The return of pizza delivery after a hiatus without (egregious) mistakes, featuring the timeless tension between science and art with a redemptive recipe.
1. Science class.
A lot of people admire Harold Magee, and a lot of those who do also admire Cook’s Country and the founder of the blog, Christopher Kimball. Both figures promote an analytic, scientific approach to cooking. Theirs is not molecular gastronomy but rather an approach that seeks to quantify everything, “a culture of testing so rigorous that it can border on fetish” (Severson), much like the business school at the University of Chicago. Science, they think, will burst a lot of balloons protecting received but misguided assumptions. According to Magee, for example, rolling a lemon or lime around under the pressure of your palm before squeezing the fruit does not, as popular perception goes, produce more juice.
Both Magee and Kimball have acquired acolytes, among them Mark Bittman, the bestselling author and freelance columnist lately of The New York Times , and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who has written The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. Bittman resorts to labored prose to justify their approaches. “We could,” he asserted a couple of years back, “talk about cooking as a function of chemistry and physics. Better to talk about elbow grease. Specifically, a physical theory of everyday cooking, the Time-Work Continuum.”
“According to this hypothesis,” he continues, “every dish can be plotted along a single X axis, measured by Time at one end and Work at the other. If you want to go for fancier science, put time on the X axis and a [sic] work on the Y and plot recipes in quadrants…. This is the crux of the hypothesis: To get the biggest return on your investment, whether in time or work, you need to cook toward the extremes of the continuum.” (Bittman)
2. Science fiction.
This is meant in fun, at least in part (Bittman confides that while you chart your ‘fancier’ graph he will make a sandwich), but there is in reality nothing scientific about any of it and he does seem serious. How do you “steer many recipes toward the extremes of the Time-Work Continuum?” You do it by getting frantic at the Work end, “by transferring the work hidden in the ingredient list--the chopping of vegetables and so forth--into the steps of the recipe.” For most of us mortals, this kind of recipe is one for disaster.
People find it difficult to multitask. It is easy to omit an ingredient unless you have chopped and measured and set it on the counter in advance. It is equally easy to wreck a component of any dish flung together on the fly. As something browns and the next item to be thrown into the pot remains unchopped, for instance, the browned item burns unless you remove it from the heat, which inexorably takes Time and impels you into the center of The Continuum, defeating the theory of the enterprise and probably impairing the quality of the preparation as well. Bittman’s ‘theorem’ turns out to be more science fiction than science, and advising a home cook to work in a frantic way defeats Bittman’s avowed purpose, “to lure people into the kitchen.” (Bittman) Frantic is not fun.
To operate at the Time end instead you can do a number of things, according to Bittman, most notably plunk everything in a slow cooker, which entails a lot of time, little effort and nearly no flavor. All we get from Bittman is a species of grim common sense applied to the kitchen, either to suffer at high speed or suffer something bland.
To return to technique, these self-styled scientists think precision, however false, cures any ill. Measurements are rigid, substitutions suspect, instructions detailed, instant read thermometers in constant employ. As Kim Severson points out, Magee, Kimball, Bittman and the rest always have “preferred analysis to romance.” (Severson)
3. We’ll take romance.
We need to step back and breathe. Home cooking, like religion and the House of Windsor (not necessarily contrasting concepts), requires a little mystery if it is to survive in these days of artificiality instead of artifice, prepared foods instead of raw ingredients. Besides, converting your kitchen to a high school chemistry lab is about as much fun as taking chemistry in high school. The analytical approach is “Freakonomics” without the fun.
Magee, Kimball and their students consider themselves innovators, but inflexible codifiers and domineering lecturers, like the poor, always have been with us. The analytical school harkens to nineteenth French haute cuisine in its effort to codify every cut, to eliminate the heterodox, to exile imagination. Nothing there has changed: “France still churns out cookbooks that resemble textbooks, both in weight and charm.” (“Pluck a Falmingo”)
Other authors historically have assumed that housewives prone to purchase their books had no cooking skill, and those misogynists condescended accordingly. These ultradidactic efforts in turn spawned schools of critique equally applicable to our age of quants. Elizabeth David was famous for her hatred of formula, although she did allow for measurements later in life. Rupert Croft-Cooke responded to the vogue for false precision in 1960 by refusing to countenance recipes at all. “The convention of the recipe, so many ounces of this and that, the procedures and the time necessary,” he complains,
“has superseded the simpler notes on ‘how to make so-and-so’ in old MS books kept by ladies who exchanged recipes before cookery books were published. It is a convention and entails a great deal of repetition and unnecessary detail and does not always lead to good cookery since it restrains a cook’s inventiveness, imagination and verve.” (Croft-Cooke 14; emphasis in original)
Croft-Cooke adds invective to his disdain for dogma in an “Interlude” on a striving Mrs. Scoop, his imaginary housewife wedded to status, appearance, pretense, system, technology and consumerism. It is a diatribe against the kind of cooking that the Magee school promotes, and Croft-Cooke even decries a “shelf of cookery books” he sarcastically calls “impressive.” (Croft-Cooke 55)
In our time Corby Kummer, columnist at The Atlantic and restaurant critic for Boston magazine, likes The Food Lab and considers Magee’s On Food and Cooking “the book of our generation,” but draws the line at Kimball. “He has a tendency to flatten things out, and that can be dull.” Severson adds that Kimball “is the guy in the room who always knows more than you.” Except, perhaps, that he may not; in our experience, compressing that lime does extract more juice. (Kummer; Severson)
Nigel Slater is ambivalent about recipes even though he has published a slew of them. Although he appears more tolerant today, his similes for them from Appetitite , which appeared in 2000, include a straitjacket and uncomfortably constrictive bicycle shorts. He is not, he explains, “someone who tries to dictate how something should be done,” and he is “never happier than when a reader simply uses [a] recipe as an inspiration for their [sic] own. If we follow a recipe word for word we don’t really learn anything…. ” (Slater xi)
Richard Hooker has written something similar:
“Only an insensitive cook would repeat a recipe without attempting to improve it. When something like ‘perfection’ is at last achieved, it is usually because science--in this case an accurately written and carefully tested recipe--has been abetted by artistry.” (Hooker 11)
Neither Magee nor Kimball would truck with that, and their work is the poorer for it.
4. A science project.
Prejudice is unattractive however and in yet another triumph of hope over experience we decided to try a scientific recipe, this one from Cook’s Country . It promised a lot; roast chicken with stuffing that takes little time and uses cheap constituents . The recipe dominated a segment of the television spinoff from the site on PBS, and the stern clinicians performing the operation on camera looked, at least a little, like they liked the process and result. The presenters in surgical whites contended that the recipe is simple, and in common with all Cook’s Country recipes the online text leads with “ WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS .” Cook’s Country does not much credit the attention span of its viewers or readers, so favors boldface to attract attention.
Getting the recipe itself is not quite or anywhere near half the fun. Kimball, it transpires, believes “you can’t give anything away” according to a former executive editor at Cook’s Illustrated , the print vehicle that precedes Cook’s Country . (Severson) Getting the recipe, it turns out, requires Work and will cost the careless money.
To access recipes at the Cook’s Country website requires signing onto a prolix form for one of those free trials that become expensive unless you opt out of the automatic subscription after a short interval. As it happens we opted out fast--within twenty four hours--to no avail. Over the following months we got dunning notices that became increasingly strident by phone, by mail and online until, finally, we endured an eon on hold and an irritating ‘survey’ by the telephone operative that amounts to ransom in exchange for the preservation of some semblance a of credit score.
Roast chicken, Cook’s Country contends, is a “holiday classic,” which may surprise discerning readers; it used to be comfort food, not necessarily an everyday dish but perhaps a weeknight treat after a hard day. The fact that few people actually cook (rotisserie chicken is a supermarket staple, sometime loss leader and perennial bestseller) does not transform the quotidian to the celebratory.
No matter; eager to find so fast a favored roast chicken (with faultless fast stuffing no less) we set about shopping. You do not need much, although you need fresh sage and thyme, which galls because you always waste a lot of the oversized packet; a decent chicken (even Stop & Shop finally sells one, under its “Nature’s Promise” label); butter (unsalted is specified and that is good); celery and onion; chicken broth (low sodium of course; scientists are salt police) and Italian bread.
“You can find Italian bread,” Cook’s Country teaches us, “in the bakery section of your grocery store,” which is helpful because we had been looking for it where they shelve the shampoos.
“Italian bread” as conjured in an American supermarket would appall an Italian. It is a big broad obloid loaf of airbread with a feeble crust; presumably Kimball chose it because it is easy to find (but what about those fresh herbs?) and theoretically absorbent, like the paper towels whose flavor it shares. One reason “ WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS: ” “Scattering the bread cubes around the bird before it goes into the oven simultaneously toasts them and allows them to soak up the flavorful juice as the chicken roasts.”
Grammarians and logicians will be aghast at the prose. Scattering the bread cubes will not toast them; baking is supposed to do the job, and the general term ‘bird’ should follow the specific ‘chicken,’ not the other way round, but perhaps we digress.
The recipe proceeds as if the cook is unsophisticated, even incompetent, although the technicians at Kimball’s test kitchen do write that they ‘sauté’ instead of ‘fry.’ “Carefully transfer chicken to plate” (instead of hurling it to the floor as an intermediate step?), intone the instructions, after its removal from the oven. Then, hold “skillet handle with potholder (handle will be hot)” before stirring about what remains within (the external stuffing). The instruction assumes its reader lacks a trace of common sense; worse, the warning about the hot handle arrives after the instruction to remove it from the oven, so the poor fool fumbling with the food already will have suffered third degree burns.
Kimball took to heart the dictates of Middle School English in one respect. He tells the reader what he will say (“ WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS ”), says his piece (the Instructions for Dummies) and concludes with a statement of what he said:
“With our method, you can roast a chicken and make stuffing with hardly any hands-on-time--or dishes. [Hands-free-dishes?]
BUTTER ON BIRD: Brush chicken with seasoned herb butter.
BUILD FLAVOR BASE: Sauté celery and onion in butter with more herbs, salt, and pepper.
BIRD ON VEGETABLES: Place chicken in center of skillet on top of sautéed vegetables.
BREAD AROUND BIRD: Surround chicken with untoasted bread cubes and bake.”
The boldlines are pleasantly alliterative, as if Cook’s Country hopes its adherents will memorize them, but is it necessary to tell them to center the chicken in the pan or untoast the bread? Perhaps the intent is to take implicit credit for such clever concepts.
None of it matters because THE RECIPE DOES NOT WORK , not, at least, if you want anything resembling the stuffed roast chicken of alleged holiday lore. The flavors of stuffing and chicken do not commingle; the scent of exposed herbs bakes all the way away, the cubes of bread do not brown, and neither does the skin of the chicken due to the moat of moisture around it. Strict science has created something insipid, a mucky mass that has steamed instead of roasted. Cooking, we think, is an art and a passion, not an exercise in chemistry or physics.
5. A better bird.
Nobody now notices the work of Victor Gordon, who tried to promote his peculiar English variant of nouvelle cuisine in 1985. The gambit was doomed but his English Cookbook contains lots that is fun, including a recipe for “Dreadnought Chicken.” It does what Kimball’s recipe does not do. It will make a decent roast chicken using mediocre ingredients without undue fuss.
‘Dreadnought’ refers not to the epochal battleship but rather to a culinary state of mind. The preamble to the recipe is as playful as Kimball’s is portentous and bears recounting, not only because it is so obscure but also because it is delightful:
“When the system breaks down and you suddenly have to prepare a reasonably special meal from the shelves of your nearest supermarket, fear not or despair. Take the plunge and buy the dreaded broiler. Also:
1 loaf factory bread
1 packet Cheddar cheese
1 packet bacon
1 small carton UHT cream
You will also need mustard powder, an egg, soft brown sugar and a tot of whisky or rum, but let’s hope the system hasn’t broken down so badly that you need to buy these too.” (Gordon 123)
Here we go, at reasonable speed but without haste:
“Make a stuffing composed of 4 parts breadcrumbs, 2 parts grated cheese, 1 part chopped bacon. Bind it with an egg; season with pepper and mustard powder. Put it in the chicken and roast in a hot oven for 50 minutes, having rubbed the bird with salt…. Herbs and an onion element may very happily be included in the stuffing.” (Gordon 123)
The contrast with the Kimball recipe is complete; no self-promotion or false precision from Gordon. You do, however, get a chicken that is roasted and brown instead of steamed and pallid, and a stuffing with more than a little savory heft.
It is instructive to note the contrast in the prose itself. Gordon sets the specific ‘chicken’ before, not after, the general ‘bird,’ and keeps his instruction succinct. “Make a stuffing…. Put it in the chicken and roast….” is precisely and all that the cook needs to hear, unsullied with Cook’s Country overdetail and dross. Gordon does not distract his reader, and does not need to render his pellucid recipe in triplicate.
The beauty of the dreadnought recipe lies with its manipulation of ordinary ingredients; Gordon has spotted the best of the banal. For ‘factory bread’ we can do lots better than ‘Italian:’ We could choose Pepperidge Farm. Supermarket Cheddar in Britain is more than adequate, and in the United States a decent package from Cabot or Shelburne should be on hand--even the sharpest Kraft ‘Cracker Barrel’ would do--and if it is necessary to buy a battery product bacon is one of the better bets.
What, however, of the ingredients Gordon has forgotten to use? He has done no such thing, and they further distance the quality of his approach from Cook’s Country. Instead of Kimball’s wan sludge of stock and bread, Gordon hews to the English tradition and offers his reader the option (the chicken and its stuffing are fine absent allies) of a pair of contrasting accompaniments.
One sauce combines the lemon, sugar, some mustard and rum (or the whisky in a pinch) to create “an astringent contrast to the rich stuffing; the other, a simple sauce of mustard, cream and, perhaps, Worcestershire with or without Tabasco, which “complements and blends with it” (the stuffing of course).
The closest Gordon gets to the huckster in Kimball? Some reassurance for the cook rendered in style: “Served with boiled or roast potatoes and a salad, this is a meal you may properly supply with equanimity to the hungry, the greedy and the fastidious.”
That, it seems, says it all.
Anon., “Pluck a Flamingo,” The Economist (18 December 2008)
Mark Bittman, “When Cooking, Invest Time. Or Work. Not Both.” The New York Times (22 September 2014)
Rupert Croft-Cooke, English Cooking (London 1960)
Victor Gordon, The English Cookbook (London 1985)
Richard J. Hooker, The Book of Chowder (Boston 1978)
Corby Kummer, “The Best Food Books of 2015,” The Atlantic (21 December 2015)
Kim Severson, “Why Christopher Kimball Is Moving On From America’s Test Kitchen,” The New York Times (31 May 2016)
Nigel Slater, Appetite (London 2002)
The Kitchen Diaries II (London 2012)
Sometimes, no matter how doggedly we devote ourselves to the measurement of ingredients or honor the sequence of a recipe, we cannot make the outcome palatable. Sometimes tweaking, or transforming, a recipe fails us too. Sometimes the dish that the recipe produces is precisely what it should be but still tastes terrible. Here at bfia we will continue to update readers with examples of our Frankensteins. The same goes for our rare and halting digressions into gardening.
Cinnamon spice, and sweet but not nice:
Canadian Fireball ‘whisky.’
Despite our admiration for the neglected foodways of Canada, and in particular the Maritime Provinces and Quebec, we cannot conjure enthusiasm for Canadian whisky (no letters please; like the Scots, they tend to spell it that way, without an ‘e’). Its champions describe the taste as light, but to our palate it is ‘lite’ in the manner of Miller Lite or Coors Light and therefore not worth drinking. Some Canadian whiskies are better than others; some smoother, some even (marginally) more flavorful, but all of them strike the staff of britishfoodinamerica as insipid.
It therefore makes sense, in theory, to do something with it, the way you add tomato juice and spice to vodka or citrus and mint to cachaca; nothing wrong with either a Bloody Mary or Capirinha. In contrast, however, a sour made with Canadian whisky lacks punch.
Alternatively, infusion is not a bad thing. Vodka strained after steeping in ripe tomatoes makes an even better Bloody Mary, and as a bonus you get a ripping base for penne ala vodka from the solids. The old Stolichnaya flavored with chili was a wonder even if, with typical perversity, the Russians have discontinued production. A pity; other chili vodkas, commonly misspelled with unwonted pretention as ‘peppar,’ taste harsh and even crude in comparison.
Why not, a marketing wizard must have wondered, boost bland Canadian hooch the same way as vodka? What to pair with whisky? Its woody tones somehow rule out most vegetation and fruit, although Bourbon infused with blueberries is a refreshing summer surprise. Good whiskies boast the spicy notes that Canadian ones eschew, so, the branding brainstormers may have emoted, let’s provide them via an injection of cinnamon! , which when you think about it is not a bad concept.
Fireball calls itself ‘cinnamon whisky’ while weighing in at a modest 33% alcohol, even though an authentic whisky or most other distillates ordinarily would not be so weak. That modest alcohol component is not necessarily alarming; Brugal rum anejo from the Dominican Republic, an excellent mixer particularly suited to citrus, has a proof of only 76 for the Spanish market, just five percent over Fireball.
In fact Fireball is lousy. The diminished proof results entirely from a suspension of sugar, likely of the high fructose syrup variety, and while the cinnamon is pronounced, the spice itself is harsh, the overall flavor sickly sweet and the texture ineffably cloying. An absence of finesse adds to the drinker’s discomfort; the flavor of whisky is absent and sipping fireball is like sucking jawbreakers with a sore throat.
On balance all of this may likely be what Fireball’s progenitors wanted. The brand’s promotional materials, in print and online, make no pretense of quality, let alone nuance. Suitably scanty and frantic twentysomethings manage not to spill their ’balls while gyrating to DJs or otherwise romping at ritualized sexplay. Misspelling something to create a brand or ‘enhance’ a slogan is a hoary advertising chestnut, and Fireball’s handlers commit the sin. The slogan ‘Ignite the Nite’ and its layers of crude silliness are about as clichéd and tiresome as these things get.
Its advertising reflects the fact that Fireball is a syrup of alcocandy for the uninitiated; its quality is appalling without apology and you could not even cook with it as a freakish ingredient on “Chopped,” which is saying something. We do like the predictably devilish label though.
We’ll take Venturi, or, an appeal for rococo in the kitchen as a food war looms. 4/11
1. The new austerity in Britain.
In Britain, the austerity program imposed by the Tory government has created a nostalgia for the hardships of rationing, if only among those who never experienced its deprivations. This in turn predictably has spawned a number of products rushed to market in an attempt to exploit the fad.
A devotion to the Home Front is a bit of an evergreen in the British popular imagination and in its school curriculum but this is something different. Books purporting to adapt wartime requirements to current conditions include The Ministry of Food by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (“In the 21 st century our wars are against obesity in children…, against waste and against financial constraints.” Ministry 20) and Sucking Eggs: What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift and Going Green by Patricia Nicoll. Intrepid publishers have reprinted the little wartime cookbooks that urged people to make innovative use of dull ingredients and a compilation of propaganda leaflets.
Television has weighed in with “Jamie’s Ministry of Food” advocating the actual revival of the Ministry to attack bad eating habits and “Ration Book Britain,” in which a supermodel makes cosmetics from foodstuffs (beet lipstick).
2. Austerity in America.
Now Mark Bittman inadvertently has brought the phenomenon across the Atlantic with a piece called “Creamy, Brothy, Earthy, Hearty” in The New York Times Magazine of 6 March. Bittman recently finished over a decade of weekly columns for The Times on quick and easy cooking called, appropriately, “The Minimalist.”
“Creamy, Brothy” promises to provide readers with the “last four recipes you’ll ever need,” and are minimalist indeed. This is stretching things more than a little, and Bittman qualifies his hyperbole with the comment that “you’ll never again need a recipe for vegetable soup.” (emphasis supplied)
His concentration on vegetables is no coincidence, for Bittman has abandoned his “Minimalist” column in favor of a Great Project. He has gone green and wants to encourage the country to follow his lead in converting to a “largely plant-based diet” that, however, is by no means vegetarian. Bittman also wants help to fight “the continuing attack on good, sound eating and traditional farming in the United States.” This, he believes, “is a political issue” and it would be difficult to argue with him in light of the massive subsidies that industrial agriculture receives to produce some of the bedrock determinants of obesity, diabetes and heart disease; corn, soybeans and battery meats.
3. An immodest manifesto.
The Times has joined up by giving Bittman an occasional column on its OpEd page. His first one, redundantly entitled “A Food Manifesto for the Future,” appeared on 2 February. It is fearless, exemplary and naïve. He declares
“that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.”
Nine overlapping proposals address the problem, ranging from the end of subsidies for processed food and its constituents like corn, for fructose syrup, and soybeans, for the soy oils in fried junk foods to the grant of subsidies to artisanal farmers “who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption.” Bittman wants to shift responsibility for food safety and nutritional education from the USDA to the FDA, a sensible move that would eliminate the tension within USDA between performing those functions and trying to expand markets for agribusiness and all that junk that it plants and pushes.
A tax on unhealthy foods and their marketing, the reduction of waste, broadly defined to include fertilizer runoff and increased recycling, a ban on “concentrated animal feeding operations” coupled with an educational drive toward the plant-based diet, including the return of Home Economics to the curriculum, and a truth in labeling law also make nutritional if not, unfortunately, political sense in the current partisan climate. Even with Bittman’s realignment of subsidy, and assuming that his new taxes would be dedicated to food melioration, battery beasts are cheap and consumers may push back at higher prices; a lot of people shop at Walmart.
Bittman also advocates an undefined ‘green revolution’ and a New Deal for food that should prove counterproductive to his aims, but only in an unenlightened segment of the population by giving Tea Party adherents cardiac arrest. To some extent, Bittman has tried to anticipate the opposition by casting his tax proposal as public health legislation, like “seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights” rather than (a somewhat sexually confused) “nanny-state paternalism.”
The New Deal element, however, is willfully undisguised. Bittman would create an evocatively named “Civilian Cooking Corps” which, however, entails several problems. Bittman has sketched it only in the vaguest strokes and appears unaware that the original CCC (but for conservation not cookery) was stricken by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional during the Depression. Nonetheless his notion already has fired the approval of Times bloggers and he promises to return to the subject.
Our happy warrior also proposes, horror, subsidies for home cooking, “cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.” It is unclear how any of this would function, let alone gain funding, but even so Death Panels cannot be far behind. The NRA may need to establish an anti-food control adjunct if any of this muscular liberalism gains traction. We, of course, wish Bittman the best for his project and look forward to more of his OpEd columns.
4. The soul of a new cuisine.
In his guise of accessible cook rather than political advocate, Bittman has commented on his concern that the simplification, even minimalization, of beloved recipes does not destroy their souls, and from the evidence of “Creamy, Brothy” his unease is justified. This Minimalist himself is no friend of British food: As noted in our Modest Manifesto, his weighty Best Recipes in the World , compiled after several years of research, lacks a single preparation linked to the archipelago. A sub-recipe for mushroom soup in the “Hearty” quadrant of “Creamy, Brothy,” however, seemed close enough to the British tradition to try. It is derived from Bittman’s recipe for minestrone so we tried that too. They looked like this in The Times :
Both recipes are awful. Perhaps his reference to FDR got Bittman thinking subliminally about all those austerity recipes from wartime Britain and, to a considerably lesser extent, the United States. Maureen Dowd, his Times colleague who bases her analysis on a sort of psychology manqué, and David Brooks, another OpEd colleague whose recent enthusiasm for the subconscious makes him sound more like a New Age Wiccan than the latter-day philosophe he hopes to impersonate, would find the notion appealing.
The problem with each recipe is an obsession with speed and simplicity. These are, after all, soups, and while most of them are simple enough not to require the minimalist treatment, few benefit from speed. Bittman starts out by frying the standard battuto or mirepoix of carrot, celery, garlic and onion in olive oil, but does so for only five minutes; not enough time to soften the aromatics to deepen and release their flavors. For mushroom soup, he adds the mushrooms, salt and pepper to a soup pot with instructions to ‘saute’ them for 10-12 minutes “until they brown” but in this pot with the lightly cooked aromatics and salt the mushrooms stew rather than sear. White wine and lots of water go into the pot with “a fresh thyme sprig” and 35 minutes later the soup is ‘done.’ It is not; it is dull.
5. britishfoodinamerica to the rescue.
Bittman notes in his introduction to these recipes that “[g]arnishes are all optional, though herbs add a dimension that will be lacking otherwise.” A profound understatement; they belong in the basic recipe, along with other boosters. The bfia version does not require much more than Bittman’s and has the additional attraction of tasting like something.
Follow his basic instructions but fry the mushrooms first, over high heat, then remove them from the pot and replace them with the aromatics and a handful of diced bacon or ham, which will need at least 10 minutes to soften. After 5 minutes add a couple of bay leaves and a jolt of dried thyme instead of adding a stingy sprig of fresh toward the end. Splash white wine, or dry Sherry, into the pot and let it evaporate before returning the mushrooms and a dose of mushroom ketchup if you have it, Worcestershire if you do not. You will want a generous spray of salt and pepper, especially if, like Bittman, water is your medium of choice. Stock is better, even vegetable or mushroom stock from a box.
The basic minestrone is worse. Potatoes join the undercooked battuto for two minutes, then get the water treatment and a cup of tomatoes followed by green beans for a total duration of 35 more minutes. At that point the potatoes have crunch but at least you are ‘done.’
If, however, you fry the aromatics our way with oregano instead of thyme, add some diced cured pork (we had some cotechino; ham is fine, or any cooked fresh sausage), substitute a can of white beans for the green and simmer the soup for double the time, you will have something tasty. Visit the practical for a recipe.
Mies van der Rohe declared that less is more but Robert Venturi countered that less is a bore; this round, at least, goes to him.
Some winter pizza deliveries, some eerily featuring the name ‘Melissa.’ 1/11
On 3 November, The New York Times featured a recipe from Melissa Clark under the headline “Tender Beans, Without Soaking.” In it she confesses that “[f]or years, there was a nearly insurmountable barrier between me and a truly excellent pot of beans: the seemingly simple act of soaking the beans, a requirement of nearly every recipe I had ever read.” While conceding that it is not all that difficult to soak beans, Ms. Clark adds that “there was never enough room in my refrigerator to fit a large bowl of beans to soak overnight.”
The Editor found this last excuse somewhat alarming, either because she has been risking the health of her diners for decades by heedlessly soaking beans without refrigeration, or because Ms. Clark, who can write well about food and formerly has not given us any indication that she is unhinged, has been converted to paranoia by Jane Brody or another member of the dreadful Food Police Killjoy Unit.
The intended scoop here is the somewhat breathlessly conveyed revelation that beans need not be soaked overnight after all! The oracular instrument in this case was an unidentified Mexican recipe that, Ms. Clark exults, “made me reassess everything.” While it is a comfort to us toiling away on this magazine that food writing can provoke such a transformative blast, the reader might be forgiven for suspecting Ms. Clark of hyperbole, and in the event the underlying proposition that nobody knows you can cook an unsoaked bean would itself appear somewhat dubious. Perhaps it stems from the fact that Ms. Clark reads different recipes than the Editor. A number of them give the reader an option to use either dry or soaked legumes while noting that the unhydrated ones take longer in the pot.
But back to “Tender Beans Without Soaking.” In fairness it must be admitted that the recipe looked good to the Editor, particularly now that the weather had turned cold, so she decided to prepare the dish. Not, to be sure, without modification, for Ms. Clark’s recipe included obvious defects. Incidentally it was neither Mexican nor as original in execution as the article implies; add some pork chops and duck parts to the pot and you have cassoulet; sweeten it instead and you have a version of pork and beans that a puritan would recognize. Leave it alone and it might have originated in an English or Italian farmhouse back in the day.
As written, the recipe was timidly seasoned with a token ½ teaspoon of cumin for a pound each of (unsoaked!) beans and sausage along with an insufficient amount of herbs and aromatics. With those repairs, the Editor executed the recipe in anticipation of a weeknight one pot dinner of comfort food. It only is necessary to cut things up, throw them in the pot and go about other business “until the beans are tender, about 2 hours.”
We do not go so far as to compare Ms. Clark to Elizabeth David, who quite obviously found it inconvenient to cook a number of her recipes and therefore could not realize that they would not work as written. Nonetheless we previously had found no unsoaked bean capable of cooking “until tender” in two hours. The ones we selected for Ms. Clarke’s recipe unhappily kept our streak going. After four hours our beans kept their crunch, after four and a half remained firm but became edible, but had not turned soft after five. The age of a dried bean will affect its cooking time, a fact unnoted by Ms. Clark, but not by a factor of three. Still, this was good food when we ate it the next day and recommend our version. Here it is:
Pork and beans with cumin and apologies to Melissa . The inclusion of cumin by Ms. Clark would almost set this recipe apart but for the dual facts that the Editor seasons beans with it on a regular basis and that the recipe from the Times uses so little that it disappears. As our friend the Curmudgeonly Raconteur repeatedly warns, if you are going to use cumin you have got to use a lot of it.
-1 lb Great Northern beans (soaked overnight if you have time)
-2 Tablespoons olive or neutral oil
-1 lb good raw sausage cut into ¾ inch rounds
-1 generous Tablespoon tomato paste
-1 generous Tablespoon (or more) ground cumin
-about a cup of chopped carrot
-a like amount of chopped celery
-the same amount of chopped onion
-about 1 Tablespoon smashed and minced garlic
-cayenne to taste (a heaped ¼ teaspoon suggested)
-2 large whole stalks of fresh rosemary or the equivalent
-about 2 teaspoons dried thyme
-2 or 3 bay leaves
-balsamic (or other) vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and pepper for serving
- Heat the 2 Tablespoons of oil in a big pot (cast iron is good) over medium heat and brown the sausage pieces. Remove them from the pot.
- Smear the tomato paste about the base of the pot with the cumin, stirring constantly, until it darkens, usually in about 3 minutes.
- Add the vegetables, garlic and cayenne, and cook everything until it softens but does not brown, usually about 10 minutes.
- Add the beans to the pot with the herbs and 2 quarts of water, increase the heat to high, bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.
- When your beans are ready, in anywhere from 4-5 hours depending on various factors including your tolerance for crunchy beans, fold the sausage back into the pot, check the seasoning and serve them drizzled with the vinegar and oil and speckled with the pepper.
- Ms. Clarke’s original cooking times are suspect in a number of respects. The Editor found that the tomato paste took longer to color and the vegetables took longer to soften.
- Our recipe uses considerably more herb and spice than the original, which omits cayenne altogether.
- The addition of hot sauce and Worcestershire at Step 4 does no harm.
- According to Ms. Clarke, it is delusional to consider canned beans any good: they “are far from ideal, too mushy and bland.” We should dispose of the second contention first, for in our experience there is no discernable difference in levels of blandness, at least between the beans we buy from Bush’s, Goya and Progresso and various dried varieties; beans are bland anyway. As to the mush factor, canned beans display their own spectrum; some are softer than others. Ms. Clarke might select some from Goya; they tend to the firm side. For some iconic dishes, like the red beans and rice of New Orleans, softened beans are more a blessing than a curse, and a significant proportion of Louisiana cooks smash a tithe of their cooked beans against the side of the pot with a big spoon to give the dish a silky undertone.
- Some of this goes down to taste, but we cannot agree that canned beans are unpalatable. They are a Thing We Like .
- Great Northern beans are not indispensable here; other varieties, like navy beans, are fine alternatives.
- Crusty bread and good mustard, whether Creole, Dijon or English, are, however, indispensable accompaniments whatever bean you choose.
- After giving up on our pot of beans for the day, we initially resisted reaching for the telephone. We had, we thought, the good luck to have some generic pork chops on the bone hiding in the fridge along with a box of “Melissa’s Good Life Food Peeled & Steamed Ready To Eat Baby Beets.” We had resorted to them before and if they did not taste much like beets, they were pretty and offered enough sweetness and flavor to remind us of them simmered with a bay leaf and splash of orange juice.
- Normally the Editor fears the microwave except for popcorn but it was late, she was tired, and we had no beans. We followed the package instructions to nuke the beets for a minute; they were cold so we nuked them again. The result was so harsh and bitter that we could contemplate no salvage. Of course the meat was chalk; do not buy supermarket pork chops, at least not to fry when distracted, and never microwave Melissa however sorely she tests you.
- At this point our chosen toppings had to include sausage.
- In preparation for the holiday number of britishfoodinamerica we decided to prepare marbled veal , a traditional English terrine that is among our favorites; recipes appear in the practical . The Editor had recalled that Dr. Kitchiner had included a recipe (“No. 510”) in his Cook’s Oracle , a handy and delightful cookbook first published in 1817. It is more a potted food than something recognizably terrine to a modern cook, but only slightly less interesting for that.
- Some time ago the Editor had acquired an attractive facsimile of the Oracle’s 1831 edition and recently dug it from the archaeological site that is her heap of cookbooks in order to try the doctor’s recipe. Without any disclosure of the fact, the contemporary publisher has abridged the book, deleting No. 510 in the process, a mean trick and woeful practice. Readers are invited to boycott the “Culinarts” publishing company.
Tomato time II, involving recipes with cream and without it, and the Editor’s thoughts on peeling. 9/10
We began our series of Pizza Deliveries in 2009 with an essay on tomatoes. It was the end of a season when the crop had been ruined by spring rains and windborne fungus in the northeastern United States. Back then we recounted ruining some of our scarce tomatoes with a revolting recipe from Elizabeth David. Now Faulkner may be right that the past is not history and is not even in the past, but in tomato terms it most certainly is behind us for at least a while. All summer long our tomatoes have been glorious and we have found some gutsy English ways to use them. This, however, is our Pizza Delivery column so it would be unfair not to lead with a lousy, or at least substandard, recipe.
It is uncanny how Rowley Leigh seldom fails us in the undertaking; perhaps he works for Domino’s. His latest unsatisfactory recipe, from the Financial Times of 28 August, is not as bad as some; it merely fails in the execution of an attractive concept. The column calls for baking tomatoes in cream, and because we have prodded Mr. Leigh through the gauntlet too often we will not recount its particular failings.
Before opening the ill-fated John Dory in New York last year, Mario Batali mused in print that cream and parsley are to traditional English cuisine as olive oil and basil are to Italian, or something to that effect. Whether or not the claim withstands scrutiny, British (in this usage encompassing Ireland) cream led the world until EU regulation ruined it. Consequently the British found endless uses for their estimable resource. Leigh, Continentalist at heart, gives Britain no credit for the provenance of his preparation and cannot resist the use of basil in it.
We decided to hew to our manifesto instead, do something different and enhance the flavor of some spectacular tomatoes and their cream with parsley, thyme and Worcestershire. All you do is core, peel and halve some smallish tomatoes and crowd them, cut side up, into an oven dish barely big enough to hold them. Stir a little chopped parsley and thyme into enough cream to rise halfway up your crowded tomatoes, dribble a little Worcestershire over them and season with good salt and pepper. Bake the creamed tomatoes in a 425° oven until they wrinkle and soften just a bit, usually for about 25 minutes to half an hour, but check the dish before that; both oven calibration and tomato texture vary. The cream should thicken in the heat. The dish should impress anyone when served along with just about anything.
During August and September tomatoes are too much with us, out of both happenstance (donation) and design; we see them, beefsteaks as well as technicolor heirlooms and plums, in the farmers’ markets and snap them up with reckless greed. We do make chutneys and preserves but anyway need recipes and will pass a few of them on.
As usual, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a good source. A year ago he published a good column in the Guardian called “Red alert: tomato recipes.” ( Guardian 19 September 2009) Here are our versions of two of them.
The first, which he calls a tomato gratin, also incorporates cream. Slice a pound of tomatoes and crowd them into a shallow oven dish or cast iron skillet. Season them with a little sugar and lots of salt and pepper, then stir a little cayenne, thyme and minced shallot into just enough heavy cream, 3-4 tablespoons at most, to film the tomatoes. Sprinkle them with a like amount of finely grated sharp cheddar or parmesan (as ancient an English fixture as the Malvern Hills from whence it does not come) and bake the dish at 425° until the cheese turns gold and the tomatoes bubble. Enough for four abstemious or two greedy people.
The second recipe is, if possible, even easier; heartier too. Fearnley-Whittingstall calls it “herby stuffed tomatoes,” which is awful and, it transpires, sometimes misleading. To make them he decapitates and eviscerates a suitable number of victims, embalms their cavities in sausage meat, replaces the scalps and roasts the stuffed results in a 375° oven for about 40 minutes. Boom. Save the pulp to make sauce; recipes appear along with lamb chops in the practical.
Fearnley-Whittigstall’s more elaborate alternative involves constructing a stuffing from onion, garlic, ground pork, a beaten egg, basil and parsley. This is unnecessary. We do, however, like to mix a little cooled cooked chopped onion, the egg and some parsley with the decased sausage to stuff our tomatoes.
When we get good cherry tomatoes (not necessarily oxymoronic), or are reduced by tomato withdrawl in winter to resorting to packaged little grapes, we like to roll them until warm in molten butter seasoned with sugar, salt and pepper; throw in something green that you have chopped if the day is grey and drear.
Sometimes, however, your tomatoes are so good, or it is so hot a day, that you do not want a recipe at all. That is when you turn to English salad cream, not the stuff from Heinz but rather your own variation lifted from the pages of The Prawn Cocktail Years , despite the connotation a book of indispensable recipes from Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson. (London 1997)
Heinz salad cream is one of the company’s oldest and most popular British products but has no traction in the United States, where, to the shock of many Britons, Heinz began and remains based. We would like to praise the product but it is not a Thing We Like. The taste is too sweet, its texture both rubbery and thin.
This setback should not deter our readers from adopting homemade English salad cream as a staple. You need a bowl, a whisk, some cream and vinegar in proportion of 8 to 1; you already have salt, pepper and hot sauce. All you do is whisk everything together until the sauce thickens; trust us, the acid in the vinegar will emulsify the cream. We use malt but red wine or another vinegar will do. If you like more bite in your salad cream use a little extra vinegar. Sometimes we add minced chives or scallions to the thickened sauce; usually not.
In epilogue the Editor will address a fallacy of tomato peeling. Innumerable columnists and authors (frequently distinct species) casually claim that if you drop a tomato into boiling water for a minute its skin will slide away. These people are either lucky in their tomatoes or have not tried the method: It does not work, at least not most of the time. Granted the skins can be pulled away if you boil the tomatoes longer, but then you have cooked tomatoes when you do not necessarily want them.
None of this involves either inconvenience or dilemma if you junk the conventional advice. The Editor has found that a sharp knife and steady hand get good results; if your cut is fluid you will lose nearly no flesh and peel your tomatoes with less cleanup in a fraction of the time. Your tomatoes will remain uncooked too.
A summertime pizza delivery, or Elizabeth David puts the Editor in a pickle of soup. 7-8/10
Before undertaking the britishfoodinamerica project, the Editor knew little about Elizabeth David. The widespread conventional wisdom adored both her prose and her food. David was a genius and visionary so, the Editor reasoned, her recipes perforce must excel. Experience with her books and their recipes, however, has battered David’s reputation, but back in the day the Editor leapt at the opportunity to try what promised to be a unique and bracing dish from Summer Cooking (London 1955)
The book itself is not quite what it promises, for it would be difficult to consider dishes like hot boiled beef, even if described as ‘le boeuf a la bordelaise, or lamb stew with potatoes, even if disguised as ‘cutlets a la boulangerie,’ let alone plain poached eggs, as summery archetypes. Nonetheless some of the recipes do lend themselves to heat and light, including a cold soup based, counterintuitively, on sour pickles and cream.
To be fair, the Editor did not dislike David’s pickle soup, but her Guinea Pigs of friend and family found it comparatively revolting. Anyway for those eager to live on the culinary edge, or who like to perpetrate practical jokes on their dinner guests, the recipe goes like this:
“½ lb pickled cucumbers, 2 pints [40, not 32, oz] of clear meat stock, 2 lumps of sugar, mace, ginger, allspice, pepper, salt, ¼ pint [5, not 4, oz] of cream.
Chop the pickled cucumbers and simmer them for 30 minutes in the stock. Put through a sieve. Heat up and add the sugar, a pinch each of mace, ground ginger and allspice, ground black pepper and salt…. Stir in the cream, already boiled in another pan.
Serve iced, garnished with a little chopped fennel, or mint.” ( Summer Cooking 57)
David was particularly fond of fennel, and its use here as a garnish is typical of her. The Editor does not recommend it.
While David advises her readers that her “soup should have a definitely spiced, oriental flavour about it,” nothing here is particularly eastern and the combination of allspice, ginger and mace is prototypically English. ( Summer Cooking 57) The ‘oriental’ reference is simply a function of David’s obsession with exotica, not to say fantasy.
David also recommends garnishing the soup with smoked sturgeon strips or shrimp “[f]or a special occasion.” We consider that a waste of good fish no matter the occasion.
The recipe actually makes a delicious light soup if you eliminate its principal, pickled, ingredient. Then it looks and tastes like the ‘spiced soup’ beloved of eighteenth century epicures influenced by ‘Indian’ seasonings: Omit the sugar, think about ditching the cream and serve the soup hot. Of course the concept of soup is alien to Indian cuisine but the cooks of the Raj and their counterparts in the metropolis were nothing if not curious and innovative at the time.
Despite its eccentricity and perhaps on account of hers, the Editor remains tempted to pull out this soup with pickles during the next, increasingly frequent, heatwave, even if only to shock the palates and sensibilities of her houseguests. But nobody else will like it.
A doubly ‘not again’ edition of Pizza Delivery, or, a notable chef risks an unfortunate analogy, in which we muse on a tendency to self-laceration and in turn lacerate the chef, who also should know better. 6/10
The Editor is a longtime devotee of the food pages within the Weekend FT , and, as we previously have remarked, if they are not what they used to be, then old habits die hard. Once again, however, Rowley Leigh has steered us astray, and while we may be chided for our sad and clingy adherence to hope instead of experience in this matter, he really risks becoming the DeSelby of these pages.
It was a Saturday and the Editor found herself unexpectedly home alone with her spouse; daughters had dalliances of their own, somewhere across the reaches of metropolitan New York. Also unexpectedly, we had found a new product, a D’Artagnan ‘Free Range Mini Boar Roast,’ something daughters do not deign to dine upon. Unusually for a product from D’Artagnan, it came in at a decent price. The Editor did not know precisely how to treat her Free Range Mini Boar Roast, however, and therefore consulted the D’Artagnan website, where she learned that the planets had inexplicably aligned. The site promised what would be an evening of clandestine comfort and intimacy:
“This is our comfort food favorite. It’s the perfect roast for small, intimate family and friend (Don’t share this secret with just anyone.)”
Naturally the lascivious singular usage aroused us, along with the cooking instructions, and the Editor figured that she could stand some comfort in the innocent sense as well, given the cost of tuition and the threat to prosperity posed by preposterous spendthrifts, in Greece no less.
That fateful day, chef Leigh published a recipe for veal kidneys with Beaujolais, and although the Editor is partial to kidneys, she already had purchased the erotic offering from D’Artagnon through the romantic artifice of the supermarket and in any event is not so partial to Beaujolais. Step two of the ‘Method,’ however, was a discrete recipe for braised carrots and bulby scallions (‘grelots’ to Leigh) for later incorporation with the kidneys.
We had found a bunch of tiny purple carrots with their tops at the market (a steal at three bucks) in the morning before reading the FT ; there were some scallions in the fridge because it turned out that we had no grits to make with them, some stock and vermouth for the boar. The carrot dish sounded like a good side for the boar along with our red chard and a scoop of mashed potatoes.
The vegetables are braised in a simple solution of butter, salt sugar and water until “they become enveloped in a syrupy glaze,” except that if you follow Leigh’s recipe, they do not. He specifies much too much water and far too little sugar. Even when you nestle the vegetables in a pan barely big enough to hold them, you will get a panful of carrot glop if you wait until the liquid evaporates. We rescued the carrots, a little overdone, at the sacrifice of glaze. So, you may think, correctly it turns out, that this was not actually an evening of pizza delivery; instead this is just another example of a celebrity chef who has bothered neither to edit nor test one of his recipes: Leigh is a serial offender and at this point the FT ought to try cooking with his instructions before publishing them.
To glaze the carrots and bulbs, peel the carrots, leaving a little of their stems; trim the onions and use the whites (keep the greens to mince for garnishing just about anything other than sweets). Put the vegetables in a pan barely big enough to hold them along with a Tablespoon of unsalted butter, 2 teaspoons of sugar and pinches of salt and white pepper. Add enough water to cover the base of the pan, plus a drip or two; do not cover the vegetables with liquid. Bring the contents to a hard boil, reduce to a simmer and cover the pan until a glaze naps the carrot and scallion mixture. It is better to start with too little than with too much liquid; you can top it up with some more, boiling, water if your vegetables appear to become the victims of arson.
The boar was good, although the Editor overcooked it a little too (this seems to be her recurring mistake with pork these days); do not let the temperature of the meat reach 155-60° as the musketeer’s website specifies. Go to 145°, at most 150°, instead. We seared the little knob of meat in some lard, then patted it down with a coating of breadcrumbs bound with olive oil and grainy mustard. It took no more than 30 minutes to cook at 375°.
The food paired nicely with a decent Pinot Gris from Pierre Sparr. The evening was memorable; it was candlelit, and….
Apologies, of course, to the great na gCopaleen.
A well-intentioned if ill-begotten gift of game causes another Pizza Delivery. 5/10
Venison. My experiences with it (procuring, eating, and cooking it) had been relatively uneventful. I tried it for the first time in the Adirondacks, where I worked college summers as a “cottage maid” at a turn-of-the-century club. Once or twice a summer some of The Help (including some culinary majors from East Coast colleges) would pool enough cash to escape to an “exotic” local restaurant like The Steak & Stinger or The Hungry Trout . Like Gaston in Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, they used “antlers in all of their decorating”, and their menus revolved around steak, trout and game. Sometimes the game was unusual, like boar or bear, but there was nearly always venison and rabbit.
I enjoyed the earthy flavor and the lean, almost chewy texture of venison prepared simply in the same way you would a steak. It didn’t hurt that someone told me venison was much lower in fat and calories than beef. I had tried vegetarianism for a time, but never could get over the overwhelming desire for a good steak. Here was one I could label “healthy”.
I was also happy to learn that the Adirondack Park deer herds required periodic thinning to avoid overpopulation and subsequent starvation during the winter. So although I had some vain and selfish reasons for liking venison, I could paper them over with a greenish justification.
After this positive and guilt reducing introduction, I would order venison whenever I saw it on restaurant menus. But my husband and I had never attempted to cook it at home until a close friend of his parents gave them some packages of venison which they offered to us following a recent “hunting” trip. It was disclosed that the “hunters” on this excursion had paid big bucks to be taken to a game farm on an island off the Maine coast, where they could literally walk up to tame deer and blast away until they ran out of ammo. We accepted a few pounds of the ill-begotten stuff, including some chops, anyway.
Deer hunters’ families are inundated with venison, making “hamburgers” for their kids, using it in meatloaf and chili, but as urbanites we had never had a source and were not about to look a gift deer in the mouth. Contemplating our gratis venison, I was reminded of a friend’s elderly but spry Norwegian father. My friend and her kids had arrived back home in Darien, Connecticut after a trip to Britain, tired, jet-lagged and hungry, to find that “Papa” had prepared a lovely meal of venison with roast potatoes for their return. It was only after they had devoured everything that my friend asked her father where he got the meat: he had been ski touring, as was his Norwegian wont, close to the Merritt Parkway…. It was roadkill, it tasted wonderful and everyone remembers the famous dinner.
My husband decided to grill our venison chops on the Weber, after steeping them in a traditional game marinade he had modified from a nineteenth century English cookbook. The marinade smelled great: A red wine and port reduction with juniper berries, thyme, bay and garlic. We grilled the meat until it was charred on the outside but still quite rare, and sat down to our special dinner with a good bottle of wine. We each took a bite.
The meat tasted just awful. First, you noticed the spongy texture of the outer fat, followed by the sweetish, sickish smell and then taste, which bordered on rancid. My husband looked at me in anxious disbelief. We each tried to eat another bite, but gave up and threw it out.
We later learned that wild venison must be carefully butchered to remove any vestige of the yellow fat which clung to our unfortunate chops. We did manage to salvage some meat and my husband made delicious little pies with it, but we did require a pizza delivery on the night.
The marinade was brilliant though. The recipe follows (it also appears with Venison pie another way in the practical :
A variation on traditional venison marinade
-2 cups Red Wine
-½ cup Port
-Several sprigs fresh Thyme
-12 slightly crushed juniper berries
-2 garlic cloves, crushed
-2 or 3 bay leaves
Mix the red wine and port together in pan and reduce by half. Cool then add remaining ingredients. Add venison to marinade, cover and leave for between 12 and 24 hours. The marinade can be used for all other game too. The original version uses smaller amounts of herbs and berries.
We chide Lindsey Bareham for a misstep in The Times , make an aside on Agnes Jekyll and post a good recipe. 3/10
This is a surprise. Lindsey Bareham has occasioned a delivery of pizza to the home of the Editor. Bareham is a prolific food writer and cookbook author, and if her recipes lack the shock value of her more flamboyant rivals, they are usually reliable and often interesting.
An unfortunate exception to this standard appeared under Bareham’s regular banner in The Times of London on 22 February. The recipe looked promising, a dish that set sausage on a plinth of sweet potato sauced with celery. It apparently was a good juxtaposition of earthy with bright and appeared hearty enough for a snowy night. The appearance deceived us here at britishfoodinamerica. The dish turned out bland and incoherent, even though we added flavor tones and seasoning to the original recipe.
We can explicate the instructions like a short story, but first note some problems with its list of ingredients. It does not disclose whether the thyme required is fresh or dried; calls for a (ghastly) stock cube instead of stock and omits crème fraiche, a necessary element of the celery sauce. It also specifies the use of “1 celery heart,” an ambiguous term, at least to an American, that, taken literally, would overwhelm this dish with masses of celery; we used three stalks. These are minor irritants but unfortunate portents.
The recipe first calls for roasting sweet potatoes “for 45 min until aromatic and very soft.” We used unusually small ones and, as we suspected, the properties of this tuber have not changed; it requires a considerably longer cooking time of at least 70 minutes--longer if potatoes of a more typical, larger size have gone into the oven. Bareham does not season the potatoes at all. We did.
Next, “[h]alve, peel and chop onion.” We only point out here that it is easier to peel the onion first. Once the onion has been chopped, it goes into the pot with melted butter and thyme, except that it may not; the recipe also instructs its reader to add the thyme much later, after the onion has softened in the butter and celery has been added. We opted for the later option because, even though we chose to use the relatively robust dried thyme, too much time on direct heat would have killed it.
The recipe goes on to claim that the celery will have become “almost tender” under cover on ‘reduced heat’ after ten minutes. It remained pretty crisp after thirty.
At this point we added stock--not a cube and water--but again, the celery was not soft after simmering for another “5min [sic],” nor did the half a cup of liquid specified ‘reduce to about 3 tbsp.’
At this point we are told to “Liquidsee with [the nonexistent and therefore unmeasured] crème fraiche, taste and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.” We boiled the liquid hard to reduce it, chose about 1½ Tablespoons of crème fraiche and attacked the sauce with a hand blender. Both because our extended cooking time was too short and because we ought to have chosen a food processor instead, we could not ‘liquidsee’ the sauce. The smallish lumps gave it a nice texture in contrast to the mashed potato but the sauce still lacked bottom, so on our next attempt we reduced a flip of white wine to nearly nothing before adding the stock, and the acid brightened the final sauce considerably without curdling the crème.
Only now that the sauce is finished and difficult to reheat are we told to “[f]ry sausages in hot oil until crusty and cooked through,” but we always find that evaporating some liquid--in this case stock and wine--beneath the sausages keeps them from overcooking by the time they are heated to the core once they have crusted. The recipe inexplicably specifies little cocktail sausages, 18 of them for “3-4” servings, so if you are feeding four, two of your diners will be shorted.
Saucing the sweet potatoes with celery did nothing for them or the sauce (which, however, was good and would be nice with chicken, Guinea fowl or turkey) but was utterly irrelevant to the sausage, which wanted mustard. So, while the three elements of the dish each has appeal (so long as you season the sweet potatoes), the preparation itself is pointless.
- - -
What should we make of all this? We have a few observations. The Curmudgeonly Raconteur, who can be cruel, has characterized the Editor’s cooking style as “celery with everything,” which seems harsh but contains a higher truth, so it is not unreasonable for the reader to infer that the Editor is familiar with the properties of the vegetable and understands its cooking time better that the author of this recipe, who cannot really have been Ms. Bareham. It is not only too unreliable but also too amateurish for that.
Furthermore, copyediting is not what it used to be in this age of editorial parsimony, but this goes a little far. The Guardian may have a charming tradition that embraces typography like ‘5min’ and ‘liquidsee,’ but The Times ? Does The Thunderer now countenance recipes that lack a bedrock ingredient too? Its sinister owner has been a swinging and successful cutter of costs so long as you consider integrity the price of success. Even by that standard, however, there really is no point in publishing recipes that nobody can use, unless of course nobody intends to use them.
Perhaps focus groups or other species of market research have revealed that Times readers do not cook, so that bothering to proofread, test or sample recipes is an unjustifiable expense, but then something so homely as sausage and mash would be an odd choice for publication because it is unlikely to confer bragging rights on the aspirational food phony. Ms. Bareham demonstrated no such negligence at the Evening Standard back in the recent day when it, too was a physical presence.
We remain confused by “Mini-porkers with celery sauce and sweet potatoes,” a foolish title and bad recipe, not least out of our fraying respect for Lindsey Bareham.
- - -
We do not, however, choose to end this installment of Pizza delivery on a sad or derogatory note, and therefore also offer observations on some of Bareham’s other work, which in the main is good. Her column in the Evening Standard days offered accessible and interesting recipes that honored the English tradition without ossification. A sauce of celery, Stilton and walnuts for spaghetti is an inspired and simple example of “Old Friends with New Faces;” Agnes Jekyll therefore would have approved. It also is proof that Bareham herself can handle celery.
Bareham also reminded her Evening Standard readers to remember the details, like adding flavorings of herb, spice or cheese to suet pastry in order to enhance the flavor of its filling.
We like The Prawn Cocktail Years , a book that she wrote with Simon Hopkinson, and their Roast Chicken and Other Stories quickly became a classic. We also return repeatedly to Just One Pot and A Wolf in the Kitchen , which even includes a definitive recipe for Dublin Coddle, for weeknight suppers after crowded days. In Wolf , Bareham sensibly extols frozen peas, offers a jambalaya that is quick and not altogether discreditable, and even finds a tasty use for spam.
- - -
To prepare our version of pasta with celery, Stilton and walnuts, you will not need much. This qualifies easily as one of Dame Agnes’ old friends in new guise, for even pasta, as ‘macaroni,’ has graced the shelves of British kitchens for centuries: Think “Yankee Doodle.” Bareham’s recipe, which she in turn adapted from Valentina Harris’s Four Seasons Cookbook , omits the cayenne, celery seed, scallions and Worcestershire.
- 1 lb pasta (long lines, like spaghetti, or the beguiling but elusive Fettuccine Rigate, are best)
- four celery ribs, trimmed of strands and cut into ¼ inch crescents
- 1½ -2 oz unsalted butter
- ¾ cup milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- a pinch of cayenne
- heaped ¼ teaspoon celery seed
- ¼ teaspoon mace
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire
- 6 oz Stilton (or another blue cheese)
- about 2 / 3 cup chopped walnuts
- minced chives or scallions
- Cook the pasta until just al dente.
- Fry the celery in the butter over medium-low heat until barely tender; only a few minutes.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the milk, cream, cayenne, celery seed, mace, Worcestershire and Stilton: Stir the sauce until the cheese melts to thicken it.
- Toss the pasta with the sauce, then gently fold the walnuts into the dressed pasta.
- Serve the pasta sprinkled with chives or scallions.
The abuse of a bottled sauce by its creator, or the abuse of an otherwise contented sauce by a bottled one. 2/10
As noted in both the lyrical and the practical , we are retardataire when it comes to white sauce. We like it as balsamella, béchamel, salsa bianca, English white sauce and in any other guise or disguise.
It enhances simply steamed vegetables and, as parsley sauce, makes ham even better. White sauce can make a lighter lasagna than ricotta, and provides relief from all the tomato-based pizza toppings. Mrs. Acton ‘observes’ that béchamel with a dollop of English ‘made’ (prepared rather than powdery) mustard is good with mutton, which we cannot obtain to test her theory, but it certainly enhances lamb shoulder chops roasted or broiled. We have noted elsewhere that infusions of herbs enhance white sauce too; given all this rattle, readers may suspect that at bfia we cast about for new (to us) variations on the ancient theme. We do.
It therefore seemed lucky to bumble upon a Caribbean alternative while working on the White Sauce Variations . It appears in a cheap copy of Busha Browne’s Indispensable Compendium of Traditional Jamaican Cookery (Kingston, Jamaica 1993) at R. Kelly Fine Used Books in Newport, Rhode Island (a shop that we recommend, a defiant survivor of Newport’s formerly thriving range of bookstores). We like Caribbean recipes and hoped to like this one; it might become a household staple for its combination of heat, sweet, sour and mace.
If the title makes this book sound like a somewhat hokey promotional effort, it is that, but it does have more depth and breadth than most examples of the genre, and if not all the recipes look unsuspicious, most of them provoke interesting ideas. Besides, the purpose is to sell Busha Browne’s products which, while inferior to Outerbridge’s similar line out of Bermuda (not really Caribbean of course), are not at all bad.
The Indispensable Compendium includes a recipe called “Busha Browne’s Classic Béchamel Sauce.” It does not require a Grand Chef de Cuisine to notice that the printed recipe is anything but a ‘classic’ béchamel and also untenable as printed, but again a number of badly contrived recipes yield good ideas that lead to good dishes. The recipe specifies the use of evaporated milk, and even by Caribbean standards obviously would have oversweetened a savory sauce; the sensible countermeasure was milk, the usual liquid incorporated into white sauce. The proportions too are unwieldy; three tablespoons each of butter and flour per cup (8 oz) of milk would produce sludge and with evaporated milk you could manufacture sugary cement at that ratio.
It was encouraging, however, to find that the recipe specifies scalded (if evaporated) milk; that helps prevent curdling. The remainder of ingredients includes sensible amounts of mace, dry mustard, pepper and salt, along with a tablespoon of ‘Busha Browne’s Original Spicy Planters Sauce.’ The planters sauce is a sweetly sour brown one like HP or A1, and despite the politically incorrect name is not bad of its type.
To start, we reduced the amount of butter and flour by a third, then made the usual roux and added all of the seasonings other than the planters sauce before whisking the scalded milk into the paste, all as the instructions require. The mustard (a teaspoon), however, added to the density of the roux and we immediately realized that the béchamel was too thick even to support the planers sauce. The hasty addition of another half cup of scalded milk (microwaves are good for something) helped, but we still found our béchamel sludgier than classic. We pressed on. In whisked the planters sauce, which of course caused further occlusion. It also obliterated the mace and mustard, which we ought to have added after the milk in defiance of the instructions.
Our creation felt unctuous on the tongue and cloying. According to the recipe, “[t]his sauce is delicious with all cooked and steamed vegetables” but to our tasting panel it was not good for anything.
A further note on Rowley Leigh. 1/10
We have not been uncritical of Rowley Leigh, either here in Pizza Delivery or in FAST food . It only is proper to praise the miscreant for a good deed, however, and we would like to think (and would like our readers to think) that britishfoodinamerica is big enough to do so. We therefore are taking an extraordinary break with general policy to discuss a preparation that only may be described as… French. What greater sacrifice could bfia make to establish its objectivity? Our unbiased urge to do the right thing even undercuts the killjoy theme of this third bfia number, but so what? We are heedless and cannot help ourselves.
The recipe in question was published recently by Leigh in the 7-8 November 2009 Weekend FT beneath the headline “Pleasures of ekeing [sic] out.” He calls it ‘cabbage and sausage cake’ and that is all it is (almost; we consider the ‘optional’ mushrooms essential), proof that simplicity sometimes does in fact equal sublimity. The miscreant has not entirely reformed; Leigh’s recipe does have flaws, because he loses track of an ingredient while providing sketchy and confusing instructions, but the finished dish is so satisfying that these typical oversights are forgiven.
If bfia were a Cartesian or deductive rather than empirical undertaking, the recipe would appear where it rationally belongs, in the practical . The choice of venue is sentimental instead; we criticized Leigh for requiring a pizza delivery so we would like to applaud him when he renders takeout superfluous. Of all of this would Burke be proud and say ‘I told you so.’
Our version of Leigh’s dish is fun to make and, as the FT headline indicates, cheap too (except for the porcini).
Cabbage, sausage and mushroom ‘cake.’ This is like one of those flourless chocolate cakes only to the extent that it includes no flour. Otherwise the two have nothing to do with one another. You will need something like a nine-inch pie plate (nonstick is good) or fancier ovenproof ceramic number of similar shape.
-½-1 oz dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in warm water to cover for at least 20 minutes, squeezed dry until they scream and roughly chopped
- 1 lb sausage removed from the casing
- a Savoy cabbage
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 350°.
- Pull the large outer leaves from the head of cabbage from the stem, carefully, so that they do not tear, then trim the leaves of their thick stalks. Ensure that you have at least 6 biggish leaves.
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, submerge the outer leaves and reduce the water to a simmer for 2 minutes.
- Immediately remove the leaves, shock them under cold running water, then dry them ruthlessly (but gently so they do not break) with paper toweling.
- Meanwhile, core the remainder of the cabbage, quarter it and cook it in the same water until barely tender, about 3 minutes.
- Use a colander to shock this cabbage in cold water as well, then press the cabbage to remove as much moisture as possible.
- Separate the cooked cabbage into leaves and dry them, too, with paper toweling.
- Toss these smaller leaves with salt, pepper and olive oil.
- Use 1 Tablespoon of the butter to grease your pie plate or ceramic dish. Pick the most attractive of the big outer leaves and center it in the pan or dish; it should just about cover the bottom of the pan.
- Overlap the remaining big leaves all around the pan like a pinwheel so that half of each leaf overhangs the pan.
- Spread 1 / 3 of the smaller, dressed leaves over the bottom of the pan; layer ½ of the sausage over the cabbage; then spread the mushrooms over the sausage.
- Layer another 1 / 3 of the cabbage over the mushrooms followed by the rest of the sausage, then top the sausage with the rest of the dressed cabbage.
- Compress the cake with the palm of your hand, then fold the overhanging leaves over the compressed mixture.
- Dot the cake with the other Tablespoon of butter.
- Bake the cake on a cookie sheet for about an hour, then let it cool for about five minutes.
- Use a turkey baster, or carefully tilt the pan and use a ladle to remove the accumulated to a gravy boat or serving bowl. The amount of juice will vary; there may or may not be much.
- Invert a plate over the cake and quickly turn it out onto the plate; it should look spectacular.
- Cut the cake into wedges for service with the pan juices.
-You will want a loaf of crusty bread with this cake.
-Cooling the cake before flipping it out of the pan allows the juices from the sausage to jell a little so that the cake does not fall apart.
-Like parsnips and suet, Savoy cabbage tends to be easier to find in small-town New England than in the New York metropolitan area, welcome (if inconvenient) evidence of persisting variations in regional American foodways.
-Drink an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris (not blanc) or Riesling with this dish; it is robust and the wine need not be expensive.
-In a recipe like this, the quality of the sausage is paramount. Good, ‘sweet’ Italian sausage is ideal; it usually includes fennel in the United States, which adds a nice tone to the dish. If it does not, and you like the flavor, sprinkle about ½ teaspoon bruised fennel seeds over the inner leaves of cabbage with the olive oil at step 7.
-If you get a BDSM charge out of going all skinflint, omit the mushrooms but do not substitute cheaper fresh ones; they throw too much water.
-The Italian sausage sold in supermarkets can be loaded with corn syrup; this addition is unwelcome. You would be better off using the skinless bulk sausage sold frozen by Jones in the shape of a kosher salami; thaw and crumble it to substitute for the Italian sausage. The Jones sausage is seasoned with sage so it will alter the taste of the dish substantially. It will still be good, just different; be sure not to add fennel if you go with the Joneses.
-It seems that even ‘simple’ French preparations require a lot of steps to describe with any clarity, but the recipe is easier than its length might indicate.
Another failure of kitchen gardening. 12/09
In one of her typical and pyrrhic triumphs of hope over experience, the Editor bought another little potted chili plant recently. The unblemished green leaves and scarlet pods always appear healthy and beautiful in their native habitat, the supermarket. The plants are dirt cheap and always touted as ‘hardy;’ they look nice on the counter, do not stink and have no charms that attract rodents. On balance and in theory the potential benefits of domestic bucolia and fiery seasoning therefore appeared to outweigh the modest risk of failure. Of course, the Editor did with this plant as she always has done with its predecessors; placed it in the kitchen by a window, tended it carefully according to instructions from the label and the internet, and killed it within two weeks.
This was an act of manslaughter rather than murder, but another killing nonetheless. As with some past failures to nurture chili plants, the cause of death was obscure; the red pods shriveled, the green leaves curled, then browned and fell off the stalks. Other plants have expired from an identifiable cause, infestations of tiny bugs that would be invisible but for their bright red color and that do not seem to the Editor to afflict any other kind of plant. In theory it would be possible to gas these bugs with something environmentally sensitive or even ‘Raid,’ but introducing poison into the house and onto a source of food would seem to undermine the purpose of the venture.
It is time to stop buying these plants; at least the (inedible) cactus called Reuben survives.
No soup for a cold November night. 11/09
Our favorite newspaper issue of the week is the dual-dated weekend edition of the Financial Times . It is the only issue of the paper that we buy and we buy it religiously, which can become a quest; in an era of plummeting print circulation, the Weekend FT sells out. Other papers, both British and American, obviously publish feature laden Saturday (UK) and Sunday (US) editions, and many of them, like the Observer or The New York Times , have considerably more heft than the FT . We usually find more to like in the smaller paper, however, from its recipes and book reviews to Jancis Robinson on wines and the popular ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview. If the weekend edition is not what it used to be, it still outdoes its rivals ( The Wall Street Journal has launched a particularly feeble imitation). ‘How to Spend It’ is another thing; other than the end feature about how accomplished figures like to spend their weekends, the FT supplement gives conspicuous consumption a particularly ugly cast.
Our favorite contemporary food column may be the one that Philippa Davenport regularly wrote and now occasionally contributes to the Weekend FT . Her recent columns are more reportorial than instructive; we like them but miss her recipes. She, Theodora FitzGibbon and Jane Grigson, more than Elizabeth David, are authentic avatars of postwar British food journalism, and it remains a mystery to us why nobody has published a collection of her essays from the FT . As often seems the case, however, we digress.
Rowley Leigh is Davenport’s successor and to call his columns and their recipes inconsistent is nearly as big an understatement as calling Rush Limbaugh or Marcus Rediker intellectually deficient. Leigh displays none of Davenport’s dynamism nor depth and his selection of recipes shows all the consistency of grading practice at the University of Chicago Law School. Some of them are not recipes at all, unless something like advice on dressing greens with homemade instead of bottled dressing counts. Some are altogether obvious and others rely on hopelessly expensive ingredients. There is no real pattern of technique or outlook; Leigh apparently likes to cook everything in every way, which demonstrates admirable breadth and curiosity but makes for unfocused journalism.
In fairness, some of his recipes are good. He printed one of the signature dishes from his Café Anglais (astute cross-marketing if not in the same league as Mark Hix or the dreadful Rachel Ray), an imaginative cheese custard with anchovies that is faultless.
Fish soup is one of the glories of London restaurants. Even middling places (like the old Café des Amis du Vin) make (or made) exemplary fish soup. There is a good one now at the Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road. If the pink and velvety soup has Mediterranean antecedents, London has succeeded in making the dish its own, a worthy successor to the old Particular, which sadly has become harder to find. Provincial pubs also cook good versions of fish soup; the darker red Cornish one at the Three Horseshoes in Witney, Oxfordshire, is but one example. We have a few decent recipes but we lack the guidance or the skill, or lack something else altogether, to produce a comparably good fish soup at home.
Into the breach strode Mr. Leigh. His recipe, which appeared in the 24-25 January 2009 FT , is more complicated than the others we have tried, and in fairness he warned us: “There’s no hiding the fact that the whole enterprise involves a bit of work.” This revisits the concept of understatement.
Leigh’s recipe uses a considerable proportion of fish (some three pounds cut into rounds on the bone) to aromatics (two each of fennel bulbs, leeks and onions, ‘1 bulb’ of garlic, canned tomatoes, basil and a chili). He marinates these ingredients overnight in white wine before browning the fish and tossing everything into a pot to simmer with a little rice for an hour. Leigh then proposes a two-step puree, once through a food processor or mill and then through a sieve. He warns of this requirement that “nobody can really claim it’s much fun” and we salute his honesty.
This method signally failed. The hour in the pot did not dissolve the bones and they did not disintegrate in the food processor; we picked their shards from the slurry. Neither the Editor nor several loyal bfia staffers working in shifts could ram it through a sieve after processing the muck for what seemed like eons. We used the food processor again, and then tried a food mill before returning to the sieve. Still scant progress. Rather than discarding everything, we processed the soup again, separated out the remaining solids with a strainer and hated the result. Our own soup did not match our restaurant models in texture; instead it resembled thin glue with hints of sawdust and boredom. It left a cottony cling on the tongue. Less forgivable (our pureeing may have been too amateurish for Leigh’s standards) was the flaccid taste; ‘bland’ returns us to understatement once again.
In retrospect the problem was all that flesh; we would have been better off without any of it and should have used heads and bones instead. That, however, does not excuse Leigh for recommending something so devoid of seasoning and, indeed, flavor.
The search for London style fish soup at home continues.
Tomato time. 9/09
Unlike the Editor, who could not cultivate weeds in a meadow, our Rural Correspondent is an accomplished gardener. We have been unable to find tomatoes like the revived American heirloom varietals in Britain, so several years ago sent him an extravagant selection of seeds from a reputable seller in Maine, renowned even among New England tomato growers. The fruit is gloriously misshapen, riotously colored and tastes like the bright, concentrated essence of otherwise excellent tomatoes in season, but everybody knows that.
This was a gift with strings.
Our Rural Correspondent has tried, faithfully but unsuccessfully, to grow the heirlooms in the English Midlands for several seasons. Maybe it is because his summer is not as hot as in New England even though his spring and fall are not as harsh.
The seeds are not particular. They refuse to yield fruit in either garden plot or greenhouse, although it is true that the Rural Correspondent has not yet dabbled in hydroponics, a technique that apparently produces spectacular indoor, and therefore understandably clandestine, results with cannabis when augmented with grow lamps. Maybe we can convince him to buy a tank and piping system. The Dutch get all kinds of other produce this way; they even set up a display of high-tech hydroponica on Bowling Green in Manhattan recently in connection with NY400, the city’s celebration of the founding of New Amsterdam in 1609. The display was a kind of Washington County Fair (an acquaintance of the Editor once was declared Miss Photogenic there) of the future, flaunting biggest and best specimens and flogging tedious promotional pamphlets.
To return to the Midlands of England; despite the frustration, the Rural correspondent has promised, with some gnashing, to carry on. Maybe next year, like the Cubs. Look at Red Sox Nation; there always is hope.
Due to deluge and disease (a close kin of the fungus that caused the fourth Irish potato famine in 1845), the tomato harvest in the American northeast is late and small this year. Nonetheless it is here and despite the diminished size of the overall crop we find ourselves with periodic gluts of local tomatoes donated by friends or overbought from farmstands and markets. Partly this happens because we are gluttonous for the flavor of tomatoes in season, that is, for tomatoes with any flavor at all. We are grateful for all the tomatoes we can find, beefsteaks, cherries, grapes and especially heirlooms, whether ripe or not. So, as usual at harvest time, we are casting about for new ways to prevent our tomatoes from becoming too much of a good thing. Fresh tomato jam can be a weird treat with cheese or grilled meat, and has the ‘advantage’ of requiring a colossal quantity of tomatoes to produce a small amount of preserve. We do not do any canning, can only put up so much chutney or sauce and therefore prize new recipes, or rather recipes that we have newly discovered, for everyday use.
Recently we found an old Lee Bailey recipe for tomato bread pudding from his handy little booklet, Tomatoes (New York 1992), in the New Orleans Times-Picayune , a formerly somnolent paper that redeemed itself following Katrina and is worthy of support. It has become a prominent and reasonable voice for the neglected Crescent City. The preparation is promising from its name alone; it unites two of our favorite things. It even makes a certain amount of sense for bfia; odd as it may sound, the recipe is more Anglo-Californian than Italian in spirit. It is not bad but not yet good enough to reprint for our readers. We keep tweaking it.
Another recipe appeared intriguing. It is from Elizabeth David’s foray into British food, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen . David sells the dish with some conviction. She explains with historical accuracy that ‘[w]hen the potentialities for tomatoes were first explored it was used for sweet dishes as well as for sauces and soups” before observing that Escoffier included a number of sweet tomato dishes, including stewed green tomatoes sweetened with sugar and served with cream, in his Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery . (Spices, Salt 220) At this point David takes an uncharacteristic leap of innovation: “Tomato compote, evolved (by me) from the Practical Cookery recipe is also, admittedly, odd, and I think very good. A trial costs little. It is made with whole tinned tomatoes….” ( Spices, Salt 221)
We took her advice and conducted several trials. The recipe is straightforward: make a simple syrup by boiling a pound of sugar per 5 oz water, then gently roll two pounds of tomatoes into the pan to keep them from breaking up. Simmer the compote for half an hour, add the juice of half a lemon, chill and serve with a little cream.
We tried a number of variations on the basic theme; canned cherry tomatoes, canned plums from San Marzano, fresh grapes and fresh cherries. We reduced the amount of sugar in some batches, increased the lemon juice in others and added vodka too. All of them were awful. Nobody could get beyond the cloying flavor of the sweetened ripe tomatoes. One of our tasters commented that the compote might have been appealing if you had grown up eating it, but for those of us who did not, the flavor palette was utterly jarring. She has a good point.
In retrospect, David displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the interplay between sensations that Escoffier grasped, in common with any good cook from the American South. His original recipe is not bad because he used sour green tomatoes to create his stew; the union of sour and sugar resulted in what amounts to a relish or fresh chutney. After substituting ripe, cooked tomatoes from a can, then concentrating their sweetness further by cooking them again in a glaze, David would have needed much more acid than the lemon juice that she specifies to give her a palatable result. In the event, nothing we did short of subverting her recipe altogether produced anything that we liked. We can only assume that she did not actually cook, let alone taste, her own compote, a recurring oversight that mars many of her recipes.