Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Secret of a Good Spag Bol

Spaghetti Bolognese or 'Spag Bol' is an habitual favourite in our house. The kids were weaned on the stuff and have graduated from fistfuls of blitzed, blended mush to the elegant twirling of fork in spoon, in what seems to be a short space of time. Using the word elegant is misguided actually, the mess remains the same. Pursed mouths start off clean at the start of the meal but with every suck and slurp of a wriggly worm, the orange circle that frames those cherry lips gets bigger and bigger. Until eventually, they end up looking like a pair of oompa loompas. Still, it’s fun to play with your food and at least pasta doesn’t get thrown at the walls these days.

For me, personally, cooking spag bol is the real fun part. If I can, I will kick off proceedings as early as possible, like before the school run. A bit of early morning chopping and frying is meditative and relaxing, especially when you are secreting carrot, peppers and celery into the mix. “Ha ha ha, you will eat your vegetables.” And I always make a large batch to a) freeze some of the ragu for future dinners and b) offset the guilt and cost of running gas under a stock pot for an entire day. I’ve soaked up this idea you see, gleaned from gangster movies, that in order to make a really, really good Bolognese, it needs to be cooked long and slow. I haven’t gone as far as to slicing up garlic thinly with a razor blade yet, so that it may liquidise in the pan but I might do one day, because it looks like a really good system.

With regards to recipes, methods and ingredients, the fundamentals remain the same but I don’t think I have ever categorically made the same spag bol twice. There is always a tweak or change somewhere down the line, depending on what spice or herb jar comes tumbling out of the cupboard after rifling through. Mistakes include cayenne pepper and juniper berries but fennel seed, nutmeg and even garam masala goes down well, in my opinion at least (cue howls of protest from Bologna). 

The one universal element I do stick by is Geo Watkins Anchovy Sauce. I use it every time. Not at all fishy and intensely savoury, this browny-grey, fetid looking stuff goes down a treat and really lifts the Bolognese, adding a background notes of …..of ….. je ne sais pas pourquoi. 

No, I really don’t know why but I also put it in a lot of other meaty dishes; in burgers, it reigns supreme. It just gives a hit of…………… 

I suppose really I am trying to avoid the word umami. And there you go, I’ve said it. It delivers a sucker punch of imaginary fifth taste umami and I love it. 

One day, I may even take a bottle into the shower with me.

Spag Bol – serves 4 (remember, this recipe changes all the time but like the speed of light, anchovy sauce remains constant)

1 kg minced beef
2 onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
3 garlic gloves, finely chopped (or sliced with a razor blade if you feel so inclined)
1 red pepper, chopped
Handful of button mushrooms, chopped.
Glass of red wine
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
Glug of olive oil
Healthy pinch of oregano, dried
Healthy splash of Lea and Perrins
Healthy glug of Geo Watkins Anchovy Sauce
Pinch of celery salt and a pinch of black pepper.

Place a large, wide pan or stock pot on the hob, add your oil and heat over a medium flame. Add the onion, carrot and celery and sweat down until soft. Turn up the heat and then add the mince, stirring and browning all over. Throw in the red wine and cook until reduced and then add the garlic, pepper and mushrooms, again stirring through for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, Lea and Perrins, anchovy sauce and a tin of water (from empty tomato can). Turn the heat right down and leave to gently simmer and bubble for as long as humanly possible. The ragu should thicken right down and if it starts to catch on the bottom of the pan, just top up with a little bit of water.

When ready to eat, after say a couple of days, boil a saucepan of water and add your spaghetti, cooking according to packet instructions or until al dente. Drain and divide between plates and then spoon a nice, generous portion of bol atop the pasta. 

Scatter freshly grated parmesan cheese on top from a great height and serve.

Plucked from cupboard obscurity (except the anchovy sauce)

 Vegetables secreted in mince



Spag Bol

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow Larks and Sunday Supper Clubs

Hello everybody, are you enjoying the snow? I know I am and who wouldn't, you miserable gits!

Seriously, in my opinion, if you look out the window in the morning and spy a landscape transformed and don't ever get a buzz, a kick or feel your stomach turn over in excitement, then I believe a small part of your soul from childhood has died. 

No, nothing beats the sound of that fresh crunch underfoot, that fluttering soft flake alighting upon tongue, the thrill of plummeting downhill at 40 miles per hour on a tea tray, the whizzing of snowball past ear, the rosy cheeks, the laughter, the cheers, the carrots, Dad's old scarf and hat, hot chocolate, biscuits! Lots and lots of biscuits! Oh the gaiety that a winter wonderland brings.

And what japes you can have. Just yesterday, I played a trick on the twins when we were in the garden, building a snowman. Unbeknownst to them, I had secreted a small pot of lemon sorbet in the grass, with the lid off so that the yellow stood out amongst the blanket of white and beckoned them over.

"Hey guys, looks like the foxes have been busy doing their business in the snow, tsk."

And judging by the wrinkled noses, there were not impressed. They may only be four and three quarters but they know about the dangers of yellow snow.

Still, their reaction was far more severe when I whipped a glove off, stooped down and scooped a couple of fingers worth up into my mouth, uttering the words "Hmm yummy!" after doing so. In fact, they started screaming and...........

OK OK OK, I am making this all up but ever since the white stuff arrived, this devilish plan has been going over and over and over in my head. So I thought I should take the opportunity, whilst marketing my supper club in typical off-tangent fashion, to ask, do you reckon I should do it? 

Or do I risk destroying a small part of their souls?

*tumble weed*


Speaking of gaiety and fun and larks, the menu for the latest FU supper club which is on February 10th and has been up for a while now. 8 spaces have gone and 6 spaces are left, here is the menu:

Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Chestnut and Parsley Pesto

Mackerel on Toast with Salted Cucumber and Horseradish

Slow cooked Belly of Pork with Cider and Fennel, Mash and Sprout Tops

Gingerbread and Pear Upside Down Pudding

This is all for 20 squids, including home made bread, palate cleanser and free, yes, free tap water.

If you like the sound of it, then please do drop me a line to confirm your place (and I might just make lemon sorbet for the palate cleanser).

I thank you

Furch x
Snow and innocence

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Why the long face about horse meat?

An edited version of this post first appeared on Great British Chefs blog.

Photo by Noodlepie
My very first encounter with horse meat came at the tender age of 17, when I was in Rouen on a rugby tour with a load of ugly, hormonal, immature reprobates; a merry bunch in which I include myself. We had just one free day to mess around and explore and so, after cavorting along the banks of the river and around the cathedral, a group of us went on an expedition; around the back streets in search of illicit beer and wandered for what seemed like hours. 

Eventually we came to a dingy looking cafe that looked like it would be cheap; judging by the rough exterior and Formica tables inside and would therefore have no scruples in selling us alcohol. We all sat around a table and ordered a round of Kronenbergs, which arrived promptly, along with some laminated menus, all frayed and dirty. 

Using the international language of mime, we indicated that we were just happy for a beer but our stern waiter snapped back in crisp English, saying that if we were going to drink, we would have to eat. The steak and frites looked reasonable enough and so we ordered with more vigorous pointing and again, with surreal briskness, plates of meat and stringy chips were soon slammed down in front of us. The steaks themselves were fantastically huge, glistening with grill marks and eeking a gentle pool of blood. Being the strapping lads we were, we fell upon the meat with gusto, tearing into the slabs and devouring with the intensity of a pack of scabby hyenas. Then, whilst chewing on a fork, laden with pink flesh and looking down at the menu, one of the group, one of our props I think, asked the immortal question:

"What do you reckon this viande de cheval means under the steak?" 

Shrugs went up and the scraping of knives on plates continued until another member, a fly half probably, whispered under his breath:

“Er….I think it means horse meat.”

The silence that suddenly fell was deafening but the frozen postures and gaping mouths said it all. As rudimentary GCSE French started to filter back into our minds, chairs were urgently scraped back and at least three of the boys spat out their macerated meat into paper napkins; with pained, almost tearful expressions and child-like wails. The rest of us simply stared at the last remnants of the ‘steak’ on the table, looking all confused and surprised. Slowly, the truth dawned on us. We had all just committed a heinous crime; we had all just eaten Dobbin.

Thinking back, it certainly was a defining experience for me, eating horse and I have tried it several times since. I remember back then though, in that dodgy cafe feeling slightly shocked, guilty even but ultimately, the steak had tasted great; so really, what was the problem? 

Well the problem is that eating horse just doesn’t go down well in the UK. Being a nation of animal lovers, horses are often seen as pets. If you suggested to Mercedes down the paddock that her beloved Rosie would go down well on the barbecue, she would scream the place down and threaten to call her father so that he may blow your kneecaps off with a shotgun. 

People also still hold onto the venerated bond or partnership that we used to have with horses, after all they used to be, quite literally, the powerhouses of industry and farming. Horses at one time, where the principle means of livelihood. Shooting and eating your source of income 100 years ago makes as much sense as shooting your company’s managing director or client base today. You just wouldn’t do would you, however tempting.

And then there is the cultural or patriotic divide between the two old enemies. We, in the UK, eat beef. They, on the continent (namely France), eat horse. We, are an island nation wot won two World Wars and the World Cup in 1966. Over the channel, they are a load of greasy, smelly surrender monkeys who still live in the dark ages. A fervent, tabloid and xenophobic viewpoint certainly but if we can assert any crumbling authority over our European neighbours, then by Jove, we will do it. (Although, interestingly; in good old Blighty we did used to eat a lot of horse meat, especially during both World Wars.)

Of course, the recent furore over the discovery of horse meat in burgers, pies and lasagnes does need thorough investigation. And that is an understatement. For the supermarkets, it is not so much about  questions raised over quality assurance but more like the whole issue of fraud that needs to be addressed. But with every report I read, I can’t help feeling that the clamour or taboo surrounding eating horse is overshadowing everything. After all, pig DNA was also found in the supply chain too. And not much has been made about that, despite the greater ethical and religious consequences for consumers.

Maybe it’s just time we got over ourselves with regards to horsemeat. If you are happy to eat beef, lamb, chicken, duck, venison, kangaroo, emu, moose, springbok, wild boar etc etc then why not eat horse. A large populace of the world already do.

And besides, have you ever been concerned about the meat the goes into your doner kebab on a Friday night? I know a fair few rugby players who couldn’t give a fig, I can tell you that.

But tell them horse meat may well be in that elephant leg that Stavros has just sliced up? Well……….

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Michel Roux Jnr's Honey and Rosemary Chicken in a Salt Crust

Have you ever sat down in front of the television box and watched a cookery show, of which there are squillions and squillions, and thought, "You know what, I am going to have a crack at that." No? No, of course not, why should you? If you are sat there on a Saturday morning, legs akimbo and having a good ol' scratch whilst Nigella does her thing with a tongue and whisk, the last thing you are going to consider is dirtying your oven. You might be thinking about other dirty things when watching these programmes, especially that James Martin. My god, he is so sexual and powerful that I believe that his musk permeates over the airwaves and enters your front room via the speaker grilles. But dragging out 12 roasting tins and a burnt piece of pork belly (from Sunday family dinner, circa 2006) from the oven is usually the last thing on your mind. Because, let's be honest now, most food telly simply serves as food porn in this country. Salacious, cheeky, entertaining, yes! Aspirational, informative, instructional, no! As a nation, it is simply our duty to sit agog and dribble on our shirts, to coo and aah, to capriciously buy cookbooks at Christmas time so that they may gather dust on the shelves and to ponder on the relationship that Nigel Slater has with his deli store 'friend.'

That's pretty much it..........

OK, there are times when I have seen something and thought, "Hmm, now that really does look interesting," and have proceeded to try and replicate the dish from screen to plate. It does happen on occasion and when we recently stayed with friends over New Year, my mate John showed me a clip from Masterchef, namely Michel Roux Jnr's Honey and Rosemary Chicken in a Salt Crust and urged that we should try it out. It did look impressive, so I agreed.

Now the main drive behind this post is not to merely applaud the virtues of this method of cooking chicken, although it did work very well. In the immortal words of the suspiciously skinny Michelin starred chef, the meat was indeed 'beautifully moist' (oo-er) but was it straightforward? From a point of view of following a recipe off the telly? Was it easy? I am not so sure.

Imagine for a second, two guys, getting ready to prepare a sumptuous meal for New Year's Eve, poring over an iPad and pouring glasses of wine. We scrutinised the five minute video again and set to work. "Flour, we need flour." "OK, we have flour." "Salt, we need salt." "OK, we have salt." "How much flour and salt Michel?"

"This is very versatile, it will always be the same recipe," he says on video but we have no actual 'recipe', no actual amounts. So we resort to speculation by scrutinising the iPad some more, whilst drinking some more wine. Educated guesses are made and after some mixing, it soon becomes apparent they are slightly wrong and the situation develops as thus:

"More flour!"
"Ah sh*t! More water!"
"Ah sh*t! Salt!"
"How much salt?"
"Ah fuggit, let's throw the lot in."

Finally, a crude pastry is made and rested in the fridge. Next the stuffing.

"What did he use again?"

Eyeballs swivel to the iPad yet again, this time dusted with floury finger prints. Glug, glug, glug.

"Sausages! Yes, we have sausages!"
"Ah, breadcrumbs, chives, morels, chicken livers, do we have that?"
"No, we have Paxo though!"
"That will do!"

 Mix, mix, mix.

"Ooh, there's rather a lot here John, how much should we have?!"
 "What does Michel say?"
 "Er, he doesn't!"
"HA! Who cares!"

Glug, glug.

"Right, let's stuff this chook!"
 ".......Oh god, we've made too much, look! It's coming out where it's head used to be, the head-hole!"
"We need toothpicks!"
"What for?"
"To secure the head-hole!"
"Does Michel do that?"
"I don't know!"

Cue more intense viewing and wine supping.

"Right the chucken is stuffed!"
"HA! Right, we need the crusty stuff!"
"HA......what crusty stuff?"
"The pastry shizz"
"Oh yes, let's roll that out."
"NO...we need to baste it first!"
"Do we?"
"Yes. In...........oh dammit what did he use?

Smudge, swipe, smudge. Glug, glug, glug. Watch, watch, watch.

"OK....hic.......that's best we can do wif the pasting......I mean basting."
"You know, I prefer the idea of tomato ketchup rather than paprika." Glug
"Yeah, paprika is sh*t." Glug.
"Right, now shall we do the parstry?"
"Yes, let's do the pastie!"

Roll, roll, roll.

"The fugging crusty fing is falling apart, it's got 'oles in it. Michelle's didn't have 'oles innit didit?"
"I dunno, let's have a look."

Glug, glug. Swipe. Stare.

"No, it definitely didn't 'ave 'oles in 'is."
"Bastard, how does he do it so well.....hic"
"He has the f**king recipe doesn't 'e but you won't share it, will you Michael?!"
"Right, sod this, let's just patch this bugger up."

Patch, patch, patch.

"There you go, she looks bloody beautiful doesn't she!"
"She does! Cheers!" *chink*
"Cheers" *chink*
"Did you turn the oven on?"
"No, did you?"
"Why not?!"
"Because Michella didn't f**king tell me to!"

Like I said, though served up late on New Years Eve, the salt crust chicken did come out very well in the end but only after viewing the damn clip about 100 times, which sort of reinforces my original point, albeit somewhat obtusely. I am not entirely sure that these television chefs really want you try out their recipes you see. They are just interested in giving tantalising, lascivious snapshots to keep the audience captive, holding back the real detail of the recipe, just to draw you in for the release of the aforementioned Christmas cookbook later. A book that will never really get used. Despite the plethora of food television out there, hardly any of it serves to educate properly. Never, as a nation, will we ever learn how to cook from the television. No, we remain captive drones, feeding off the honey that the televisions stations supply, sated by images of lascivious, dripping cheese, heaving bosoms and throbbing crotches. Yet throughout, our stomachs, hearts and brains starve.

And that my friends, is a pretty poor state of affairs.

Although it might have helped, if John and I hadn't got so p*ssed in the first place.

(Would have remembered to take photo's of the actual chicken too)

Salt crust hat