Friday, 30 January 2009

Friday Nibbles - Onions

Cheap, tasty, staggeringly versatile – what’s not to like about the humble onion? Housed within the tough, papery skin is a vegetable that is integral to cuisines from all over the world – from the curries of India to the pickled onions of the UK, served alongside steaming fish and chips. Italian, French, Greek, Spanish cooking, and countless others, would be very different indeed were it not for this glorious vegetable.

Onions are one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind. They have always been easy to grow, able to flourish in a myriad of climatic conditions, keep well and are easily transported, a property that made them important to ancient cultures.

They are, along with garlic, leeks, ramsoms (wild garlic), part of the allium family and were probably first cultivated by the Egyptians who worshipped the onion as a symbol of eternal life.

Now the majority are grown in China and India, although the capacity of the onion to grow in so many varied climates means that many nations don’t have to import them, instead growing their own and storing them once the season is over.

Although there are countless recipes that include onions, very few exist that put them on a pedestal all of their own. One notable exception, of course, is the nectar that is French onion soup (method to follow). Instead, onions tend to form an integral aspect of recipes and as such much be prepared, a task many cooks find frustrating.

Chopping onions the right way is one of those tricks that, once you learn, you’ll never use any other method. It is very simple and uses the root end to hold the vegetable together whilst you chop it from the top end (if you already know all this then feel free to skip forward).

The first step is to slice off the top half centimetre so that you end up with a flat end which you can put face down on the chopping board. Once you have done that slice the onion in half and remove the skin.

Next lay the onion down on its largest exposed flat surface so you have a hemisphere facing up towards you. Using a (sharp) knife make a series of cuts down its back all the way through, being careful not to cut through the root end which will continue to hold it all together. Finally, start cutting perpendicular to these and tiny little pieces of onion should start to fall away.

Depending on what you are cooking, these can be large chunks or miniscule pieces that will almost dissolve if they are cooked slowly in oil. If you wish to make slices, as opposed to dice, then dispense with the first step and just cut across the onion after you have skinned it.

Cooking onions, too, can present some problems, with many people trying to hurry the process and ending up with burnt, acrid tasting slices as opposed to sweet and fragrant. Many recipes call for onions to be ‘sweated’. This should be done over a gentle heat in a little oil and normally takes 10-15 minutes with occasional stirring. Once they have reached this stage – soft and vaguely translucent – they can then be’ browned’ by a further 5-10 minutes cooking. This will give you a sweetness thanks to the caramelisation of the naturally occurring sugars (a process known as ‘Maillard reactions’).

So, onto something more fun – French onion soup is a bona fide classic and one that is near impossible to screw up. It is warming, hearty and makes a delicious lunch or a first rate starter if you are having more than one course. It is the sort of food that you serve to people you really like – casual, no tablecloths necessary and many bottles of vin de table from Burgundy.

Naturally, there are variations to this dish which can elevate it to heights you never thought possible – bacon, red wine, rich beef stock, herbs – but sometimes a quick fix is all you need which is exactly what this method is. Should serve two, avec du pain, naturellement.
Thinly slice four or five onions and sweat them in fat (butter, oil, goose fat – whatever you have to hand. I used chicken fat today from a bird we roasted at the weekend) for 15-20 minutes. Crank up the heat and start to brown them. You should end up with some delicious crusty brown stuff clinging to the bottom of the pan. This is the fond and is most excellent.

Once they have been nicely browned (and this is the bit that will probably make a Frenchman raise his hands, scream ‘sacre bleu’ and weep into his beret) add about two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Not the good stuff, obviously. It will darken the soup and add a wonderful sweet acidity. Using a wooden spoon scrape the fond from the bottom of the pan and stir it into the onions.

Next pour in the stock (about 500ml), turn down the heat, stir and leave for another ten minutes. If you don’t make your own, stock cubes are ideal (chicken or beef will yield the best results. I don’t know about vegetable) for this and give results as good as anything I’ve done with homemade stock.

Whilst it is bubbling away and filling your kitchen with smells to make your stomach gurgle in anticipation, dry out a piece of bread in the oven. Good crusty bread is the best, day old baguette if you have it.

Pour the soup into a bowl, top with the bread and layer on a healthy slice of cheese (traditionally Gruyere but I think tradition went out of the window with the balsamic vinegar so anything melty will do), pop it under the grill until the cheese starts to brown and bubble.

Eat. Sigh a happy sigh and realise just how good the world is when you can make food like this for mere pence.

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Thursday, 29 January 2009


‘Let me get this straight. You’re a food writer and you’ve never had haggis? You’ve never had haggis? You’ll be telling me you’ve never seen Star Wars next.’

‘Well, actually, I haven’t ever seen Star Wars,’ the look of shame that washed over my face was only partly deliberate and for comic value. Mostly it was about the shame.

To be fair these are just two of the many things on the list that is snappily titled ‘Things I probably should have done by now but haven’t, not due to not wanting to but because the circumstances have never been right and I’ve not made the time.’

I’m not a huge fan of those ‘If you’ve not done this you are not a worthwhile human being’ type lists that inevitably end with: walk the Inca Trail, see Aurora Borealis, swim with dolphins. I find them vaguely patronising and aimed at people who need to be told how to have fun (insert smile/shake of the head here).

But this is my own list. And it is things I haven’t done. Not things I have done and feel achingly and cloyingly smug about.

I’ve never been on a proper upside down, spin you round, make you vomit your spleen out through your nostrils roller-coaster (fear of heights, fear of speed, fear of falling out whilst 200 feet in the air and landing on my face). I’ve never read anything by Dickens (no reason, just haven’t). I’ve never seen a Shakespeare production. I’ve never been to Scotland or New York. I’ve never listened to a Sonic Youth album. Ditto Neil Young. I’ve never been to an opera or a ballet. I’ve never seen a Damian Hirst. You get the idea.

The list goes on when it comes to food. Never had a vindaloo (something I wish to rectify). Never eaten a KFC (something I don’t). I’ve never baked a chocolate cake. I’ve never tried frogs’ legs. I’ve never eaten tripe, brain, cheek or bollock (at least not knowingly). And I’ve never eaten haggis.

Until last night.

Last Sunday was Burns’ Night: an excuse (as if they need it) for anyone who is Scottish, claims to be Scottish, thinks they might once have been Scottish, is possibly of Scottish descent, has ever been to Scotland or seen the painting Monarch of the Glen, to drink whisky – without an ‘e’ (that’s not a drug reference) – read unintelligible poetry and eat haggis, that fabled national dish of Scotland.

Haggis is best approached with an open-mind and a willingness to ignore what is on the ingredients list, which reads like something from the opening scene of Macbeth.

It is essentially a great big sausage. Traditionally – and even today – sausages were a way to make palatable the bits that might have been less than appealing and we see this in many cuisines over the world from French boudin to Polish Kaszanka and the haggis is no different. Made from sheep’s pluck (liver, heart and lungs) and padded out with oats, suet and spices, it can be hard for some to swallow.

When I casually mentioned that I fancied getting a haggis for dinner on Sunday my comment was met with little enthusiasm and as such we ended up haggis-less. But my curiosity was finally sated last night when we walked up the road to take part in the quiz at the local pub. Answering general knowledge questions is tough work and at the halfway point we were offered plates of haggis, tatties (mashed potato) and neeps (mashed turnips).

Which was when I mentioned, perhaps mistakenly, to a fellow quizzer that I’d never had haggis. Knowing my line of work, his response was perhaps justified but I soon got to work filling this glaring chasm in my culinary history.

And I am glad I did because haggis is delicious. It has a great savoury taste, similar to black pudding (thanks to the spices) but a firmer and mealier texture reminiscent of course cous cous or quinoa. With buttery mashed potatoes and slightly acidic mashed turnip on the side it was perfect. It would have been a shame not to wash it down with a few ‘wee drams’ of whisky, which is possibly the reason it took me slightly longer to wobble-walk the few hundred metres back to the house than it normally does.

Monday, 26 January 2009

New Residents

I know, I know. This is a food blog. But sometimes rules must be bent, and life is the better for it.

Not content with chickens, my girlfriend has been playfully prodding me in the direction of pets for about six months. That’s pets rather than functional animals, something that lives in the house and doesn’t give us milk or eggs or meat.

By the time the New Year came round, my half-arsed and not-really-very-strong defences had been worn down and we started looking for a cat, or to be more precise a kitten. That was my only stipulation: that we get the smallest, cutest, littlest kitten we could find. I’m aware that they don’t stay small, cute and little for very long but I was happy to ignore that reality.

It didn’t take us long. On our first visit to the Blue Cross we found two little kittens that had to be housed together so we signed the papers and yesterday they came home with us.

And so it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to (drum roll please, though not too noisy, they seem to have an aversion to LOUD NOISES) Josiah and Abbey – named after America’s favourite fictional president and his first lady. It’s fine to call them The Barletts. We do.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Friday Nibbles - The Return

It had been a staggeringly, disgustingly, painfully, outrageously and downright scandalously long time since I posted a ‘nibble’ on this fair blog.

I was just getting into a routine as well. Things were settling down and I was building up a steady following of lovely, warm and delightful readers who were kind enough to leave their own thoughts to supplement my own verbal culinary ramblings.

And then it just…g r a d u a l l y s t o p p e d. Sorry about that. My bad.

In 1968 Elvis stunned the world with his comeback special. It was a staggering performance that proved he was an artist of incomparable talent, revitalised his ailing career and guaranteed that he was destined to enter the highest echelons of rock fame. And I plan to do the same. With, erm, rice.

One of the four main cereal crops that form the carbohydrate staple part of the diet for 99 per cent of the world’s population, rice is amazing. Despite the numerous variations of this humble crop there are, in fact, only two species of domesticated rice. All the hundreds of different types from Basmati and Jasmine to Carnaroli and long-grain are just variations of a mere two progenitors.

Archaeological evidence suggests that rice was first domesticated in the Asian sub-continent at some point between 10,500 years BP (before present) and 6,500 year BP and from there spread to other parts of Asia and Africa. The grain didn’t reach Europe until the development of the Spice Route in the fifteenth century CE and finally made its way over to The Americas by the late 1600s thanks to the Slave Trade.

Now over 20% of the world’s population rely on rice to provide the bulk of their diet with the Chinese way out ahead in terms of consumption. They get through about 80 kilos of the stuff per person (per year, obviously. Not all in one go) which is a lot. For comparative purposes, that is about eight times the amount we chew through in Europe or America.

There are now so many varieties of rice (some estimates put the figure at about 100,000) that to talk about them all would be both fool-hardy and dull so perhaps it is best to concentrate on a few key ones that would make an excellent addition to most store-cupboards.

Basmati is a must. Its fragrant, almost floral, flavour completes a curry in the way that nothing else can. Even its smell is unmistakably reminiscent of Indian food in the same way that the aroma of cumin or Garam Masala is. A pan of basmati bubbling away on the hob is sure to make you feel hungry and start hankering for something warming and spiced to go with it.

Moving slightly further east, we come to Jasmine rice, as characteristically Thai as Basmati is Indian. It too has a fragrant deliciousness, not dissimilar to Basmati (thanks to the appearance in both of a compound called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline). When cooked, Jasmine rice has a slightly stickier texture which makes it useful for soaking up the highly flavoured and aromatic sauces for which Thai food is justifiably famous.

Finally, we come closer to home and touch upon risotto rice. There are three main varieties (Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano), all defined by their ability to soak up vast quantities of liquid without splitting and turning into a soupy, glutinous mass. My personal preference is for Vialone Nano although any of the three will produce an excellent risotto, providing you have some decent stock and about forty minutes to spare for stirring purposes.

I’m fairly sure I’ve made a glaring omission, please let me know if I have. And if you’re good there will be a recipe to follow: roasted beetroot, ginger and dark chocolate risotto. Not as strange as it sounds and pant-wettingly delicious.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Pressing the 'reset' button

To all intents and purposes, we live in the countryside. We may be but a short hop to the nearest town and only an hour from London but it is large fields and big skies that form our surroundings.

But sometimes it is easy to overlook that. Or at least develop a complacency.

As silly as it sounds, occasionally I forget that we are living life in the slow lane complete with vegetable patches, miles of hedgerows and an abundance of wildlife all around us.

Perhaps it is something to do with the weather. During the spring, summer and even into autumn I spent a significant amount of time outside. Digging over the soil to make room for vegetables. Sat in the sun eating a fresh salad for lunch. Lying on the lawn and writing. Picking blackberries from beyond the sharp thorns of the brambles or scrumping apples from the abandoned orchard next door.

But come the chill of winter, the rain, the frost and the wind, spending time outside has not been an appealing option. The world seems to have narrowed to the point that, now that January is here, the only thing that really exists are the four walls of my office.

Then something will happen to remind me why we moved here in the first place, something presses my reset button and allows me to open my eyes for a brief moment and actually see.

I was in the kitchen making some breakfast when I heard a faint knocking at the back door. Too quiet to be a neighbour or the postman I looked out of the window to see that the hens’ run was empty.

Sure enough, there they were, the three of them waiting by the back door for handful of something tasty – dried fruit or some seeds.

I sent them on their way with a handful of chopped dates whilst I made do with a toasted hot cross bun and a mug of steaming tea, consumed in the garden with the sun just beginning to peep over the skeletal trees. Certainly worth braving the cold for.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


Now that we have more eggs than we know what to do with we can afford to start getting a little more adventurous when it comes to all matters ova.

Of course, a still warm egg brought in from a frost kissed garden is at its best cracked into a pan sizzling with a shiver of hot oil or poached in gently boiling water but there is so much more that can be done with them.

Dessert features rarely on the menu, especially midweek when we tend to crash out with a bowlful of something tasty and gorge on one of many US television series. More often than not a handful of dried fruit is enough to dispel any sugar hankerings that might follow a meal.

But last week we had some friends over for dinner and felt that offering a plate of dates or prunes might not go down too well. So while I was busy faffing over the main course (venison with port and lingonberry sauce) my girlfriend set to making a crème brulee – a recipe that we were both familiar with but neither of us had cooked.

It was a real success (despite the lack of a blowtorch) and the egg yolks gave it a gorgeous richness, both in flavour and colour. But as with any custard based dessert we were left with three surplus egg whites. Needless to say, they didn’t stay surplus for very long.

Feeling little desire for an egg white omelette (why? Why? Why?), I got busy with the whisk trying to create a voluptuous cloud of voluminous egg whites to which I could add a significant amount of sugar. After a mere three minutes I was sweating and my wrist aching thanks to the overly enthusiastic whisking method I had foolishly chosen.

Time to dust off the Kenwood. It made short work of the egg whites and within only a couple of minutes they’d reached the desired consistency. In went the sugar, a mere dribble of vanilla extract and the slightest drop of vinegar (I think I remember reading something about vinegar helping to set meringues).
After spooning them onto a tray they went into a low oven for about an hour. Time up and the oven was turned off and the little nuggets of sweetness were left to cool. Hot sugar really hurts.

Once cool, I left half as they were and dusted the remainder with a little finely ground cinnamon to add a slightly warm note. They were exactly as meringues should be – a bursting, crunchy exterior shell, that exploded as you bit into it, housing a tooth-achingly sweet and sticky inside that clung tenaciously to my molars. Simple, sweet and ever-so-slightly sinful.

P.S. Couldn’t possibly post without including this little joke (which should be read in a Scottish accent)

A man walks into a baker’s shop, points to the counter and says:
‘Is that a cake or a meringue?’
To which the baker replies:
‘Ai, you’re quite right, it’s a cake.’

Monday, 12 January 2009

Could you eat an elephant?

Occasionally there is a metaphorical planetary alignment of the sort that can make you exceedingly and effortlessly happy. The best of these are also staggeringly simple and serve to reinforce your general outlook on life. Eating a freshly barbecued cob of corn with my girlfriend whilst sat on a piece of driftwood, with sand between my toes and the Andaman Sea easing into the distance was one such example from last summer.

Other times, these moments of simple happiness are closer to home and more easily attainable as shall be witnessed, no doubt, on Wednesday evening.

I’ve written much about a chap called Fergus Henderson, a rather eccentric London based chef (and qualified architect) who has single-handedly managed to transform the culinary landscape in this country by making offal and other parts of animals ‘beyond the fillet’ not only accessible but also desirable and uber-chic (you don’t see a Franco-Germanic verbal alliance like that every day).

(Photo taken from New York Magazine)

I own both his books (not just wonderful cookbooks, but also excellent reading material) and am hoping to make a pilgrimage to his restaurant at some point in the near future. In short, he is a hero.

Secondly, I have a slightly bizarre penchant for the unusual and an adventurous palate, especially when it comes to the exotic. I am fully aware that we are unwillingly penned in by our own cultural sensibilities and the food we grew up with is the food that feels comfortable and right. In an effort to try and side-step this culinary prison, I make every effort to try things that sound odd, strange or even disgusting.

Somewhat inspired by intrepid adventurers like Anthony Bourdain (my other great food hero and something of a role-model) I make every effort to put aside my own prejudices and chew down the unusual with an open mind and receptive mouth. As a result I love seeing others do the same.

So it was with great glee and delight when I discovered that Channel Four, here in the UK, will be showing a new series entitled ‘Could You Eat an Elephant?’ in which Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee (head chef at the Blueprint Café) travel the world in search of the foods that make us pull a face like a child eating Marmite covered cabbage at the mere mention of them. Maggot infested cheese, dog, horse and snake heart all feature on the menu at some point, not to mention the eponymous elephant.

Those expecting voyeuristic simplicity, of the sort seen in ‘I’m a Celebrity’s’ infamous bush-tucker challenge, will (hopefully) be disappointed. This should be anthropology in action with two intelligent (if slightly eccentric) characters at the helm who are trying to find their culinary ceiling as well as taking a serious look at the culinary norms of cultures and societies all over the world.

A planetary alignment of the sort that is making me as excited as an obese child at a Pizza Hut lunchtime buffet.

Could You Eat an Elephant? Channel 4, Wednesday 14th January, 10pm.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Which came first?

A few months back we bought two chickens, Marx and Eggels in the hope that they would provide us with a near endless supply of fresh, delicious free range eggs. Sure enough by the end of November, just as we were giving up hope that either would ever provide us with anything other than vague entertainment, Marx started to lay and we have had an egg every day since then.

The excitement of opening the hatch every morning and finding a perfectly formed egg sitting atop a pile of straw hasn’t dulled. Nor has the novelty of eating them freshly poached, happy in the knowledge that they have travelled no furter than ten metres in their journey from chicken to plate.

But it soon became obvious that Eggels was something of a late developer. Her comb hadn’t grown, she didn’t seem to be putting on any weight and she spent a long time seemingly imitating John Cleese doing a Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. We contacted Cambridge Poultry, where we bought our two revolutionary chicks, and the conclusion was that we had invested in an ‘odd-bod hen’ who didn’t seem destined to lay anything other than epic amounts of chicken poop.

As such, we were offered a replacement, free of charge. Perhaps replacement is the wrong word because there was never any question that Eggels would be returned to sender or end up in the pot. She’d become a pet quite rapidly and we couldn’t even consider the possibility of turning her into food. We’d just let her peck her way around the garden, enjoy our hospitality and generally live the good life.

Just after Christmas we finally got round to picking up chicken number three, Poulet, or Pou, for short. She’s a feisty little chick with a revolutionary zeal stronger even than the other two. So much so that I’ve nicknamed her Henin (in order to keep up the Communist theme).

But then something odd happened. I noticed this:

An egg sitting merrily in our recycling box. I had no idea how long it had been there - whether it was freshly laid or if it had survived three or four frosts but either Marx was laying more than her fair share or Eggels, spurred into action by the threat of a new arrival, had finally started to fulfil her destiny.

And I wasn’t sure which until yesterday when I looked out of the office window and saw Eggels sitting in her newspaper nest looking very pleased with herself, something distinctly egg-shaped underneath her feathery bottom. After she’d got bored and flown off to try and find some bugs to eat I went out to confirm my suspicions and there it was. An Eggels egg.

It may have taken a while, but it was definitely worth the wait.

With Pou due to start laying in the next few weeks I dare say that we will have more than enough to keep us in delicious breakfasts with plenty left over to make sweet tasty items like crème brulee and cinnamon meringues (more on those to follow). I might just have to start baking…

Monday, 5 January 2009

Welcome to 2009

Happy New Year to you all. Christmas came and went with a rapidity not seen since Usain Bolt jogged to victory in Beijing. Then 2008 limped into the vast unshakeable void of history giving way to a pristine and virginal ’09 just waiting to have its clean slate sullied by time and memories. Naturally, food and drink were consumed with appropriate abandon.

But now, as we rub the sleep from our eyes and wake, blinking, into the new year, reality once again begins to claw at our consciousness and offers us another twelve months to approach, each in our own inimitable way.

It will be an interesting one, that’s for sure, no doubt full of surprises, disappointments, excitement, boredom, smiles, tears, peaks and troughs. But that’s what makes everything so exciting – were it not for the lack of certainty, life would be a long, dull ride – much like driving up the A1.

One thing, however, is certain: we all have to eat. And with the full reality of the current economic malaise due to bite hard some time within the next couple of months, it looks like we are all going to be eating in more often and living on more beans, seeds and pulses than we have become accustomed to.

Say goodbye to midweek fillet steak and pork loins and hello to skirt and belly. Time to wave a farewell to all those exotic must have ingredients that have been damn near rammed down our throats by chefs and pretentious foodies for the last decade and welcome to the stage low-cost, low carbon and local alternatives.

In my book this is no bad thing and a food philosophy I have been trying to embrace for quite some time. There are many things I won’t miss and many more that I am very excited about seeing on menus again thanks to the increasing popularity of local shops. Yes, the supermarket may still rule the vast majority of households in this country but try asking the student behind the meat counter for half a kilo of beef skirt, a pork knuckle or a brace of oven ready rabbits and you will likely get a look more vacant than a soiled nightclub toilet at 2am.

Request these from the butcher, however, and you will be welcomed in with open arms and embraced like an old friend. You can apply the same thing to the greengrocer, the fishmonger or even the baker (although don’t forget to substitute meat requests for the appropriate items, else you’ll just look silly).

I hear the sound of a thousand over-priced restaurants closing their doors for the last time. The silence of self-important ‘food fanatics’ who only buy their flour from a convent deep in the Appalachian Mountains is blissful. No more shall we be made to feel nutritionally inferior, like a Victorian street child, just because we can’t afford to buy the latest must-have kitchen ingredient according to the weekend newspapers’ food editors.

So, here’s to 2009 – a year of health, frugality, simplicity, locality and appreciating the little things, the things that really matter. And for that I am deeply, excruciatingly, tinglingly, ball-bouncingly excited.