Sunday 24 January 2016

Leave it alone!

Lamb chump. Just add fire.

No, not like your mother meant when she caught you with your arm elbow-bent worrying a garnet scab. Leave it alone, in the sense of keep it simple. Probably not the best reference to begin a food blog, but there are no recipes herein only my realisation that over the years I've been cooking I am now sure that the prevailing 'more is better' attitude is wrong.

Ah, but is it prevailing? It very much depends on your country of origin but I feel generally it is in the UK. You only have to scan an Ottolenghi recipe. Something called x + y salad needs x and y plus a, b, c, d, e, f and g... some of which are only available during a leap year on a distant island in the Pacific. And then be sure to get the yellow ones not the much more common green. There seems to be no dish Jamie Oliver doesn't feel is improved by lemon zest and/or juice. I'm certainly guilty of it myself; feeling that if I add flavourings I will eventually arrive at the plate of plates. But I think we have the journey backwards. We should go to the start.

Do you know what bay leaves taste like? How about oregano or that tomato paste we all squeeze into sauces? The oils we use? The mustards and redcurrant jellies? Did you taste your sweated onions before adding them to the dish? Are your dried herbs now ten years old and basically green/grey dust? We talk of a desire for more depth of flavour when we actually mean scope or span. We value width not depth.

One of the highlights of my 2013 Sicily trip. This was from Licata's La Madia restaurant; billed as beef with artichokes.
You could use the coals to sear forkfuls of meat. Or not.

For Belinda's birthday last year, the boys and I took her for a tasting menu in a well reviewed restaurant in Ambleside. It was Michelin starred with exquisite views over Windermere and a sweeping gravel drive. (I do like a gravel drive. Silly, I know.) The food however was below par. I won't name the restaurant because they dealt with my complaint graciously and generously and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The food was, or course, well sourced and cooked but everything had been... ponced about with. The worst offender was listed in the menu as a 'ham hock fritter'. Well what would you expect from that description? Ham hock, especially smoked, is packed with flavour. I was hoping for fine Cumbrian free-range pork with maybe a little salad, benefiting from some pickled fruit or, as they have a star, a sous-vide egg yolk and some sea salt.

What we were presented with was a nest of salad leaves and micro-herbs, dressed with vinaigrette, some goats cheese, a confit quails egg, pickled turnip, pickled carrot and an over generous spray of olio al tartufo, meaning that every mouthful tasted of... truffle. The dining room was heady with it. You literally had to seek out the pork. It was no bigger than my thumb and its flavour had been obliterated. I think this smacks of a nervous chef; someone lacking faith in their ingredients or maybe who felt the need to pimp up such a simple meat for inclusion on a Michelin menu. Contrast that with the picture above. Beef with artichokes it was called. What we received was the finest rare beef with the best artichoke hearts in a drizzle of very, very good olive oil. Three flavours. Much confidence.

There does seem to be that pressure. I blame (what Jay Rayner calls) fayne dayning. You'll often hear them complain about simplicity on Masterchef, as if complication delivers an improved dish. They seem to value technique over flavour. I'm also suspicious of that Bake Off standard the 'wow factor'. Wow is fine, so long as it's followed by mmmmm.

If everything has a multiplicity of ingredients, it must mean they all become more similar. A dish of one element can only taste of that thing. As soon as you add ingredients the dish starts sharing similarities and it moves away from its essence. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; mixed foods can obviously be tasty, but it does mean that we should think about every element that we add.

Indian food does use many flavours but it is routinely bastardised in the UK. Most dishes from the sub-continent select from a palette of no more than ten spices; usually focussing on two or three. These should be roasted from whole to express the oils and blended just before use. We tend to reach for that plastic pot of yellow stuff that tastes of 'curry'.

It's a bit like thinking you can make a great cocktail by combining mediocre liquids. Nope.

Italians have the right idea. It's all about exalting the king: be that beef, tomatoes, courgettes or olives. A dish rarely seen in UK restaurants is spaghetti al burro. Pasta with butter. Two ingredients. OK, so probably with added salt, a rough grind of pepper and a sprinkle of parmesan. But this way you taste the ingredients individually. Good butter is a thing of wonder and this is one of the best ways to enjoy it.

Increasingly I am decreasing my ingredient list. And it is counter-intuitive. It almost feels like a betrayal! Roasts especially. If you have good meat, eat good meat. It doesn't need flavour jazz, just a light seasoning and a sympathetic roast, often with a severe browning first in a scary-hot skillet. I'm often asked how I cook my pork belly and the glib answer is: in the oven. Honestly. I do nothing to it. And yes, sometimes it feels like cheating; I sense the invisible wag of the fayne dayning finger perhaps. Yet without doubt, the greatest compliments have come for the simplest of my dishes.

That lamb chump, deeply seared. Now needs 13 minutes at 230°C and then a ten minute rest.
It will be pink and delicious with a gnarly, caramelised crust. The pan juices will make a brilliant gravy.
Cream of mushroom soup

Veg is another candidate for special treatment within culinary solitude. For me this revelation started when I made my cream of mushroom soup. It's probably the single most praised item, these past few years. What's in it? Mushrooms, and a dab of cream. Lots and lots and lots of mushrooms that need long, slow cooking to remove almost all their water. That's it. I decided not to include cheese, garlic, sherry, shallots or chives. I don't even garnish it anymore.

So many common, supermarket shelf vegetables are transformed by roasting: carrots, cauliflower, squash, broccoli, sprouts (still yuk though). Flame roasting aubergine or peppers brings out new flavour.

This is my new approach (blimey, almost wrote philosophy): make the dish once, keep it simple as possible and then consider additions. Do I want a thyme background? Does it need lemon zest? More acid? Floral top notes? Sweetness? if so - why? Can I improve the key ingredients with a different treatment? You can call it lazy, I prefer to think of it as confidence. Depth not width!

Further reading: Three diabolical culinary crimes

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