Linguistic Liberties & Pathetic Epithets

I bought some “baby leeks” at the weekend. Perhaps like you me you find the whole baby vegetable thing slightly suspect (you might even consider them a rip-off and not buy them at all). I don’t totally reject the concept. Young vegetables can be more tender and it’s not unreasonable of the grower to charge a bit more for them when he could otherwise have let them grow a lot bigger and obtained a much greater yield for the same outlay (plus the fact that they’re more fiddly to pick). It’s the way retailers promote them that I take issue with.

Take those leeks. I’ve seen baby leeks before that were so small and slender they could easily have been mistaken for spring onions. But these were decidedly adolescent – or at the very least pubescent – leeks.

Then there were so-called “baby bananas”. OK, compared with regular bananas they were suitably diminutive, but I’m quite certain, having seen them growing in Costa Rica and Zanzibar, that they’re actually a different cultivar from the common “Cavendish” banana and only grow to 3 or 4 inches when fully mature.

This linguistic imprecision is not just size. I also bought some rainbow chard which might more accurately be described as two-tone chard, or maybe tri-coloured chard if you allow for the green leaves as well as the red or yellow stems, but that hardly constitutes a spectrum, does it.

However, I couldn’t argue with the description “baby turnips”. They were minute. But I wasn’t tempted to buy any. A turnip is a turnip – unless you come from a region where a turnip is a swede and vice versa – and not particularly esculent.

Vertical Hold

Last night I had a burger in a pub where I often drink on a Friday. It was rather a good, succulent meaty burger topped with melted Gruyere, but…

… they put salad inside the bun. Why?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do like a little salad with my burger – but on the side. What is the point of stuffing it inside the bun so that the lettuce gets warm and soggy and takes heat away from the meat?

I guess it’s all part of the current trend for vertical presentation of food. You know, you get a massive plate with a little heap of mashed potato in the middle with sausages or strips of liver and rashers of bacon balanced precariously on top of it, and if there are any vegetables they’re probably somewhere in the stack too. So it was with my burger. They’d probably put the chips in the bun if they could get away with it without the whole thing collapsing.

If anybody who prepares burgers is reading this, I’d like my salad cool and crisp on the side of the plate. Then you needn’t shove one of those silly sticks through the whole creation to stop it falling apart.

Tedium Laudamus

This week I made a meat and potato pie. It had been a while since I made one, indeed quite some time since I made a pie of any kind. It seems that whenever I decide to do something with pastry I end up deferring the plan for a day or two and usually forgetting about it altogether.

Let’s face it, there are some tasks in the kitchen that are a bit tedious and rubbing in pastry is one of them. Yes, it’s always worth the effort in the end and mechanical contrivances to ease the burden never produce quite the same result – but there’s no escaping the fact that, at the time, it’s tedious. But I’d promised a meat and potato pie.

So I’d got to the stage where the butter is gradually beginning to spread itself through the flour but the aimed-for “texture of fine breadcrumbs” was still some way off and I thought “What can I do to take my mind off this?”

And the answer came: “Sing!”.

It’s a well-known fact, and one to which I personally attest, that singing can enhance one’s well-being and take one’s mind off those aches and pains to which the aging body is prone, but I’d never actually considered it as a means of relieving boredom in the kitchen. Nevertheless, my esteemed coach is always telling me that I should exercise my voice daily and I hadn’t yet and it seemed like a good opportunity, so sing I did.

Well, I started with a few exercises and came to the immediate but premature conclusion that the kitchen has a lousy acoustic (my head was probably too near the cupboard), but a few items into my repertory of bass songs and spirituals I became aware that the contents of the mixing bowl had miraculously transformed into perfect crumbs. And I continued to sing until the newly rolled sheet of pastry was sitting atop the pie dish in which the cubes of stewing steak and Maris Piper had already been simmering gently in a beery gravy with a diced onion for an hour or so.

And when the finished article came out of the oven, the pastry was light, rich and golden. Ah, the power of music!

A Week Without Butter

The churned cream of cows’ milk tends to feature fairly prominently in my diet and my cooking. I will not sully my bread with anything less than pure, natural English or French butter (unless perchance I’m dipping a piece of ciabatta in a good olive oil with a dash of balsamic vinegar). Tomatoes on toast are just not right unless fried in a mixture of extra virgin and good butter (with freshly ground black pepper) and the same combination works admirably for roasting potatoes when there is no goose fat left.

I recently stayed in a self-catering apartment in the Caribbean. Although we made some use of local restaurants, the cooking facilities came in handy, especially on the third day when I caught a barracuda.

Stocking up at the local supermarket, I bought such essentials as coffee, fresh fruit, rice, rum – and went to look for some butter. There were a few packets of a well-known antipodean brand but that was all. Plenty of margarine. Well, if you’ve read my book, you will know that I detest antipodean butter and have nothing but contempt for that culinary abomination I just mentioned. So, I decided it would have to be a week without butter. I bought a small bottle of coconut oil since that was sort of local and extra virgin olive oil doesn’t come cheap in the West Indies.

The issue of what to spread on the bread I’d bought was solved by having avocado toast for breakfast. The avocado, which I bought from a street trader, was a big one and she assured me it was perfectly ripe. Having squeezed the thing I was dubious – back home an avocado that soft to the touch would almost certainly be brown and mushy inside * – but I trusted her. When I cut it open it was full of creamy yellow flesh which spread – like butter. Which confirms my suspicion that a lot of the tropical fruits we get here never really ripen properly. I have long known this is true of mangos – they never aspire to that state of sweet, succulent juiciness which they have when eaten in their native territory. But now it appears the same is true of avocados. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; fruits were meant to ripen on the tree, not in a cold store thousands of miles away.

But I digress. The doing without butter was working well. The coconut oil was fine for cooking a red and green pepper omelette, the bacon (American style streaky **) was fat enough to fry without any additional lubrication and all the barracuda steaks needed was a squirt of fresh lime juice (although I did try one with sour orange for comparison).

* QED: not long after writing that I opened an avocado that was much less soft externally than the aforementioned one but it was already beyond redemption. Fortunately I had a couple more in hand.

** Interesting that the Caribbean islands, despite being mostly former British and French colonies, show a decidedly American influence in culinary matters, even in the pronunciation of ingredients like “tomaytoes” and “baysil”. Geography trumps history? And is back bacon known at all on the west of the pond?

Actually the week wasn’t completely without butter. At a charming little restaurant just above Marigot Bay, the esteemed proprietress cooked and served us a lovely dish of freshly-caught mahi-mahi with lemon and garlic butter.