Monday, 28 April 2008
Jamie Oliver=A Good Thing
Fifteen=A Good Thing.
But I'm not sure he can get away with charging £7 for beans on toast around here....
People my age don't go into butchers' shops very much. Some of us are vegetarians, of course, and others don't cook anything more complex than pasta and pesto. But most of us get our meat from the supermarket, and the reason is this.
Yes, scared. It's not the red-faced men wielding cleavers, or the unidentified red slug-like things lurking in trays in the window. We just don't know what to ask for. And we're scared stiff of embarrassing ourselves.
In a supermarket, everything has a label with price, quantity, how to cook it and how many it serves, not to mention what it actually is. In butchers' shops, meat sits around in unmarked trays, only occasionally labelled. And lots of things aren't visible at all - they live in the mysterious other world called Out The Back.
First of all you have to queue up. If it is a good butcher there will, generally, be a queue. Then you have to make your request, specifying what you want and how much, in front of everyone in the queue. Public humiliation is only moments away. And you have no idea how much it will cost - Nigella will gaily tell you to order a 3kg joint of beef, not bothering to mention that it is over £10 a kilo. You are not married to a Saatchi. If you are lucky you clocked the price list just before ordering and made a rapid adjustment just in time. If not the butcher will spend what seems like ages cutting you a hunk of beef and you will have to get him to go away and cut a bit off. He will roll his eyes and eight ladies with shopping trolleys on wheels will tut in the queue behind you.
He will also ask you an incomprehensible question, like 'Do you want that Spanish trimmed?' or 'Fore-rump or topsiderib?' You say 'Spanish trimmed' because he made it sound like a good thing, and he disappears Out The Back for a full ten minutes to do something complicated involving a lot of banging. The eight ladies tut some more.
I made a fool of myself once in Scott's of York, over some scrag end of neck. It was the first time I had ever bought scrag end, but Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommended it for Tunisian lamb with aubergines in his Meat Book. I ordered a kilo. The trainee butcher fetched it and weighed it out for me. 'Eight pounds,' he said. 'Is that all right?'
I was a bit startled. I'd thought it was a cheap cut. Still, lamb shanks used to be cheap once but they aren't now, and Scott's is a top quality, Rick Stein Food hero sort of butcher. I was just handing over my ten pound note when one of the senior butchers noticed that the butcher apprentice had made a mistake. He apologised and sorted it out, but, obviously it was me that looked stupid. I could see the other customers thinking 'Well, that one's got more money than sense!' Scrag end is usually about between one and two pounds a pound. Butchers' shops are full of traps for the unwary.
Anyway, I've been into butchers' shops a lot now, and I've learnt a few things, so I'm going to share my wisdom with you:
1. Butchers are lovely. They don't actually mind at all if you ply them with questions and ask their advice. You can say 'Will that be enough for three people?' and they will say 'Three greedy people or three people with small appetites?' and you'll end up with just the right amount. If you say 'Oh dear, I'm not sure I can afford that much,' they'll suggest a cheaper alternative. They are as useful a source of cooking advice as Nigella or Hugh, and much more attuned to what is available to you and your budget.
2. They particularly love selling you cheap, manky-looking things like scrag end and offal. This is because a good butcher will be aiming to do something called 'balance the carcass'. Rather than ordering in a hundred chicken breasts and three dozen pork chops, a butcher will want to buy whole animals and manage to sell all the parts of them. He needs people who know how to cook in order to do this. So asking for the giblets does not make you a nuisance, it gives you credibility. The ladies in the queue will be impressed, too.
3. There are several good books around explaining about the different cuts of meat and how to cook them. I rate the River Cottage Meat Book very highly, but there is a cheaper one by Anthony Worral-Thompson and you should find a section on this in any good book on cooking techniques.
4. Scrag end of neck (which is lamb, for the uninitiated) is fabulous. If you slow cook it it ends up delicious and melting and falls off the bone.
I also want to say a few things to the butchers of the world:
1. Don't assume everyone speaks butcher language. Those charts with different bits of the animal are good, and they're something to look at while we're waiting in your long, long queue.
2. Label things as much as you can. Apart from anything else, it gives us ideas of what else to buy and promotes impulse buying.
3. Put your price lists where we can see them, in big easy-to-read letters. It's amazing how many butchers don't do this. You might even want to put them online, so we can work out how much our recipe is going to cost before we come.
I am not scared of butchers now. I no longer bicker with my husband as to who is going to get to wait outside with the buggy in the rain, and who has to go in and face the scary red slugs and the men with cleavers.
Wednesday, 23 April 2008
I have a new ice cream machine, so the strawberries were made into strawberry water ice - simply pulp and sieve the strawberries, add lemon juice and icing sugar, and freeze in machine. The pigeon breasts were flash-fried and went into a salad.
Verdict on both - the strawberry water ice was great, but a little too sweet, because the strawberries were so sweet to start off with. The pigeon breasts tasted like little morsels of liver. Thrown into a salad of spinach and lettuce leaves, with crispy bacon on top and a red wine vinegar dressing, they were lovely.
Thursday, 10 April 2008
In a series this autumn inspired by the Ministry of Food in the Second World War, he will be teaching people how to cook in order to beat obesity and related illness. And he's going to be doing it in Rotherham. Jamie, God bless him, said,
"We spend over £2 billion a year on ready meals, and that’s not even counting junk food and takeaways....Millions of people up and down the country are really busy, they’re on tight budgets, and no-one has bothered to teach them how to cook. It’s no wonder that the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is cook a meal from scratch."
This, of course, is where his School Dinners Campaign met with most resistance - mums were passing burgers through the fence to beat the school's ban on kids going out of school for takeaways in the lunch hour. Rotherham is not a rich place, though there's currently lots of energy and imagination going into its regeneration. So he's going to have to cut down the cost of his ingredients quite considerably.
A budget-aware approach to cooking hasn't been much in evidence on tv lately. British society recently has felt time-poor rather than cash-poor. However, I can't help thinking this is going to appeal to a much wider audience than just those on very tight incomes. Even those of us with decent wages can blench at the cost of the ingredients going into a Jamie dish. Watching him make consomme last summer with 2kg of organic tomatoes (cost £10-15 at Sainsbury's) you couldn't help suspecting he had lost touch with his roots (if not his fruit and vegetables). We were meant to grow them ourselves, of course, but the weather was vile last year and we don't all have a big garden or a greenhouse or a bearded gardener called Brian.
Anyway, economy, practicality - where better to start than Yorkshire? I can't wait!
Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Traditionally, these tarts also contain rosewater, but I had never seen that in a recipe, and these days they always have dried fruit in.
And after they have drained overnight:
In the March 20th heat of the regional selection round, 4 northerners cooked against each other. The winners were a Yorkshireman (adopted) and a Lancastrian, Anthony Flinn and Nigel Haworth.
Here is the recipe for Flinn's winning dish, Cannelloni of cucumber and cream cheese with muscovado jelly and yoghurt ice cream. It apparently takes one to two hours to cook and has so many ingredients in it's not funny. (There's not a huge amount of regionality here either - unless the oats in the caramel on top.)
Flinn used to work at El Bulli so he does all that molecular gastronomy thing. This kind of food is great to eat. It has also started to trickle down to British cooking more widely, with innovations such as Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked chips reaching a wider audience. However, as a spectator sport I find this kind of cooking a bit dull. If you couldn't possibly hope to replicate it at home, watching tv cookery becomes a detached affair, consisting of admiring from a distance rather than eagerly engaging.
But there is another reason to be concerned by this. Joanna Blythman puts her finger on it. In her book, Bad Food Britain, she writes,
'The balance of culinary power in Britain has now swung away from the domestic zone, where its keepers were women who passed on their accumulated knowledge, with their egos held well in check, to the male zone, where its new luminaries are a bunch of flashy performance artists....The focus of food fashion has become more rarefied, arcane and preoccupied with the endless pursuit of novelty; in fact, it is entirely detached from most Britons' domestic cooking experience.'
And why should this matter? Because it makes people feel that cooking is something difficult, even unattainable. Blythman goes on to quote Arabella Weir:
'All that plethora of cookery shows really does is make me feel insecure. They don't make me think, "Oh, what a great thing to do with scallops and chives." I just think, "Oh God! I'm just a fat oaf who lives in a horrible kitchen!'"
Cucumber cannelloni or Delia's cheaty tinned mince special - there doesn't seem to be an awful lot in the middle at the moment....
Monday, 7 April 2008
According to the website, they use 'traditional methods to produce high quality beers that combine the characters of the Yorkshire Wolds and the East Coast. We use high class home grown malting barley and the purest chalk filtered water from the farm’s own borehole to a produce a range of award-winning cask and bottled real ales.'
So far we've tried two. Wold Top Bitter was the first beer they made. Delicious, very drinkable, and just so much more interesting than John Smiths. The other, a light summer beer called Wold Gold, apparently won gold for 'best premium bitter' at the Society of Independent Brewers North awards. But you don't need to wait for summer to drink it - it was sleety and windy here when we tried it but it still tasted good.
"Our range of hampers suites all tastes", they say on their website. "However should you feel you would like a 'More Rugged' hamper then please contact us to discuss your requirements."
The mind boggles. What would be in a rugged Yorkshire hamper? This is what I imagine:
A whole ox tongue
Pickled red cabbage
Large tin of parkin
Meltons Too is one of York's entries in the latest Good Food Guide. It regularly gets recommended in the Knowledge section of The Times, in the bit where they lift restaurant reviews from the Square Meal website. Recently they were plugging it as the top 'child friendly' restuarant in the north of England.
The food was nice enough. I had a creamy Whitby crab chowder gratin (which I assume was a nifty way of recycling the previous night's soup) and my husband had an exiguous portion of roasted vegetables which made him complain for hours about the quantities and how he could have made the same thing at home for a tenth of the price etc etc.
Problem was, it took 40 minutes to arrive, and that's after we waited 10 minutes to have our orders taken. So having arrived at one o'clock, into a not particularly busy restaurant, we didn't get anything to eat until ten to two. My two year old grew sad and pale. My baby shrieked. We gave them biscuits, and milk, thus ensuring they wouldn't be able to eat their dinner when it did arrive, which was a pity, because babies love roasted vegetables and creamy crab.
I like it when restaurants try to be family friendly. I can change a nappy on a few square inches of toilet floor, but a changing table in the loos still makes the job quicker and easier. It's good to have the option of child-size portions, and it's great when a restaurant is basically friendly to children and doesn't mind the odd toddler toddling around the room. But all these things are as nothing if you don't have speed. I hate to say it, but this is where MacDonalds scores ten out of ten and Meltons Too, two.