Monday, 28 November 2011

Fine food amid the madness

The last few weeks have been a tad bonkers on the work front – hence the paucity of posts – but the cooking and eating have been maintained reasonably well, even if the time to write everything up has been lacking.

Here’s a sketched view of the eating-out side of things – the home nosh will (I hope!) follow in due course.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow briefly for work, and on the Saturday, we had our traditional staff dinner – this year, at a restaurant called The Living Room.

For those who may recall the story of our meal this time last year, you’ll be reassured to read that this was much, much better.

Nice service and some very nice food.

I had a chicken liver parfait to start, with a redcurrant and port jelly. Now, it wasn’t so much a “jelly” as a sauce, and the parfait wasn’t really set quite enough, but it did taste good and the presentation was good too.

My main course smoked haddock, with a mustard mash, wilted spinach, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Very good; very nice.

And for dessert, a chocolate and salted caramel tart with a little vanilla ice cream. The tart wasn’t as I’d expected, but was light and very tasty.

Portion size was excellent – not ridiculously large – and there was a decent selection of wines that started at under £20. We had a La Croix Vermentino – a sauvignon blanc from the south of France. My colleagues, remembering last year’s debacle over the wine prices, made me select again – simply because I had initially stated that I wouldn’t.

The bottle was £16.75 – the second cheapest on the menu, which kept them all happy. It was light, fresh and had alcohol in it. Personally, I’d have selected something different – but I know where that got me last year!

The service was pleasant and helpful. My only real complain would be the noise. It’s busy to start with, so having an amplified live pianist-singer made it very difficult to converse, even though our party was in a sort of side room.

Glasgow ended chaotically, with my Sunday evening flight back to London cancelled due to fog at City Airport. I was then rescheduled for a Heathrow flight at around the same time. So no problem.

But what I didn’t know was that Heathrow was fogged in too. With my baggage already checked in, they couldn’t transfer me to a Stanstead flight.

When would we be likely to depart? Oh, about sixish. Oh, about eightish. Oh, about tennish.

At that stage, I walked out, went across the road, checked into a Holiday Inn and slept. The following morning, back in the airport itself before 7am, I discovered that one flight had already been cancelled for the same reason – but that they were ‘hopeful’ of things sorting themselves out sometime soon.

I rescued my bag, got a cab back into the city centre and caught a train with five minutes to spare, finally arriving back into London at almost 12.15pm. Knackered.

After just a short respite, it was off again on Thursday – this time, to Leeds for my niece’s graduation.

Staying at the same hotel as my parents, I had to show them the hotel’s menu that evening in order to convince them that it was limited and pricey, and my idea of a nearby restaurant I’d tried, earlier this year, was far better.

I got the three of us into Sous le Nez – and we made it in time to make use of the excellent value early evening menu – £24.95 per person for three courses, plus a half bottle of wine each.

Here, I enjoyed a nice chicken liver parfait – much more set than in Glasgow and, I think, the better for it, even if it didn’t have such a creative source/jelly.

It came with a muffin-like brioche and some piccalilli. Good stuff.

For a main, I opted for seared pigeon breast with mustard horseradish and parsley mash, chorizo and a thyme jus.

The bird was lovely – I did find the large disco of chorizo very tough and, to be honest, I don’t think it really added anything.

For dessert, I went simple, with a duo of sorbets – blackcurrant and lemon.

My parents enjoyed it too – in spite of their general aversion to all things French.

The following night, after an amazing day – and one that was emotionally exhausting, for various reasons – we went to Brasserie Blanc with my niece and her boyfriend, for a celebration dinner.

The restaurant was her choice. My mother, although utterly accepting that it was her granddaughter’s day and her choice, had been nervous.

Two weeks before, I’d sat down and read the entire menu to her over the phone, to reassure her that there would be plenty to choose from that they could eat: French food, in other words, is not just mussels and frogs’ legs and snails.

It’s interesting that, I realised, neither of them had a real clue about the massive influence of classic French cooking.

They started with a celeriac and apple soup – and both raved. I’m afraid I cringed when they ordered rack of lamb – well done – but they enjoyed it and that’s really the only thing that matters.

I opted for confit chicken, haricot bean & prune terrine as a starter – a fascinating creation with remarkably light texture and an intriguing taste.

After that, a special of the day – pork leg confit, with a riff on mushy peas (crushed garden peas with rosemary) and they swapped the new potatoes for a carrot and swede mash for me.

Yes, I know it was all going a bit OTT on the confit front, but I decided I really was just too tempted. Very nice it was too: moist and tasty. The whole dish was delightfully colourful.

For dessert, I just about managed a leafed dark chocolate slice, which was really a slice of torte with three different textures to it: a dense sponge-like centre, with surprises of crispiness, and a ganache on top. Very good.

We had a bottle of rosé between us: the men finished with good whisky, my niece with a champagne cocktail, my mother with coffee and me with a glass of Muscat.

Another most enjoyable meal – and also very good value, and cheaper that the hotel.

Now, more travel awaits: on Tuesday, I head to Birmingham for one night for work. And then, on Thursday evening, it’s off to Paris for some Christmas shopping and, of course, some rather good food.

No bookie would give me odds on the meal on the Eurostar not being massively better than the filled ‘croissant’ that East Coast Mainline served on the way back from Leeds.

Two fine French meals and the trip ends with something inspipid and damp and cold and lacking in any of the buttery crispness and flakiness of the real thing – the real French thing.

Still, it’s probably good to be reminded of how poor food can be sometimes – just so you really do appreciate the good stuff.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The toast sandwich challenge

The latest Christmas advert from Waitrose features Heston Blumenthal as a Harry Potteresque magician, creating his pine-scented mince pies as though by magic.

But if the country’s number one exponent of molecular gastronomy makes you wonder at the blurring lines between food and science, then try this.

One group of scientists has decided that the cheapest meal that you can manage in these austere times is a toast sandwich.

But the rather strange confection isn’t new, as it first appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management 150 years ago.

Now, though, it’s been revived by the Royal Society of Chemistry with the claim that, at 7.5p, it’s the cheapest meal possible. They’re so confident that they’re offering a £200 prize to anyone who can beat it.

The sandwich is a slice of toast between two pieces of buttered bread, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

RSC employee Jon Edwards said: “In my student days, I thought a meal of 9p noodles from Tesco was thrifty – but a toast sandwich is tastier, quicker, has more calories and comes in at just 7.5p.”

That gives us a quick idea of just what the society’s criteria are: calories per penny, in effect.

In a press release, Dr John Emsley of the RSC said: “We could have gone for one of the thousands of recipes that Mrs Beeton employed, most of them being table-groaning creations full of meats.

“But, given the stern days we are yet to experience, we decided to go for an unknown dish that requires little money and little time, and which she devised to cater for less well-off people.”

After the cost, what are the nutritional benefits, according to the society?

The basics: 3 slices of white bread = 240 calories. Butter = 10g = 90 calories
Total = 330 calories

Toast sandwich nutrients
Protein = 9.5 g
Fat = 12 g
Carbohydrate = 55 g
Fibre = 4.5 grams
Calcium = 120 mg
Iron = 2 mg
Vitamin A = 90 mcg
Vitamin B1 = 0.25 mg
Vitamin B2 = 80 mcg
Vitamin B3 = 4 mg
Vitamin D = 0.08 mcg

Well, I actually think that I can meet this challenge. And my idea is only a slightly modernised take on an old food.

I give you toast and dripping with yeast spread.

Although not that modern: Marmite was launched in 1902 in Burton-on-Trent, while the basis for it had been discovered in the late 19th century by German scientist Justus von Liebig, who had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten.

First, how to do it: take two thick slices of white bread. Toast them. Spread dripping on one and scrape some yeast spread onto the other.

Put them together.


Now let’s look at the ingredients, with a cost and nutritional analysis.

For prices, I used today. Let’s take a thick sliced, white loaf (own-brand) at 47p for 800g. A slice is apparently 44g.

So on that basis, there are 18.1 slices in a bag. For my ease at least, let’s call it 18, which makes it 2.61p per slice.

Tesco has dripping at 72p for 500g (£1.44 per kg). This is cheaper than lard, in case you’re wondering.

Thus 1% of the packet – 5g – is 0.72p.

The best value Marmite is 500g for £4.99 (£1 per 100g) – this is cheaper than smaller bottles.

However, Tesco’s own-brand yeast extract is 240g for £1.89 (79p per 100g).

In which case, it costs 0.0315p for a four-gram serving.

So, two slices of bread costs 5.22p.

Let's say a scraping of yeast extract (2g) costs 1.575p

And 10g of dripping is 2.16p.

So, the total costs of the sandwich – the “meal” – would be 8.955p.

At this point, I’m losing on this basis.

But let’s look at the nutrition next.

The bread works out at 110kcals per 36g slice, so 220kcals for two slices. It has 21g of carbohydrate per slice (so a total of 42g here) and 1.1g of fibre (total 2.2) with a little sodium of 0.2g per slice (so 0.4g), 0.07g fat (0.14g) and 3.6g of protein (7.2g protein).

The dripping is 135kcals for a 15g serving. There’s 15g fat, but no proteins, carbs, fibre or sodium.

One serving (2g) of the Tesco yeast extract provides 5kcal, 1.6g protein and 0.3g carbs (of which only a trace sugars). There’s only a trace of fat and fibre, 0.2g of salt, but 0.15mg of vitamin B1, 1.5 of niacin, 25.0µg of folic acid and 0.15µg of vitamin B12.

As a slight aside, Marmite has half a calorie per 2g and fractionally more protein and carbs, plus 0.14mg riboflavin.

So, the total of calories is 355kcals,
Protein = 7.4g
Carbohydrate = 48.6g
Fibre = 2.7g
Fat = 15.14g.

Calories are up and fat is up.

Now as we know, fat is not bad – our parents and grandparents didn’t have an obesity epidemic while eating bread and dripping. Indeed, this is a combination of that traditional dish and Mrs Beeton’s lesser-known idea, plus my own yeast spread twist.

The fat helps to ensure the eater feels sated. It provides good mouthfeel too and it has plenty of nutritional benefits, such as helping the body absorb plenty of other nutrients, including a number of vitamins.

The yeast spread adds nutrients that the salt and pepper don’t provide, but does give a similar seasoning.

Now, I don’t have the data on iron and calcium (or various other nutrients) for my version of this – and I’m no chemist – but I would suspect they’d be similar at least.

And remember – the challenge, as set out by the society, was not for what is regarded as ‘healthy’ eating these days, but – in effect – as calories for your penny.

There is more fat in my version – but since it’s dripping, it’s a lot, lot cheaper than butter or marg.

If I'd kept it to bread and dripping – and how much more traditional can you get> – that would have been cheaper, but the yeast spread adds an interesting touch and quite a lot of nutritional benefit.

I actually tried a toasted dripping and Marmite sandwich this lunchtime (with wholemeal sliced bread) and I have to say, it was not unpleasant at all.

Mind, this is austerity food – with a royal society uncovering it and promoting it for exactly that reason. It’s not supposed to be about taste. And it's difficult to see how anyone could come up with more calories for less.

But the mood of culinary pessimism seems to be spreading, with a recent article looking back at George Orwell’s comments on British food in the 1940s.

It’s all as depressing as a royal society finding it as appropriate to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mrs Beeton’s book with a recipe for austere times.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A spot of midweek cheating

As I mentioned the other day, I was quite ready to cheat a little on my first attempt to make pie. It was only on reading the ingredients of a ready-made pack of pastry that I decided to do otherwise.

But late last week, although I got back to Broadway Market quite early after work, the butcher was closed. My plan for sausages went out of the window – and I certainly wasn’t tempted to revert to my old habit of buying rubbish, mass-produced ones.

Wandering into a general store to buy a couple of odds and ends, and musing over what to put on the menu, the germ of an idea formed.

I picked up some smoked Mattesson’s sausage (not bad on the ingredients front) and two tins of mushy peas. I midweek cheat was in mind.

Back at home, I peeled and chopped a large carrot, a parsnip, the remainder of the swede we’d had with the pie and a hefty potato. All these were then boiled together until nearly cooked.

After being thoroughly drained, they went into a larger pan with the mushy peas. Some boiling water was added and stirred in very carefully to thin down the peas. The sausage was sliced and added, with chopped parsley going in just before it was finished.

This was heated through very gently with the lid on – and then, hey presto!

This was a seriously easy midweek version of the Dutch classic, Erwtensoep, which I’ve been cooking for some years (there are also very similar versions in German cooking, in the UK of course and pretty much throughout northern Europe).

The full version takes some time (restaurant version pictures above, with smoked bacon on rye bread to accompany) – not least because you have to soak the peas for two hours before cooking everything at one go, very slowly.

The proper version also used more than one kind of meat, but in this circumstance, the smoked sausage was enough. My original recipe would have included celeriac and not parsnip and swede. But using those root vegetables together hardly defied culinary logic.

And the parsley, added just near the end, lends a nice little zing to the finished dish.

This was an easy way to use up some veg – and make something hearty, comforting and decently nutritious, and all in quite short order.

Midweek cheating can work!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Christmas gifts you really don't need

It’s getting to that time of year when people start considering gifts – gifts to buy for others; gifts they’d like themselves.

And of course, this is when companies start bombarding us with ideas for just that.

Food gifts might not rate as highly in the UK as they do in France – strange, that – but foodies are not entirely neglected here.

But some of what is on offer could blow you away.

Currently featuring high in the kitchen gadget TV advert stakes is a Cuisinart soup maker, £140 from Amazon at the time of posting.

Now, before you all observe that:

a) all you need to make soup is a pan, a spoon, a knife and a chopping board – with an optional hand-held blender


b) I'm becoming a grumpy old woman, let’s look at what such a shiny new toy would give you.

And the perfect place to find out is the reviews section of Amazon.

There, one reviewer wrote: “We have had our soup maker for about 18 months now, and it tends not to get used much any more, in favour of a simple saucepan followed by blending.”

Okay. Why would that be, then?

“The maximum soup capacity of just 1.4L means that a big family only get small helpings.”

So it doesn’t give you enough size flexibility. Is that all?

“… and, why on earth, with such a good basic design, did they choose NOT to give it automatic intermittent stir? The manual stir means one has to remember to stir at intervals, or it can quickly burn – especially during the initial very hot period. That propensity to burn is the downside of a very effective heater used to fry up ingredients before moving on to liquid addition.”

So you don’t save any time, then, because you have to watch it and you have to stir it when it’s busy – exactly as you would with the conventional method.

But there’s more:

“We had to return the very first machine as the ‘spigot’ which is the drive spindle is some sort of plastic, and it lost its shape very quickly. We have been very careful with the replacement, to make sure we don't put too much drive up into the blender chamber. We do not use it for ice-crushing, for that reason.”

So it broke. And as a result, you don’t feel able to use it for one of it’s intended purposes.

“… If we had not had that experience, we would be giving a 3 or 4 star rating.

“Otherwise, it seems certainly well-made, heavy motor and well-thought-out. So, when the MkII comes out with intermittent stir and 2.5L capacity, we will possibly replace.”

So, to recap: in essence, it gives you next to nowt over and above the conventional method of making soup, takes up a lot more space, is less reliable (pans, knives and chopping boards rarely have a bit of plastic that loses shape) and costs well over a ton. And yet you claim you’d get a bigger one if such a thing existed?

It’s only the other day that I mention the ‘Breville Antony Worrall Thompson VTP099 Gourmet Pie Maker’, with a recommended retail price of £47.99.

Also available is the ‘Professional Cooks Gourmet 4 Slot Electric Pie Maker for a mere £26.

Come on – can anyone name me the “professional cooks” who would use a machine like this?

You can get similar machines for cupcakes, and others that promise to make ‘flapjacks, cake bars and breakfast cereal bars’. There are machines for waffles and canapés too.

Most of these take the form of a clunky piece of machinery that opens up like a book and has the halves of assorted moulds in each bit.

Although there is also a Russell Hobbs “cookie maker” that bucks the trend by looking, frankly, more like something you’d find on the shelves of your local ‘private shop’ and intended for male enhancement.

But how many of these do you get? How much storage space have you got?

To be honest, I’m reaching a point where I’m beginning to think that coffee machines are largely an OTT way of doing something that can be achieved just as simply, with far less expense, far less space taken in the kitchen and no bits of machinery to go wrong or get messed up by hard water with a simple cafetière!

Indeed, perhaps it’s heresy, but is ‘instant’ coffee really so much more ‘instant’ than cafetière?

Take a 200g jar of Douwe Egberts “pure smooth” instant – that’s £6.59. Douwe Egberts “cafetière blend twin pack” is £5.49 for two packs of 250g each.

But one thing is for certain: soup makers of the world unite – you have nothing to throw off but your gadgets!

And here's some I made earlier – the proper way.

A version of a River Café Italian rustic soup: peel and slice a couple of cloves of garlic.

Peel and chop a couple of medium potatoes into dice no bigger than 2cm.

Peel and dice a butternut squash.

Put all these in a pan.

Add a tin of plum tomatoes. Rinse out the juice from the tin with hot water and add this too, along with enough stock to cover.

Add a few crushed fennel seeds.

Grind some black pepper into it.

Cook gently for around 30 minutes and test that the potato is cooked through.

Remove from heat and mash – you want it to still have plenty of texture.

Serve with a drizzle of good virgin oil and, if you want, a dollop of marscarpone.

There. Soup. Made properly. How difficult is it?

Friday, 11 November 2011

The tao of pie

    Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,

    Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

    When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,

    Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Nursery rhymes are a fascinating subject in their own right – and this one might have been about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

In that context, the description of the dish as “dainty” is sarcastic – it’s a wreck of a recipe. But it does tell us that a pie, of itself, would not be considered unsuitable for a monarch.

We don’t really think of savoury pie as a posh dish today – well, perhaps apart from game pie and that’s as much down to the remaining sentiments about game being posh/rich people’s food in England.

But if pie is, in general, the domain of all of us ordinary folk, then up north it takes on a deeper importance and in Lancashire, it’s pretty much a religion.

A few years ago, the Telegraph reported that after a discussion with a northern fan about the half-time pies at her beloved Norwich City, Delia Smith was encouraged to change the club’s supplier to Hollands Pies – from Lancashire. And when news emerged last summer that Hollands had been bought by a non-UK company, there was outrage locally.

Indeed, in recent weeks, I’ve been finding a Hollands meat and potato pie quite acceptable half-time fodder at Manchester City games.

As I mentioned the other week, I have fond memories of eating meat ‘n’ tatty pies – with black peas – at bonfire nights in when we lived in Mossley.

My mother used to buy little pork pies from a local baker in the town, Cakebread. She’d heat them through for tea and serve them with baked beans. The crusts were thick and peppery, and the meat densely packed but moist.

She made her own pork pies too: she’d spend an age trimming and chopping some pork until it was almost mince, then it would be mixed with dried onion that had been rehydrated in a white enamel mug with blue trim, plus grated potato, before being packed into pastry-lined enamel pie tins and topped with more shortcrust.

That, on the savoury pie front, was pretty much my mother’s repertoire. She would do a version of steak and kidney – but not in a pie, cooking the meats separately and serving them on a slice of piping hot pastry. That was Sunday dinner I particularly looked forward to.

If we had a steak and kidney pie (or chicken and mushroom, for that matter), it would be a mini Bird's Eye frozen one: she kept the little foil containers, watched them carefully and then found various uses for them – including as the receptacle for our ration of sweets and chocolate when she divvied this out a couple of times a week.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I spotted a new book by Si King and Dave Myers: The Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies: The ultimate pie bible from the kings of pies.

A flick through tempted me, but I left it on the shelf – and then, unable to put it out of my mind, ordered a copy less than two days later.

With the burgeoning sense of food nostalgia inspired initially by Nigel Slater, I had set my course for pie.

I also ordered a trio of old-fashioned pie dishes – three different sizes; all round and with wide rims; enamel with a blue stripe on the rim. And a pie bird – a nod to that nursery rhyme.

Like my Mason Cash mixing bowls, there is something hugely comforting in having such traditional equipment. And it's considerably cheaper than some other options.

For instance, in all honestly and without fear of overstating my culinary skills, I did not feel that I needed the Breville Antony Worrall Thompson VTP099 Gourmet Pie Maker (only £25.46 at Amazon, instead of the RRP of £47.99).

I don’t know what’s worse: that or Marco Pierre White trying to keep a straight face while telling us that Knorr stock (ingredients for the beef stock pots at £1.46 for four of 28g each: Water, Salt, Beef fat (5.0%), Yeast Extract, Vegetables in Varying Proportions (2,3%) (Carrot, Leek), Sugar, Flavourings (contains Milk and Mustard), Beef Extract (1.3%), Vegetable Fats and Oils, Thickeners (Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum), Colour (Burnt Sugar Caramel), Herbs (Parsley, Lovage), Rosemary Extract, Apple Juice Concentrate, Carrot Juice Concentrate, Onion Juice Concentrate, Spices (Pepper, Paprika), Garlic) is every bit as good as the real stuff.

After the goodies arrived, I picked a midweek evening to make my pie debut. The plan was something involving chicken – based on the first recipe in the book, for a creamy chicken, ham and leek pie. Because it was midweek, I was preparing to cheat a tad, using ready-made pastry.

In the shop, I went to pick up a packet of Jus-Rol shortcrust (£2.80 for a kilo). Then I glanced at the ingredients: Wheat Flour, Vegetable Oil, Water, Salt, Lemon Juice, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate.

And I decided that I was damned if my first pie was going to be made with a pastry made with vegetable oil. And lemon juice.

Back in the kitchen, I rubbed together 350g plain flour and 100g each of butter and lard, before adding a large egg that had been whisked up with a tablespoon of chilled water.

It came together well, but fretting a little too much about not letting my warm paws heat it up to much, I probably didn’t press it together quite enough.

Defying convention, Myers and King suggest not putting the pastry into the fridge before rolling it – that makes it harder to roll – but doing that and lining the tin first. This works quite well.

In the meantime, I had skinned and boned four chicken thighs and added the meat to a pan in which I’d been gently cooking some sliced leeks in, in a little lard. Some chopped smoked streaky bacon joined it.

In another pan, I very gently heated some whole milk and a little stock for the sauce, with the chicken skin and bones in, along with the rind from the bacon.

In another pan, some butter was melted and some plain flour added and cooked through for a minute, before I started adding the milk/stock.

When that was a decent consistency – you need it quite thick – I popped the meat and leeks in, together with some chopped parsley and sage, then left it to cool down.

Pop the kettle on. Grab a biscuit. Put your feet up.

And then, after a while, you can decant the filling into the lined dish, roll out some more to make a lid, trim, crimp the edges and, if you want, decorate it.

I opted for a postmodern statement with the latter, cutting out the word ‘pie’ and sticking it on with the egg glaze. Just so nobody would be left in any doubt.

You need to have pre-heated the oven to 200˚C (180˚C fan). Myers and King recommend putting a baking tray in the oven to warm up thoroughly while it’s heating.

And then it’s the matter of a mere 35 minutes before you can remove it, slice it and eat.

I served this with mashed swede, since it needed something on the side, but I didn’t want to add more complex carbs, since there was already pastry involved.

The pastry didn’t look perfect and I hadn’t made it quite thick enough to withstand the serving process, but it was beautifully flakey. The filling was tasty enough to satisfy The Other Half, who tends to be underwhelmed by anything he considers ‘bland’.

One thing is certain. Pie is now firmly on the household agenda. And in keeping with my recent revelation that cooking something regularly helps you get to grips with the skills required, there’ll be another one very, very soon.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Lancashire hot pot challenge

What feels like a very long time ago, I happened to start a sort of research on this blog – and as it started to gain a bit of momentum, I made a sort of promise.

For various reasons, I'd decided to look up Lancashire hot pots via the online supermarkets. Coming across two versions from Tesco, I'd been rather surprised to see just what they cost.

The gist of the matter (and you can read the full story here) was that Tesco's hot pot ordinaire, if you will, rolled in at £2.90 for 450g. Which, as I calculated at the time, would make it around £11.60 for the archetypal family of four.

The weight is important – it’s only 50g more than a standard tin of soup.

But Tesco also retailed a 'Finest' version, at £4.25 per serving – or, using the same calculation as above, £17 for the four-person family.

I said then that the next time I made a Lancashire hot pot myself, I’d “make a note, to the very last penny, of what it costs.” I added: “I make you a promise now: it will not come even close to £4.25 per serving. And it will have good meat and good kidneys in it. And it will be rather bigger servings than the amount mentioned above”.

So, here we are. Almost 11 months later and I haven’t forgotten that little challenge.

And at the weekend, I set out to test my assertions.

Now before we start, a little background. It’s worth remembering that Tesco itself had, in a survey, bemoaned the demise of the classic British dishes – including Lancashire hot pot. Tesco has also, with a startling lack of self-awareness, produced a survey that reveals that only older people really know what joints and cuts of meat to use for what dishes. Each younger generation knows less and less on the subject.

That research didn’t observe that each new generations’ shopping choices have become more and more dominated by supermarkets in the last 30 years, as supermarkets’ share of the UK grocery retail trade has leapt from 20% to 80%.

And as Joanna Blythman showed in Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarkets, the supermarkets in general have also ensured a de-skilling of butchery. They very rarely have staff who know anything about a cut – or can themselves prepare any cut.

Moving on, it’s worth making a quick check on the state of affairs with the supermarkets.

Ocado don't sell anything called a Lancashire hot pot for adults – three baby meals come under such a description.

Sainsbury's has one baby meal under the name – and a recipe for the real thing. The Co-op site reveals nothing.

Tesco no longer has anything listed either and nor does Asda.

So we're still working with Tesco's prices and portion sizes – nothing alters the challenge I set myself.

Now for the shopping list first – and at the risk of seeming overly pernickety, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. I went to some of my usual suppliers – I didn’t look around for the ultra cheapest. The bouquet garni was in the cupboard but I have checked the current price for the identical product online, as of yesterday.

Lamb and lambs’ kidneys came from my local butcher with a combined weight of 490g (trimmed). The cost was £1.20 for the kidneys and £3.59 for the chops. Total: £4.79 for the meat.

I bought two large potatoes for 80p, weighing in at around 320g. I used just one. They were both approximately the same size, so let’s call that 40p. It was 30p for one large carrot at around 196g unpeeled and approximately the same for two onions with a combined, unpeeled weight of 246g.

It was 29p for a sachet of bouquet garni and I’m going to calculate 10p for the chicken stock, 20p for a few dots of butter at the end (calculated on the basis of the cost of a small catering pack in the office canteen) and 5p for some lard at the beginning.

That’s a total of £6.43.

But you’ve probably already spotted something else: the combined weight of the ingredients in my dish (not counting the herbs, the stock and the fats) was 1,092g (with all the un-prepped veg). Let’s make this reasonably easy and deduct the whole of that awkward 92g as the peel and other bits, but adding nowt extra for the liquid.

So we’ve got a dish of 1kg.

That was for two people. Portion size was approximately 50g more than the Tesco ones. The cheap range would have cost £5.80 for two, with a total of 100g less.

The 'Finest' version would have cost £8.50 for two people – with 100g less actual food. My fresh version was £6.38 for 1kg.

Or put it another way: if the Tesco cheap range version had been the same size as mine, it would have come in at £6.43 for two portions, while the ‘Finest’ range would have been £9.35 for two.

You're left, of course, with the question of measuring a few other things – heat to cook and the time to make it. It took me 50 minutes to prep, slowly. I've no idea how much it cost to cook, at a moderate heat for two hours and 20 minutes. The fan oven is supposed to save energy.

On the basis of a very approximate (but generous, because I’m not interested in cheating) guesstimate, based on our average electricity bill, we’ll add about 20p for the cooking. And let’s not forget, you still need to cook the ready-made version – a cost that comes on top of what you pay at the checkout.

So even adding the power required, our version is, at £6.63, considerably cheaper than Tesco’s ‘Finest’. And it also included a higher percentage of meat (the previous article includes the full ingredients list for the Tesco versions) and no additives.

The issue of the missing kidney in the Tesco dishes is interesting: I have mused over whether this is because kidney would be more difficult to prep by a machine in a production line, but I've no way of knowing for certain.

Let’s look at it a different way, though. The cheaper Tesco version had 28% meat; the ‘Finest’ version had 36%. Mine had around 49% meat.

Of course, another question, which I didn’t include in the original challenge, is that of the labour. And just how do we calculate that?

Many people claim that the lack of prep required with ready-made food is worth the added cost.

But what about the value added by the food tasting much better, being fresher (and therefore with more nutrients intact) and additive free? And just as an added note, each portion of my own hot pot not only had more meat – it still had enough carrot and onion to count as two portions of each person's fruit and veg for the day, while depending less on potatoes.

I leave all this to your own musings on all this, because I really don’t know where to begin estimating the cost impact of that – although my gut says that they would make my version better value.

In the meantime, here’s how it’s done. The amounts are approximate and based on two people.

Pre-heat your oven to 160˚C (150˚C for a fan oven).

The longest bit is prepping the kidneys. I had four whole ones and two small bits. You need seriously sharp kitchen scissors, but they make the job of coring the kidneys quite easy.

I used three almost boneless ‘chops’, trimming most of the back fat off.

Take a couple of medium onions, peel and slice. Peel and thickly slice a large carrot.

Melt some lard in a casserole and brown the meats. Remove to a plate.

Add the onion and carrot and soften for a few minutes.

Pop your bouquet garni in, plus the meats and a little seasoning, and gently mix together.

Add a small amount of chicken stock – it needs to come up only about a third of the contents.

Peel and thinly slice enough potatoes to cover the dish. Season and dot with butter.

Put in the oven and leave for two hours. Take the lid off and leave for a further 20 minutes. Serve.

The smell as it cooked was divine. The contrasts in textures and the combination of flavours is wonderful. There’s a reason that this is enough of a classic dish that Larousse Gastronomique allots it an individual entry.

And to follow? A large, ripe pear, skinned, cored and diced, and some blackberries, cooked gently with a little brown sugar and a drop or two of water for something like 10 minutes.

Then decanted into a buttered dish and topped with more of the crumble mix that has been sitting in the fridge.

It was cooked in the same oven for 40 minutes after the hot pot had finished, and served with clotted cream – the perfect accompaniment: a joyous jolt of hot and cold in the mouth.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Cooking the great British banger – and refs getting it wrong again

After British Food Fortnight, British Cheese Week and Chocolate Week comes British Sausage Week – for which piece of information I have the excellent Matthew Fort to thank.

And is there anything much more British than a good banger?

Well no – but that’s why it can do with a week to boost it: the sausage has been so badly served by mass production, not least as that process adds water to the finished product.

Now at this point, I have a confession to make. Until recently – embarrassingly recently – I just refused to budge from the mass-produced sausage you’d find in any corner shop or supermarket.

Peppa Pig pink and with as little texture as possible – inside or out – this was what a sausage was for me. I just didn’t ‘get’ the better ones.

I don’t really have any strong memories of sausages from childhood. There was my mother’s version of the French dish, sausage and kidney Turbigo – which I now cook, a tad more authentically (in other words, it has real onions) and in my teens, when we visited her mothering St Helens, we’d stop at a local butcher on the way to pick up some tomato sausages for lunch.

We must have had sausages – because I know that the crabapple jelly she’d make from fruit gathered at my grandmother’s was perfect with sausages. Yet I cannot recollect the sausages themselves.

I do remember sausages at college: they would lie there in the morning on the tray in the campus canteen, under light and always rather worryingly suggestive of a row of uncut penises. Or perhaps that was simply the effects of student living on my innocent mind.

For a little added context, this was in the years just following the appearance on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life of the Yorkshire Terrier that could ‘say’ sausages. Titter ye not, Missus!

The thing with sausages, though, is that they're not a quick cook. To get the best out of proper butcher's sausages, you need time.

After The Other Half picked up a pack of venison sausages last weekend, this has proved a big week on the sausage front.

I wasn't completely satisfied with the results of those (the pack did two meals): tasty, but a bit dry. The difficulty, of course, is that lack fat.

On Saturday morning, before a manic day, I sat in bed with a cup of coffeee and browsed various sources for answers.

Delia seems to concentrate on recipes that include sausages, as opposed to basic information about how best to cook them.

I was surprised to discover that as eminent a source as Jane Grigson recommends pricking them before cooking – surely that means losing lots of the juices and fat? Although I seem to remember that my mother pricked them – but then again, I seem to remember that she grilled them. Perhaps we had already moved into a culture of removing fat as much as possible?

But sure enough, Nigel Slater came to the rescue. In Real Cooking, he details the basic method. It's not difficult.

Pop a little fat in a pan – dripping or lard or some oil, but not butter because that would burn, and moist definitely not marg. Pop the sausages in (not pricked!), pop the lid on, turn the heat right down and cook for around 30-40 minutes, turning two or three times.

In other words, you're partially steaming the sausage, but in doing that, also retaining moisture. And because it's a low heat, you don't risk the skins bursting.

The following hours were busy. The Other Half came up to Broadway Market for what was probably my earliest shop there, then we took the bus to Marylebone Station and the train to Wembley to watch the Rugby League double header: Wales v New Zealand, followed by England v Australia.

Suffice it to say that the latter provided some real fireworks – and the referee (who'd only officiated his first professional game earlier this year) dropped a number of clangers. I'm not saying that England would have actually won, but the scoreline could have been rather different from the 20-36 that was on the scoreboard at the end of the 80 minutes.

But then again, Australian coaches could make Alex Ferguson look tame, given their constant whinging and whining about officials and rules. They whinge in advance – just to make sure the officials know how they want the game run.

Still, it's all rather cathartic – and when we got home, I was able to watch the second half of QPR-Manchester City. Unfortunately, we'd booked our Wembley tickets before the football fixture list revealed that the Blues were actually going to be in London on the same day.

It was deeply annoying – but at least we won, albeit after a greater struggle than any other match this term so far.

We're breaking records – and I'm still convinced somebody's going to wake me up any time now, and we'll be in a relegation struggle! In this case, I was convinced that former players Shaun Wright Phillips and Joey Barton were going to come back to haunt us (even though Halloween's been and gone). And indeed, the latter had a strong game – including a hardly unexpected hack at David Silva's legs. Doubtless he tweeted philosophically about it later.

But the difference is right there: Silva's now a City star – not Barton. I still say it was the best bit of football business ever done getting anyone to pay money – let alone nearly £6m – for someone with such a reputation as a thug, on and off the pitch.

Anyway, I was starving but the time we got home. With the rush earlier in the day, I'd had to resort to stadium food. Overpriced and really not very thrilling at all. Chips weren't too bad, but the fried chicken was dry. And why, oh why can't you buy a 'meal' without a vast drink with it?

I found myself missing the pies at Eastlands.

A red onion was peeled and sliced, while a little lard melted in a pan. Then it was left to cook away gently. Shortly afterwards, the sausages – plain butcher's pork – went into another pan, also with a little lard, before being lidded and left on low.

Then it was back to the football with a welcome cup of tea.

I peeled the remainder of some spuds from a bag from the supermarket (yes, I do occasionally shop in supermarkets in midweek) and popped them on to boil. The intention was to put them through the ricer, but the varied sizes from the end of the bag meant that some cooked quicker than others and I was left with a bit of a crumbled mess. It took some draining, so I simply left it as crushed potatoes, which worked perfectly well.

And to finish, a tin of mushy peas – this was becoming a bit of a northern day.

To serve, some of the juices from the sausages dressed the potato, while I opted for a spoon of redcurrant jelly on the side.

The sausages were delightful and the onion was soft and sweet – just starting to crisp a little: as I like it best.

It might have been the end of British Sausage Week, but my sausage education will continue. Watch this space for a first experiment making my own!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Mary, the gift of lard and real roots food

I am one very lucky girl. One mention of my difficulties in procuring lard for my culinary shenanigans and a volunteer stepped forward.

Meet Mary, a hospital housekeeper from the Midlands, who brought me a second delivery of lard and dripping today.

Mary – you are an absolute diamond.

I think chips are on the cards – I haven’t made any since July – and this time I’m going to see what the results are like using dripping.

There is also the question of pies. Only yesterday, I noticed that the Hairy Bikers have a new book out all about pies, pies and nothing else but pies.

Since I seem to have dipped into a state of nosh nostalgia – thanks largely to Nigel Slater’s utterly delightful Eating for England – I have been drawn to pies.

Well, that and frequent trips to football matches where, after the hiccough of Manchester City’s legendary chicken balti pie, I have settled into a routine of eating a meat and potato pie at half time.

If I had an extra hand, I’d get a drink of Bovril too: the other day I caught a whiff of the stuff somewhere and I was instantly transported to a wintery, Pennine terrace where that beefy drink acted as half-time anti-freeze.

Slater talks of Marmite but not Bovril: for me, it's the the latter that has a Proustian quality – Proust, that is, given a football makeover.

Why on Earth would anyone consider memories of being so cold with such fondness? A certain innate masochism, perhaps? That might – until the last few years at any rate – explain my love affair with Manchester City.

But back to pies: with the nights crowding in, I want food likes pies. And I want to cook pies. Nothing fancy – but real big-flavoured comforting pies. With lard in the pastry.

It can’t be steak and kidney, since The Other Half doesn’t eat kidney, and even chicken and mushroom seems too fancy Dan for my present mood.

Meat and potato pie, then. It’s the season, I’m sure. I remember eating meat and potato pie, with black peas on the side, at bonfire nights near Mossley. Jacket potatoes too, baked in the fire. And parkin – real parkin.

Simple flavours. Food that was hot in the hands; warming against the cold and the night. The heat and the crackle of the fire; the pop and the fizz of fireworks blossoming in the velvet black above.

This drift into the joys of nostalgia and northern food took another, unexpected boost on Saturday. Shopping at Euston for fodder for the trek to Manchester, I was rendered nearly giddy with delight to find a pack of four small Eccles cakes. It was like coals to Newcastle: they’d been made just up the road from City’s stadium – just down the road from my old school.

I don’t recall having Eccles cakes in my childhood. This is a different nostalgia – something more collective and region based. This is roots food. This is food as something that is about who you are – who you think you are – who you want to be, where you come from.

And this, in so many ways, is what I think we have lost – to a degree at least. It's not that we shouldn't enjoy foods from other culinary cultures. I think, for instance, that Jamie Oliver makes an interesting point about this in his new book/series: that other foods have become our cuisine. Yes – to an extent.

The French have quite taken to couscous in recent years and it has become part of their national cuisine.

But I do think we'd done a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in culinary terms. Don't mess around with a Yorkshire pudding, for instance – there's no need, because it's perfect to start with.

London isn't the only place in Britain – and as such, it isn't representative of the country as a whole – but it seems that the bulk of eateries in the places that I move on a daily basis don't serve any British food.

And there's nowt wrong with pie – any more than there's anything wrong with Yorkshire puddings or fish 'n' chips or many, many other dishes.

But let's not get too serious tonight. I need to try making some of those Eccles cakes too – and it occurs to me that lard might be helpful there as well.

Mary – thank you for the gift today (and for your previous delivery). I promise to use it well and appreciate it. And I promise too to write about at least some of what I cook with it.