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Friday, 1 August 2014

the one with all the gin

The keener-eyed amongst you might notice the glaringly large gap between entries of late; I ought just to skate over this with a flippant 'I've been busy,' but I think perhaps something as indulgent as a food blog allows me enough leg room to fill you in. It has indeed been a busy nine months, within which I finally mustered the guts to abandon waitressing, in spite of its lucrative and flexible nature. The fact is, as any hospitality worker will doubtless tell you, waiting tables is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, if you're good at it you'll be substantially richer than most of your twenty-to-thirty-something compatriots, live unbridled by the monotony of the average 9-5 gig, and you'll spend most of your working life drunk.
There you were thinking a 'Waiter's Friend'
was a bottle opener... No, it's gin. It's
always been gin.
The working environment is (for the most part...) more fun than you can ever imagine, and you'll make friendships that will last a lifetime, forged in sleep-deprived, break-deprived, illicitly obtained gin-fuelled chaos. But the other side?  It's harder work that you can ever imagine, too. Stick the average desk-bound jobsworth in a 200-cover restaurant on a Saturday night when the door have fucked up, the bartender is too drunk to cope and all of the teaspoons have mysteriously disappeared, and I doubt they'd last two minutes. The hours are long, hot and hard. Weekends? Nope. Job security? Reliable rotas? Think again. Hospitality is a line of work where you find yourself completely and utterly at the mercy of general public, and as it turns out, the general public are arseholes.  The lack of structured working routine somehow manages to make the years slip by that little bit quicker than you'd like, and despite any protestations that you're really a writer/actor/ musician/entrepreneur waiting tables part-time, one day you'll wake up and realise that you've been telling politely interested customers that very same thing for six years. Between the 60-hour working weeks, the sore feet, the frazzled brain and an increasing apathy for human beings, your ambitions have somehow fallen by the wayside in a way that no amount of cash, fun or five-finger gin can compensate for.

"So that's a gluten-free,
dairy-free Caesar Salad, no anchovies, dressing
on the side... and 17 tap waters...Why, of
 course you can split the bill...! No, madam,
service isn't mandatory, you're quite right..."
I'd like to point out that this isn't everybody's story. I know plenty of jobbing waiters that have the self-control to use it as a crutch to pay the bills, carving out successful paths in their own industry at the same time. Likewise, I know those who forge pretty lucrative careers within this very line of work, too. But last December, I knew the time was ripe to see out one last Christmas (because I'm a glutton for punishment...) before cutting and running. It had been planned for quite a while; the husband and I had long since ear-marked 2014 as the year to crack on with Important Grown-Up Things, like make a baby and open our own restaurant. Whilst they're not two life goals that might strike you as immediately compatible within such a short time frame, our line of thought seemed quite logical nine months ago: both are notoriously stressful affairs, so why not knock them both out in the same year? Admittedly, we hadn't intended for the two to come to fruition quite in unison (because let's face it- that is silly), but with two weeks to go until we- hopefully- get the all-clear from the meddlesome council folk AND baby's due date, it looks very much as though that's what's going to happen... and I wouldn't have it any other way. We have a network of family and friends so supportive it could choke me up (though that probably has as much to do with hormones as anything else), and a local community that seem pretty on board with the idea of something new appearing that isn't a Tesco Express.

This is Kyrgzstan. For those of
you who weren't entirely sure.
All of this brings me very neatly to the secondary purpose of this post, because I'm not content with just prattling on about myself. August 4th heralds the beginning of The Federation of Small Businesses' Keep Trade Local week- a challenge to, well... I'm sure you get the point. The delights of modern technology have allowed me to establish that despite a great deal of my blog traffic coming from this neck of the woods, a large chunk comes from slightly further afield. Whilst I'm still trying to figure out quite how I've managed to crop up on the radar of so many Kyrgyzstani food enthusiasts, I'll take what I'm given. Anyway, my point is thus:  it doesn't matter where the hell you live- embracing the idea of shopping independently is something that translates to Wycombe, London and Bishkek. In fact, that's possibly the one remaining corner of this earth that Tesco et. al. haven't gotten their grubby little claws into yet. And so, whilst my own little affair isn't up and running yet, as a small, independent business owner I have a vested interest in trying to drum this very message into people's skulls. So- plan your meals. Visit your local fruit and veg man (or woman).Work out your town's market days, get to know those ropey-looking, chain-free side streets of your local area, and identify those tricky-to-procure items (like cat litter, make-up wipes and furniture polish) in advance. Buy them before, if you have genuine concerns about being able to track them down- that way, you can really feel smug at the end of the challenge when you haven't had to cave in to the glowing neon of your local 24 hour supermarket.

That's all I wanted to bother you about this week. I'll end with a shameless plug: this aforementioned little venture of mine- Tin Kitchen- will be up and running as soon as I've mastered the whole baby thing. So keep your eyes peeled for the first couple of weeks in September, if you're local (because who needs maternity leave, eh?) and make sure you're following us on facebook (here), twitter (@tinkitchen) and on this very blog. Because I'll be certain to batter you all across the head with updates when they come (of the cafe variety, not overtly graphic child-birth vein). And for those of you in Kyrgyzstan who can't make it to the grand opening, enjoy this. It's more accurate than you'd like to believe...

Happy local mooching.
mrs hunt.x

Friday, 25 October 2013

yes, yes- let's talk about the weather

We're a hard bunch to please, aren't we? Five months ago, we were lamenting the coldest spring in history. Geese were migrating, it snowed in May, and we all began to wonder if the world was coming to an end. A great deal of us seriously considered moving hemisphere... a lot of us actually did (a worrying chunk of my newsfeed is now a constant stream of photos depicting an Instagramed Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach and kangaroos). A month later, and we were smug, sunburnt, and yet again wondering if the world was indeed coming to an end, albeit less in a 'Day After Tomorrow' way, more just an 'Actual Global Warming'  fashion. Which is arguably the better way to go, anyway. The delicate constitution of the average Brit simply wasn't designed to endure such scorching climes. We'd forgotten how to dress ourselves properly (if at all), and as a nation, our conversational prowess- already questionable- had all but disappeared. All we seemed able to do was feverishly spout Europe-wide weather comparisons: 'Did you hear? We're hotter than Alicante! ALICANTE!' We were whingeing* about air-con. We were whingeing about lack of air-con. And instead of whingeing about  lack of employment, we had a whinge about having to work in 27 degree heat. Put simply, we're never bloody happy.
Tan lines

Well, I was. My house plants may have died,and my skin might have spent most of the summer bearing more resemblance to a corpulent whisky fiend , but I can honestly say that I loved it. All of it- the sweaty, sleepless nights, the long, hot days, and finally! The idea that, for once, we'd experienced a season easily discernible as summer. So when the colder, darker, altogether more miserable days start to draw in, I get a bit grumpy. Don't get me wrong- I bloody love Christmas. If it weren't for my infinitely more practical (read: spoilsport) husband, I'd have the tree up by mid-November. It's just the awkward, in-betweeny period I detest, where you're not sure whether tights are OK, and after ten minutes on the tube in a coat you feel just about ready to die. In fact, the only thing that really cheers me up is the food. Now there's a surprise ;)

The heavy stews, the richer soups, and the gnarly vegetables all make me think that autumn probably does serve a purpose after all. And my favourite of the bunch? Blackberries.They bridge the gap between summer days, and the first festive frosts of November (after which point I stop feeling miserable, because I'm in full Christmas swing... the cat's been forced into Yuletide head gear, and I'm wearing ridiculous knitwear again). Nothing really beats the unadulterated purity of a naked berry, but when you spend four months gorging on the things, it's nice to do something a bit more interesting with them eventually. Like this:

Blackberry, Cardamom & Tequila Panna Cottas

(You can make these as seasonal as you like by swapping the fruit, and trading the alcohol with whatever comes to hand. You could leave it out entirely, but where's the fun in that...?)

What You Need:

  • 325ml full-fat milk
  • 400ml double cream
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 2 vanilla pods, or good quality vanilla bean paste, which can be more economical given that vanilla pods seem to be astronomical these days. I use Taylor and Colledge, where one teaspoon of the paste is one whole vanilla bean. I daresay other products vary.
  • 10g of leaf gelatine (approximately 6 sheets)
  • 25ml decent quality white tequila. Not because it matters especially, just because life's too short to drink bad tequila- and there will be an awful lot left to drink.
  • 250g Blackberries. I think it goes without saying that they should be British ones.
  • 3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed.
What You Do:

1. Grab a medium-sized heavy-based pan, and pour in the milk, double cream, 50g of the caster sugar and your vanilla seeds (scraped from the pods) or paste. Place on a medium to high heat until JUST before it reaches boiling point, then turn off. Do not get distracted by your husband asking where his football kit is hiding, wander off for a few minutes and return to a half empty pan and a hob covered in burnt milk. Just saying.
I'm cream. I'm a bastard to get off a hob.

2. Soften your gelatine leaves in cold water for about five minutes, unsticking them from one another if need be. Squeeze out the water, and stir into your cream mixture.

3. Fill a large mixing bowl with iced water, and transfer your cream into something that will sit comfortably in it without a) filling with aforementioned iced water, or b) floating on to its side and spilling everything. A jug with a handle that can hook over the edge is ideal, but just improvise. Cool your liquid for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

4.Pour into six fancy glasses. I like the dinky little Duralex affairs, personally. Leave a gap at the top (about two centimetres), and stick in the fridge to set. Overnight is ideal, but I've been known to finish these off in a blind panic at 3pm, in time for a dinner evening for 16 at 7.30. If they were shit, then everyone was polite enough not to mention it to me. But either way, leave a few hours- 5-6 at the least.

Pipe and cigar not required
5.Place your blackberries into a pan with the tequila, cardamom pods and last of the caster sugar. On a very low heat, poach the fruit until softened (but still a loose blackberry shape), and taste. It should be tart enough to cut through the richness of the cream, but not stroke-inducing. Cool in the fridge for an hour or so.

To serve, spoon your fruit mixture haphazardly over the set panna cottas. Try to remove the cardamom pods beforehand, though. They're not great for chewing on. If you have time, knock up a few shortbread thins on the side. If you don't, then just have them alone- they taste good enough.

Happy tequila-drinking,

mrs hunt.x

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

food, and the end of the world.

Food is our most precious commodity. Sure- without petrol, we'd all have to do a bit more walking, and without crude oil we wouldn't have such fun waging war left right and centre. But without food (and water, of course), well- we just wouldn't get very much done at all. So given our overwhelming, unequivocal reliance on the stuff, it's tricky to understand why we chuck over one-third of all food produced globally in the bin. That's 1.3 billion tonnes, worth approximately US$ 1,000,000,000,000- one trillion dollars- and it looks like this:

The tiny little thing on the left is, one presumes, an average-sized man in a fetching red jumper.

5th June 2013 was World Environment Day, which this year chose to focus on the new UNEP and FAO campaign Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint. That this post comes a bit late is seemingly appropriate- hell, I might even pretend it was deliberate.  Because the point is, reducing our food waste isn't something we should only be thinking about for one day a year: it should be ingrained in our very being. Not only is it careless, it's stupid. And if you're a miserly, penny-pinching kind of person (aren't we all these days?), then it's downright senseless- you're throwing your hard-earned money into the bin. Given the technology we have at our disposal (fridges, freezers, vacuum seals...), and the fact that we still seem to be in the midst of a rather stubborn recession, it all seems rather silly, doesn't it? Hence why the UNEP are hell-bent on highlighting the moral implications of food waste (from before a crop is even a seedling, and a calf is but a glint in its mother's eye, right through to its seemingly inevitable future in a landfill site somewhere...), in a world where 900 million people go hungry every day. Put into it's bluntest terms, we simply cannot continue to produce and consume food the way we do today for much longer.
Bad distribution...?

But why ever not? Whilst it may be true that our reserves are rather low (so if every grain farmer in the world were to suddenly down tools to pursue dreams of a music career/opening a B&B/joining a monastery, we'd be left with just enough globally to survive for a month and a half), there IS, as it stands, more than enough food for everybody. Distribution has always been a problem- it's a well parroted fact that 80% of the world's food is indeed consumed by a mere 20%. But if you look towards the (alarmingly not-so-distant) future, between the fisheries sector and common agricultural practices in food production, it's all going rather wrong.

I can think of no appropriate caption for this, besides: great shirt.
In 2008, you might have picked up on something called the global food crisis. I say this without a hint of sarcasm, because unless you're a fairly avid reader of newspapers, it could easily have passed you by. Unless of course you lived in Haiti, or Burkina Faso, or Mozambique, where food prices increased by up to 100%, alongside those in dozens of other developing countries. According to the veritable institution of the World Bank, food prices rose globally by 83% between 2005-2008. For some staple crops, such as wheat, this figure was as high as 130%.

Whilst it had immediate causes (such as drought in 2005 and 2006, high oil prices, and an increase in meat consumption per capita), many saw the crisis as an indication of just how fragile our food production systems are, and how easily it can all descend into anarchy. Whilst we've already established that globally, there is enough to feed us, it's clear that our production systems need to change to prevent such crises from re-occurring.

So, if the case isn't that there are just too many damn people in the world for the food resources we have available, then why is everyone harping on about food waste so much? Hasn't technology allowed us to increase crop yields globally? In some ways, it certainly sounds as though we'll be AOK to carry on stuffing our faces, air-freighting our food, and throwing it away when it bores us. But the fact of the matter is that modern agricultural production has, quite simply, screwed up our planet a treat.

The BBC: A less veritable institution, perhaps, but still
largely reliable.
I'm no real eco-warrior- at least in the traditional sense. I wash my clothes, brush my hair (sometimes), get driven around in a car, and take as many plane trips a year as I can afford. But as I've said before, I pick my battles- food just happens to be the one I care about most. So the idea of future generations struggling to feed themselves because we've pushed our global food systems to breaking point seems, frankly, unpalatable. There is nothing sustainable about the field- (or sea) to-fork practices we have in place, and before long it all looks set to go very, very wrongWithin what I would hope to be my lifetime (though given my gin consumption, perhaps not...), the world's population levels are set to hit 9.1 billion- perhaps as early as 2050. Working on our current numbers, we'd need to increase food production by about 50%. But owing to a combination of climate change (caused in no small part by our own evil doings), water scarcity, and additional damage to the environment, this looks set to fall by about 25% anyway. So in real terms, we'll actually need to increase our food production levels by 75% within forty years, just to provide enough food to stop the human race from going extinct. As much as it all sounds like the plot to Will Smith's next disaster movie (do 'shotgun' rules apply to screenplay rights...?), it's the reality we face.

Let's go back to a happier, marginally more abundant time. Biology lessons, age twelve or thereabouts. If you weren't too busy setting fire to rubbers with Bunsen burners or flicking ink at your teacher's lab coat, you might recall some of the key principles of our fragile ecological system. In short, all aspects of the food chain and surrounding environment (soil, water, climate and insects) need supporting. If one takes a hit, they all go tits up. And had my teacher put it the same way, I might have paid more attention. The rare species of tree that feeds the insect, that feeds the bird that helps cross-pollinate the crop that feeds the cow gets ploughed down to make room for a nice rice paddy. Yes- there would be more rice, but in the mean time everything around it is being gradually wiped out. And if my laymans explanation of complex ecological systems was lacking in any real detail, it's probably because I have a history degree, not a biology one- sorry. I'm sure that's about right, though. It's worth bearing in mind that this is all concerning what happens on land; terrifyingly, global fish stocks have reduced by a whopping 75% due to uncontrolled overfishing, and the destruction of marine habitat. Something to think about next time you fancy a tuna sandwich.

A lemming. You'll notice he's not actually jumping
off a cliff, because they don't do that. Apparently
that's just the game.

So that's it- we're buggered. We may as well have one last slap-up dinner of foie gras and sushi, before throwing half of it in the bin and jumping off the cliff like lemmings. Because what the hell else can we do? Good question. Short of going tuna-hugging, or chaining yourself to the nearest paddy-adjacent tree, it's hard to imagine anything making much of an impact. But luckily there are hundreds of things you can do, and most of them are more about adopting a change in ethos than they are about doing anything dramatic or exhausting. There are enough irritating trends out there that seem to have no trouble catching on, so let's make this the next one- let's make  being frugal, imaginative or cunning with food the next Harlem Shake.

Eight things you can do to feel smug:

1. Don't ignore the contents of your fridge. It's all well and good deciding you fancy sausages for dinner- that's fine. Buy sausages. But take stock of what's on its last legs at the back of the fridge, too. That way, you can try to incorporate that stuff in as well.  You don't have to be desperate about things: it's unlikely that the entire contents of your fridge will come together in Blumenthal-like grace and gastronomic harmony, but the chances are you'll be able to use something. Try challenging yourself- see how little you can get away with buying to get yourself a good meal. Again, I'm by no means suggesting you live off a reheated mix of Sunday's roast potatoes, Tuesday's salmon and some questionable yoghurt, because this isn't a punishment- just a thought-provoking challenge.

2. Don't shop on an empty stomach. It's silly, and expensive.

3. Pre-empt your leftovers. That way, you're probably less likely to throw them in the bin, or force them unpleasantly down your throat in a 'waste not, want not' kind of way. It also means you can buy what you need to eke them out for their mid-week reincarnation at the same time. For instance...

* If you're buying cream, get some fruit. Cobble together some panna cottas. (Future blog plug, because I happen to have two pints of cream languishing in the corner of my own fridge. Short of drinking the stuff, I could think of nothing better to do than make half a dozen panna cottas and photograph them endlessly for next week's post. Bet you can't wait, eh?)

* If you're making risotto ((old blog post plug #1), get some mozarella and try to save a little bread for breadcrumbs. Make arancini.

* Got meat? Save a potato. Make a patty. (old blog post plug #2)

I could go on, but I'm not here to provide you with an exhaustive compendium of leftover ideas- use your own head, and your own tastebuds. And, as always- a decent store cupboard (old blog post plug #3) will make things immeasurably easier.

4. IGNORE BEST BEFORE DATES because they're bollocks. Judging your food should be instinctive, not dictated to you by some off-the-cuff, back-covering, law-suit-avoiding 'BBE' casually stamped across a piece of cellophane. The 'Best Before' is no reflectionof how safe the food is, just a prediction by the supermarkets of when the goods, might, maybe, start declining in quality. In short, they scaremonger consumers into mistrusting their own judgement, throwing it away, and hopping off down to Tesco for its replacement. So here's a handy guide to determine the freshness and quality of your own food: if it has fur, is practically moving and smells like the inside of a post-Glastonbury tent, then you can bin it. Otherwise, it's probably OK.

5. Store things properly. Keep meat cold until a couple of hours before you cook it (allowing it to come to room temperature does help it cook more evenly though...), keep your veg and salads cool (NOT arctic), and keep your bread covered. Learn to use your freezer (though admittedly, this is a tad hypocritical of me: I own a beautiful but impractical fridge with an ice box just large enough for frozen stock and a bottle of vodka. Or it would be, had I not broken the door off and allowed the whole thing to freeze over entirely).  

6.  Master the art of jam, soup and chutney-making. For these are the holy trinity of imaginative leftovers, and no one knows (or cares) how ropey a strawberry/courgette/onion looked before it ws given a new lease of life in one of the above.

7. Eat local produce. Yes, I've whinged about it before, and I'll whinge about it again because I'm an ardent supporter of eating the stuff that grows here. It will help reduce your carbon footprint, it'll be seasonal, and it will be cheaper, owing to the lack of plane, train and automobile faffing involved in getting it here (unlike its Mexican/Peruvian/Kenyan alternative). Plus it will support your local economy. Try Pick Your Own (old blog post plug #4), and go for some of the gnarly stuff; we're far too shallow when it comes to our food. You can feel smug about restoring social justice to the asparagus world if you pick the 'special' looking one, and it'll taste just as good.

8. Sign a petition every once in a while. Preferably not one generated by the EDL, but something about bumblebees. Or palm oil. Or trout farming- anything that stirs your heart a little. It can't hurt.

There you go: eight easy steps to saving the world. Will Smith makes it look so damn hard...

And now, to really drive the point home, watch this:

I really must say thank you to Nick Nuttall, director of the UN Environment Programme, and an all-round helpful man. So, thank you Nick.

happy fridge-raiding,

mrs hunt.x

Friday, 17 May 2013

the fortune-telling asparagus (with a bit of béarnaise to boot)

There are some things, like strawberries, that I can't stand the thought of eating out of season. I allow myself the occasional slip up where things like courgette and French beans are concerned, but the idea of eating pale, tasteless Guatemalan strawberries or worse- Peruvian asparagus, in the depths of December, makes me sad.

So, I wait.

I bide my time.

I save myself, just for asparagus.

London friends: this is a farm.

Which is more than I can say for my prom night. So when that happy time of year rolls around (asparagus season, not prom season), I like to indulge in some sense of ceremony. Not of the odd sacrificial variety, or even a party (though I have made a mental note to book tickets to this next year). I just thought I'd pick it myself this May. Asparagus is not a pretty grower, and it makes for a less than artistic set of photographs (though I've tried my best to Instagram-them to death, as you can see). There are plenty of Pick Your Own joints around in this neck of the woods (I'm finding an increasing number of perks to not living in central London- just let me revel in them, please...), but there's also one in Croydon, too. That is, I suppose, technically still London. It's also worth mentioning to Londoners that you probably won't spontaneously combust if you venture outside of the M25 in search of real farms. Give it a try.

The only way I could inject some colour into
a photograph of an otherwise brown asparagus
 field was to wear a pair of ridiculous wellies.
But what to do with your first-of-the-season, freshly picked, still muddy bunch of asparagus? Well, I quickly realised I wasn't going to be able to do a kilo of the stuff justice (it's easy to get carried away when left to your own devices in a field), so after palming two-thirds of it off on my mother and in-laws, I decided I'd stick it with a slab of bloody meat, and a jug of homemade béarnaise.

Any occasional readers of my blog might now have grasped that I don't really 'do' recipes. The idea of having to follow cooking instructions (or any other instructions, for that matter) to the letter makes me want to do something radical to a recipe that could result in a discovery of culinary genius. Or it could just really bugger it up. But you don't know until you try. It probably goes some way to explaining why my own recipes are so frustratingly vague- sorry. Anyway, there are some times where you really do have to put your own inspired whims to one side, and just pay attention. Béarnaise (alongside all other classic, egg or roux-based sauces) is one of those occasions.

I've seen hollandaise (the base recipe for a béarnaise) fiddled about with numerous times. Some variations call for olive oil, others for créme fraíche. Both, in my eyes, are sacrilege. The whole point of a hollandaise is that it's a simple sauce of egg and butter, cut with lemon juice. Start fucking with it, and it stops being hollandaise. So, for a change, it's not my own recipe I'm using, it's Julia Child's. I could have gone down the Escoffier route (a man toted in France as 'the King of chefs, and the chef of Kings,'), but I rather liked the idea of taking heed from some 'crass' Yank who didn't learn to cook until she was 32. Besides which, I own several Julia Child books, and as yet, not one Escoffier one- so not only did this seem like a suitable compromise, it was far easier.

Julia Child's Béarnaise Sauce with One or Two Enlightening (and Superfluous) Comments from Me.

What You Need:

  • 1/8th pint of wine vinegar (or 71ml. Or, even easier, 7 tablespoons). And I used cider vinegar, because it was closer to hand than the white wine vinegar. I told you I was crap at following recipes).
  • 1/8th pint (see above...) of dry white vermouth. You can use dry white wine, but I happened to be making a wet gin martini at the time. Two birds...
  • 1 tbsp chopped shallots (about 2-3 whole ones)
  • 3 tbsp chopped, fresh tarragon- 1 tbsp for the 'essence' part, the rest to be stirred in at the end.
  • 3-4 whole peppercorns, or lashings of freshly ground black pepper.
  • 3 egg yolks from happy chickens. Use the whites to make a gin fizz, or very small meringues.
  • 1oz of cold butter, diced.
  • 4-5oz melted butter.
  • Salt, and more pepper- to taste.
  • Lemon, to taste.

Another photo of eggs. And I have plenty more in stock.

What You Do:

1.Boil your vinegar, shallots, vermouth (or white wine), one third of your tarragon, the peppercorns and a pinch of salt to create the 'essence.' Reduce until it's just over two tablespoons in volume, and then stick it in the fridge to chill it (if, like me, you are incredibly impatient. If you're not, and happy to potter around doing other things while it cools slowly, then please, by all means- do).

2. Beat your egg yolks for a couple of minutes with a handheld whisk until they've thickened slightly. Strain in your cooled vinegar mix (if it's still hot, it will scramble your egg yolks beyond repair) using a sieve and a spatula to force out the liquid, and beat. 

3. Add half of your cold butter cubes, and transfer your mixture into a small, thick bottomed saucepan. Thicken the sauce over an impossibly low heat, whisking gently. Beat in the other half of the cold butter.

4. Do NOT decide that you probably know better than Julia Child, crank the heat up a smidgeon, and allow yourself to be distracted by the cat for five seconds.

Julia Child. With some large poultry.
5. If you do, add a tablespoon or so of cold water, turn the heat down again (to where it should have been),and whisk furiously to try and salvage your béarnaise. Nine times out of ten, this will work- at any stage of the process after the butter cubes have been added. Thank God.

6.Beat in the melted butter, drop by drop. There is a limit to the amount of butter a single egg yolk can physically absorb (Child advises something around the 3oz mark per yolk). If you add too much, your sauce will curdle, so err on the side of caution and do it all very gradually.

Unless your egg yolks are quite sizeable, you're unlikely to need all of your melted butter. But trust your own judgement, and don't forget you can fix your sauce with a little water (or a swift squeeze of lemon juice) if you need to. This is best avoided, as it will thin it out eventually.

This is as photogenic
as it gets.
7. Check your seasoning (feel free to add a small squeeze of lemon juice if the wine isn't quite bringing the acidity you'd like), and stir through your chopped tarragon.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly before you serve it. Hollandaise, béarnaise and other such sauces should be served warm, not hot. If they become overheated, they'll split, thus taking on the appearance of oily, congealed snot. Escoffier will be turning in his grave (though Julia probably won't care much- she seemed a laid back enough character... it's the French you've got to worry about). If you want to make it in advance (and who would blame you? It's terrifying the first time you make it...), then just reheat it very, very gently.

While it's cooling, stick your asparagus on a smoking hot griddle (or under a grill, or even better- on a barbecue), naked, with no adornements. You can start fussing with it later in the season, when you've nearly had your fill of the stuff. Cook until it's charred, but still firm. Throw a well-seasoned, oiled steak into a hot pan. Maybe make some chips- but it's worth planning these in advance. I'd casually committed to Heston's triple cooked-affairs, and then realised there was a three-and-a-half hour cooking time involved. So we got double-and-a-half-cooked chips instead.

And if you don't fancy eating your asparagus? Then just take a leaf out of this lady's book, and learn to predict the future with it. 

Happy fortune telling,

mrs hunt.x

Friday, 26 April 2013

the chicken post #2- the one with the recipe

I was glad to see last week's impassioned (crazed...?) rant hit a nerve. It's not that I enjoy riling readers up (or ruining their dinners, as was the case with my auntie... sorry about that), more that I was pleased to hear that one or two people might pause to think about what they're buying in future. And I hope I don't come across as too smug when I say that- like my good friend Lucy remarked, none of my post came as any surprise, it's just that it's all so very easy to ignore what you already know. Unless you happen to be best mates with a chicken obsessed food blogger like me, that is. Lucky girl.

So now you know what chicken you should buy, what the hell do you do with a whole one? It's easy to see why people are so tempted by breasts (of the poultry variety, obviously). Anyway... Yes. Breasts. They're boneless, a fairly uniform shape, pale (I'm still flummoxed as to why some people find the dark, juicy parts of the chicken repulsive), and easy to dice. They're also, for the most part, dry and tasteless. Especially when cooked away from the rest of the bird. A whole chicken can seem daunting- there might be the lingering concern you're going to kill someone, and they can seem tricky to carve. But this recipe should convince you that a decent roast chicken is as easy as pie, and possibly tastier. Until I decide to do a pie post, that is.

As you could imagine, I'm going to tell you to buy a decent chicken. Mine was a Traditional Free Range bird, and cost me £16.50 for two kilos. It wasn't cheap, but it will feed five to six hungry people, with the possibility of a chicken sandwich or two the next day. If you can't justify spending that amount on a bit of poultry, then you can get a Free Range equivalent for around a tenner, or an RSPCA Freedom Food bird for £6.50 onwards. Any lower, and it starts getting mean. An RSPCA bird ensures you a guilt-free dinner.

On a completely unrelated note, I went to a local farm to grab some milk yesterday. It struck me as quite a fun place, and it was nice (and cheaper) to cut out the middle man, and buy all my milk, cream and eggs directly from the farmers themselves. It's not something I'll be able to do everyday, but I will be making a concerted effort to pop by once a week, if only to remind myself that there are some benefits to living outside London... Anyway, the upshot of this, is that there are a lots of farm, egg, and chicken related photos in this post, so I've tried to keep the recipe down to its bare bones for sake of brevity. So here it is:

The feather was there already- I didn't add it for aestheitics.

Butter Stuffed Chicken

Not as indulgent as it sounds, but then you know my thoughts on butter. If you don't, see here.

What You Need:

  • 2kg high welfare chicken
  • 1 leek, trimmed. Or, if there are still some around, perhaps some baby leeks.
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 4-5 decent sized cloves of garlic
  • New potatoes, scrubbed and halved
  • A couple of shallots, finely chopped
  • A handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • A handful of parsley
  • A sizeable knob of room-temperature butter (similar in proportions to a child's fist- that's the most apt description I can think of right this minute) for the chicken, and as much as you think you'll need to coat the potatoes.
  • Watercress and peashoots
  • A few stems of fresh tarragon
  • A small glass of white wine
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper

What You Do:

1. Remove your chicken from the fridge about an hour before you want to cook it. This allows the meat to reach a level temperature throughout, and means it will cook more evenly- just remember to keep it away from the cat. Preheat your oven to 240 degrees, or as hot as it will go. 

2. Bash your garlic cloves (peeled) with the zest of two of your lemons and a hefty pinch of  salt until it's a coarse paste. Add your finely chopped parsley, and beat furiously into your room temperature butter.

3. Remove all string from your bird, and score on the underside (see photo) so you can create 'pockets' between the skin and the flesh across the thighs, and on the topside underneath both breasts. Make these pockets carefully, ensuring you don't rip the skin if you can. If you do, it's no real biggie. It just means you'll lose the butter as it melts in the oven. Stuff with your butter mixture, smearing any excess across a couple of well placed gashes you might want to add on non-stuffed parts of the chicken. 

Gashes on the underside of the bird...
4. Slice one of your zested lemons in half, and place inside the cavity of the birds with your tarragon. I've chosen this particular herb because it's fresh, clean, and faintly aniseed-y, so works beautifully when the sun's out. But you can stuff anything you like in here- bay, thyme, and onions all work equally well. Quarter your remaining lemon, and scatter across the bottom of a (very) snug-fitting oven tray.

5. Slice your leek lengthways, creating long ribbons about half an inch thick. Don't forget, the white part is the tastiest. Layer these around the lemons in your oven tray, and place your chicken on top. Drizzle the skin with olive oil and indecent amounts of salt and pepper.

6. Place your chicken in the middle of your oven, and cook at this temperature for twenty minutes. After which, turn down to 200 degrees, opening the door to speed up the process. Your chicken skin should have already turned an enticing golden-brown colour. Don't be tempted (like me) to poke it to see if it's crispy. It will be, and you will burn yourself.

7. Cook for a further hour and fifteen minutes, putting the kettle on for the potatoes after an hour. Get the water boiling, and pour into a pan with a handful (yes- and handful, NOT a pinch) of table salt. Boil your new potatoes until tender, and drain. Leave to steam dry in a sieve or a bowl somewhere while you return the pan to a low flame with a knob of butter, your shallots and your mint leaves. Soften and infuse gently, before adding your potatoes to coat thoroughly.

8. Remove your chicken from the oven, and transfer to a plate with a utensil big enough to handle it... two forks will not work. Pierce the fattest part of the breast with a sharp knife, and check the juices run clear. Skim the fat from the oven tray and remove the lemons without squeezing (the remaining juice will be quite bitter), and test for taste. Feel free to add and cook off a bit of wine, salt and pepper to taste. Pour into an attractive vessel.

9. Rest the bird for ten minutes or so, uncovered. If you cover it, the steam will soften the skin. If you rest it for much longer, it won't stay warm. Now for the carving: place your chicken on a board, and gently tug the legs away from the body. Carve along this fleshy part, and place onto an attractive serving platter of some sort. Now cut along the breastbone, one side or the other. Gently carve the breast away from the body- it should be moist and tender, not tough and dry.

10. Dig your fingers in to strip the carcass of the rest of the meat. Fight over who gets the oysters (the slippery, most tender pieces at the back of the bird, above the thigh), and then sulk when you lose the wishbone-pulling. Pile onto your platter with heaps of watercress and peashoots, dressed with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve with your gravy-esque juice, and don't judge anyone who adds a dollop of Hellmans. Where there's a New Potato in sight, it simply has to be done.

Don't forget to keep hold of your carcass- chuck it into a pan of simmering water for a couple of hours with some herbs, a couple of carrots and an onion, and hey presto- stock. Freeze it into an ice cube tray, and pop it out as and when you need it.

The chicken sandwiches are on me,

mrs hunt.x


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

the chicken post

It's just occurred to me that the daily act of feeding myself has turned into an ethical minefield; the list of everyday commodities that come tainted by child-slavery, carcinogens or stomach-turning welfare standards is now as long as my arm, and short of going all Good Life on you (admittedly tricky to do, in a two bedroom flat with no garden...) I'm unlikely to get through the day unscathed. But, like good ol' Gwyneth Paltrow, who this week declared life was about finding a balance- somewhere 'between cigarettes and tofu'- I've decided to pick my battles. Which means that, theoretically, I'm OK to sip on a Diet Coke (courtesy of evil conglomerate Coca Cola, purveyor of aspartame-laden soft drinks, and an empire with a human rights record that would make the late Kim Jong Il blush), while I rant about the perils of chicken consumption without feeling like too much of a hypocrite.

Garden: obligatory.

I have a love/hate relationship with chicken. In a restaurant, it's rarely anything other than a dry, overcooked bit of breast meat that's been thrown haphazardly into an unimaginative, bland-looking dish. I judge those who order chicken out quite harshly. I can't help it- I'm a bad person, who's screaming on the inside- 'BE. MORE. INTERESTING.' Which, I appreciate, is grossly unfair. Chicken at home however, is another matter. Given a bit of love, time and attention, it's juicy, flavoursome, and has the potential to be infinitely more interesting. Regardless- chicken has become part of our nation's staple diet- it's cheap, familiar, and versatile. But with its popularity comes a vague, gnawing unease- an awareness that the three quid chicken we find in our supermarket chiller cabinet probably has a more sinister past than we'd care to consider. How many of us have actually stopped to question how an animal can be reared, slaughtered and sold for £3 at a profit? It's an uncomfortable notion, because deep down, we know the deal... the only way this is economically viable is by employing the lowest welfare standards imaginable, and fiddling with the meat a bit along the way. Chickens, you see, are at an unfortunate evolutionary disadvantage: there are limits to how poorly you can treat a cow- how many you can squeeze into a single square foot (none, presumably), and how low the standards you adhere to can be before their meat becomes inedible. Chickens, on the other hand, are conveniently 'stackable', and the regard for their welfare seems to fall of the radar a little. Perhaps there's something fundamentally less 'human' about them that de-sensitizes us to their maltreatment?

However, I do like to think that the great British public are becoming more aware of their food provenance. Since the dawning realisation that a 99p box of burgers might contain one or two (hundred) things that aren't that good for you, there seems to have been a shift in attitudes to food- and it's well overdue. So I'm going to take full advantage, and hope that people will be a bit more receptive than they ordinarily would to the following:

Things You Probably Already Know About Chicken, But Are Choosing To Ignore

...something that may well come across as a deeply pious, occasionally smug rant about bad poultry.

First up, I feel I ought to clarify something. I am not rich. I do not have endless reserves of cash to fritter away on luxury ingredients for seven meals a week. I'm a 26 year old, trying to eke out a career in an unforgiving, over-worked and under-paid industry, who still has to rely on a part-time waitressing job to pay the bills (and for the food shop). So for anyone reading this that thinks having an ethical backbone, or buying quality ingredients to make better-tasting food is only the reserve of the financially secure, you're wrong. It's about making choices- I buy my meat from a butchers. It is, after all, what they're there for. Yes, it's probably more expensive, but I can look at it properly, and ask questions about where it's come from. And if I can avoid putting another penny in Tesco's pocket by doing so, then all the better. In short, if you're on a tight budget consider spending just a bit more on your cut of meat, and then use your leftovers more imaginativley (old blog post plug #1) or go vegetarian for a meal or two (old blog post plug #2).

Now that's out the way, let's get down to the first, and biggest, hurdle to buying decent chicken- the jargon. It's ridiculous. 'Free range'... 'organic'... 'welfare assured'... Which, if any, will leave you with a clear conscience? With a bit of (thoroughly depressing) research, I've cobbled together this- a glossary, of sorts, to help you decode your poultry.

1. Traditional Free-Range/ Total Freedom Chicken:

A happy chicken.
This is as reassuring as it sounds. The chicken breeds will have been chosen for their slow growth, and will only have been put away at night, because having your entire flock decimated by the neighbourhood fox clearly defeats the purpose. These chickens will have lived for at least 80 days before being slaughtered (more than twice as long as it takes intensively farmed chickens to reach market weight), have been in limited flock sizes, and will have been fed proper food. They will also have been dry plucked and hung to improve flavour (more on that in a minute).

2. Free Range:

A confusing term, and not necessarily as happy as it sounds. It's not as strong a guarantee of welfare as Traditional Free Range is, but birds must have been allowed to roam outside for at least half their life. They must have been fed grain, and will have reached at least 58 days in age, in limited flock sizes. So, not bad. There's worse to come.

3. Freedom Foods:

Established by the RSPCA, this label has three standards: free range, organic, and indoor. All are protected by rules that ensure a good diet, comfortable housing, freedom from pain, discomfort and mental suffering, and the ability to display natural behaviour. Like flapping.

4. Organic:

From 'organic' certified farms. This label is no guarantee of decent welfare standards, but sounds posh and considered enough to make you think it is.

Sad Chickens. No amount of Instagram-ing could make them
look happy.
5. Red Tractor:

90% of our chickens are Red Tractor certified. These birds have been subject to independent investigations, and they offer a degree of traceability. But that's as much reassurance as this friendly little logo can provide. Most of these, and all other intensively farmed birds, have never seen daylight- and certainly not outside the confines of their overcrowded 'barns.' I use the inverted commas because the very word 'barn' has the strange habit of conjuring up a delightfully quaint image- one that sadly has no place in this discussion. These birds are kept in flocks approaching 5000 in number (allowing them less than an A4 page of paper in room to manoeuvre) and their wings and beaks are clipped to prevent them from killing one another, as they are naturally inclined to do in such stressful, over-crowded conditions. They are fed on a diet of poor quality grain and antibiotics, and spent most of their time lying in their own excrement- unable to move because they are grossly overweight, and have deformed or broken legs. Besides which, there's not really anywhere for them to go. You know the brown splodges you see on chicken legs if you buy a bird whole? Yeah, they're ammonia burns.

6. Corn Fed:

Don't even get me started. The most that can be said for Corn Fed chickens is that they tend to be free range... but what good is that when you've been forced to eat so much grain that your legs have broken underneath you? 

So, now you're suitably informed (not to mention disgusted, and possibly a little depressed...), what should you be looking for in a good bird?

Skin: Chicken skin should be dry, and a creamy yellow colour. This means the bird has been dry-plucked and hung. Slimy, wet skin indicates the bird has been wet-plucked- as have 95% of all British poultry. Feathers have been ripped from the body with jets of water, which then leave moisture-filled holes that are a haven for bacteria. This, in turn, means the bird cannot be hung, for fear of contamination. Dry-plucked, well-hung (snigger) birds mean crispy skin, and tasty, tender flesh.

Meat: The flesh should be a golden yellow colour (not the jaundiced, sickly yellow of a corn-fed bird, or the pink and wet of an intensively farmed chicken). It should be free from purple splodges, as these only occur when an animal has been traumatised and the blood capillaries burst. If you're OK with the idea of eating a terrified chicken so long as it tastes alright, then you should know that this results in a flesh that's as tough and chewy as old boots. There should also be a decent layer of fat under the skin.

Feet: These need to look well-worked (a good indication that they've actually ventured outside), and free from those delightful brown splodges we talked about.

Eggs: Because they come from chickens. Pale yellow yolks mean a sad chicken, with a miserable diet. Buy local, if you can.

Bones: These should be dense, not weak and splintery.

Size: Talking about breasts, specifically. If they're the size of dearly departed Lolo Ferrari's, we can be fairly certain something untoward has occurred- either gross over-feeding, added water or, most likely, both.

That's it- I'm done. This isn't supposed to be a one-woman crusade, and I'm under no illusions that I'm about to single-handedly alter the mindset of the chicken-eating masses. You'll notice I haven't included dozens of grisly, harrowing photographs; I'm not trying to scaremonger, just enlighten. And if you can't have a whinge on something as self-indulgent as your own food blog, when can you, eh? Besides, if my self-satisfied rantings get just one person to think twice the next time they pick up a 79p box of eggs, or a packet of slimy 'Economy' chicken breasts, then I'm enough of a martyr to say it's been worthwhile ;)

In a couple of days, I'll have a good roast chicken recipe for you, but in the meantime, here's your reward for staying with me on this one... Enjoy.

mrs hunt.x

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

a very british spring

So, the weather's shit.

Thanks to the combined efforts of both the Daily Mail and my Facebook news feed (along with the actual weather), this isn't something that's escaped my notice. And it seems we've all been left feeling rather cheated- I mean, we know the deal. Our grim, overcast little corner of the world is hardly famed for its balmy climes, but I think we collectively draw the line at freak April snow storms and sub-zero wind-chill factors. My own personal grievance with this disgusting excuse for a Spring resides more in the fact that 90% of my wardrobe is comprised of flimsy sun dresses that I'd probably be sectioned for wearing outside (only because of the temperature, not because a large number of them feature cats and polka dots quite heavily). But, every cloud has a silver lining- even these bastards. Mine just happens to be risotto.

Cats and Polka Dots
I like risotto. I don't love it- nine times out of ten, if I'm going for starch, I'll opt for pasta instead. I suppose I've always felt there's an inherent conflict at work within dishes like risotto: they pair magically with all of the fresh flavours we associate so heavily with Spring and Summer (courgettes, broad beans, asparagus...), but its very nature means that it's the last thing you'll find me craving on a warm day. If we ever bloody get one. But at times like this- when we're getting the first few Spring vegetables through (well, give it a couple of weeks), but the weather's still abysmal (or teasing us with blue skies, sunshine and two degree temperatures), it couldn't suit my mood better.
Luke-  a man that spends too
much time on his hair, and
too little learning to cook
for himself.

Its seasonal suitability aside, my reasons for cobbling together a risotto were threefold. Firstly, the house was almost entirely bereft of food, and quite simply, I couldn't be arsed to venture out to buy more. It would have involved both getting dressed and braving the aforementioned rubbish weather conditions. Secondly, I had a jug of damn tasty chicken stock languishing in the fridge that was in danger of being either thrown out by my husband, or mistaken for soup. I figured I really ought to put it to some use. Finally, on the Monday, I received a particularly vitriolic and threatening message from my good friend Luke, that went something like this:

'So, your blog inspired me to make a risotto this evening, except I'm terrible at cooking risotto, which means you fucked up my dinner. You owe me one risotto. You have 24 hours to respond.'

I chose to ignore the fact that, at no point in the course of our friendship have I ever proffered any risotto-cooking advice that would then result in my culpability when it went tits up, but instead decided to use it as an opportunity to put this together:

A Fail Safe Guide To Risotto Cooking That Even Tools Like Luke Can't Cock Up

The beauty of this recipe is that it serves as a stodgy, starchy base for anything seasonal/to hand that you'd care to throw in. It goes without saying that some things work infinitely better than others, and I personally tend to keep my risottos vegetarian (with the occasional exception made for a decent shellfish version). I find that clumps of meat tend to screw with the otherwise uniform, velvety texture of the dish, and Italian cuisine has always been a dab hand at making you forget there's no meat involved. It was something British soldiers often remarked upon in Naples during WW2- the complexity of flavour in seemingly simple dishes such as this disguise the lack of protein, which is fortunate when the only protein you can get your hands on is rats and dogs, as was the case in heavily-rationed southern Italy. And we thought horse meat was bad.

A basic risotto won't cost you much cash, or need flash, hard-to-procure ingredients. All it takes is patience and decent seasoning. It's one of the easiest dishes in the world to concoct- unless, of course, you begin by boiling your risotto rice. Which, as it turns out, was where Luke was going wrong...

Risi e Bisi

...  A Venetian-style risotto that you can tart up accordingly.

What You Need:

A rice that's almost too
prettily-packaged to merit using
  • 180g Arborio risotto rice. Other varieties are available, but this is decent value, creamy, and less likely to overcook than some others (like Vialone Nano). Carnaroli is regarded as the best, if you're feeling purist. 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 finely chopped shallots
  • 1 finely chopped garlic clove
  • 50g of butter, cubed and stored in the fridge until use.
  • 750ml of hot chicken or vegetable stock
  • 175ml-ish of white wine- whatever you have to hand (of semi-decent quality- no Lambrini, please...)
  • A small handful of mint leaves, 3/4 of them roughly chopped, but leaving a few to throw into your stock.
  • A slightly larger handful of parsely, roughly chopped (including stems)
  • 1 lemon 
  • A handful of Parmesan shavings
  • A handful of frozen peas, defrosted.
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What You Do:

1. First, gently heat your stock, adding the intact portion of your mint leaves and a small squeeze of the lemon juice.

2. Heat your olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add your shallots, and proceed to soften at a painfully slow pace, adding your chopped garlic after five minutes or so. The two should remain pale (never golden), and turn opaque. The longer you can spare for this step, the sweeter and more beautiful they will taste- I'd say that fifteen minutes is the bare minimum you should have them frying away gently for. This bit's called soffrito, if you fancy learning a new word. 

If you didn't know what garlic looked like, I daresay you
wouldn't be reading a pretentious foodie blog. But here's
a picture anyway.
3. Add your risotto rice of choice, and turn over with a spatula or wooden spoon a few times, coating thoroughly in the oil. Cook like this for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until they too turn faintly opaque.

4. Pour a small glass of white wine, and drink it absent mindedly whilst you carry out step three. Then replace it with the one you need to complete step four. Throw this one in the pan, and top up your glass once again.

5. Continue to cook very gently until the wine has been absorbed (the stuff in the risotto, that is. Not the stuff in your hand). Then, proceed with your stock- one ladle at a time, waiting patiently until each dose has been absorbed before adding another. Stir slowly but frequently throughout.

... the same probably goes for shallots.
...That should take at least 20 minutes (but potentially more, depending on the absorbency of your rice variety, the stirring, the day of the week, the lunar position of Mercury... anything). Go by instinct- just don't rush it, don't saturate it with stock, and don't leave it unattended to fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other.

6. Once it's all absorbed, turn off the heat, add your cold butter cubes, the peas, parmesan, mint, parsley and check for seasoning. Pop the lid back on. Now you can fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other, as your risotto needs a few moments for the 'mantecatura-ing.' That's the bit where it goes all creamy. It's also snazzy new Italian word #2- we're practically bilingual now.

7. Serve with a rocket salad, an optional squeeze of lemon juice, and more of that wine, if there's any left. This should do four as a starter, or two as a main meal.


Your possibilities are endless. But here are a handful to be getting along with:

  • Wild Mushroom: add in with the soffrito at the beginning, just after the garlic. Ceps, morels, and everyday chesnut work especially well- clean them with a dry brush first (not in water), and don't crowd the pan when cooking, and you'll be on to a winner.
  • Courgette ribbons. Not for present wrapping or hair-tying.
    Just eating.
  •  Beetroot: Turns vivid pink, and thereby looks amazing. Again, add your cubed, cooked (not pickled) beetroot just after the garlic.
  • Courgette and Broad Bean: For the height of summer. Prepare ribbons of courgette with a potato peeler, and cook oh-so briefly in butter, pepper and lemon zest for a minute- no more- just as you're ladling in your last dribble of stock. Add to the pan alongside your peas.
  • Butternut Squash: Roast cubes of squash in olive oil for 15-20 minutes, and mash half of them. Stir this puree through the risotto at the end, and then scatter the remaining lumps artistically over the top of the finished article.

Buon Apetito! (Thanks, Google Translate...)

mrs hunt.x

A risotto so heavily-garnished with salad., it's barely worth putting a
picture in. Sorry about that.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

middle-class carb loading

Thirty days ago, I gave up bread and potato. Anyone fortunate enough to have endured five minutes in my company will have no doubt picked up on this; it's probably something to do with my constant, slightly smug lamentations that run something along the lines of 'Oh, gnocci! How I would love some gnocci right now...', or 'How I do miss freshly toasted sourdough.' I always had a sneaking suspicion I was irritatingly middle-class about my eating habits, and this has all but confirmed it... unsurprisingly, I am yet to crave a chip butty. If I'm honest, I don't even like bread and potato that much- I'd have been doing myself a bigger favour by giving up gin for Lent, but that's a bit like asking Frankie Boyle to give up the 'c' word- it's in no danger of happening any time soon, and life would be all the more boring for it.

I could have siezed the opportunity by transforming my body into a starch-free temple for forty days and nights, but there's little fun in that (well, Miley Cyrus seems pretty damn miserable these days...) and to put it bluntly, I just don't have the willpower. Instead, I tried to start thinking more imaginatively about the carbs I use to bulk up meals, and if you do the same, you'll probably realise that you too have been falling for the same handful (in one form or another) day in, day out. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the oldies- a potato has endless scope for reinvention, and you just can't mop up your roast lamb gravy with a yorkshire. It's wrong. So we use big hunks of doorstop bread instead. But for the sake of variety, let's mix things up a bit with:

Five Alternative Carbs that are Marginally More Interesting Than Your Average Potato

1.  Polenta

POLPO- A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)- is a posession of mine that is now so heavily coated in the grime, oil and unidentifiable, slightly crusted splashes that are the mark of any good cookbook, some recipes are barely legible. To borrow a quote from them (in the hope that I don't get sued- I still haven't gotten around to working out what copyright laws really entail...), polenta is 'a sort of savoury porrige, a bit like semolina, that can be served as a gloop, or set, sliced and grilled.' Which sounds 'rustic' at best, and 'hideous' if we choose to be more honest about things. Made from maize, it's cheap as chips, but- as promised- a bit more interesting. Though seeing as it was the staple foodstuff of European peasantry for a few centuries, it can hardly be described as middle-class. Its taste is hard to describe for the uninitiated- it lies somewhere between starchy cream and olive oil, which probably doesn't serve as a particularly appetising or illuminating description.

Polenta is also one of the few foodstuffs that have an easy-cook variety I feel I can happily advocate (aforementioned 'middle-class-ness' often prevents me from doing this with other alternatives, but this is no Pot Noodle). Polenta Svelta- the instant stuff- will save you a good forty minutes of dull clockwise-stirring (or anti-clockwise- just make sure you don't mix and match, or it'll be as lumpy as gruel- and this dish needs all the help it can get in the aesthetics department). Just follow the pack instructions- without skimping on the salt- and you'll have yourself wet polenta. Excellent with a few shavings of choice parmesan. If you fancy something more solid that perhaps appears more 'palatable', allow it to set in a well-oiled (or cling-filmed) dish so it's about an inch deep. In the fridge is fine. Then slice, place rough-side down first on a smoking hot griddle until it boasts some attractive striations, and warm through in the oven for 4-5 minutes.

2. Roasted Butternut Squash

The sweet, fleshy interior of a butternut squash is a wonderful thing. It marries so well with a huge variety of flavours, and can bring a bit of balance to any salinous, spicy or sour dish in an instant. If you want the unadorned version, just heat some olive oil in an oven tray at 180 degrees while you peel your squash (and when I say carefully, I don't intend to sound patronising. It's simply because I've nearly lost fingers to these buggers...), and slice into something appealing. I like crescents, rough, mouth-sized cubes, or occasionally parsnip-shaped slivers. You can roast your squash with a bit of salt and pepper, or a well-thought out mix of... cumin, sesame seeds, dried chilli, harissa, paprika, almonds, apple, pancetta, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, thyme, sage, honey, coriander seeds, pear, garlic, chorizo, or maple syrup... though not all at once. That would taste... confused.

But butternut squash is only in season from September through to late January, so you'll have to wait. Sorry.

3. Celeriac Mash

In season for just a few more weeks, celeriac  is a good alternative to mashed potato. Or, you could mix the two if you happen to have a dodgy-looking potato languishing in a corner somewhere. Or perhaps a couple of gnarly old carrots. Because it's mash- it doesn't need to look pretty, and you can throw anything you like it.

Cover your celeriac with milk, chuck in a few peeled garlic cloves, and simmer until tender. Then drain the milk, keeping it handy somewhere. Whizz with a hand blender if you have one, or go old-school and do it with a manual masher- though the end result won't be as smooth unless you really commit to the job... At this point, you need to add in enough of the milk to get the consistency you want, enough butter to prompt a coronary by merely glancing at the stuff, and then some flavour. Salt and pepper, obviously- but you could add in a bit of grated nutmeg and powdered ginger if you fancy something spiced and warming, or wholegrain mustard- perhaps even a little apple chutney, if you're hankering after something a little less heady, but retaining that punch.

4. Interesting Rice

I think it goes without saying that I do not mean Uncle Ben's here. Try as it might, regardless of what exotic ingredients they're chucking in it's always going to have the bland, slightly metallic tang of microwaved rice. Learn to do it properly, on a hob, and you'll never look back. Maybe it's because I threw my microwave out years ago, vowing to never use one again, that I'm averse. Or maybe it's because it just tastes crap. Who knows.

Brown rice, with a gratuitous sugar mouse.
There's a trick with rice, and I don't mind admitting that it's something I've only really gotten to grips with in the last year... Rinse it first, thoroughly. This gets rid of any excess starch. Then bring it to the boil with twice the amount of HEAVILY SALTED water, or- even better- stock, and a few bits thrown in for good measure. Use your imagination- bay leaves, lime zest, peppercorns, cardammon pods- anything you think might compliment your protein. Stir ONCE, and leave it bubbling away on a medium to high heat. You'll need a snug-fitting lid, and a heavy based pan, and they'll ensure that you don't end up with stodgy, singed grains at the end of it all. It should take around 15-20 minutes, at which point just remove the lid, fluff up with a fork and check the liquid levels- there should be just a touch left. Replace the lid, and turn off the heat. Leave it to steam this way for another 5-10 minutes (but it will stay warm for another hour or so like this).

Try coconut rice- just replace half of your water or stock with coconut milk, and grate in some creamed coconut. Or make some fancy garnishes- fried garlic and shallots are always a winner, as are pistachio nuts, coriander, friend mint leaves, freshly fried chilli, sultanas and raisins. And think about the type of rice you're using too- I love brown rice, as it adds a nice nutty dimension to a meal.

So there you go- pimped up rice.

5. Beans

Beans, beans, good for the heart... We all know the rest. But it shouldn't put you off eating them, because they're so damn versatile. Cold and miserable? Have a Tuscan Sausage and Bean stew. Basking in the sun? Unlikely, but have a Borlotti, courgette and lemon salad with shaved Parmesan anyway. It'll make it feel more like summer, even when you're in the midst of a freak snow-storm, I promise.

I'm not going to bore you with endless bean recipes. For one, because I plan on sharing my aforementioned Tuscan Stew with you at some point anyway. If you want recipes now, I suggest buying POLPO's book. But primarily, it's because beans are something you can be instinctive with- follow your tastebuds, and you'll probably cobble together something just lovely.

Happy carb-loading,

mrs hunt.x