Monday, March 31, 2008

Good enough cooking

My latest New Statesman column is prompted by my recent experience -- described here -- of making chips.

I want to produce very good food. But there is only so much effort I am prepared to make; and, no matter how much effort I make, I run up against the limitations of my ability. Sometimes it seems that the good enough, produced within the constraints of the home cook, is more satisfying than anything else.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pak choi

I do not own a wok, and regret the lack only when I cook pak choi. The stalks and, particularly, the leaves of pak choi disgorge a lot of water, which the high heat and large surface area of the wok help to evaporate. A large frying pan does not perform the job so well; a saucepan, hardly at all.

You strip off the leaves, and cut the stalks into fork-sized pieces. Heat the pan and the oil, and, before the oil starts smoking, throw in the stalks. They tenderise much more quickly than do those of, say, chard -- in about three to four minutes. Throw in the leaves, and give them a minute to wilt.

It's done. If you have water in your pan, drain the pak choi. It would be a shame to overcook it while waiting for the water to evaporate.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Poached eggs, the Delia way

Delia Smith's How To Cheat at Cooking -- sorry to bang on about it again -- is not just about throwing together tins of this and frozen packets of that. It offers some cooking instructions too. One that interested me was her recipe for poached eggs: you slip the eggs into the simmering water, cook them for a minute, then turn off the heat and cover the pan, waiting for a further six minutes.

The theory behind this technique is that the egg whites, like any protein, will toughen if cooked too aggressively. Salt and vinegar in the water also help to keep them tender; unfortunately, they also prevent the egg cohering. As I have note in the comments section of this entry, I now poach eggs in water with nothing added.

I crack the eggs into cups before slipping them into the water, because I am likely to make a mess of them if I try to perform the operation in one go. If there are more than two, they will lower the temperature of the water considerably, so I keep the heat high; if there are four eggs, the water may just be returning to simmering point by the time the first minute is up.

I like poached eggs to be well done, but still squidgy. A further six minutes in the water is too long even for large eggs, I have found. Four and a half to five minutes is about right. I lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon, holding a paper towel held underneath.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lobster and coconut soup

This is the soup I mentioned in my post on Delia. I did not use the "English Provender very lazy ginger" she recommends; the pinch of cayenne is my addition. Her soup includes a coriander garnish; but are you going to buy a bunch of coriander specially?

Delia recommends the Blue Dragon brand, which I like too. I suspect that other brands of coconut milk would also be fine. Normally, I steer clear of "light" products; but full-fat coconut milk is very fatty.

You may find that your soup contains tough little strands of lemongrass, which is hard to mince finely.

415g tin lobster bisque ("such as Baxters", Delia says)
165ml tin light coconut milk
1 stalk Blue Dragon lemongrass (from a jar)
Fingernail-sized piece ginger
Pinch cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
1dstsp fish sauce
1tbsp lime juice

Mince the lemongrass and ginger, in a small electric mill if you have one. Warm the bisque, coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and cayenne in a small saucepan over a gentle heat; when it is steaming, turn the heat down low, and warm it for a further 10 minutes, stirring regularly and without letting it boil. Add the fish sauce and lime juice, and serve.

Warning: this soup has an assertive flavour, which will linger.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Defending Delia

My latest New Statesman column concerns my use of tinned and other pre-prepared products. They are compromises, of course; but, to judge by the words of some of Delia Smith's detractors, you would conclude that promoting them was akin to ordering a cull of the first-born.

I filed another version of this piece before discovering that Rachel Cooke, in her TV column, had also written about Delia. Rachel gave her a kicking. Here is what I wrote.

Delia Smith has the place in the national consciousness reserved for resolute women. Liking her – or liking Queen Victoria, or Margaret Thatcher – is not the point. (Although Delia was weirdly endearing when, in high spirits, she went on to the pitch at Norwich City to yell “Let’s be having you!” at her fellow supporters.) Instead, aficionados admire her. They trust her. She is nanny. Hence the shock that has greeted publication of her new book, How To Cheat at Cooking. It may be number one on the bestseller lists, but on Amazon the book has more reviews in the bottom, one-star category than in any other. “Woeful, and profoundly disappointing”; “a lazy, dirty, distasteful, money-making exercise”; “Delia has sold out”: these are some of the comments.

Delia’s crime is to present recipes largely assembled from store-cupboard, frozen and pre-prepared ingredients. Her “good old shepherd’s pie” – which perhaps she should not have named so phonily -- consists of an onion, a tin of Marks & Spencer minced lamb, diced carrot and swede from Tesco, olive oil, thyme and cinnamon; you top it with Aunt Bessie’s Homestyle frozen mash, chopped leaks, and ready-grated cheddar. It’s cooking, but not as one normally understands the term; and not as promoted in Delia’s How To Cook. Melanzane Parmigiana includes frozen aubergine slices, ready-prepared tomato sauce, and ready-grated cheeses. Avocado with prawns is avocado with Tesco finest prawn cocktail, enlivened with Whole Earth tomato ketchup and some lime juice and cayenne.

As do Delia’s detractors, I draw the line at some of these ingredients. Grated cheeses and pre-prepared vegetables seem to me to be decadent, overpriced products; and their packaging is nutritionally and environmentally suspect. Excellent though Aunt Bessie’s mash may be, I do not mind peeling, cutting and cooking a few potatoes. My only local supermarket is a Tesco Metro, which does not stock the items Delia recommends.

No cookery book, though, ever offers an entire new collection of recipes for one’s repertoire. One picks and chooses. It seems to me that, taken in this spirit, How To Cheat at Cooking is brilliantly inspiring. I like to cook fresh food, and I also like, when time is pressing and when culinary standards need not be so high, to assemble meals from the store cupboard; I wish more writers would recommend particular brands, as Delia does. I can vouch for a few of her choices, especially the spices from Seasoned Pioneers.

Corner-cutting, not ersatz approximation, is her theme. One recipe, for Greek lamb stew, involves no pre-prepared ingredients at all, but simply lamb, garlic and lemon: I am very eager to try it. Today, for lunch, I had lobster and coconut soup, consisting of tinned bisque, coconut milk, lemon grass, ginger, and lime. Yes, it fell short of Michelin standards. But it took -- in the middle of a working day -- less than 15 minutes to prepare, and it tasted fine. While that may not be good enough for some Amazon customers, it is for me.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Red cabbage and rice salad

A good thing to do with red cabbage is to eat it raw, in a salad with rice.

Chop a quarter of red cabbage finely, and soak it in water. Cook 150g of rice in whatever way works for you. (Some of my thoughts on the subject are here and here.)

While the rice is cooking, pour boiling water on to a large handful of raisins, to soften them and plump them up. Put a handful of pine kernels into a dry saucepan, and set them over a low heat until toasted. Stir them occasionally, and keep a careful watch so that they do not burn.

Make a vinaigrette by stirring together a dstsp of red or white wine vinegar with three dstsps of olive oil, salt, and plenty of pepper. (You might want to dissolve the salt in the vinegar before whisking in the oil.) Soy sauce and a little fish sauce are nice additions; also, you can substitute some of the olive oil with sesame oil.

Drain the cabbage, pat it dry with paper towels, and mix it with the rice, drained raisins, pine kernels, and vinaigrette. Serves three to four.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Gnocchi with chard

I admit it: from time to time, I do what Delia Smith recommends, and use pre-prepared ingredients. One of these days, I shall make my own gnocchi; meanwhile, I'll carry on using packet varieties. They are quite doughy, almost rubbery, but satisfying in their way.

How To Cheat at Cooking has a gnocchi recipe with spinach and cheese sauce. I used chard, cooking it like this; and I made my own cheese sauce, following the recipe in this eggs Florentine entry. (Inspired by Delia, my recipe is pre-prepared.)

I cooked the bagful of chard that came in my vegetable box, mixed the leaves and the stalks, and put them in a gratin dish. Then I made the bechamel, while heating a saucepan of water for the gnocchi (a 250g packet). I stirred the cheese with a grating of nutmeg and some pepper into the bechamel, and turned off the heat. I tipped the gnocchi into the boiling water (which included the water in which the chard had cooked), and waited for a few minutes, until they rose to the surface. I drained them.

I tipped the gnocchi on to the chard in the gratin dish, poured the cheese sauce on top, and put the dish into a gas mark 6/200C oven for 10 minutes, until the sauce was bubbling. I finished the dish by flashing it under a hot grill.

This was a generous quantity for two.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


I said in the entry on celeriac and swede curry that by March one is getting a little bored with root vegetables. But some roots start to appear now, and they are a treat. They are small spring turnips, with cream and purple skins.

A good way to cook them -- once peeled and cut into chunks (mine are usually fork-sized) -- is in a covered pan with a few tbsps of liquid and a knob of butter. (It works for carrots too.) Stock is particularly good. At the weekend, I made a lamb stew, with a sauce that needed reduction; before I started boiling it down, I put some of it in the pan with my turnips.

Turnips take 10 to 15 minutes to soften. You need to keep an eye on the liquid, particularly if it is stock, which will thicken and reduce. You end up with turnips in a delicious, buttery glaze. Season them with a little salt and with generous grindings of pepper.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Before Heston Blumenthal came up with his triple-cooked chips, the most widely recommended chip recipe involved double-cooking. You cook the potatoes at about 140C, in effect boiling them; you take them out of the oil, turn up the heat until the oil reaches about 190C, and return the potatoes to the pan for browning.

I am not going to bother with the Blumenthal version; and my recipe for fried potatoes, which are just like chips only cubed, has convinced me that the double-cooking method can be simplified. You do not need a thermometer, and you do not need to remove the potatoes from the pan half way through cooking. Also, you can fry a surprisingly large quantity of chips with success, rather than doing it in batches. This weekend, I managed six medium potatoes-worth, for four people.

I used a stock pot/pasta pan with a capacity of four litres, and I poured a litre bottle of sunflower oil into it.


Warm the pan with the oil above a low to medium heat.

Peel the potatoes, and cut them lengthwise into wedges about 1cm thick; or, if they are big, cut them in half crosswise, and then lengthwise into wedges. Cut these wedges lengthwise into chips, and put them in a bowl of water. Rub them a little to disperse some of the surface starch.

If you do not have a thermometer (or a chip pan), test the heat of the oil with a little cube of bread. It is ready when the bread sizzles gently on impact.

Remove the chips in batches from the water to paper towels, and dry them. You do not have to be too thorough; but if you leave a lot of water on them, they will cause the oil to bubble up alarmingly. Add them to the oil as you go. Regulate the heat if necessary to keep them simmering in the oil.

After 10 minutes, simply increase the heat -- I turned my flame (one of the back rings, and not the most powerful) to full. The chips should take about 10 minutes further to brown. Lift them from the oil with a slotted spoon to colanders lined with paper towels.

These chips, made with King Edwards, were superb: crisp outside, creamy inside. I do not think that any more elaborate method is necessary.