Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese

celery and carrotsSunday’s supper was Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese from Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. Since Susie had another Sunday shift, I was free to prepare it early in the afternoon to the strains of 5 Live’s football commentary. I know I should get out more, enjoy the sun, maybe even go for a walk, on Sundays; but I find I’m at my most relaxed at the moment, when I’m in my basement kitchen chopping vegetables and generally pottering about. Here are a few things I learnt from making this rich, comforting and delicious dish:

  • Interestingly, there was no garlic in it.
  • The recipe called for far more chopped carrots and celery than I ever would have imagined.
  • Adding 250ml of full-fat milk realy softened the meat and sweetened the dish.
  • White wine, not read, was added.
  • In total, I reckon it cooked for four hours, on the lowest heat I could manage without the gas going out.
  • Next time I shall cut the carrots and celery finer – they looked chunky and unappealing (hence the choice of an ingredient pic above!)
  • I think it could also stand more nutmeg than Marcella recommends.

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Culinary PleasuresI’ve just started reading a book that aims to trace Britain’s culinary evolution through the lens of its cookbooks. It’s called Culinary Pleasures, and is by Nicola Humble. Already, having only read the introduction, I’m hooked.

The other day I wrote about the introductions to Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. Cook books, I argued, “can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written”. In the case of David’s introductions, I pointed out how readers can discern the longing for good food caused by the effects of rationing and the war; and the excitement felt by the general public, as shops and supermarkets broadened their culinary product base.

But Humble expresses the link between cookbooks, culture, society and history for more eloquently than I did in my post. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

This is not primarily a history of food, many excellent examples of which already exist; it is rather a cultural history of the cook book, examining it in both its most typical and its most outlandish forms to see what it has totell us about the hopes and fears, the tastes and aspirations, the fantasies and paranoias, and the changing social roles of its particular historical moment.

Already, I’m compiling a list of cook books that sound worth seeking out, from reading Humble Pleasures. These include:

  • The Constance Spry Cookery Book
  • Marcel Boulestin’s The Conduct of the Kitchen
  • Beeton’s Book of Household Management
  • Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families
  • Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cookery

Saint or sinner? Giving Delia Smith’s cheats a go

Delia's potato & onionDelia’s How to Cheat at Cooking received a mixed press when it was released last year. The book presented easy-to-cook recipes that utilised specific products from named manufacturers and supermarkets. Some welcomed her recognition that many of us want to eat tasty, home-cooked food but simply donlt have the time. Others accused her of dumbing down and selling out.

Last night, Susie cooked Delia’s oven-sautéed  potatoes with red onion, garlic and rosemary, which we ate with steak and fried mushrooms. Says Delia:

A pack of frozen spuds becomes really classy with the treatment; the finishing flourish is a sprinkling of rosemary flaked seas salt.

The spuds in question here are McCain frozen crispy slices; and the sea salt from Tesco. I have to report that the potatoes were excellent: light and floury body inside a crisp skin with a good bite. Susie drizzled truffle oil over the steak (a tip from Serge at Numide). Game on.

Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document

olivesgarlicCulinary aids they may ultimately be, but cook books can also can also reward readers who have no intention of attempting their recipes. They can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written.

This last aspect was at the forefront of my mind as I read the prefaces and introductions to the various editions published of Elizabeth David’s first book, a Book of Mediterranean Food, which was first published in 1950 by John Lehmann.

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores”, the book’s introduction begins, “endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans … ‘it is not really an exaggeration’, wrote Marcel Boulestin, ‘to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'”.

By the time she came to write the preface to the first Penguin edition of the book, in 1955, David admitted that when the book was first released, “almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.” In other words, the book has been published as pure food escapism, as a culinary aide memoire for those individuals lucky enough to have toured the Mediterranean before the start of the Second World War. “Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described”, David wrote, “it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations”.

For a generation of shoppers used to buying olive oil, olives, garlic, saffron and basil in their local supermarket, it’s amazing to read David exhorting cooks to make expeditions to Soho or “the region of Tottenham Court Road” for their tahina paste, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella, as if these places were themselves foreign and far-flung.

The UK’s food culture had moved on apace by the time David penned her introduction to the 1988 edition of the book. Now, she pinpointed the “spirit of defiance” in which she had written her recipes – defiance at a system of rationing that had left “lemons, oranges and tomatoes as rare as diamonds, commodities such as olive oil, rice and imported pasta no more than exotic memories, and fresh fish something you stood in a queue for …”

Given all this, it’s easy to look back on Elizabeth David and her peers as early food activists, stirring up a demand for unusual ingredients that has spawned a ‘foods of the world’ aisle in every supermarket. I suspect David herself would be amused to have pointed out to her the direct lineage from her post-war writings to the shelves of miso soup, Thai paste and tajine spices  we can choose from today. Afterall, her intention was only to take “refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years”.

How Michelin stardom killed Bernard Loiseau (II)

bernard-loiseauRecently I described how the first half of  The Perfectionist introduces three Michelin-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau within the context of the great French chefs of the past fifty years.

In the second half, the author cements the image of a chef whose gastronomic confidence and lack of personal self-confidence seem to flourish in tandem. We learn of his invention of a system of binding sauces with vegetable purées; and one of his defining creations, frogs’ legs with garlic purée and parsley juice, is described in enlightening detail. But at the same time we witness him working ever harder to hone his offering, becoming overly embroiled in building works at his restaurant and incurring mounting debts.

Much is made of the friendly service Loiseau drew from his team. Bernard exhorted his front of house staff to “just be yourselves”, and the resulting delivery and presentation of dishes was refreshingly straightforward: “There would be no convoluted terms on the menu, no “secret” ingredients, no precious, poetical language that made clients wish they had a dictionary at the table. Each dish would be presented simply and clearly as what it was, and when we delivered it to the client we would simply announce it without going into further detail. If you spend a minute going into lyrical descriptions of the dish and its recipe, it’s just getting cold while you talk, and the client has already forgotten what you’ve said by the time you’re finished. Eating here is for pleasure, not for education.” Loiseau was similarly single-minded when it came to the sourcing of ingredients: “I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are … sixty per cent of my work is finding the best providers of my ingredients”.

Great food, ambience and service conspired, in 1991, to win Loiseau his coveted third star – a source of huge pride to a chef who, in his own words, arrived at his restaurant “with nothing but my cock and my knives”. But now his problems really started. An economic downturn, Bernard’s ongoing insecurities and high stress levels led to a bout of depression while in Japan. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and prescribed Prozac. By now, more experimental chefs were attempting fusions of world cuisines and the likes of Ferran Adria were emerging to threaten the cosy world of classical cuisine. Loiseau rejected their faddish work, but his increasing paranoia and lack of confidence made him increasingly withdrawn, stressed, even phobic about hygiene.

The fallout from September 11 exacerbated his worries by robbing him of the healthy US customer base he previously enjoyed. And then rumours emerged that Michelin were considering downgrading him from three to two stars. Despite all the problems beyond his control that beset him, Chelminski suggests that Loiseau was arguably the architect of his own downfall. True, there was a meeting in 2002 between Loiseau and the then head of Michelin, Derek Brown, at which Brown passed on readers’ criticisms of Loiseau’s sauces. But Chelminski asserts that the subsequent predictions that circulated in the French press that Loiseau might be about to lose a star gathered pace only after Bernard himself called lots of his contacts to tell them of Brown’s comments. As it turned out, Bernard maintained his three stars in early 2003; but his GaultMillau rating dropped by two points to 17 out of 20 – a crushing blow. By now he was a man haunted by the ambitions he had set himself, and in February 2003 he killed himself with a gunshot to the head, burnt out and unable to bear his worries any longer. 

The book’s message in a nutshell? Be careful what you wish for.

Asparagus, parma ham and (hard) boiled egg; pears and Poire William

asparagus-and-parma-hamLast night, boutique contract caterers Lexington Catering celebrated being named a Sunday Times top small company to work for 2009 and a Best Company of 2009 by throwing a party on the 33rd floor of Broadgate Tower. After a coupel of hours of champagne, canapes and stunning views of Legoland-London below, guests were sent on their way with a generous handful of Isle of Wight farmer, Ben Brown’s asparagus.

asparagus-cookingTonight, we decided to throw together an asparagus, parma ham, soft boiled egg and parmesan salad, with a hunk of soda farl. Cliched as it may sound, I realised I didn’t know how to boil an egg, at least not a perfectly gooey, soft boiled egg that would ooze over the asparagus like sunshine at dawn. Queue St Delia. Her How to Cook Book One explained that simmering an egg for one minute, then taking it off the heat, covering the pan and leaving for 6 minutes, would guarantee a “soft, fairly liquid yolk and a white that is just set but still quite wobbly”.

Uh-huh.  I followed the saint, but the yolks ended up pretty much hard boiled. Boo. Next time, I think four or five minutes of resting time will suffice. Still, the dish was a tasty treat, and the asparagus discernibly better than the twiggy stalks from the supermarket that we normally endure.

pearsWhile I tried in vain to make a hard-boiled egg look runny for the camera, Susie grabbed our copy of Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Puddings and whipped up sliced pears steeped in Poire William, chilled and sprinkled with toasted almonds – part of our crusade to use up our fruit and veg before it goes off. Delicious.

[This blog was brought to you by Crimewatch with the volume turned down and the faint noise of the water board reparing a pipe outside.]

Alexanders: a clarification

I posted last week about a strange vegetable, known as Alexanders, I had just tasted at the Goring Hotel. The Goring’s chef, Derek Quelch, was kind enough to provide a little detail on them:

Alexanders is actually part of the celery family. It tends to grow in coastal areas from early spring and it is said in some early cookbooks (Mrs Beeton ‘s household management 1907) that it was used instead of celery. It has a very bitter taste that can be counteracted with a little bit of sugar when cooked in butter.

I’ve now come across a comprehensive definition in a learned tome called Traditional Foods of Britain: a Inventory, which runs from Aberdeen Angus cattle to yule spice cake (surely the British Isles must have produced at least one foodstuff beginning with “Z”?) and looks like a prime candidate for a bedside read, if ever I saw one.

It corroborates Derek’s comment, describing Alexanders as a large umbelliferous plant, growing to about 1.5 metres, which looks like celery, has a soft texture when cooked and tastes a little like celery and parsley. Also known as black lovage andhorse parsley, it was brought here by the Romans, and was still being eaten in Italy in Renaissance times.

So now you know.

[This blog was brought to you by the setting sun and a hot cup of coffee.]