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.

Aaaaaaale

You may or may not know that 19 September is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Basically the idea is that you adopt an accent that sounds like a cross between a Bristolian and a Harley Davidson and pepper your conversation with nautical terms, especially the “five A’s”: “Ahoy”, “Avast”, “Aye”, “Aye-aye” and “Aaaaahhrrrr”.

Having just returned from the Caribbean, I can report that the Pirate Bay restaurant in St Lucia has added another A to the pirate lexicon: “Ale”. I admit I was sceptical when I read “Pirate Ale” on the menu but I just had to go and investigate.

I had often thought it a pity that Caribbean brewers generally produce nothing but rather bland, fizzy lager. OK, it’s more welcome in tropical climes than it would be at home but after a couple of days one begins to tire of it. I wondered why they didn’t have a go at brewing ale – maybe not a traditional English bitter, but a light hoppy golden ale would surely go down well? And the tendency of the locals to drink Guinness suggests there is a market for something with a bit more flavour.

And now the guys at the Antillia Brewing Company have done it. They produce a Pale and a Golden Ale and very good they are too! It’s keg beer but I can’t blame them for that. The logistics of serving cask ale in a tropical climate would be horrendous. All power to their elbow.

Takeaway Blues

I had a Chinese takeaway the other night. It seems like a sound idea at the time. When you’ve been busy all evening – go to the pub, have a pint, nip next door and put the order in, let them cook it while you have your second pint, take it home, get the bowls and chop sticks out, open a bottle of wine and eat. But the experience is invariably disappointing.

The complementary “prawn” crackers (I doubt they’ve been anywhere near a prawn or any other kind of crustacean for that matter) usually go straight in the bin. OK, I can’t usually fault the crispy duck with pancakes and the egg fried rice is serviceable if unexciting, but the rest of it…

Take beef with ginger and spring onion. That could be really good if they took strips of prime, well-hung beef and stir-fried them to a tender pink with slivers of ginger, a hint of chilli and a few other spices, adding a handful of chopped spring onions and a dash of soy sauce towards the end. But what do you get? The beef has a strange bubbly texture; I can only assume it’s a cheap cut that has been treated in some way to tenderise it. There are a few token bits of spring onion and rather a lot of ordinary white onion and it all comes in a vaguely gingery gloopy sauce.

I sometimes go for pork with black beans but the pork is hard, obviously pre-cooked, and it comes in another gloopy sauce with more onions and sparsely populated with black beans. Squid usually consists of rubbery chunks of some unidentifiable cephalopod in – you got it – gloopy sauce. Why not tender baby squid (tentacles and all) quickly wokked in a tangy, spicy marinade? As for the chicken, I wouldn’t even venture to try it.

It’s not that my local Chinese restaurant is particularly bad, there are probably thousands more just like it. But it’s not good. Yes, there are excellent Chinese restaurants if you know where to go but they’re not generally accessible when you want to grab a quick bite after an evening’s activity and a couple of pints.

And it’s not just Chinese food. Every high street is awash with places where mediocrity is the norm*: chewy pizza smothered with mousetrap cheese and industrial tomato puree distinctly unredolent of oregano and garlic plus all manner of incongruous toppings; burgers made from mechanically-recovered meat; less-than-fresh fish in soggy batter with tasteless, leathery or greasy chips.

But why? Surely it’s not that difficult to produce a few dishes that are tasty and nutritious? A smaller menu might help – better a few dishes with an emphasis on QUALITY rather than dozens of bland variations on a few uninspiring themes. Have they no pride? If I were in the catering business, it would grieve me to serve anything sub-standard.

Is price an issue? Surely customers would be prepared to pay a few quid more for a dish made from good quality, fresh ingredients – or at least have that option.

But a distressing thought has just entered my mind. Maybe some people actually prefer this crap. It wouldn’t surprise me.

[ * In fairness I should say that Indian restaurants do at least seem to be moving away from the bog standard British curry menu and attempting to provide something a little more authentic or adventurous, while Thai and Vietnamese cooks generally seem to take a lot more trouble both in the cooking and presentation than their Chinese counterparts.]

The Great Blackcurrant Hijack

When did you last see blackcurrants in a supermarket or greengrocer’s? That most English of fruits ought to be plentiful during the summer when they’re in season but they’re hardly ever available.

I love blackcurrants – in a crumble, on cheesecake – and the perfect cream tea has blackcurrant jam with the scones and clotted cream (strawberry is too sweet).

I was lucky this year. I managed to buy a couple of small punnets on two separate occasions (Thank you, M&S). The first time I made a summer pudding (it just isn’t right without the blackcurrants) and the second time they went into a deliciously sharp but creamy ice cream (there’s still half a tub in the freezer which I’m endeavouring to keep for a while but I don’t suppose my will power will hold out much longer).

And do you know why they are so scarce? A well-known manufacturer of soft drinks beginning with “R” accounts for 90% of the entire British crop. That’s right, 90 percent!

It’s an appalling statistic. Given that a lot of the remaining 10% is going to be snapped up by commercial jam makers and the like, that doesn’t leave a lot for domestic consumption. And, to add insult to injury, the aforementioned company extracts the juice and then adds so much sodding sugar it completely destroys the tartness which gives blackcurrants their essential character – not to mention rotting children’s teeth.

That’s an unfair monopoly. I think I’m going to start a petition.

Pack Off

The other day I bought a packet of pâté (yes, I do make my own when I have the time). It came on a little brown plastic tray with a trapezoidal clear plastic cover. OK, it was from one of the supermarket “premium” ranges but, but just because it’s a better-then-average quality product doesn’t mean it needs a fancy package. The same wrapping as the ordinary pâtés would suffice.

There’s an awful lot of waste in this country and a significant proportion of it is down to food packaging that’s unnecessarily complex or just simply unnecessary.

As an example of the former, consider those containers (e.g. for pies and tarts) that are part cardboard and part clear plastic bonded together. How are you meant to recycle that? I do try ripping out the plastic bits and putting the cardboard in the recycling box but I bet most people don’t bother.

But it’s in the fresh fruit and veg department where things really get out of hand. Do avocados need to be in a twin-pack with a soft fibrous base and a cellophane wrapper? The fact that the same shop is also selling them loose suggests not. Does a cucumber need to be sealed into a plastic sheath? It may help to prevent the water evaporating and the cucumber shrivelling up but, if it’s been that long since the thing was picked, it’s not exactly fresh, is it?

The very worst example is sweetcorn – stripped of its natural protective coating of coarse leaves and soft fibres and then wrapped in plastic. Just how perverse is that?

[Curiously, some things that do need protection because they bruise easily are often not given it – English apples thrown into boxes where they develop brown festering patches at each point of impact; watercress stuffed into flat plastic bags instead of being tied into a tradition protective bunch.]

As enlightened, responsible consumers we ought to demand an end to this nonsense – and act. Why pick up half a dozen pre-packed tomatoes, thus adding to the mountains of plastic accumulating in the oceans? Are we really so pressed for time that we can’t take a few seconds to select a few loose one and put them in a bag? [I have to admit I’m as guilty as anyone on that score.]

And it’s time convenience stores stopped being convenient and concentrated on being responsible, environmentally-friendly purveyors of fresh, seasonal, quality produce. It’s no excuse to say that they’re only giving the customers what they want. They’ve done a good job in the past at persuading customers to accept second-rate, non-too-fresh, grown-for-appearance-rather-than-flavour, over-processed food for the sake of convenience. Now they can jolly well help to reverse the process.