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.

Lamb chops, Jersey Royals, asparagus and strawberries

Jersey RoyalsSeasonality was the byword on Friday night: a celebration of Springtime in the British Isles. There’s something rotten in the UK at the moment. Before I sat down to write this post, I heard one politician after another desperately trying to defend their vast expenses claims; as I write, a roomful of football pundits are banging on about how Drogba’s post-match histrionics were somehow justifiable. Our morals might be shot; but at least we can still grow great produce and rear magnificent livestock.

The kidney-shaped Jerseys came clothed in shreds of skin, like gold leaf flaking off a  Buddha effigy in a Bangkok temple. Their feintly nutty taste was sensational, and raised up a notch by the adition of a knob of salty butter.  I parboiled the asparagus in water, then gave them a quick fry with butter. I grilled the lamb, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Nigel Slater’s Appetite has a finger-licking recipe for lamb with anchovies, garlic and rosemary, which I did consider; but then I decided I didn’t want the smack in the face of his recipe to oveshadow the subtle flavours of the potatoes and asparagus. Grilling failed to give the lamb chops that charred colour and caramelised sweetness I love. Back to the frying pan next time.

Susie likes to steep sliced strawberries in balsamic vinegar. I’m not against this, but these strawberries were so sweet, so succulent, that nothing else was needed. They were delicious and juicy.

[This post was brought to you by Henry Winter speaking Chelsea sense]

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”.

The enduring appeal of eating like a student

heinzZafferano, Alain Ducasse,  ras el hanout … Scanning some of my recent posts, I’m struck by just what  a faux gourmand I sound. My diet hasn’t always revolved around Michelin stars, champagne and black truffle – and still doesn’t. Back in the day, I liked nothing better than to mix and match a couple of tins and whack their combined contents on a mountain of rice.

Last night, I rolled back the years with a hefty bowl of tuna and baked-bean chilli on rice. As you would imagine, it doesn’t take the cheffing skills of an Escoffier to create this little beauty. You take one large tin of beans, one medium-sized tin of tuna (in spring oil) and stir in a massive shake of chilli powder (imagine you are talc-ing a fat man fresh out of the bath). Cook, then serve on a bed of boiled rice. Fantastic – you can have that one on me, Gordon.

Nigel Slater’s Moroccan spiced lamb shanks with aubergine

lamb-shank-tagineVery bland, this recipe. I had a couple of lamb shanks in the fridge this afternoon and couldn’t find my favourite tajine recipe, so I opted for good old Nigel Slater. Slater rarely lets us down, but tonight he was found wanting in the flavour stakes. His tajine called for onions, garlic, cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of harissa paste. It needed more flavours, more oomph. I added a good heap of ras el hanout, which I think is added at the end of cooking, much like garam masala; but I fear it may have lost its potency in the years since we bought it in a Marrakech market … Next time I’ll turn to Claudia Roden and her New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

lemon-and-corianderOn the upside, the couscous was zingy: I mixed 7 ounces of it with 250ml of hot water, then stirred in a glug of olive oil, a generous handful of coriander,  salt, pepper and the juice of a whole lemon.

[This post was brought to you by Lorelei and the Boat Train by the Pogues]

Ducasse and Zafferano deal me a double Michelin whammy

scallop-roseSo much to report, while I wait for our Moroccan spiced lamb shanks with aubergine (with thanks to Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking) to cook through. I contrived to eat at two Michelin-starred restaurants on Friday, lunching at one Michelin-starred Zafferano with the MD of the London Fine Dining Group, Paul Singer, then dining with Susie at two Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. Belt-loosening stuff. Here are some highlights:

  1. Zafferano’s award-winning Peach Bellini: cloudy, perfumed and eminently quaffable.
  2. Little explosions of flavour from the crystallized salt in the aged crumblings of Parmesan served as antipasti at Zafferano.
  3. Zafferano’s homemade Papardelle with enough beefy morels to fill two cupped hands.
  4. Burrata ravioli at Zafferano: creamier than any soft cheese I’ve ever tasted.
  5. Bollinger rose champagne, served with choux pastry mini-buns that had bene dusted with black pepper and paprika, and which – pouf! –  evaporated in your mouth: a revelation. 
  6. The perfect beauty of the rose of marinated scallops, lamb’s lettuce and celeriac, and the earthy impact of its black truffle sauce.
  7. Ducasse’s roasted chicken and lobster, sweetbread, creamy juice: the flavour of the sweetbread seemed to coat and then fill your mouth.

[This post was brought to you by Zubrowka bisongrass vodka and Insomia by Faithless]

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.