Monday, 28 February 2011
As one of the most underrated artists of all time, I feel that there is no better place to kick off This Chap's Classic Album Review than with Robert Palmer’s 1985 Chart Topper Riptide.
If there was ever an album which defined yuppie-dom it is this one, and although it is the follow up album Heavy Nova that features heavily in Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho this is the one that set the ball rolling (and for a start it is a better album).
By 1984 Palmer had gained the reputation as something of a maverick. There was no consistent style between his albums, which many put down to his keenness to adapt his musical output to the trends of the time. His first albums Sneaking Sally Through the Alley and Pressure Drop were a blend of crunching blues and blue-eyed soul; followed by the funk and disco tinged pop of Some People Can Do What The Like and (the appropriately titled) Double Fun (both showing him in stereotypical 70s style with leggy blondes, wing collars and kidney shaped swimming pools). Then Palmer made a radical about turn with his first album of the 1980s Clues (1980), embracing the growing Electronic and declining New Wave scenes he finally broke through the UK market with the album’s title track and the sombre single Johnny and Mary. Surely, with such an eclectic and wide-ranging style, he was destined to have some success.
Unfortunately, whilst Palmer remained a fantastic live draw with a loyal fan base, he had failed to monopolise on the initial success of Clues. The follow-up album (released after lengthy touring), Pride (1983), was disjointed and patchy, more filler than killer. So it is at this junction in Palmer’s career that once again we find the singer trying to reinvent his sound. It was whilst in New York on a gruelling tour schedule that Palmer met John and Andy Taylor (The rhythm section for chart toppers Duran Duran) who were on a lengthy hiatus. Along with Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson from Chic they would form the hard rocking super group Power Station. Their one and only eponymous album was full of Edward’s slick production as well as gated drum beats (as made popular by Phil Collins) hard edged, driven guitars and heavy assorted percussion. It was the spark for the success that Palmer had found elusive over the previous ten or so years.
Propelled by the success of Power Station Palmer set to recording what to my mind is his best and most iconic album – Riptide. Similar in style to Power Station it develops the sound they started whilst giving more prominence to Palmer’s unique vocal sound. As soon as you hear the album’s signature tune, ‘Addicted to Love’, you might as well be on the set of Miami Vice cruising around the sun drench strip in pastel suits and aviator sunglasses. A number of critics have unfairly claimed that this track embodies the theme of the album, cheaply using it to accuse Palmer of sacrificing substance for style. I can’t quite believe this as the album is so much more than ‘Addicted to Love’.
Yes there are some throwaway tracks such as ‘Flesh Wound’ and ‘Discipline of Love’, which to my mind are straight off the mid 80s production line. However, there are plenty of gems which more than make up for this. The spare, synclavier heavy, reinterpretation of Earl King’s ‘Trick Bag’ showcases Palmer’s awesome blues voice and makes one question why he didn’t do more of this stuff in his lifetime. This is neatly juxtaposed by the silky smooth, ultra-yuppie, slow burner ‘Get it Through your Heart’ and marvellously betrays his crooner credentials. Another cover comes in the form of Cherrelle’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ (my favourite cut on the album) which whilst sounding completely different from the original Prince-influenced original. My hands are already aching from typing this as I feel that this is an album that should be selling itself, it is such a fun, well crafted and soulful record!
I feel that a number of naysayers dismiss a number of albums too readily because not every song is of hit quality, but is it not more important that there are a four or five really strong, really awesome tracks amongst a bit of padding? I think that this is the case with Riptide. It is true that you could argue that Palmer has put out a better album musically, but for energy, atmosphere and sheer joy of the moment this has to take precedence over the rest of his catalogue. Therefore I urge you to pick up a copy off iTunes, Amazon or whatever you use to download your music and I promise that you will not be disappointed!
Sunday, 20 February 2011
I have rarely read a cookbook which outlines the value of making a few mistakes in the kitchen and I think this is a great shame. If one looks to the great scientific discoveries of the past 500 – even 1000 – years then it is easy to see how many frustrating mistakes and miscalculations were made before a solution was gained. This should be the same with cookery.
It is unfortunate, yet a fact of life, that not all recipes work nor can even the most accomplished chef get it right every time. Testament to this are the small number of disappointing dishes that I have eaten where the chef has tried to be too clever, or perhaps has over or under seasoned. The same is true of home cooked meals where agravy fails to emulsify, the potatoes are a bit overdone or a cake fails to reach the right consistency.
Of course it is extremely disappointing when something doesn’t turn out right, did not Robert Burns talk of mice and men? However this should neither get you down, nor should it discourage you from experimenting or trying out new recipes in your kitchen. Think of it strategically, make a mental note of does and doesn’t work and steer clear of it like the plague.
You might find that a large number of recipes in books yield disappointing results, this could be for a number of reasons from methodology to poor grammar in the print. Most often it is down to the use of a home economist by the author. In many instances, professional chefs tend not to measure out the ingredients for a large number of dishes, leaving this to a home economist who will have to surmise a rough estimate as to the quantities of ingredient used. It is an unenviable task having to second guess someone and this is made even more difficult from the vague recipes given by the chef who will more often that not created the recipe on instinct and intuition.
Sometimes you might have to man up and accept some responsibility for mistakes in the cookery. This will often be caused by the desire to cut corners or the assumption that you can substitute ingredients when the original is not available. Let me give you an example from my own experience:
One winter’s Sunday I found myself home alone and for want of anything better to do I decided to indulge my more homely instincts and embark upon some baking. Having recently had my 22nd Birthday I had also received some very attractive cookery books, one of which was Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics. Chock full of exciting and original recipes I thought this was a real find and although there were some things I’d never dream of making myself there were also a number of goodies that any home cook would be happy to try out. However I was a little stuck for most of the recipes did not merit the effort only to feed one person. However, near the end of the work is a section on baking and confectionary and I thought that this might probably be my best bet. Passing sections on petit fours and oatcakes, I suddenly came upon a recipe that I had yet to see in any other cookery books…Fig Rolls. Now, if you EVER see this recipe in any of your books my advice would be to shut the book, put it back on the shelf, forget you ever saw the recipe, head round the corner and buy a pack of Jacob’s finest fig rolls from the shops – it is both time saving and gastronomically sound!
But being an intrepid gastronaut, I made my way to the supermarket and forked out some money for the ingredients. However, the first problem soon made itself painfully aware, Morrisons had run out dried figs. This struck me as rather strange considering that dried figs have never been at the top of any shopping lists that I’ve ever written or seen, obviously there were a lot of people on a serious roughage kick that weekend! But thinking that I was a bit clever I thought that I would substitute the figs with the next best thing…prunes. And so I paid my money and went home setting out all the ingredients on the kitchen work-surface and it was then that I encountered my second problem, which was a slightly more crucial one than that of the ‘great dry fig shortage of South West London’, in that I had no plain flour. At this juncture I let out some loud expletives, cursing my poor logistics and made a fatal error – fatal for the cake not my person.
Common sense should have prevailed at this moment and I should have taken the five minute journey round the corner and purchase a trusty bag of Homepride’s finest. This, however, was not the case and I ended up finding a packet of self-raising flour in the store-cupboard. As the recipe was already using baking powder, I thought that I could exclude it and use this type of flour to kill two birds with one stone…Oh how very wrong I was!
The prep took absolutely ages as there were three different stages to attend to, the fig – I mean prune – puree, a frangipan surround and the brown sugar pastry to encase it all. I must have used every bloody utensil in the kitchen as pots bubbled, blenders rumbled, fruit macerated and hands kneaded. It was incredibly wearying work, especially on the pastry which, because it was for a sweet recipe was extremely fragile! - The almond paste was a fucking nightmare! That is all I shall say on it. As I was working I noticed that there was an awful lot of sugar in this recipe, but I thought little of it at the time as I was sure that Mr Rhodes knew best and who was I, an amateur, to challenge the large collection of Michelin stars and AA rosettes that he had racked up over the years?
After a while (2½-3 hours) I had assembled the rolls, laid them out on a greased tray and slammed them into a heated oven for 20-25 minutes as the recipe suggested. It had taken me so long to construct the rolls that I became a little arrogant, congratulating myself on my prowess as a pastry chef. I poured myself a large scotch and sat back, half watching season 3 of NYPD Blue and half looking and the dark depths of the oven. I felt that I must be patient and not check lest I let out the accumulated heat in the oven and ruin the fruits of my hard labour. I needn’t have worried for I had already ruined it in the preparation.
Suddenly I smelt something acrid, as if there was burning, but surely it couldn’t be my fig rolls. But plagued by curiosity and the added attraction of not letting the house burn down I checked. If there was ever a let-down in my cooking life it was at this moment. The self-raising flour had reacted, puff up the pastry and causing it to overflow spilling over the sides of the baking tray and amalgamating the rolls to form an uber-prune pillow in which some parts had cooked through and other parts had merely remained an almondy goo. ‘No,no, no!’ I panicked, the cardinal sin of any worthy cooked and started trying to remedy my mistake as best I could with a spatula and an oven glove. After repeatedly burning my fingers with a combination of hot sugar, flour and aluminium I felt I had fixed it at the sacrifices of half the collection of rolls. Therefore I put the prune rolls back in the oven for a further five minutes and awaited results.
I had trodden too far down the path and like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, I couldn’t turn back the clock. The rolls seemed now to have a life of their own and like the possessed brooms, grew larger and larger until they became puffy and vulgar. It would be wrong to say that I was distraught but I must say that I was pretty peeved off, I had now spent about 4½ hours slaving over the stove for no good reason and all I had to show for it was about 4 rather uninspiring biscuits. But I let them cool and then the moment had arrived to taste them and work out if they were anything like those great biccies I used to enjoy in the school playground when I was much younger.
I had never really considered at the time that prunes might be a lot sweeter than figs, nor that the home economist whom Gary Rhodes had employed to work out his recipe measurements might have had a sweeter tooth than most. I took my first bite and I will give myself one piece of credit from this disaster, the texture was pretty much as a fig roll should be. Then I noticed the taste and was almost poisoned to death by the saccharine sweetness that hit my tongue. Truth be told, it was awful and taught me the valuable lesson of never ever, EVER attempting to make fig rolls again. There are some things that should be left to the biscuit companies, and this was certainly one of them!
Despite this failure I have only be reinforced in my kitchen confidence and will not be making those mistakes again, nor put myself in a position where I have to spend the whole night scraping prune paste from the inside of the blender! I think the best way to look at cookery is not as an exact science but similar to medieval alchemy. When the method was proven and the results seen then the process worked. A number of recipes work a treat and one should not be scared of failure when attempting a number of recipes that appear in books. However there are a number that bare similarities to the idealistic Philosopher’s Stone, which of course was never attainable even by the most ambitious of methods represents that number of recipes that you will try to replicate in your life and fail miserably at. Please, please, please do not be put off by this it is just a fact of life. The above is only one of many recipes that haven’t worked quite the way that I was expecting – Keith Floyd’s Cullen Skink, Claudia Roden’s Baba Ganoush and Stephane Reynaud’s Country Vegetable Soup.
I would hate anyone to be put off by the ineptitude of a cookery book or their own mistakes. Life is full of slip-ups from which we learn, and the art of cookery should be no different. Therefore, keep experimenting and building up your repertoire and take your failure in your stride and let it build your confident in the kitchen rather than flatten it.
Monday, 14 February 2011
Good food, like a good house is built on sound and solid foundations as bad food, like a bad house, is constructed on weak and unstable foundations! In this busy, work-obsessed country I am constantly confronted with new and ingenious ingredients put forward by food companies to cut the time it takes to cook a meal. Of course this increases the convenience of but sadly this is at a cost to the food’s flavour and integrity. Nowhere is this more true than in the increased use instant stock, tinned stock, stock cubes, stock pots and its other sterile relatives.
It horrifies me to see one of the most famous chefs in the country (who should know better) advertising an instant stock and claiming that it beats the real McCoy. In my opinion this is thoroughly misleading and makes me sad as meat stock is so easy to make! I hope that any chef who is reading this would agree with me on this point. If I am paying good money for a meal I demand real meat stock rather than the powdered, cubed and over-salted muck that occupies the dried goods section of the supermarket and I would make a point of criticising any restaurant which fails to meet this criteria!
I went to a dinner party the other day where, on this subject, one of the guest complained that they simply did not have the time to make stock from scratch. I am sorry but this is plain bullshit! Yes it is a lengthy preparation but it is so low maintenance that you could easily do 100 other pressing things whilst it is cooking. So it really comes down to being plain lazy or lack of desire to make it yourself – you can make as many excuses as you like but never say that it require too much of your time!
For those who are interested, I hope that you will try the very basic recipe given below for a simple light chicken stock. I promise that once you have made your own and tried it next to a shop purchased product that you will never go back! You will be able to taste the difference between the homemade stock and bursting with the flavours from the meat bones and vegetables used as opposed to the highly concentrated and salty taste of the instant product!
I will be brief on this point but to clarify the importance of this ingredient, at its essence, a good home-made stock is the backbone of most savoury cooking – this is the reason that the French word for stock is ‘fonde’ (literally meaning foundations). It has so many uses, freezes easily and costs next to nothing to prepare. Take a glance through your cookery books and you will see how often it is used to perform a number of different functions so go on, give it a go!
1kg Chicken Wings
Glug sunflower oil
Salt and pepper
2 Leeks (cleaned and roughly chopped)
2 Carrots (roughly chopped)
2 Sticks of celery (roughly chopped)
Handful of peppercorns
Enough water to cover ingredients
- Heat the oven to 200ºC, place chicken wings on a shallow baking tray and toss with the oil and salt & pepper.
- Place the wings in the oven and roast for 30 minutes.
- Remove the wings from the oven and place in a large saucepan or stockpot, adding the vegetables and peppercorns and cover with enough water to just about submerge the ingredients.
- Place on the smallest gas ring and bring to the boil.
- Turn the heat right down to its lowest setting, cover and leave for 2-3 hours.
- Strain through a sive/colander/chinois into a large bowl to remove bones and vegetables then leave to cool.
- When cool skim off the layer of fat that forms over the top of the jellified stock and then either use immediately or melt again and portion in suitable containers for freezing.
There! It couldn’t be simpler! Once you have mastered this technique you can apply it to all manner of other meats such as veal, beef, pork and even lamb! So what are you waiting for? Get cracking and get your arse in the kitchen!
Wednesday, 2 February 2011
Hard toil in the Kitchen often takes its toll. Whilst I roll out pastry casings, simmer down stocks and bake my beetroot there is nothing more that I enjoy that listening to a carefully selected playlist of classics from my extensive (some would say naff) collection of music!
Here is a handful of my favourites (in no particular order) which will aid my culinary efforts and hopefully contribute to some sumptuous dishes over the coming month:
- Tom Sawyer – Rush : A muted drum beat underlying an echoed vocal and a very 80s synthesizer build into what can be described as one of the finest rock songs of the last 30 years. A Thumping bass and driven guitar also make this one of the great air guitar anthems, pipping the efforts made on their previous hit ‘Spirit of Radio’ to the post by a close margin. Anyone who has seen the film ‘I love you, Man’ will know what I mean! (Album: Moving Pictures (1981))
- Love comes to Everyone – George Harrison : Perhaps the most unsung of all The Beatles, Harrison was a fantastic writer and guitarist. This song recorded with Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton is a fine example of his sound before Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame) got hold of the reigns of production. The guitar playing is unmatched and Winwood’s synthesizer solo is a wonderful indication of the sound that would come to typify his debut album ‘Arc of a Diver’ (Album: George Harrison (1979))
- Lowdown – Boz Scaggs : Imagine a seedy LA lounge circa 1976 with more nylon suits and medallions than you could shake a walkman at and you’ve got ‘Lowdown’ (still Scagg’s highest charting single to date). Featuring backing from a seasoned group of session musicians –who would go on to form TOTO – ‘Lowdown’ is a fantastically cheesy slice of blue-eyed soul and a nostalgic listen to a bygone age where moustaches and moccasins ruled the night! (Album: Silk Degrees (1976))
- Don’t Turn Around - ASWAD : When I was at University I went through a big ASWAD phase (as you do!), praising their whole back catalogue on my radio show from their rootsy enponymous debut, the dub heavy ‘New Chapter in Dub’ and the poppy ‘Distant Thunder’. This, their best-selling single, was originally a minor hit for soul queen Tina Turner. However, the lads from West London gave it their own interpretation, infusing the tune with their signature drum machine backing and some serious reggae flavour. An absolute classic which gets as much airplay now as it did in my time on Student Radio. (Album: Distant Thunder (1988))
- Poison – Bel Biv Devoe : If ever there were an excuse to put on a guilty pleasure record then it would be a toss up between ‘One Voice’ by Barry Manilow and this 1990 hit single from Bel Biv Devoe’s debut album. Dirty basslines, rapped bridges, New Jack Swing (whatever that is!) – this song has it all! If you are a fan of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ album (which indeed I am) then this is the song for you! (Album: Poison (1990))
- Leave It – Yes : By 1982 Yes were a shadow of their former self, despite having the undeniable talents of Trevor Horn on their team they had lost both Rick Wakeman and more importantly, their charismatic frontman Jon Anderson (who was busy recording experimental albums with Vangelis!). However, the Latter’s return in 1983 heralded a new era of success for the group. With Horn in the producers chair the band produced an album which divided Yes fans in the way that Genesis’ ‘Duke’ had three years previously. Shedding their prog credentials they mad some memorable if over produced pop including this song. (Album: 90125 (1983))
- Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club : An offshoot from Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club reign supreme in this fantastic song combining hard hitting basslines and an impressive array of percussion… it’s an over-indulgence of rhythm section influenced by the then growing genre of hip-hop. Numerous references to great soul musicians, rappers and philosophers are played over a Caribbean infused tune. This is the perfect song for whiling away the winter blues, transporting you to the sun drenched shores of the Bahamas in a split-second. Why you might as well be reclining in a deck chair, drinking a Pina Colada from a pineapple and eating lobster on the half shell! (Album: Tom Tom Club (1981))
- Hurting For You – Todd Rundgren : Now, like the great Shakespeare it will not do to merely give you a playlist full of escapist, uplifting tunes! There are times when we cook for comfort from our sorrows. This really is one of Rundgren’s finest tracks from perhaps his most accomplished album and was made in the wake of the break-up to his long-term girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville is a dated yet passionate paean to a lost love. Wailing guitars, cheesy synth and melodramatic vocals make this one of the original power ballads and one that definitely needs to be checked out! (Album: Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978))
- Driven to Tears – The Police : Whatever happened to Sting? The police were so good that in my view all further efforts by Mr Sumner pale in comparison. With Stewart Copeland’s awesome drumming, Andy Summer’s echoed guitar hooks and Sting’s idiosyncratic (I had to drop that in somewhere!) vocals, this is one of the best tracks from my favourite Police album…just awesome and extremely more-ish (Zenyatta Mondatta (1980))
- Sussudio “12 Remix – Phil Collins : Anyone who knows me well, knows that I cannot resist a bit of Phil when I put together a playlist. Like cured meat a little goes a long way and nowhere is this more true than on the extended mix of my favourite Collins track ‘Sussudio’! many will scoff and many will gag but this sort of music is my inspiration and gets the creative juices flowing, in fact it inspired me to write this post….as well as letting me make a tit of myself on the dance floor every so often!
I hope that this has give you some food for thought about what to play when you are next on the hotplate! Stay lucky and I’ll catch you on my next post…