Friday, 29 October 2010

Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home. Nigella Lawson.

Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the HomeI openly admit to harbouring a great dislike for pictureless cookbooks. Without illustration, a recipe is reduced to a list of sterile ingredients and a set of prosaic instructions. Of course, this might not be true; the book’s narrative might be witty and compellingly informative, offering inspiring kitchen ideas to any receptive reader. Alas, not for me, for like Alice I can’t see the “use of a [cook] book ... without pictures or conversations”.  And in the wonderland of cookbooks, if you dare to recommend one sans photography you might just as well hand me your shopping list. It is with some jubilance, then, I bring you Nigella Lawson’s  Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home; a belly-buster (place it on your kitchen scales and watch the arrow wobble towards the 2kg mark) of a book filled with Nigella’s scintillating conversations and stunning, mouth-watering photography accompanying every single recipe.

A goddess in a red apron, tarnished cooking-pot in hand, Nigella grins coquettishly from the front cover urging her readers to get stuck in to a book which promises (and delivers) instant gratification thanks to photographer Lis Parsons. As mentioned, the photography is striking and complements Nigella’s sensitivity towards the language of food where colour, texture and mood are considered vital ingredients for producing outstanding dishes. Nigella’s favourite colour has got to be red: from the red-riding-hood colour of her apron on the front cover and on to the garishly red cake-stand displaying ‘Devil’s food cake’ on page 253, Nigella’s desire for red, it seems, borders on the obsessive. Indeed, so prolific is red throughout the book that if you chance upon a picture that lacks this colour an eye to brain message is transmitted, advising you subliminally, that something is amiss. Having commented thus, the use of red is far from gratuitous. Take for example the image accompanying her recipe for ‘Slut’s spaghetti’ on page 189; what better way to enjoy this dish than cushioned demurely on a tart-red leatherette chair wrapped in scarlet satin.

Kitchen, for me is not just a book to be taken into said room and used to coach your culinary skills. It’s a book for bedtime and particularly one to savour in after reading your fill of contemporary fiction. Forget Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, when a desire for metropolitan melancholia beckons, turn to page 336 and admire how Nigella conveys the beauty and gloom of a Venetian skyline as she tucks into a plateful of polenta-constructed lasagne:

                        I ease myself into this comforting pile-up of rich meat sauce and sweet,
                                grainy, cheese-thickened polenta, dreaming of the mournful and inky
                                winter evening light over the lagoon.

As with her male counterpart, Nigel Slater (in name as in food-flair) she remains top on my list of food-writers. Both are able to combine easy-to-follow, inspiring recipes with highly entertaining yet stimulating narrative. For example, it’s not just the simplicity of her recipe for ‘Mussels in cider’ (page 60) but the sensual rendering of the molluscs’ “naked sweetness against the rasp of cider” which would make me want to cook and eat it. There are occasions, however, where I can become a little cross with Nigella and this became apparent as I was scribbling down notes after replicating her ‘Butternut, rocket and pine nut salad’ (page 94), (the results to be posted on my blog very soon). After various crossings out, I realised it was fruitless to even attempt a description that could do justice to the humble pine nut anything like Nigella had, as she regaled the seductive charm of ‘Pappardelle with butternut and blue cheese’, on page 333:

                                ...the waxy, scorched pine nuts give quiet crunch, a hint of nubbliness, to this
                                           meltingly gorgeous concoction.

Nubbliness, now why hadn’t I thought of that?

Although highly informative, Nigella’s Kitchen is never officious or condescending. While she recognises the “obscene practices of factory farming” (page 220) she also acknowledges that hers is a privileged position, one in which she is able to choose an organic or free-range chicken in favour of a factory farmed bird. In addition, Nigella certainly doesn’t think she’s above using hitherto much maligned shortcuts like ready-grated parmesan (albeit from Italy) or even opening a jar of pour-over-sauce for pasta.  It is this down-to-earth attitude in the kitchen that might appeal to many of us who, after a stressful day’s work, want nothing more complex than a poached egg atop a slice of buttered toast and a side of baked beans. Furthermore, there are signs here and there of an almost empathetic telepathy as she expresses how it feels to be a tired and hungry working-mother of teenage children where “going for too long without food can make [her] feel both suicidal and murderous”. I have felt this way, often.

Along with Nigella’s other books, Kitchen is accompanied by a BBC TV series. And yet for me, like the film version of a favourite novel, it does not seem to measure up to the pleasures of being lost in her book. On screen, there are too many obvious innuendos accompanied by too much head-tossing and boob-wobbling, guaranteeing that sooner or later she’ll become fodder for someone's Saturday night comedy show. And I’m sorry but however much I try and suspend my disbelief, I cannot tolerate the idea of her slipping downstairs at midnight, after munching her way through a multi-course dinner, and finishing off elephantine portions of chocolate cake. Voluptuous she may be but such gluttony must yield other, less desirable, repercussions. Okay, if not morbid obesity then at least a spare couple of chins. 


Monday, 18 October 2010

Fish and Chips

Friday night’s chippy tea.

I do not follow any religious creed and as a result I’m perhaps ignorant of why fish is traditionally eaten on fridays, but in our house, friday night’s tea is simply fish served with a portion of oven-baked chips. For colour and a touch of authenticity, perhaps, I will introduce a mound of mushy peas, but on the whole it will be a fish fillet (either sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked or dusted with seasoned flour and lightly fried) and its accompaniment of chunky-cut chips doused in Sarsons malt vinegar. On thinking about it carefully, the tradition is probably a throwback to the early 70s, when, as a small child, I would wait patiently for my Dad to smooth back his hair, don shirt and tie and inhale the giddy air of his friday night out with the blokes. It was only when Dad was away and my younger brother was snoring sweetly upstairs that Mum, my elder brother, Ed, and me could guzzle ourselves stupid on fish and chips bought from the local chippy.
There were two fish and chip shops in our locality, one higher up the lane whose interior boasted a large collection of sea memorabilia: captains’ hats hung drunkenly from hooks on the wall; hand blown glass floats glinting in red and green and swaddled in knotted jute netting swung from ceiling and doorway; fading prints of bushy-bearded seamen smoking pipes placed next to the shop’s price-list and no end of shells and starfish. Although this shop promised you a genuine taste of the sea’s bounty it could not, for me, compare with Yates’s chippy situated lower down the lane.  There was no room for frippery in this shop on account of it being crammed full of hungry customers waiting for their turn in the queue. The proprietor, Mr Yates (or Ken), obviously took fish-frying seriously as he always wore a gleaming white overall and underneath that, out of respect for his profession,  a neat black tie. Even more memorable was his mellifluous whistle which began as he emerged from the back of the shop. Commencing with simple pitch-steps, his tune would gather tempo, rising and merging with the pop and crackle of fat in a dizzying liquid vibrato.  Replete with avuncular kindness, he always had time in his busy schedule to reach over the counter and chuck you under the chin, or hand you a scoop of batter scraps, free of charge, to crunch on while you waited.
Once served, embracing our greasy parcels and bottles of pop, my brother and I would dart our way back through the queue and out into the early evening air. On more than one occasion we would bump into old Mrs Eastman who lived on the other side of the playing field in the row of houses opposite ours. To us children she was a gnarly bad-tempered woman, whose meanness seemed to overflow when sheltered behind her garden gate, for in a proprietorial rage she would spit out, “get on yer own side Gradwell,” if me or any of my siblings dared to tread over the field and play on what she deemed her side of the avenue.  However, there were occasions when Mrs E let go her fierce facade and her walk to Yates’s chippy, neutral territory perhaps, was usually one of them. Come to think of it, I can’t remember her walking anywhere else, for always –enamel pudding basin* in hand – slippered feet shuffling forward, she would nod acknowledgement and ask any passer-by the same question: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?” No matter that you were swathed in furs and fine jewels as if for a night at the opera (a rare occurrence round our way), or that you were disguised in wig and cape for Halloween, it was always the same refrain: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?”
With anticipated joy, once safely home, we would unwrap our fishy parcels and breathe in the scent of our steaming fish supper. The  acidic stench of vinegar, hitting the back of my nose, made me recoil only slightly before I tugged free a golden chip and yes, you’re reading this correctly, dunked it into my glass of fizzing pop before shoving it, drips and all into my hungry mouth. The combination, I remember, was divine. Throughout the week, we didn’t have access to fizzy drinks and made do with water, euphemistically named ‘corporation pop’. It was only on friday evenings that we could indulge ourselves on sticky effervescent limeade (my favourite), or the dark and mysterious dandelion and burdock. And only the first two or three chips were used as dunkers, the rest, along with the battered fish, were appreciated for their savoury goodness. But why would I soak a perfectly cooked chip in a sugary drink? Perhaps it was my precocious taste buds hurrying towards a later desire for the ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’, although I do feel my need for chips soaked in pop was an emotional one and created by a need to exploit the ecstasy of the moment - when pop is newly poured and chips are at their most enticing - to its fullest extent.  A diminished experience, perhaps, if enjoyed separately.
Fully satiated we were able to stretch out like pampered cats while Mum switched on the TV. Dad did not approve of children watching television and so the entertainment appeared as an illicit novelty, another indulgence in which we could freely delight in. A fitting follow-up to our banquet had to be It’s a Knockout hosted by the delightful Stuart Hall. The programme featured grown men, hampered by their giant rabbit costumes, slipping around on foamed platforms in an unbalanced frenzy. The teetering and tottering would likely cause anyone to snigger but it was Stuart Hall and his infectious, uncontrollable laughter that filled our evening with so much furious hilarity. My Dad barely smiled, let alone laughed and to witness such merriment from a grown man was as refreshing as it was cathartic. Much later, our bellies plump with mirth and supper, we would climb the stairs and join our little brother in a contented sleep.
*Chip shops would allow you to take your own container, usually for steak puddings and gravy.

A fish and Chip Supper for Two

There is another delicious version of fish and chips in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent book River Cottage Everyday. It was from his recipe that I got the idea of cooking the fish in the same tin as the potatoes. A simple but helpful way of saving you time in the kitchen.
2 fairly large floury potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward), peeled and cut into fat fingers
4 tablespoons of oil (I use basic olive oil)
2 fillets of a fish of your choice (haddock, Pollack, bream or any of the oilier fish such as trout)
2 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
Handful of flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of tartare sauce
Grated zest of a lemon
Sea salt
Ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°.
Place the chipped potatoes in a pan of salted water and bring to the boil allowing them to simmer for 5 minutes. Timing is quite crucial as you don’t want the potatoes to become too soft and break up in the hot oil; less of a chip and more of a roasted rösti!

Place the oil in a large, sturdy roasting tin (large enough to hold the chips and accompanying fish) and put in the oven until hazy with heat.

Drain the potatoes, return to the pan and give them a stern shake so they become furred and ruffled at the edges.

Topple the potatoes into the roasting tin, jiggle them about until they are all covered in the hot oil and place them back in the oven for an initial 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes and maybe give them another shake and baste.

Meanwhile, whizz up the bread and parsley in a food processor until you have a couple of handfuls of fine breadcrumbs. I use ‘basic’ range white bread from the supermarket for breadcrumbs, the more expensive white loaves being too soft, creating a moist, doughy texture to your fish-topping.

After 30 minutes check your chips, by this time there should be some crispness, If not place back in the oven for another  5 or 10 minutes.  Your chips need to show some signs of  a golden crust at the edges but look as if they can benefit from a further  10-12 minutes, only then do you add the fish.

Push your chips to one side of the roasting tin and nestle your fish fillets on the other side. Spread the fillets with the tartare sauce, one tablespoon per fillet. Sprinkle over the herby breadcrumbs, ensuring each fillet is covered nicely before adding the grated lemon zest, salt and pepper. The tartare sauce not only offers a satisfying tanginess but creates a creamy, sticky base for the breadcrumbs to adhere to.

Return to the oven for 10-12 minutes, enough time for the fish to cook through and the breadcrumbs to become brown and crisp.

Serve with lemon wedges, tomato sauce and a slice of buttered white bread.  

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Errr, two trout filleted please ...

After vowing to eat more seafood, along with scouring food magazines, websites and cookery books for new ways to serve sea bass, a necessary part of my healthy regime is a weekly expedition to Bolton’s fish market. Once in there, I remain faithful to the largest of the fish stalls and am rewarded with an exhibition that would make Damien Hirst’s artwork appear somewhat mediocre; for here resides the shark’s head, pinioned on its shore of ice, reminding its spectators of their supremacy in the natural world and what happens to all creatures who dare challenge human dominance. Nestled safely, next to the halibut, the shark’s flesh is cut into neat and unassuming steaklets, meekly accepting its future role: at best, chargrilled and served alongside a tangy tomato salad; at worse, the smell of ammonia destroying its affinity with capers and sun-dried tomatoes, fed - without garnish, to the cook’s Labrador.

Of course, there are other, less belligerent oceanic and river-dwelling creatures to tempt the explorer. The mackerel, for example, harmonically bedecked with blue-green bands upon its back competes for attention; its streamlined athletic body positively exudes omega 3 confirming its status as one of nature’s ‘super foods’. And if colour is to play a deciding factor when choosing fish, why not splash out on a little red number? What the diminutive red mullet lacks in size is more than made up for in glints of ruby and glimmers of gold.

Almost as diverse as the fish and seafood that deck this stall are their consumers; from seasoned pescatarians, through to recent converts (like me) and onto complete novices, like the shy young man I encountered just last week. With crumpled shopping-list in hand he is obviously there for ideas on how to impress his fiancée later on in the day with an elaborate supper of mussels steamed in white wine or perhaps baked sea bass with fennel. Nervously, he asks the fishmonger to take off his chosen specimen's head and remove the guts. Determined not to appear squeamish, he watches the fishmonger slit the underbelly of the bass and pull out its slippery mass of vital organs. Rinsed and wrapped, the young man jubilantly carries away his catch, heading towards the fruit and vegetable stalls, no doubt in search of fennel. Next in the queue is the Asian matriarch, oblivious to the notice which asks can customers refrain from touching the produce, this veteran cook is determined only to choose the healthiest, firmest, and bright-eyed of the bream she is currently prodding to take home to her family. Finally satisfied with a fish that remains resistant to finger-pressure and with eyes that would inspire a chart topper from Art Garfunkel, she hastens the fishmonger to wrap it; head, tail, fins, scales and all.

Each time I visit the fish market, I vow to try something different, be a little daring - perhaps experiment with flash-fried squid. Unfortunately, as soon as it’s my turn in the queue I turn my head away from the cephalopods’ alien dangling tentacles and point my finger predictably toward the much prettier rainbow trout. After all, who would want to eat something that once contained an ink sac?