Why does my food taste average?

I’m sure this has happened to most of us. You’ve eaten something somewhere, you’ve managed to get hold of the recipe, you follow it to the letter, but it just doesn’t taste as good. And why does that starter from the Hawksmoor cookbook not fill you with the joy it did when you ate it at Hawksmoor? What is Ottolenghi doing that you’re not? And HOW does the meringue roulade in the magazine look so wonderfully crispy and light, when yours looks more like a slug?

It's all about the beating

Well, it could be almost anything – different ingredients, wrong season, complete lack of talent, but here are some of the more obvious ones that a trained chef will do without thinking, but you might be surprised to read…

Seasoning

Now I know I harp on and on about this, but there’s a reason I’m writing it first. Seasoning is the building block of cookery – without salt, your food will taste bland. Period. If you’re cooking with meat, you should always season it while it’s still raw, before it’s even seen the heat. It will make a huge difference to the flavour that just can’t be achieved after it’s cooked. And remember to season everything, even down to salad dressing. My idea of a pinch of salt is a four-fingered pinch so be bold, buy some Maldon and throw it about with gusto. And take heart, my blood pressure is absolutely fine.

Onions

Don’t rush your onions. They’re nature’s sloths, they like to do things in their own good time. If a recipe tells you to cook onions until caramelised, it’s safe to say you’re going to be waiting for at least half an hour, maybe longer if you’re doing a big batch. Cook them low and slow, and use plenty of butter. Caramelised onions form the flavour base for so many dishes, and if you rush the beginnings, the finished product will never taste as good.

Garlic

Burnt garlic will taint an entire dish, so treat it with respect. If you’re putting it with an onion base, add it only a couple of minutes before you add the rest of the ingredients – it doesn’t need as long as an onion to cook, just a few minutes to take the raw edge off. Never add it to really hot oil, it will burn instantly and smell of sulphur. For a dish like garlic prawns or mushrooms, add it finely chopped just before you serve – the heat from the food will soften it, and it will taste perfect.

Stock

This one is make or break, the difference between a masterpiece and a finger painting. If you’re cooking anything that lists stock as a main ingredient (a broth, a rich casserole, a gravy), you need to use the proper stuff. Either you can make your own, by roasting bones then cooking them slowly covered in cold water brought up to a gentle simmer with onions, bay, carrots, celery and peppercorns for about 3-4 hours, or you can buy the fresh ones from supermarkets. Heston’s from Waitrose is fantastic, well worth the cash and a gorgeous dark colour. The M&S ones aren’t bad either, and if you’re really stuck, the Touch of Taste bouillon bottles are ok too. But use fresh if you can, if only just to make me happy.

Ingredients

This is basically a common sense issue, but it stands to reason that some asparagus that’s come over from Peru in the dead of winter is not going to taste as good as a freshly picked spear from Kent in May. If you’re confused about what’s in season when, there are tons of websites you can look at (my favourite being this one from River Cottage). Also make sure you’re buying the best you can afford of the everyday stuff. Value Cheddar isn’t going to be a patch on the mature farmhouse stuff. Although this works both ways – for example, cheap mozzarella is better than buffalo for pizzas – the buffalo goes watery – you want the rubbery brands for cooking, save the good stuff for eating raw.

Meat

This needs a whole post to itself really, but please please always buy the best meat you can afford. Battery farmed chickens, grown super quickly with hormones taste bland, slimy and dry. And then there’s all the welfare issues. Anyone who thinks chicken or pork are tasteless has obviously been buying the budget packs, and if you find your cottage pie or lasagne has a slightly rancid taste, it’s probably because you used cheap mince. With meat, you get what you pay for, so find your nearest Q-Guild butcher, and start up a beautiful relationship with him.

Beating

Don’t get too excited, I’m talking about with a whisk. As you know from my cake post, butter and sugar needs a lot of beating to realise its full potential, but beating is equally important for other puddings. For example, your meringues should be beaten to firm peaks before adding any sugar, and even then it should be added a tablespoon at a time, and the mixture beaten well in between each spoonful. It incorporates as much air as possible, and breaks the proteins down in the egg white so your meringue will be more stable while cooking. And if you think that sounds like too much effort, just think of all the good it’s doing your bingo wings…

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

Cheesecake.

Everyone in our office loves cheesecake. They LOVE it. Like one might love a firstborn child. Alright, not that much, but certain members of the team have been known to yelp when I put a freshly baked cheesecake on the communal table. That’s a pretty strong reaction to a bit of Philly and some egg if you ask me.

Because I don’t really get the obsession with cheesecake. It’s very tasty, it can occasionally, possibly border on delicious, but I would never order it in a restaurant, and I would never make one for a dinner party. And yet, consumer research time and again tells us that people want cheesecake recipes. When we do a gallery of them on our website we get a massive spike in user traffic. Am I just completely unaware that the Holy Grail of puddings is staring me in the face?

The world, it seems, is also against me. Cheesecakes have been around since Ancient Greece, when the Romans nicked the recipe and started making theirs using a cheese similar to ricotta, sweetened with honey and usually shaped into loaves. The addition of flour to the mixture would have produced a heavier, drier style than the smooth confections we’re used to, but the idea was the same.

Our widely accepted version using Philadelphia was born when an American accidentally invented cream cheese while trying to re-create French Neufchatel. Later, James Kraft (recognise the surname?) invented pasteurised cream cheese, somebody decided to bake it with eggs and sugar, and the modern cheesecake was born. Latterly, people have gone a bit nuts with the flavourings, as the fashion for one-thing-that-tastes-like another has gained popularity. If you fancy whiling away half an hour in contemplative gluttony, check out The Cheesecake Factory’s menu to see what I’m talking about. My favourites so far are ‘Adam’s peanut butter cup fudge ripple’ (what?!), and their Low Carb selection. AS IF you’re worrying about your carbohydrate intake if you’re supping at The Cheesecake Factory…

But what is it about the cheesecake that is so irresistible? Is it the (buttery) biscuit base? That unspeakable trougher Gregg Wallace seems to enjoy it. Is it the sometimes smooth, sometimes curdy main bit that fills your mouth with sweetness at the same time as setting your teeth slightly on edge with an alkaline tang? Is it the topping – the melted chocolate, toasted nuts, fruit compote or (God forbid) peanut butter cups? Or is it simply the knowledge that you’re eating not one, not two, but up to six or seven fattening ingredients in one, sinful, ecstatic mouthful and you feel like a kid in a candy shop?! I suspect the latter has more to do with it than most of you would care to let on…

Alright, so maybe I'm pretty proud of this one...

And while I can’t claim to be whisked away on a cloud of cheesey dreaminess at the mere mention of the C-word, I can see why people love them. All the elements of taste are there. I just have little joy in making them – there’s not the same feeling of alchemy that comes from making cakes, not the sharp intake of breath at the spectacular finished article. I’m mainly worried about whether the damn thing’s going to crack or not. (By the way, I can find no reliable cure for this – sometimes it works if you put it straight in the fridge, sometimes it cracks anyway. I think it’s the cheesecake’s revenge on me for not giving it its proper respect.) But people love them, so I suppose that is enough of a reward for making them on a fairly regular basis. Cooking is all about selfless giving to others and all that. But I’d still rather have cake.

NB. Check out this video of Louis Armstrong extolling the virtues of cheesecake, courtesy of our lovely photographer Myles New. It’s hilarious.

5 Comments

Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Sweet

Any questions answered

During what seemed like an entire lifetime spent on a rickety old bus yesterday with some friends, I found the conversation turning, as it often does, to food – and the inevitable ‘how do you…’ questions started coming out.  As my doctor friend finds she’s constantly asked ‘what’s this on my arm?’, ‘Is that normal?’, ‘does it always look like that?!’, so I find people ask me about all sorts of cooking problems. And since I too have been known to text Dr Davey the odd query or two, rather than queue up for the GP, I feel it’s my duty to answer them as best I can. But in order to save time in the future, I thought I would write a few of the most common ones down here, so that hopefully next time something cocks up in the kitchen, you’ll know where to come.  So…

I’ve made something too salty

First of all, well done for seasoning – so many people don’t nowadays and it makes their food taste so unpalatable. But if you really have overdone it, apart from the old tricks like adding a raw potato (NB. This only works with liquid based dishes like casseroles and soups) to suck up the salt (remove before serving), try adding some acidity. Salt and acidity cancel each other out – so some lemon or lime juice, or a splash of vinegar should help the problem. If  you don’t want to add it directly to your dish, serve a salad with a strong vinaigrette on the side, and hope people have the good sense to eat them both at the same time. And if all else fails, supply lots of water and keep quiet. Most people need to drink more of it anyway.

I’ve burnt the bottom of my casserole

We’ve all done this – maybe you got sidetracked by the telly, or maybe you were trying to fit too much in one pan and couldn’t stir it properly, but the telltale scrape of the wooden spoon on the bottom of the pan is always a moment of panic. Don’t. Stop scraping, remove as much of the food as you can to a different pan, and bin anything that looks burnt. Hopefully you noticed before the situation turned drastic, and it will all be ok.

I don’t know if my fish is cooked

If you’re cooking a whole fish, ask the fishmonger to leave the dorsal fin on. When a whole fish is cooked you’ll be able to pull it out easily. If you have to tug, it needs a bit longer.  If you’re using fillets, you should stop cooking as soon as the fish turns from translucent to opaque and when it just begins to flake. If you notice white gunk seeping out you’ve gone too far – the proteins start to break down when it overcooks, and that’s the white stuff.

Can I do anything to stop onions from making me cry?

I’m afraid the answer to this is not really – although many people will come up with old wives’ tales about spoons in your mouth and running water. I’ve never found the running water trick works, the only thing that gives me any slight relief is putting them in the fridge for a few hours before cooking – I think it’s something to do with slowing down the enzyme that reacts with your tears, but the scientists out there may shout me down. Whatever, it works for me, sort of. Or there’s always the old ski goggles, but apart from looking ridiculous you might find that the lenses confuse your depth perception and you end up chopping your finger off. Then you really will cry.

Why didn’t my ice cream freeze?

Done a batch of homemade ice cream? Got a bit liberal with the rum for the raisins? Rounded up the sugar volume? That’s probably why. Sugar and alcohol don’t freeze (think of that syrupy bottle of vodka in your freezer). Ice cream recipes have to balance out the ratio of liquid to sugar and booze (if it’s in there), so you get the correct consistency, so try not to go all Michel Roux on it. If you think the recipe needs something else, then add it as a topping or a syrup – you’ll get the same effect when its eaten. And remember that the cold kills a lot of flavour, so your raw ice cream mix should taste very strong before you freeze it.

Of course, drizzling extra syrup on is never a bad thing

My meringues always crack/weep

Both of these problems are generally because you’ve cooked them on too high a temperature. They crack because a crust forms before the inside is cooked so you get an air pocket between the shell and the inside, and when you remove them from the oven the shell collapses with nothing to hold it up. If they weep (they will have brown bubbles of syrup around the base), it can also be because you cooked them on too high a temperature – melting the sugar and making it seep out, or that you cooked them for too long, which splits the mixture. If you’re worried about your oven, buy an oven thermometer to check it’s running correctly.

So that’s a few of the basics covered, and you can click on the links for cake problems or pastry tips. If anyone has any more, please email them to me – it would be nice to have this as a regular thing – a cookery 101, if you will. Plus it makes me feel like all my mistakes were not made in vain, which is always a nice feeling…

15 Comments

Filed under Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

Consumer Research

Having recently been handed a load of research into recipe related search terms in google, I was quite surprised by what came up as being the most searched for. I knew chicken recipes would feature quite highly, as would pasta. But omelette? Ratatouille? Waldorf salad?! Does no one remember Fawlty Towers? It’s CELERY, APPLES, WALNUTS, GRAPES! In MAYONNAISE! Clearly people are cooking at home, but they’re not always cooking what I thought they were.

For instance, in the chicken recipe category butter chicken features rather highly up the scale above, for example, chicken and mushroom pie. But who, in all honesty wants to see first hand the volume of saturated fat that goes into butter chicken?! Once you’ve stepped through the frosted glass doors of The Bombay Star, you’ve made the decision that calorie content is not an issue that evening, but stirring rivers of butter into your supper is a different matter entirely. And it wasn’t just this takeaway staple that was high up the list – korma, masala, jalfrezi were all up there, along with chicken chow mein and lemon chicken from the Eastern contingent. Is there a whole generation of internet users who are trying to recreate the curry house and Chinese at home?

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make curries – in fact, I’m pleased that so many people want to make curry, because it’s not the easiest thing to make.  It requires time, patience, and a list of ingredients as long as your arm. We’re constantly concerned that people only want quick, on-the-table-before-you’ve-got-your-coat-off type food (Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals out-selling The Bible would suggest they do). But if people want to cook curry, then we clearly have nothing to worry about. And we have tons of curry recipes on the website, but we try very hard to make sure they’re not the sort of dishes you would get in your local tandoori.

I think this is where food writers are on a bit of a sticky wicket. We’re forever looking for the ‘twist’. You can’t do a roast chicken, everyone’s had roast chicken, you have to do roast chicken with sumac. Or anchovies. Or, oh I don’t know, plums? But what about just a plain old roast chicken recipe?

And lasagne. In my working life I’ve done recipes for lasagne with meatballs, lasagne with spinach and mushrooms, a gratin that looks suspiciously like a lasagne, and lasagne with Fontina and butternut. Should I have just done one with ragu, béchamel and mozzarella? I assumed most people would know how to make that, but then, if you only ever do a twist, how could they?

Lasagne or gratin? You decide.

So what would you like to see? Should we be re-inventing the wheel every month, or keeping it simple? What about a little bit of both? If we’re going to attract all types of cook then there has to be a balance, but if you’re a confident cook, would you get irritated by seeing an omelette recipe taking up space? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts. And maybe their lasagne recipes…

4 Comments

Filed under Musings, Recipes, Savoury

Cooking with nuts

If you were to go looking through my hopelessly overcrowded freezer at home, you might be surprised by the number of packets of nuts in there. First, if you didn’t know that nuts could be frozen, they can, and second, I have so many of them because they’re so incredibly versatile. Think of any dish, and I could probably find a way of working nuts into it. Toasted macadamias tossed through a salad. Ground-up walnuts to thicken a Persian chicken stew. Chopped hazelnuts stirred through pasta with fried courgettes, or whole almonds coarsely ground in a fragrant orange blossom cake.

Nuts provide protein, natural fat, flavour and texture – they’re nature’s powerhouses that, unlike many superfoods, taste fantastic. I don’t think I’d be sprinkling goji berries liberally all over my supper. Alright, they’re not the cheapest adornment to your cookery, but they make such a difference, I really think it’s worth forking out for them. A Vietnamese salad loses a large part of its charm without its scattering of toasted peanuts, and I just don’t see the point of fruit cake if it’s not blanketed in sweet, sticky marzipan.

Of course, you’ve got to treat them properly. As a general rule nuts always taste better when toasted – it brings out the natural oils and gives them a rounded, less raw flavour. There are several ways to achieve this – you could place them in a dry pan and roll them around to stop them catching. This is the easiest option, but there’s a pretty large chance they’ll burn on one side. You could put them in a roasting tin in a medium oven for 10 minutes, which will toast them more evenly all over. If you’re going down this route, set a timer as I guarantee you’ll forget about them and they’ll end up black. Or, if you’re using them as a garnish and not an ingredient, you could heat a little oil in a frying pan and toast them in that – the oil distributes the heat so you get an even toasting, and also adds flavour.

If a recipe calls for them to be ground in a food processor, take care not to get carried away – whiz them too finely and you’ll push all the oil out which will leave you with a sticky lump instead of beautiful, fine crumbs. And always let them cool after toasting before grinding, to avoid the same thing happening.

Recipes using ground almonds, will be more delicious if you grind your own, rather than buying pre-ground. Doing it yourself means you can toast them first, and  control how far you take them  – leaving them mainly ground but still with a bit of texture will give you a cake with more bite and texture, and adding a couple of drops of almond extract will really enhance the flavour. As a general rule, you can substitute between half to 2/3 of a cake’s flour content for ground almonds, but add half a tsp of baking powder to the mix to counterbalance the heaviness.

 If you’re keeping open packets of nuts for longer than a few days, be aware they’ll go stale pretty quickly, and as anyone who’s delved into the bowls on the tables of an All Bar One will testify, stale nuts taste VILE. This is where the freezer comes in handy. Frozen nuts can be toasted straight from the freezer, but you probably won’t want to eat them untoasted once they’ve been defrosted.

And what’s my favourite nut? I really couldn’t pick. Almonds seem made for baking, whereas peanuts achieve their life’s purpose in peanut butter. A box of chocolates would be meaningless without hazelnut praline, and I can’t even imagine ice cream without pistachio. All of them work in salads, on yogurt, in muesli, and roasting a mix of them with honey, sea salt and thyme will give you one of the most moreish snacks on the planet. Just ask my father.

So my Ode to the Noble Nut is complete, and I’ll sign off by saying that if you don’t cook with them very often, this weekend please give it a go – there’s a very good chance you’ll become addicted. And since it’s Friday, and my mind is devoid of nut puns, I’m now going to invite your entries, with a mystery prize for the best one.

GO.

5 Comments

Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

Léon de Bruxelles

There are certain things that it’s not hard to cook. Mussels are one, provided they’re fresh. Chips are another, provided you have a good fryer. So when I went along to the newly opened Léon de Bruxelles (a franchise of Chez Léon, one of Brussels’ oldest restaurants specialising in moules frites) I thought we were probably in for a good meal. I mean, they’re Belgian, it’s their national dish…and it’s not hard, is it?

Our first impression of the huge restaurant on Cambridge Circus was that it was absolutely freezing. There were a few other diners here and there, but we were shown to a booth in an empty corner that was even colder than the rest of the restaurant. We asked to be moved, and were seated next to the window. With a nice draft. Although no explanation was offered about the temperature, we overheard the lady next to us (swathed in scarves) saying that that their heating was broken. Excellent. And so on to the food…

Now imagine eating them in a fridge

I ordered ‘creamy fish soup’ to start, put off by the hideous adjective, but heartened by the sourdough bread, rouille and cheese that went with it. I was expecting a typical fish soup, rich and velvety, comforting, deeply flavoured, with Gruyère to melt on top and crusty bread to dip in. What arrived was anaemic, flavourless, carelessly blended, with no cheese or rouille, just three sad looking croutons, coated in badly seasoned garlic butter. This is one of my restaurant pet-hates. If you’ve run out of something, or someone’s cocked up the ordering – come clean. Don’t assume I’m moronic enough to have forgotten what I ordered in the 10 minutes it’s taken to heat it up. King prawns cooked in chilli and garlic butter similarly turned up without the promised French bread, and with a side of straight-out-the-bottle Thai sweet chilli. And here’s me thinking we were in Belgium…

And so on to the main course. The restaurant prides itself on its mussels, of which it has 10 preparations, from traditional Marinières, to slightly bizarre Madras curry cooked with white wine and crème fraiche. Are alarm bells ringing yet? Moules Dijonnaise came in a generous cocotte, fresh, tasty mussels, but totally let down by the sauce, which was curdled and tasted of cheap, uncooked white wine. The frites, Belgium’s gift to gastronomy, were about the most disappointing part of the meal. Powdery, pre-frozen and lifeless, any true Belgian would have felt ashamed. A side salad was similarly uninviting, with fridge cold green beans (although it could have been the temperature of the room), and a salad dressing that had the decided aroma of concentrated lemon juice. French sourdough had, I suspect, been frozen and defrosted – although not completely – the inside was even colder than we were. An entrecôte steak with red wine sauce was perfectly adequate, but I’d rather pay the extra fiver and go to Hawksmoor.

The sea? Or seawater?!

I must confess, we ordered pudding just to see if it would get any worse. It did. A banana split waffle was like the kid’s dessert at Little Chef – aerated whipped cream that dissolved the minute it touched your lips, under-ripe banana and strawberry, and an average waffle only saved by some actually rather good strawberry ice cream. ‘Warm melting chocolate cake with chocolate sauce’ came with a thick skin on top from sitting under the heat lamp (lucky thing), and was heavy with cocoa, but light on actual chocolate.

And don’t think you can just go there for the beer. If you’re expecting an exciting list of Trappist brews and obscure Belgian varieties, you can forget it. It’s terribly pedestrian (Corona is one of the choices) – you’d get a better selection in a decent bar.

So what can I conclude? I honestly don’t know what they’re playing at – there’s a Belgo’s just round the corner doing this sort of cooking extremely well, with more atmosphere and a much more exciting drinks list. What annoyed me more than anything is that this food is so easy to get right – good mussels, good chips, good bread, decent salad dressing and some interesting beers. It’s not exactly Adrià is it?! What I had hoped would be a welcome change to the chain catering horror that is WC2 has in fact just turned out to be a Belgian Café Rouge. I’m very, very sorry Léon. But nil points.

7 Comments

Filed under London, Restaurants

Butter.

The mere mention of it strikes fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers. Never in the history of faddy eating advice has one innocent substance been so persecuted, and yet, never in the history of cookery has one substance been so vitally important. Imagine a dry, rasping slice of toast with no smear of melting gold; the springy chewiness of a plain sponge cake without a crown of sugared buttercream. Butter is the base of your sauces, the building block of bakery – it’s in every French dish you can think of. It commands respect.

Butter is made from churning cream until the fat globules separate from the buttermilk and form solid lumps. The lumps are then brought together, washed, squeezed to remove all remaining buttermilk, and shaped into pats. It’s actually incredibly easy to make your own butter – you basically just overwhip cream (and I think we can say we’ve all done that). Darina Allen did an excellent guide for the Guardian here.

A lot of snobbery persists about whether salted or unsalted butter is best – at Leiths we were told that those in the know would always choose unsalted. Well, for eating raw, I’m firmly in the salty camp…how frightfully non-u of me. I don’t think there are many tastes better than properly salted butter, particularly the stuff from Brittany that’s flecked with whole sea salt crystals. Unsalted butter is too much like raw fat for me – the salt lifts it, and enhances at the same time as curbing, its creaminess.

That said, I always have unsalted to hand for cooking – when it comes to seasoning I’m a bit of a control freak, and starting a dish using salted butter makes for an uneven flavour. Salted butter is meant to be used as the French intended it – on proper bread, and in generous amounts. Add a bunch of radishes and a crisp glass of white and we’re good to go.

Funnily enough, considering the French love affaire with butter, it was actually a Frenchman who invented the first margarine. In the 1860s Napoleon III offered a prize for the first person to invent a suitable butter substitute to feed to his troops fighting the Franco-Prussian war. The fabulously named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès responded by blending beef fat with milk and working the texture like butter. He wasn’t terribly successful though, and sold the patent to Jurgens (now Unilever) in 1871. After French and German scientists discovered how to hydrogenate vegetable oils (altering them so they behave like butter), the product we now know and loathe was born.

Thanks to sad cases like this chap, margarine now outsells butter in America (and is pretty close here), and many people mistakenly think that the saturated fat in butter is much more dangerous to your health than the hydrogenated fat in margarine. Sham science aside, I just don’t see how anyone with common sense can think that a natural product made entirely from cream can be more harmful than a laboratory product, stuffed full of chemicals, injected with air and artificially coloured. And despite loudly declaimed marketing slogans, it only resembles butter in the way that meat substitutes resemble a dry-hung steak. Not one bit.

Just imagine this with deliciously melting hydrogenated fat...

When flicking through other people’s recipes I will automatically discard any that give you the option of using margarine instead of butter. Anybody who thinks that’s acceptable has no right calling themselves a cook, let alone telling other people how to do it. You can spot a cake made with marge a mile off – it leaves a greasy film on the inside of your mouth and has an insubstantial feel when you bite into it. Butter is the real deal – the only thing that will give you that moist, golden crumb and rounded flavour. And yes it is high in fat, but I’m not advocating you eat the whole block – or the whole cake. As with all things in life, it’s all about treating yourself. Have a scraping on your toast in the mornings, and save the heavily buttered croissants (which by the way, are almost all butter to begin with) for the weekend.

So this weekend, throw away the marge, invest in some proper Brittany butter and just go crazy. Life shouldn’t be about consistent self-denial. I mean, look at Gillian McKeith…

10 Comments

Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet