Category Archives: Rants

Gastroporn

A few weeks ago M vented his not inconsiderable spleen upon Amazon at a certain well-known book on baking – deriding its pretensions and poor writing. Worse still, he called into question the recipes themselves. Indignant responses followed almost immediately from other readers. Did M not realise how well-regarded The Author was? Did M not know that The Book had inspired countless happy droves to dizzying new heights of Culinary Nirvana? To ratchet things up a notch, within hours, The Author himself responded; quite stung, it seems. (Amusingly, the first indignant reader comment did not arrive until 15 minutes after The Author* posted a link to the review on Twitter. Vanity surfing much?)

So, has M just been a mean bitch** and a shameless troll? Or is the Emperor in a slight state of undress?

Let’s take a look at The Book. It is truly a handsome beast: large format, hardback, stitched in signatures of reassuringly heavy paper. The graphic design is good, and the text eloquent and passionate. And the photography? Glorious: full page photos that just have you salivating. I imagine this simply flew off the shelves the Christmas it was published, eliciting many an “ooh!” and “ah!” from the casual reader. Could one possibly bear to take such a beautiful specimen of the bookbinder’s art into the kitchen where it might – perish the thought – become soiled with use? No, its purpose is to adorn the coffee table. (See the hysterical http://catalogliving.net for ideas.)

Although the Amazon debacle is amusing, I’m interested in the wider world of Gastroporn. Why does it exist? Does it benefit mankind?

Like proper pornography – if such a thing can ever be considered proper – we have a small group of experts doing something the rest of us find awkward and just a bit embarrassing. Just like porn, the buzz amongst reviewers is triggered by the caress of novelty against a jaded palate. At their worst, books and television like this put people off actually getting mucky in the kitchen, and instead buy more merchandise or visit the authors’ restaurants.

Now, I have been told that “high end chefs don’t write how-to-cook books”, and accept that if the author has a Michelin star or two, he’s not obliged to explain how to fillet a fish or knead dough. Sometimes I see recipes from these people, and think, “that might be fun to cook”, and then look at the recipe closer, and realise there’s not enough information on the page for me to recreate it. This necessitates spending a lot of time cross referencing other sources in an act of gastronomic reverse engineering. (Some of the recipes on this site are here as a result of that work.)

Now I do understand – and almost forgive – the need to get a book published for a particular marketing deadline can mean that testing, and in some cases proof-reading, fall by the wayside. Perhaps the book needs to be churned out quickly lest the author fade in the public’s imagination. Case in point is the lovely Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy, which could have been very good, but ends up a promotional vehicle, with more photos of Lorraine than cookery. (I hope Edd Kimber’s forthcoming book isn’t a rush job.)

On the other hand, we don’t want cookbooks that are simply dry technical manuals, although see the excellent handbooks for the City & Guilds diplomas if you do. (You won’t find these at Waterstone’s; try Foyle’s or Nisbet’s.) Writing should be more than mere documentation. Nigel’s saucy prose eggs the reader on, and Nigella practically flirts one into the donning the apron. Who can not read Pomiane’s recipe for chocolate mousse without smiling, and making a note to pick up some eggs, cream and chocolate on the way home? Ditto photography. A few action shots of the tricky steps (difficult, I know, when you’re cursing) and a shot of the finished product are both useful and likely to spur us into action.

My objection to gastroporn is when it masquerades as a collection of recipes. You’ll notice that a bookshop does not put The New Joy of Sex on the same shelf as The Story of O. I propose gastroporn and cookbooks be likewise separated.

____
*One notes that The Author tweets with a vigour that surpasses even Stephen Fry. One also notes a few of the five star Amazon reviews are good professional copy but the only review each of these users has ever contributed. Entirely plausible The Author is perfectly sane and reasonable, but is being represented by some vile astroturfing PR firm.

**The intemperate nature of the review may be connected to a failure in the kitchen. We’ve all been there.


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Twitter

Despite high technology paying my rent, I’m a bit of a luddite at home, and generally don’t buy a gadget until two years after Stephen Fry has stopped wittering about its joys and delights.

I am the proud Late Adopter of a Twitter account, which I’m really not sure will be of any use to anybody, but through which I will try to spread entertainment and amusement. Of sorts.

It’s here. You have been warned.


Pancakes

Three things.

One. Don’t feel you should only have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Unless you’re into shriving, and will be observing Lent sans eggs and butter. Have them often: sweet, savoury, stuffed, simple, or on fire. (The ideal Sixties dinner party should feature Delia’s cherry duck, and conclude with Crêpes Suzette.)

Two. Don’t buy ready made pancakes. Honestly. Even if your pancakes are the saddest, lumpiest, and most rubbery things to ever come forth from a frypan they will still smell good and taste good. In my case they evoke early memories of making a nuisance of myself in the kitchen, whilst Mum was busy firing up the (square!) Sunbeam electric frypan and agonising over the consistency of the batter. We could never tell, and they were always good.

Three. The procedure outlined here by Saint Nigel is stupidly easy. Any old frypan will do. (Him What Knows has six iron crêpe pans which he has been known to use all at once, but that’s when he’s feeding forty.)

That is all.


Dried Basil

Kate asked me about why I chose this title for the Blog. To be honest, I think the main motive was a bit of shit-stirring, and a need to eschew any hint of cutesy domesticity. But dried basil? Maligned bogeyman of the spice rack? Here are a few thoughts.

It doesn’t have many fans. No less an institution than the BBC politely says, “Dried basil retains little of the aroma and flavour of fresh basil, so is of limited use in the kitchen.” Saint Nigel says it’s only fit for the bin.

As a result, we have supermarkets full of fresh basil. There are hermetically sealed plastic of leaves and little pots (some hydroponic) of the plant itself, all year ’round; air freighted when necessary. The leaves are neat, orderly, and strangely pale. And the taste? Curiously bland, with an unpleasant bitterness, and no aroma at all. Egged on by certain celebrity chefs, people buy this stuff, and proceed to cook the crap out of it, to the point where they might as well have used spinach. This is missing the point.

Go to a proper Italian deli – even in London there are only three I trust – and maybe – just maybe – you’ll find The Real Thing. Chances are you’ll smell them before you see them – a waft more heavenly than the finest incense, and there they are. Small, unsealed plastic bags of slightly bruised, slightly wonky leaves. Leaves of the darkest murkiest green. Often there’ll be punnets of dark red, slightly mangy tomatoes: tomatoes that don’t look quite respectable, unlike their uniform cousins in Tesco. This is the Real Deal. Don’t cook this at all, just grab the tomatoes, some buffalo mozarella, pugliese bread, prosciutto, and make a pig of yourself. Every now and again, there will be a glut, and you can get a kilo of the stuff. Make some pesto.

Dried basil will never be any good for pesto or bruschetta. (That’s broos-ketta, by the way, not brooshetter.) Dried basil is a different beast altogether. It’s sharp and musty; with a hint of aniseed. You don’t need a lot, and you can cook it vigorously. Its place is in pungent sauces, soups, and ragù that peacefully simmers on the hob all afternoon. It’s not a primary element, just a zesty backnote in the palette, which probably features dried oregano or marjoram. It doesn’t last more than a few months in the jar, so don’t hang on to it for so long that it just smells like mothballs.

Just like mint – where the fresh stuff is for desserts and the dried stuff is for curries – we have two completely different ingredients. Use them wisely.


(Aside: my parents bought a spice rack in 1978, complete with jars of spices, all pre labelled and pre filled. I’m fairly sure some of those jars had their original contents when we moved house in 1984. If your spice rack is like this, then just throw the whole accursed lot out. Out, I say, out.)


Resolutions

Predictably, I am the victim of over indulgence, and it is in this spirit that I always make rash vows. For this year I solemnly do swear and promise:

  1. less food
  2. better food
  3. more exercise
  4. more experimentation

That said, I am writing this sipping an adult hot chocolate, so suspect I’m wavering.

Lazy Food

An amusing article at the Beeb this week, with much wringing of hands about the increasing tonnage of convenience foods in supermarkets.

Pfft. I like lazy food: it gives me a chance to cook something when pressed for time, as opposed to throwing in the towel and ordering a pizza. It allows me to claim weeknights as my own. It is often over packaged – which I don’t like – these days the heretic’s garbage day consists of a small bag of organic horror and a huge bloody sack of packaging – the subject of another rant.

Favourites

Here are some useful things.

Sofritto
Pre prepped sofritto is a life saver. It’s not that much trouble to peel and dice an onion, ditto a carrot or two and half a bunch of celery. Add it all up, and you don’t have much of your weeknight left. And half a bunch of celery, damnit. They don’t sell it by the half bunch, so the other half gets popped into a sealed tupperware in the fridge with the best intentions, and its deliquescent remains are tipped ceremoniously into the rubbish a week later.
Grated Mozzarella
Not the delicate buffalo cheese that you slice and serve as antipasto, but the vigorous chewy cow’s cheese, that is perfect on pizza and in parmigiana di melanzane. Get it pre grated, in a resealable plastic bag, and store it in the freezer.
Marigold Bouillon
Popularised by Nigel Slater, this stuff makes quite good vegetable stock and allows all manner of wonderful things to be attempted when time is of the essence. Don’t leave home without it.
Chopped Pickled Ginger
Peeled, chopped, packed in a jar of white vinegar, and none the worse for wear.

WTF

Now, there are some things that don’t make sense.

Chopped Onions
If anyone finds this too hard, please let me know and I will write a short, abundantly illustrated article on how easy this is.
Stoned Olives
The second you take the stone out, they start losing flavour. So buy them with the stone in, even if you are simply going to chop them up finely and throw them into pasta sauce to tantalise the oleaphobes in your life.
Peeled Potatoes
I’m sure this is only an urban myth.
Adulterated Garlic
If it comes in any other form than a whole head, it ain’t garlic. The chop and pickle in vinegar approach – that serves ginger and chilli so well – doesn’t work, and as for turning it into powder, oh dear. (Note: the garlic you see in whole heads is dried. Keep an eye out in the shops right now for fresh Spring Garlic, with its thick stem and wonderful flavour.)
Chopped Meat
Other than mince, I find pre chopped meat vaguely disturbing. This could just be me.