I’m pretty sure you won’t mind.
And Ryanair is a sorry excuse for an airline. Just had to get that off my chest.
Thursday, 16 July 2009
Monday, 13 July 2009
While much of the food available in the city reflects the diverse nature of the population – noodle bars next to falafal huts and pizza parlours – this is the all-American meal.
While they may not be able to lay claim to creating the individual components - the burger from Germany and the fries from Belgium - here is where the two were thrust together in a happy and enduring marriage.
There are a number of elements necessary to create the perfect cheeseburger and each must be just right before you can consider the possibility of creating something significantly greater than the sum of its parts. All good burgers are greater than the sum of its parts.
The bun should be soft and yielding and of an absorbent nature to suck up those delicious rich and beefy juices from the patties. The cheese has to be sufficiently melted with a distinct but subtle flavour of its own that doesn’t overpower the taste of the beef. As a result, blue cheese is a no-no for me.
Thinly sliced tomatoes should cut through the whole thing with a sweet freshness and a slick of mayonnaise and a dribble of ketchup must complete the ensemble, ready to squirt out at any moment over a clean shirt. Lettuce is window-dressing.
Whilst a good cheeseburger, when presented, must tower in an intimidating fashion, the first bite should compress the whole thing together into a manageable thickness so that all the components can be taken with every mouthful.
The side order, whilst not as important as the burger itself, needs also to be frighteningly oversized but the individual fries should be no thicker than a plumber’s finger.
And they must not, under any circumstances, be stacked in the manner of a virginal game of Jenga, merely tossed happily into a warm bowl. Melted cheese is optional but highly recommeneded.
According to trusted reports, the ultimate burger experience is to be enjoyed at Shake Shack, a veritable institution at Madison Square Park, within spitting distance of the wonderful Flatiron Building.
It’s not unusual for the queue to snake through the park and out towards Broadway as hungry residents wait patiently for upwards of an hour for a little taste of the city.
We didn’t wait quite that long but the lack of breakfast made the fifteen minutes pass achingly slowly.
But, oh, was it worth it. A truly excellent burger recreated in all its magnificent glory below.
Cheeseburger & Fries
Inside sources have revealed that Shake Shack use a combination of beef cuts (with a ratio of 80:20 meat to fat) in order to create their tasty patties. Budget and practicalities prevented me from taking this Heston Blumenthalian approach to burger making but beef skirt is a great alternative. Tasty, juicy and cheap enough to not feel guilty about forcing it through a mincer.
To make two thick or four thin burgers:
300g beef skirt - Good beef, please (goes without saying, no?)
Salt and pepper.
That’s it. No, really. That’s it. Don’t mess around with egg or breadcrumbs or onions. Leave it pure and let it sing over your tastebuds.
Slice the meat into 2cm pieces and salt generously. Leave, covered, in the fridge for a couple of hours. Rinse the meat under cold water and mince finely. Season with salt and pepper and shape into burgers. Let them come up to room temperature before you fry them.
The buns were made with the exact same recipe as the hot dog buns, just shaped differently and brushed with a little beaten egg before baking. They freeze just fine.
Tip: I used a cutter when making these little fellas but they would have risen better if shaped by hand. As a result instead of slicing one bun in half, I just used two for each burger.
Thinly sliced tomato
A little butter
Get everything ready before you go, that way there is no waiting around and you can assemble and attack as soon as possible.
Get a frying pan nice and hot, dribble in a little cooking oil, season each side of the burgers and fry for about four minutes. Flip them over – the underside should be browned nicely – place a couple of slices of cheese on the cooked side and leave to cook for a further two minutes.
Remove the burgers from the pan and put them on a warm plate to rest. Add a small nugget of butter to the pan, return to the heat and fry the cut side of the buns so they mop up all that lovely beef juice.
Smother one half of the bun with ketchup, the other with mayo and layer up.
Serve with cheesy fries and a hearty appetite.
Thursday, 9 July 2009
Going for a curry became an exercise in machismo and vindaloo, somewhat unfairly, was labelled as the number one challenge in the heat tolerance stakes. With such a tag, much of the subtlety was inevitably lost amidst an ever-increasing barrage of heat.
Wrong on two levels. Vindaloo, although hot, should also encompass a subtle blend of spices creating a warming dish with a delicious sourness from the vinegar that creates much of the ‘gravy’, as it is called in India.
And as any true curry aficionado knows, the vindaloo isn’t the true challenge on the menu. That mantel has always, and will always, remain with the phaal – an eye-wateringly hot dish that could fell Brian Blessed at ten paces.
The great thing about making curries from scratch is that you can blend the spices to your desired taste, and I guarantee that no two will be the same. All part of the fun.
Although I usually use lamb neck or chicken thighs when cooking Indian dishes – the bone adds a depth of flavour and richness that you just can’t achieve with boneless meat – mutton is something that I’ve wanted to get on the menu for a while.
Despite the best efforts of the Prince of Wales, mutton has remained a meat that exists on the periphery of most people’s radar. As a result a special order with your butcher or a trip to a Middle Eastern supermarket might be in order. A kilo, bone in, will make a good-sized curry. Easily enough for four along with rice, bhajis and other necessary additions.
Mutton Vindaloo recipe
This recipe is an amalgamation (and a bit of freestyle) from Simon Majumdar of Dos Hermanos and Hub UK. I know the addition of tomatoes will probably see me ostracised by a great many traditionalists but I’m prepared to live with that.
Chillis are the foundation of this Portuguese inspired dish. Go for at least five or six dried chillis and take it from there depending on your taste and tolerance for heat. For those that prefer a milder curry experience, the heat can be tempered with yoghurt. Feel free to play around with the ratios.
5-6 (or more) dried chillis
An inch of dried cinnamon
Half a teaspoon of black pepper corns
A teaspoon of coriander seeds
A teaspoon of cumin seeds
Four cardamom pods, seeds removed
¼ nutmeg, grated
Two large garlic cloves
A thumb of ginger, peeled
Mash the spices together in a pestle and mortar, or grind them in a spice or coffee grinder until you have something resembling a rough powder. Add the garlic and ginger and pound into a paste, adding a little water where necessary.
1kg mutton neck, on the bone and cubed into inch pieces
Three large onions
Four garlic cloves
Two tins of tomatoes, drained and blitzed.
150-200ml white wine vinegar
Dark brown sugar, to taste
Two tablespoons of oil or ghee
Finely chop, or blend the onions and garlic. Fry in the oil or ghee in a heavy bottomed pan or casserole over a low heat until they start to brown, crank up the heat and add the vindaloo paste. Fry for two or three minutes and tip into a spare bowl.
Season the meat with salt and brown over a high heat in the same dish.
Lower the heat, add the onion, garlic and curry paste and stir. Pour in the vinegar and tomatoes and leave to cook either in a low oven or on the hob for at least an hour, preferably two or three. It should bubble gently, barely a quivering simmer – necessary to break down the tough bits of meat.
Once cooked, taste and add the sugar to temper the astringency of the vinegar.
Serve with rice, naan bread and bottles of lager, all in memory of lad culture, the grandest of oxymorons.
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
Being a helpful (as well as emotionally attached) soul, I offered to come up and aid them with the inevitable clear-out. 'I'm not moving junk from one house to another,' said my Dad.
He's right. There are two decades of accumulated rubbish hiding in the darkest corners of the house. 'Useful' items once cherished have been stowed in the attic and forgotten about. Toys. Old school work. Clothes. All now smell old. Unloved.
The process takes three times longer than it needs to: the contents of each box, instead of being thrust into a waiting black bin liner, are examined. Memories come thick and fast and the occasional tear teases at dampening eyes. Childhood concurrently feels long ago and within recent memory.
But it's fun too. In one box we found this:
a tube of Pringles that had been opened and unfinished about ten years ago.
The lid was opened with trepidation. I feared a colony of mould that had somehow developed intelligence or sentience of some sort.
What was inside was far more disturbing.
Ten years and the Pringles looked almost fresh. I have no idea what they put into these things that has managed to slow the aging process to such a painfully unnatural degree but I'm sure Joan Rivers might well be interested.
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Tuesday, 7 July 2009
The Twittering classes are working themselves into a frothy hubbub. Journos are striking low blows. Battles lines are being drawn and codes of ethics are being drafted quicker than an emergency UN resolution.
It’s all about the freebies.
It seems that the issue is coming to a head and is rapidly gaining some serious press attention: Is it right for bloggers to accept freebies (anything from sample packets to slap-up meals) in return for write ups? If so, what provisos should be laid down? And if it’s not, why not?
For all the attention the issue has been getting, one could be forgiven for thinking that the food blogosphere is awash with cleverly disguised puff pieces masquerading as restaurant reviews and greedy amateur food writers hounding PRs for anything, so long as it’s free.
Not that I can see. The suggestion that your average food blogger would pen a sycophantic review in return for some gratis nom and half a bottle of wine is deeply denigrating. Full disclosure seems to be the consensus with very little, if any, dissent.
Honesty and transparency are crucial for a writer to maintain their integrity. The second your word becomes suspect or is revealed to have been bought, that integrity disappears and, in the words of Bill Hicks ‘every word you say is like a turd falling…into my drink’.
Perhaps a little harsh, but it would be foolish not to quote the man on this issue seen as he spoke so vociferously about it.
Sometimes the lure of pound or dollar signs becomes too great, or is a necessity (Exhibit A: Marco Pierre White with one divorce too many). Others have no such scruples about whoring out their name (call to the stand Gordon Ramsay and the arch worshipper of Mamon, Anthony Worral Thompson).
But from what I can see food bloggers are an honest bunch. We resemble the beloved Saint Delia in this respect – a woman of strict moral standing who has refused to endorse any product for monetary re-imbursement.
Our word is important. It is all we have. When it becomes suspect we lose any respect and with it any power it carries.
So where is the clamour coming from?
It’s coming from the one place that is set to lose out: print media.
The insinuation is that accepting a tidy little freebie in return for a positive report is something new, something that brings with it a new set of moral codes.
The press and PR have been strolling hand in hand for decades, scratching backs and trading favours since Gutenberg first lifted the cloth on his invention. So why the furore?
It’s about access.
Before the Internet, before email, before Twitter, before blogs there was journalism. It was a closed shop on a pedestal high, high above the world in which we mere mortals lived. A notoriously hard industry to break into and one that had a monopoly on the written word. Food writing, but a miniscule part of the trade, was even more of a hidden avenue.
But things have changed. The Internet and, more specifically, Web 2.0 with its user generated and led content has brought with it a democratisation of the written word. Print journalism has finally woken up to this.
It’s not so much about their place on the pedestal being taken over, it’s about the pedestal rapidly crashing to the ground.
This isn’t necessarily new. Both Harden’s and Zagat guides have been utilising user-generated content for years to compile more democratic, balanced and realistic restaurant reviews (whether or not they can fell Michelin remains to be seen, but I suspect we are witnessing the final throes of that revered institution).
What the Internet has done, though, is give a voice to all those who want it. Naturally, there are good and bad blogs. Good and bad food writers. And the web is awash with dull lists of what people cooked for their friends, Hank and Maureen, last weekend.
But this is a product of the fledgling nature of the phenomenon. Some will fall by the wayside, others will flourish – it’s not unusual for the top food blogs to get over a million visits a month, the sort of hit rate some magazine editors would eat their own children for.
This wheat/chaff sorting is happening already and as the word on the screen becomes as respected and as powerful as the word on the page, it will happen more rapidly.
Last year I did an internship (perhaps stage is the more appropriate word as we talking in culinary terms) at a well-known food magazine. Two weeks, unpaid. Even my expenses went unpaid, the ‘economic downturn’ given as an excuse only weeks after I submitted my claim.
I’d held this form of magazine journalism in high regard, put it on a pedestal. Magazine offices were places where exciting things happen everyday, where people who love food get giddy about all the things I get giddy about. As a result I was struck, rabbit-headlight like, for much of my time there. Slightly shy and in awe of those around me. Those who were doing exactly what I wanted to do.
Except they weren’t. The daily grind was dull. The reality was that I was already doing what I wanted to do by writing off my own back, finding my own stories, working freelance and publishing online. I just didn’t realise it at the time.
On my final day the editor took time to talk to me about what I wanted to do and how to achieve it. ‘Something’s not really been published unless it’s in print,’ they said.
At the time, I agreed. Having had a couple of pieces published, there really was a thrill in seeing one’s name in a by-line. It was a buzz. But the reality is very different, and I’m only just coming to realise this.
There is a freedom on the Internet and successful writers here can be seen by hundreds, thousands, more people than those in print. Many journalists – the good ones at least – know this and are embracing the medium.
What the debate about freebies really comes down to is part of a larger discussion about the future, nature and value of print journalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I love print. Newspapers are an integral, and deeply enjoyable, part of my life. Likewise magazines. The very nature of print journalism is a near guarantor of its quality – providing you look in the right places, of course. There is something wonderful, tangible about print. Sunday papers are one of my favourite things in the world.
But to assume that just because someone only publishes online they can’t be as good as a print counterpart is just wrong. And to assume that just because someone has been offered a free meal they will happily shelve their own opinions and scruples is not just wrong, it’s also deeply patronising.
Freebies and the media go together, and always have done, like children and chocolate. Only now, food bloggers are getting a share of the chocolate and the old guard don’t like it.
Monday, 6 July 2009
Perhaps it makes sense. If the mind is focussed on something other than the plate, the food is likely to suffer. Heavy-handedness, tension and lack of attention to detail are all by-products of anger.
Thomas Keller’s kitchens at Per Se and The French Laundry are famously calm and quiet: a far cry from the frenetic, angry, shouty affairs we have come to expect from high end kitchens (The Ramsay Effect, perhaps?)
Maybe if Gordon’s fire and brimstone moments were less frequent, his food could be even better and the future of Ramsay Holdings would be a little more secure.
It would appear the same goes for writers.
Last week was a stressful affair, for various reasons. I didn’t even realise it until Friday. ‘You’re stressed, aren’t you?’ said the GF, ‘I can see it in your writing.’
She was right. Of course. The first draft of my hot dog post was clumsy, overly verbose and distinctly without point. After sharing a bottle of wine it was summarily and judiciously edited. For the best.
There is a moral here. For me, at any rate. When you are bubbling under the surface, it’s best not to cook or write. Things will go wrong and it will make the general mood an awful lot worse. The problem is self-exacerbating.
In other news: it was with giddying excitement that I found out on Saturday that this little labour of love had been name checked by BBC’s Olive Magazine as one of their favourite blogs this month.
A real honour to be featured alongside such luminaries as the (multi)-award winning Cannelle et Vanille and the staggeringly good (Guild of Food Writers nominee) World Foodie Guide. Excellent company indeed.
And finally, what can you expect this week? Vindaloo, High tea. The penultimate part of Eating New York (cheeseburgers and fries) and maybe even some tripe for this week's Nose To Tail exploit. Erm, yum?
And with that delightful thought, I must bid you adieu. The train awaits and when I next login I will be back up north. Probably covered in soot and eating pie in the welcoming bosom of the family.
Friday, 3 July 2009
I’ve always said that my last supper would consist of hot dogs. As much as I’ve tried to develop the outward appearance of a sophisticated foodie, I can’t shift this love of cheap sausages simmered in cloudy water and slung into a fluffy white bun.
Until now, I wasn’t fussy. I wouldn’t have specified brand names or quantities. Simply 'lots. With everything.' That would be my last request.
I’ve changed my mind. My final meal on earth would be these hot dogs. Homemade buns. Homemade relish. Ketchup. Mustard. Fried onions. And beef sausages.
Throughout Europe hot dogs are almost invariably made of pork. But with a historically large Jewish, and increasingly Muslim, population in New York, sausages here tend to be all-beef. It’s hard to find a kosher or Halal pig.
Your nearest Middle Eastern supermarket will be the best place to pick up beef hot dogs.
NB Recipe inspired by and modified from one in Gourmet magazine.
To make 16-20 hot dogs (more, even, than I could manage), you will need:
16-20 beef hot dogs (no kidding, Alex, get on with it)
A medium sized cucumber cut into little tiny pieces
A small onion, also cut into teeny tiny pieces
150ml white wine vinegar
50g caster sugar
Thickener (I used xantham gum, my new favourite multi-purpose ingredient but cornflour works fine)
Mix all these together. That’s it.
Buns (can also be used to make burger buns – more on that later)
350ml full fat or semi-skimmed milk
150ml double cream
200ml warm water
800g plain flour
7g packet dried yeast
two teaspoons of salt
To make the buns, bring the milk and cream to a gentle simmer and leave to cool. Add the yeast to the warm water and leave for five minutes until it starts to foam like a rabid dog.
Mix the sugar and salt into the flour, pour in the foaming yeast mixture and then the cooled milk and cream (if it’s too hot you will kill the yeast, in the manner of a cruel Eastern European dictator wiping out a persecuted ethnic minority).
If you have a mixer, use the paddle to mix the wet doughy mass for about six minutes. If the dough is too wet, incorporate more flour until the dough just comes together.
If, like me, your mixer has exploded in a cloud of acrid black smoke and you are too scared to turn it on, you will be doing this by hand. Once the dough has been stirred together, turn out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously for about ten minutes. Add more flour whenever necessary – this is a wet dough.
Once you have a ball of dough and not a seeping puddle, tip it into an oiled bowl. Bear in mind that it will at least double in size. Let it prove for a couple of hours, covered with a damp tea towel
Turn it back out onto a floured surface and knock it back down by kneading it for another couple of minutes. Divide the dough into 16-20 equal sized pieces, roll them into a vague sausage shape (about six inches) and then place them evenly spaced on a baking sheet.
Leave a couple of centimetres between each one and let them prove, again covered with a damp tea-towel. About 45 minutes should do it.
Once your buns are touching and have near doubled in size, bake them in a pre-heated oven (about 175 degrees C) for 15-20 minutes, moving them from the top of the oven to the bottom about half way through. This will brown the tops whilst making sure they are cooked all the way through.
Remove them from the oven and leave to cool for ten minutes before putting them on a cooling rack.
Slice the bun down the middle, fill with fried onions (you don’t need a recipe for those, do you?), pop in a sausage that has been simmering away in murky water for six hours (if you want the really authentic NYC experience) and top with relish, ketchup and mustard.
This is without a shadow of a doubt the best hot dog I’ve ever had. The buns are light, soft and delicious but don’t have that cloudy, fluffy texture of bought buns. The relish is sharp, cool and sweet, the perfect counterpoint to the rest of the flavours and textures.
And the sausage? It’s a hot dog. You know not to expect artisanal spiced cuts of premium Saddleback pork. But that doesn’t make it any less tasty. Here’s to the guiltiest and most pleasurable of guilty pleasures. Perfect for July 4th.
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Thursday, 2 July 2009
My last piece (the one about lamb breast) was my 250th. By means of celebration here is one about when things go wrong. More fun than any self-congratulatory nonsense.
One of the great things about being a food writer is that you can maintain an air of smugness buoyed by the impression given off through writing.
You can bask constantly in the warm glow of success, or at least give the impression that you bask in the warm glow of success as you eat meal after meal of perfectly focussed, well-lit, delicious food.
Whether it is a plate of faultless and delicate macaroons or the glorious, greasy simplicity of a full English breakfast, readers can be left with the impression that each and every mouthful is one that skirts close to that idealised standard we call ‘perfection.’
If only that were the case.
The reality is very different. Oh, the joys of selective writing.
Witness exhibit (a): dried peach crisps:
Barely recognisable as peach, they were certainly dried. And crisp? They looked as if they’d been through a Hindu funerary rite of passage.
This is by no means a unique occurrence. One of my best tricks is leaving things in the oven overnight to cool, coming down bleary eyed in the morning and immediately turning on the grill. A man needs toast.
Only the faintly acrid smell of burning is enough to jolt me into action and extract whatever it was that now has a swiftly blackening crust.
There have been others.
Barely a month ago I managed to block our entire drainage system whilst experimenting with spherification. On cool quiet nights I can still hear my girlfriend’s faintly indignant (tinged with faint humour) tone ringing in my ears with the words ‘You’ve blocked our drains with molecular gastronomy!’
Only two days ago did I read the words ‘Caution: dispose the sodium alginate preparation in the bin, and not in the sink.’ Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
But my culinary bête noire remains Christmas cake – still the subject of more cooking related disasters than I would care to remember.
Last Christmas I sliced off an entire nail chopping dried fruit. On eventually completing the cake it was cooked too long and emerged from the oven dried and blackened. Only generous sousing with booze and careful removal of the outer layer rendered it edible.
Until a hungry mouse decided to gorge itself whilst we were away for three days.
The year before I snapped a wooden spoon whilst stirring the thick cake mixture, a painful splinter piercing my hand. And on lifting the cake into the oven the tin slipped from my hands and splurged its thick contents all over the floor.
As a final ‘up yours’ that cake, too, ended up burnt after my father decided it wasn’t cooking quickly enough at the designated temperature.
There are more, but here is where I hand over to you. What have been your biggest and most comical culinary failures, faults and fuck ups?
The best will be immortalised in a personalised short story. Typed out (on a typewriter, no less) by me and then published right here.
Comment below, email or tweet me your tales.
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
Breast of lamb, a cut near identical to pork or beef short ribs, is criminally underused and as a result is almost giveaway cheap. It has featured on these pages before (paired with lamb’s kidneys) but it really is delicious enough to stand-alone.
For the gastronomically minded, it can be used to make lamb ‘bacon’ and it is a cut gaining in popularity amongst top-end chefs - Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 features breast of lamb on his menu.
Whilst I’m not averse to tinkering with high end cooking: dishes that take days, rather than hours, to plate up and consist of a dizzying combination of foams, airs, purées, spheres, mousses, geleés, crisps and other such assorted tom-foolery, sometimes what you really want is hearty and basic.
Lamb and beans is a classic combination throughout France and North Africa. Slow cooked shanks with flageolet beans. Lamb stew with white beans and fresh coriander. Rack of lamb with a bean cassoulet.
Whatever the combination there is something hearty, warming and satisfying about the taste of the meat – now beginning to develop some flavour (I find spring lamb over-rated and lacking in flavour) – and the fulfilling nature of the beans.
Breast of Lamb roasted with onion and spiced chick peas (garbanzo beans)
Although there isn’t an awful lot of meat on this particular cut, it is fatty and the inherent richness should leave you feeling sated without being overly full. As the lamb roasts it will release its moisture into the bed of chickpeas waiting expectantly below. The result is some of the tastiest pulses you will ever chow down.
A single piece of lamb breast should easily serve three-four people, depending on how long it has been since they last ate and whether or not they are the sort of friends happy to be fobbed off with extra pulses and veg instead of meat. Thought not. The recipe below is for two.
Lamb breast, about 500g in weight.
An unwaxed lemon
Oregano (dried or fresh, finely chopped – as much as you want)
Salt and pepper
Zest the lemon and juice half of it into a bowl. Add the same amount of olive oil, the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Slash the top of the lamb and rub the mixture into it.
For the chickpeas
One tin of chick peas, drained and rinsed
One large white onion, finely diced
One large red onion, roughly chopped
Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
A teaspoon of smoked paprika
Salt and Pepper
Four or five sprigs of fresh oregano
A splash of olive oil
Mix all the above together and tip into a roasting tray (large enough to hold the lamb).
Get a ridged griddle pan screamingly hot (leave it on there for five minutes before you even think of cooking on it. Seriously. These things take an age to get hot).
Sear the lamb for four-five minutes until it has some good colour on one side. Flip and cook for another couple of minutes. Place the lamb on top of the chickpeas and roast in a moderately hot oven (c. 150 degrees C) for about an hour and a half. Give the tray a shake a couple of times during cooking.
Lift the lamb onto a cutting board and leave it to rest whilst you are plating up. Pile a heap of baby spinach leaves into the middle of a plate, top with the roasted chickpeas and hunks of meat that you have delicately carved/hacked mercilessly from the bones.
Ideally, serve in front of episodes of the West Wing with a crisp white wine for company.
Feel free to gnaw away at the meat still clinging to the ribs. I did. ‘You are such a shameless carnivore,’ said the GF. If I had been in a position to answer, I wouldn’t have been able to deny it.
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