Friday, 31 May 2013

These are a few of my least favourite things....

After provoking the ire of Scotland Yard’s special task force, the Brown Bread Brigade, in my previous post about the marvels and wonders of white bread, I have decided to exorcise a few of my food demons, lay it on the line and tell shocked foodies about a few ingredients I find thoroughly execrable but have been allowed to penetrate the food scene in the recent past so that these days you cannot move without seeing them on one menu or another. So here’s my rundown of my ingredients and food combinations from hell:

1.) Ground cinnamon:- I blame the Americans for the ubiquity of sweet foods now available on the market that contain this dusty brown powder that lingers on the tongue with its stale, domineering taste. Instantly recognisable it is synonymous with sickly icing on donuts or atop a cup of milk-laden coffee. This is not to suggest that a piece of cinnamon bark is amiss in a fragrant curry but please, let’s confine ground cinnamon to the dustbin of food history.

2.) Pomegranate:- It seems that you can move nowhere these days without health-istas and people who pretending to be healthy telling you that pomegranate is a superb and delicious foodstuff with a sweet, more-ish flavour. In my life I have yet to find a more vulgar looking fruit and one which has such a disagreeable taste. It has oft been cited as the ‘forbidden fruit’ which God warned Adam and Eve not to eat and no wonder, he probably realised that on this occasion ha had create something quite repulsive. The obsession that some restaurants have with scattering some of the token seeds over a Middle Eastern inspired salad or the way that mixologists ruin a perfectly good cocktail by adding its ruby red juices to a concoction is quite beyond me.

3.) Feta cheese:- I once went on a holiday to Greece and was dismayed to be given a feta  tart, consisting of the said cheese and some shortcrust pastry; it was one of the most harrowing experiences in my culinary life, but to be polite to my host I had to eat the whole thing, after which I was gagging for water to combat the unpleasant combination of salt and sour that this product seems to impart on the palate. Great goats cheese in marvellous, but please, let’s leave this one well alone.

4.) Marzipan and royal icing:- The Great British Bake Off has seemingly given new life to this dry wallpaper paste that can be found lurking disconcertingly under a layer of rock hard, tooth-tingling royal icing to make for a very unpleasant cake-eating experience.

5.) Meat and fruit:- A combination as old as the hills but one which I abhor. The idea of stewed, super-sweet dried stone fruit and muttony lamb is barf inducing for me, probably a problem if I ever get faced with a badly made, indigestion inducing tagine at a dinner party in the future! Again, for me a good way to ruin a great joint of roasted pork is to smother it in apple compote or the uber-fashionable quince purée that seems to be so de rigeur at the moment! And don't get me started on the travesty that is the ham and pineapple pizza!

6.) Chestnuts:- I feel I am being a bit unfair on this one as my aunt makes the most wonderful chestnut and mushroom stuffing for turkey at Christmas time - in fact it's good all year around, even in sandwiches. But every time I see a chestnut I am transported back to two experiences:

  • Marron Glacé at Christmas which, like most glaceed fruit must be a generational thing because I find them hideous to the n-th degree.   
  • I was once served the most delicious pheasant casserole on a French exchange - an Ardennes speciality - it would have been perfect had it not been for the dry, mealy chestnuts that seemed never-ending. Having forced the last down I was offered more, when, not to be rude (and as the rest had been so tasty) I said yes, I was greeted with no pheasant but another huge pile of chestnuts. Madame called them 'jewels of the earth', 'jewels of my arse' more like! 
7.) Kidneys:- I know, I know any chef will be clawing their hair out at the mere mention of dislike towards this firm favourite of European cuisine. It's admirers cite its faint tang of urine as one of the flavour selling points of this human waste disposal unit - rancid is all I can say. When I was a nipper of five, back in those halcyon days of 1992 when John Major stormed to victory and we realised the ERM wasn't such a good idea, I was often take to Horton Park Farm (it's near Reigate if you are interested) to see all manner of livestock from cows to goats in the days that you could go up and feed them without fear of being injured or catching some disease! The taste of kidneys is reminiscent of that very barnyard smell that comes from a build up of animal fecal matter in a confined space, especially prevalent in the farm shop for some reason, but certainly not something I want to shovel down my throat as many a gourmet does with great gusto!

So there you have it, my bette noires of the food world, what are yours? I’d love to know, or perhaps you you take issue with some of my above choices, if so please do feel free to comment, but until next time...

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

In defence of the white slice

There is now such stigma attached to the purchase of white sliced bread that middle class shoppers now either look disdainfully on the aisle from which it is sold or check to see that no one is looking before ferreting it away in their basket/trolley - god forbid that anyone should see that 'mother's pride' might be lurking in the bread bin.

Again this has been repeated by the high street sandwich vendor and supermarket which have sought to systematically phase out the product in their convenience lines. Whether this is out of a general concern for the consumer's wellbeing or to add further lining to their pockets I am not sure. Certainly you can tack on more pounds and pennies to a hand-made seeded granary than you can a machine-milled, Chorleywood (name of production method) special!

But like Phil Collins, Nick Nolte and Marco Pierre White I think this soft, chewy and anemic product has had a bit of a bad press, being thwacked over the head with a cucumber - the very thing it once sandwiched - by the food police.

That special Scotland Yard task force, the 'Brown Bread Brigade' have cited more evils in white bread and it's constituent ingredients than were probably read out at the Nuremberg trials. The media loved it, spouting tales of lethargy, obesity, death all back up with heart-rending and cautionary tales that would not have been out of place in a Hoffman short story!

I am certainly not here to defend any health benefits of this product because I am not sure myself if it has many - unless it has been filled to the gunnels with extra vitamins and nutrients. This is more a plea, for people who can bare to eat bread in moderation - difficult as I know it is for some with the nation's new found love of baking - to re-appraise the humbled white slice and give it the culinary credit it deserves. Here I make my brief case:

I remember parts of my childhood vividly, mainly for the reason that they were not that long ago! Anyhow, even in the early 1990s sandwiches in my house were made with that classic, sadly forgotten brand, 'Mighty White', a bread (fortified with calcium) that had a deliciously squidgy, chewy, elastic texture - something I find unique to the product even to this day. Topped with all manner of spreads it is easy to see its appeal! Marmite was one such spread and I cannot imagine anything more befitting on my white slice, in fact I believe it to be the only true vehicle for marmite. The perfect thickness (medium), the thick spread of undated butter, the sticky dollop of Burton's finest... And I haven't even got to toast yet!

I am sure a number of you have experienced the Great British hotel breakfast - preferably served from a Trust House Forte dining service and metal teapot. Whilst these are often something of a curates egg there is one thing that remains consistent and that is the quality of the toast, served at room temperature it is a bendy affair with the most wonderful chewiness to it attempt to rip it in half you are presented with something of a challenge, like trying to tear one of those laminated business cards. It just bends and creases. Spread with lots of cold salted butter and maybe a bit of Oxford marmalade there really is nothing better!

The other great vehicle for white sliced bread is the great British sandwich, I am sure that his lordship who invented them did not use a seeded cob or a bran heavy bun. I like to think he (or more likely his scullery maid) carved slices of a bone-white farmhouse loaf. Sadly we have seen a decline in the use of white bread in sandwiches from the deli counter to the supermarket. I was devastated when Marks & Sparks decided to change the bread used in their ham sandwiches, the texture now just isn’t the same as its brown replacement doesn’t have the pleasing squidgy-ness that made the sandwich so pleasing! From roast beef to smoked salmon, to me there is no more pleasing vehicle for sandwiching a range of fillings – especially when you toast the bread first!

Three vague, nostalgic and sentimental examples (as well they should be!) outlining my love of this product, and three which I hope that you will try at one stage to reacquaint yourself with the delights of the white slice whether it be in the toaster, in a sandwich or even as an ingredient is some of Britain's best puddings. As an extra treat, and to really hammer home my point, later in the week I will be giving a recipe for one of the most delicious puddings I know, using the aforementioned bread, a baked apple charlotte!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Bloody Good Chap in the kitchen: Gamberetti al Arrabbiata

Often in life the best things are the most simple, and nowhere is this more true than with the Italian classic, Gamberetti alla Arrabiatta, combining the the sweetness of prawns with the fresh tastes of tomato and parsley. But like all good, simple cookery it is subject to so much abuse be it the use of precooked prawns or under-seasoning. 

It took me many years to come around to the delights of prawns, having been put off for so many year by having them badly cooked. We all know the feeling, when you bite into one and it has the texture of cotton wool, it’s distinctly unpleasant and not one which I would wish on anyone. The thing to remember when cooking this dish is that prawns cook very, very quickly and need very little time in the pan as they will continue to cook in the heat of the sauce. 

I have adapted this recipe from Marcella Hazan’s own but where she uses tinned tomatoes, I prefer the taste of fresh as I feel the former would simply overpower the dish. I have also omitted the garlic for the same reason however do feel free to add it according to your taste, the same goes for the chili. I personally like a bit of heat but don’t feel obliged to follow my recipe to letter should you feel differently! This is, after all, a guide rather than a dictat.

This is a rustic dish and should be served in a big dish with plenty of chopped parsley and slices of warm, crusty bread to mop up the pan juices! 


500-600g King Prawns (shelled) 
Generous glug of olive oil
2 large shallot finely chopped
5 plum tomatoes roughly chopped
2 red chili sliced
Generous handful shredded parsley
Seasoning to taste

  1. Heat oil in a frying pan over a medium heat
  2. Sweat the shallots until golden and translucent
  3. Add tomatoes, chili and parsley and simmer for 20 minutes
  4. Add prawns and cook for 1- 1.5 minutes.
  5. Empty into a tasteful china dish and garnish with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of parsley.
  6. Serve to well-sauced guests!