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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Pasta

Nobody can compete on Masterchef without being able to cook a perfectly oozing egg yolk raviolo, at least not by the time you get to the end of the heats. If you can’t, then why bother applying?

Well, I can’t even make my own pasta yet – but fortunately I own a copy of Leith’s. Making pasta is pretty easy, as it turns out, although recipes vary slightly according to how rich you want it to be. Leith’s says you need the following per serving:

100g 00 pasta flour
1 medium egg, beaten
1 teaspoon olive oil

You sift the flour onto a work surface and make a well in the middle, breaking your eggs into the well and then “slowly drawing the flour into the egg with the fingertips of one hand”. I cracked two eggs into the well and then created an egg volcano that ran off the work surface onto the floor. Good start.

Eventually, I improvised a dam to keep the eggs on the surface and then after about five minutes of kneading, it did indeed turn into a “smooth and silky” dough. After that you’re supposed to wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. I used foil instead. Don’t use foil, or this happens:

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Anyway, after separating it from the foil and picking bits of silver out, I started to roll it out. You’re supposed to roll it as thinly as possible or pass it through a pasta machine, and I didn’t roll it out anywhere near thinly enough. You want it thinner than you’d expect, and it’s going to spring back on you, so be prepared; a pasta machine will help a lot here, or if not a weighty rolling pin (I had neither). If it looks like this, it’s too thick:

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Cut your pasta up into whatever shape you want – some sort of thick tagliatelli thing seemed easiest for me, although in time I’m going to attempt a filled tortellini – and then leave it to dry on the back of a chair, if you don’t own a dog that will eat it, or on your drying rack in your kitchen if you do. It’s ready to cook “when the surface feels leathery”. Thanks, Leith’s. Use your common sense on what that means:

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If you’re going to leave it a while before you cook it, dust the pasta with a little flour and store in a plastic bag – but not too much or else it will go slimy when you cook it. If you’re freezing it, then blanch it for a minute and then store in a plastic bag with as little air as you can.

It should cook in between 1-4 minutes. There’s no salt in the dough, so you must put some in the water or else it will be grim. I put too much flour on my pasta, so it did indeed become slimy, but only slightly, and then we served it with a fiery tomato and chilli sauce with some chorizo, which fortunately was potent enough to overcome the rather thick pasta. It looked like this, and as I say, if it looked this thick, you probably want it to be a little bit thinner!

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Still, not bad for a first effort, right?

 
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Posted by on 31/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Roast Chicken

My mother, bless her, was always slightly cautious about cooking expensive cuts of meat in case she ruined them, which is something that she passed on to me. It’s made me thrifty – a blessing, I suppose – but also filled with panic, especially given that an ‘expensive’ cut of meat is anything that costs over about four pounds. A decent chicken costs a whole six pounds, and despite being reassured that it’s virtually impossible to get them wrong, I’ve always shied away just in case. We ate cheese on toast for Sunday lunch for eighteen years, and now that I’m married, I still do the same (lucky Mel).

For the past two years we’ve also had ovens with doors that don’t shut properly, which has also made it virtually impossible to cook anything where crisp skins are important. In the end, it kind of seemed like too much hassle. But then I finished reading Andy Miller’s great book The Year of Reading Dangerously, where he ruefully reflects on having reached the threshold of middle age without even knowing how to cook a chicken, reflecting:

I had heard that other people dealt with [reaching middle age] by having ill-advised affairs with schoolgirls, or dyeing their hair a ‘fun’ colour, or plunging into a gruelling round of charity marathon running, ‘to put something back’… my sadness for things undone was smaller and duller, yet maybe more undignified. It seemed to fix itself on minor letdowns, everyday stuff I had been meaning to do but somehow, in half a lifetime, had not got round to. I was still unable to play the guitar. I had never been to New York. I did not know how to drive a car or roast a chicken. Roasting a chicken – the impossible dream! Even my mid-life crisis was a disappointment.

I did not want to be that man in a decade or so, and so just like the book drove me to put down my Stephen King novel and pick up The Master and Margarita, so it would also encourage me to pick up a roast chicken.

(When I did finally roast a chicken, it turned out to be virtually identical to a recipe I’d cooked twice before, which Jamie Oliver calls Beer Butt Chicken and the Spanish call something unprintable, where you stick a beer bottle into the centre of your chicken carcass and the steam from the beer cooks it from the inside. But that’s another story.)

Roast chicken is incredibly easy. We got a 1.45kg free-range bird for two, which was far too much. Leith’s says, get 15g of butter and smear it on the outside with some salt and pepper. Put it in the oven for an hour and a half, baste it a couple of times with a little butter and then take it out. 15g of butter seemed too little for me, so we basically slathered it with ‘some butter’, shoved half a lemon (microwaved for 10 seconds, trust me on this) into the centre and sprinkled over some thyme and basil.

Roast potatoes weren’t in the recipe, but they are elsewhere in the book. I have all kinds of superstitions about roast potatoes, mostly because we never cooked them either (too much oil), and the internet is not much help. Since we got a puppy, Mel occasionally checks if things (ie. strawberries, peanut butter, jumping) are safe for the dog online, and normally the websites say something along the lines of it is IMPERATIVE that you NEVER let your dog jump out of the car or their joints will be RUINED and they will NEVER GROW. The same is true of roast potatoes. Equally, most of the advice is scaremongering. Buy floury potatoes (Maris Pipers work well), get your fat very hot and you’ll get something pretty tasty.

Leith’s said to heat up a tray of sunflower oil at 200 degrees, cook them for five minutes in boiling water, rough them up in a colander or with a fork and then chuck them in the oil. Roast for an hour, turning every twenty minutes, add 30g of butter, cook for another half an hour and then sprinkle with salt and parsley. We perched the chicken on top of ours and only turned them once and they turned out fine.

I didn’t take a photograph of the thing, because it was too delicious and we just ploughed into it, but we’ll be eating it for the next week. Skin was incredibly crisp, meat was wonderfully moist, effort was incredibly low. If you’ve never done it, what’s your excuse?

 
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Posted by on 25/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Braising

Last bank holiday I announced that I was going to cook through Leith’s Techniques Bible, and then didn’t post anything for three weeks. A cynic would say that I haven’t done it, that the whole thing was a silly spur-of-the-moment idea and nobody cares anyway. They would perhaps be right. However, I have actually cooked a number of things, I just haven’t written anything about them.

First up was braised leeks. I’ve always wondered what braising is, especially when it’s been mentioned on cookery programmes, and it’s never really been clarified. It sounded exciting, exotic. Actually, it’s not. Basically what it is, is making a stew without quite so much of the liquid. Technically:

To cook meat, fish or vegetables slowly, on a bed of vegetables in the case of meat or fish, with a small amount of liquid such as water, stock, wine, beer or cider, in a pot with a close-fitting lid, either on the hob or in the oven.

To braise meat you’re supposed to make something called a mirepoix of vegetables, to add moisture to the pan. As with a casserole, you brown them and then put the meat in, but unlike with a casserole you then discard them – they’re there just for the stock. However, Leith’s doesn’t give a recipe for a mirepoix, so trying to make one was too difficult for a weekday night. So I braised some leeks in chicken stock instead, and very nice they were too. More exciting than regular leeks.

Hardly the most exciting start to this experiment, but never fear. Coming up soon: tandoori lamb steaks on a griddle pan, roast chicken and, GCSE marking permitting, I might even make my own pasta this half-term. Bring it on.

 
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Posted by on 24/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Belle and Sebastian, politics and history

On Friday morning, as Britain woke up to the shock that the exit polls were right and a Conservative majority was almost inevitable, I was of course listening to Belle and Sebastian. Earlier that week I’d finally managed to see B&S live, after having missed the opportunity to see them a decade earlier when my Politics teacher instead insisted that I attend a lecture on the EU, and I’d regretted it ever since. I was playing this, which was superbly doom-laden on the night, all soaring strings and portentious lyrics:

Belle and Sebastian have been my constant companions since fifteen, the first band I ever truly loved, and one of the few that I’ve never got tired of. Their wistful, literary melancholy expresses something about me better than I could ever have done myself. T.S. Eliot claimed that “true poetry communicates before it is understood”, and to me they epitomise that; I didn’t understand what I was listening to, not truly, and I still don’t feel like I’ve figured them out – even though I know all the lyrics to “Piazza, New York Catcher” off by heart.

It was that which I felt when I saw them on Monday, too. I had a list of around fifteen songs in my head that I knew I wanted to hear, and they played almost none of them. Instead, I got a set-list of songs that were, in my eyes, the ‘also-rans’ – tracks from The Life Pursuit or their recent album that I didn’t know all the words to and whose Sixties vibes confused me. I knew the B&S that I had grown up listening to as slow, wistful, heartfelt – the band of geeks who loved books and obscure record shops. What I saw on Monday was a band who were infectously confident, with a big, bold sound and an oddly rock-and-roll attitude. They pulled groupies up on stage for a synchronised finger-click on The Boy with the Arab Strap and they led a mass whistle-along to The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Runner and a psychedelic freak out on Perfect Couples. It was, against all the odds… fun. Really, really fun.

I didn’t really expect to be surprised, but I’m profoundly glad that I was, because listening to B&S in the past week has helped me discover them in a whole new way; a band that I thought I knew, but in fact am still discovering, and who will continue to be my constant companions. Not everyone will agree, and I suspect that there are plenty who would be infuriated by what I’ve loved over the years about them, but who cares. Everyone has bands that they love, and I’m reassured that even when they did something that I thought would exasperate me on Monday night, that I still loved them nonetheless; that even ten years on, they are just as much a soundtrack to my twentysomething gloom over election results as they were for my teenage angst about my inability to get a girlfriend. Long may that continue.

 
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Posted by on 09/05/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Something new

FullSizeRenderI haven’t written much on this blog for a while, and to be honest I wondered if I ever would again. Since becoming a teacher I’ve had so little time to do the things that I used to, let alone write about them, that I almost gave up the idea. However, lately I’ve been reminded of the importance of keeping some hobbies and interests alive, in order that teaching doesn’t become utterly all-consuming (I also watched the latest series of Masterchef, but it’s a little embarrassing to mention that as an inspiration).

Anyway, a while back I bought this, with the idea of actually applying for Masterchef some day.

This is a ridiculous dream too, because Masterchef is clearly insane, and also even if I won then being a chef looks absurdly stressful, but there you go. The book is very good, and divided up into a load of different sections such as “Aspic”, “Baking”, “Deep-frying”, “Pressure cooker”, “Souffles” etc. It will teach you how to temper chocolate, how to make a consomme, what has happened if your souffle turns into scrambled egg; everything you need to be a proper cook. I’ve actually not used it that much, though.

Still, it’s a Bank Holiday, and I need a new project, and so I’m going to cook through it. Not in order, because the first recipe in it is for something called “chaudfroid of trout”, which basically sounds like you cook a trout dinner and then encase it in fish jelly, and that’s the equivalent of reading the Bible and starting with Leviticus (gory, disgusting and confusing), but hopefully in the next couple of years.

In the process, I’ll document how I get on. There will be burns, cooking disasters, hilarity, tears, et cetera. To be honest, it’s basically the plot of 2009 Amy Adams vehicle Julie and Julia, but what are you going to do?

I’ll keep you posted on what the first recipe will be soon.

 
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Posted by on 04/05/2015 in Uncategorized