Sunday, November 26, 2006

An affront to humanity

The stress brought on by kids’ birthday parties is another notch surely worthy of some weekend newspaper article about stress and modern life. A weekend spent gearing up for the event, which was over in under three hours. Two people in dressing gowns trying to cook in the same kitchen with nothing but recipes for disaster. Unable to talk to one another for want of murder. Of course the fucking soup was going to be ready in time to eat soon after everyone arrived; it had practically cooked itself yesterday while nobody was looking.

It was a winner too.

I had marinated the rather bland tasting pigs’ foot flesh in a little olive oil, lots of lemon and some salt. I tossed this into the steaming earthy bath of lentils and split peas, along with a handful of best streaky bacon that had been fried until dark and sticky. Served with a pool of double cream and some flat-leafed parsley, its meaty depths were apparent on people’s faces. Which is about all they were wearing in terms of an expression, as it’s socialy demanding to have conversations with people you don’t know in your own house. I wish they had all just got good and drunk or something.

But, then, I could have been driving back down the M6 in the pissing rain with 14,000 other Smunts, having spent all weekend at this year’s Good Food Show. And what a weekend that would have been. For my £20 entry fee (£18 if I had booked in advance) to the giant NEC I would have had the opportunity to allow over 200 exhibitors from stall upon cocktail-stick-nibble stall try and sell me things, as well as the chance – if I was one of the early birds – to see one of many 15 minute celebrity-chef performance shows – blatantly sponsored by Sainsbury’s and headlined by J.O. himself.

“This is the ultimate shopping experience for those of you who are true food lovers,” churns the foodie marketing machine. “If after a few hours of shopping, you can no longer carry your bags, why not take advantage of our Shop and Drop locations where you can leave all your shopping secure while you are going back for more. You even get a complimentary Mr Kipling mince pie when you return to collect it, and yes he makes ‘exceedingly’ good mince pies as well as cakes!”

How did consumer culture ever come to this? Just think of the amount of cash that’s swimming about up there. £20 per fucking person, handed over in exchange for the being sold things, your every glance while wandering desperately through this culinary circus filled with branded and logo-ed crap endorsed by your heroes, the Celebchefs, teasing you for just long enough to keep you buying the books while you sit there in your mini theatre with 100 other hopefuls cheering every time the leaping head-miked figure in the distance lands upright.

This annual freak show -- and all its provincial fall out such as Aberga-fucking-venny -- epitomises our pitiful
food culture in the UK. And why does it get me so angry? Because it puts the costs of kitchenware and berries up, and ramps the mongoled masses’ dependence on the state. And because I cannot understand someone who does not realise that being charged to be robbed is an affront to humanity.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A foray into vegetarianism

One which was raidly followed by a juicy rare duck breast with tatties roasted in duck fat. In fact, I was impressed by how much flavour the veggies were. They weren’t really veggies for one, the main component being reconstituted porcini mushrooms and a good handful of crushed walnuts. I mixed in some bread that had been soaking in milk and some shallots, leek and garlic that had been browned in butter and then boiled up with a glass of white wine until a soft, silky mess, and bound it all with an egg.

I then plastered one layer on the base of a buttered dish, topped it with handfuls of grated Gruyère, another layer of mix and finally a packet’s worth of supermarket mushrooms sliced thickly and tiled to cover as mush as possible of the surface. The holes I plugged with half walnuts, each dotted with a daub of Exmoor blue that I still had lying at the back of the fridge, and the whole lot coated with well seasoned double cream.

You might say it would be hard to fuck up a dish with that sort of volume of goodies and fat, but I didn’t really have too much of a clue as to what was going to come out of the oven after 30 minutes. Fortunately it was better than I had hoped, the mushroom mixture having taken on the texture of fine mince and the walnuts shining through. It was delicious.

But the duck, encrusted with half a cm of crispy skin spiked with sage, bay and some Chinese five-spice and served with a sauce made from a couple of scoops of my pigsfoot stock, a tablespoon of damson jam and a dash of dark Soy, stole the show. The texture of tender meat, I will never surrender.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Eggs, fish and pigs

I knew those pig’s feet would come in useful at some point. It certainly isn’t the kind of spare parts you normally have lying around, but when you see pig’s feet for free you need to buy and store them regardless. In this instance they are going to be put to appropriate use as the heart of a thick winter soup with pulses and crusty buttered bread to keep awake the parents of children attending the Eldest’s third birthday party this weekend.

They don’t deserve a morsel of it, the mongs that most of them are. And there is a vegetarian who is going to be missing out, and I have for once deliberately done this. It’s pissing down outside for fuck’s sake, and cold with it. You need some Meat to keep yourself going. Which is what I needed tonight to try and regain some sense of self respect after it transpired that I have been rejected for the fourteenth job I have applied for in two years.

Numbed to the same conversation that I have now had many times on coming home with the bad news, the usual empty phrases searching for some sort of meaning, I sat there instead in front of a fish omelette and a pile of chard. A smoky over-salted Tescocunt peppered vac-pac mackerel fillet in a bright yellow egg envelope, sharp and simple and tasty. And no drink, even on a Friday. Just the usual domestics.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


The fucking world pie-eating competition has been sabotaged by the fascist state. Due to be held up North in Wigan tomorrow, the rules of this annual and wholly worthwhile ritual have been changed in response to the government’s “healthy eating” campaign (think J.O.). The winner of the event will no longer be the fat bastard who ate the most revolting number of pies, but the fat cunt who ate a single revolting pie the quickest. What’s more, says event organizer Tony Callaghan, this year will see the introduction of a veggie pie for the first time, although he points out that due to its high gluten content the veggie pie will be slightly smaller than its meaty counterpart.

What a fucking waste of pastry. How on Earth can people seriously be trying to apply vague forgotten rhetoric about eating healthily to a fucking eating contest? What’s Tony going to do next year, cancel the event altogether in case it encourages, er, bad table manners? And let us applaud those who can push kilos of chemical dough, flour and gristle into their faces in mere matters of minutes.

Having said this, I myself sat down in my wooly 90s cardigan to a dinner of salad paysanne with dry smoked bacon, crumbly Welsh goats cheese and salty Greek olives; thyme and oil and flakes of Maldon. I felt like a right Tony. And I am shattered by the shear number of things that keep falling through with the impending wedding. One week from now it will all be cooked. And I will be fried on cocaine.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Mussels and faeces

It was the strangest interlude from the kitchen for some time, and a none too pleasant one either. I was scrubbing a kilo and a half of mussels at the time, standing at the sink with the mother-in-law reading the paper in the distance and my mind on precious little, when suddenly I found myself with my hand in a pile of human shit. Okay, it may have been my three-year-old’s, but shite is shite whichever way you look at it. I came very close to vomiting. There was something especially disgusting about the fact that I was cleaning bivalves at the time, full as they are of fecal matter. And in a less than hilarious twist, it turns out that the creatures had a nasty stench of piss about them.

They turned out ok once they’d been boiled up in Chablis, double cream and fine fish stock. But the ammonia was present for sure.

The second course took the taste away thankfully, a posh bangers and mash comprising a pile of venison sausages [bought out of way of thanks to the game bloke at the farmers’ market for his unbelievable roe saddle last week], some creamy tattie&celeriac puree and some shredded cabbage in mustard. Around this I spooned shiny purple dods of a makeshift Cumberland sauce, made by melting a few spoonfuls of damson jelly and boiling it up with orange, lemon, shallots and wine. I have eaten a lot of venison lately, and the stools speak volumes.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sorry standfirsts

Please tick which of the following statements you think best conjures up a snapshot of your own life (you may tick more than one):

1) “We claim to be a nation of foodies, yet vegetables still mystify many cooks - especially those weird specimens that turn up in the weekly organic box.”

2) “It’s cold outside, so snuggle up. That’s the only way to get a good night’s sleep at Norway’s Alta Igloo Hotel. But think of the stories you can tell at your next dinner party…”

3) “It’s the stench of stale lentils and damp wool around the organic veg stall at the farmers’ market that makes Wednesdays what they are, especially when the only reason you are anywhere near this crew at all is to escape a similarly deluded self-righteousness in the workplace as the midweek slump kicks into gear yet a-fucking-gain and the promise of a free glass of mulled wine at the inevitable company Christmas do is failing to keep the light on.”

Well, I don’t go to or host dinner parties, nor have a weekly delivery from someone wearing a cushion cover. And what is it about the tone that tells me the only reason I might want to stay the night in an igloo hotel is so that I have something worth being alive for in the eyes of my supposed mates? Is the middle-class brand so transparent that the national media can confidently join in, chortling at their big joke?

Tonight I made sandwich for tea, two thick slices of sesame seed bread toasted and topped with grilled best bacon, green peppers and melting Exmoor blue. The last of the beetroot salad with a red wine & shallot dressing. I was on my own, and this was good sulking food.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Upside down stew

An interesting psychological experiment to try out on your children: make a venison stew from veal stock and leave it over night to set, before turning it upside down and scaring the shit out of them when the molten-looking meaty mass doesn’t move an inch. You’d have to have been around some under-threes for while to full appreciate it, I imagine.

I had hoped this would happen. This meal, a dry-run for the wedding, was fucking posh. It was also extremely simple. I first diced the already well-trimmed haunch into bite-sized pieces and fried them off in batches in hot oil, browning some neatly prepped uniform shallots, whole, at the same time. Then I took out the shallots, tossed the seared chunks of meat in seasoned flour and then deglazed with a large glass of the exceptional red burgundy that my rich and cultured friend had married so thoughtfully with the venison loin in the week. Once that had boiled down for a while I slid a small tub of veal stock in, poked a bouquet garni of leek, thyme, parsley and bay between the dark cubes and let the whole thing simmer away for a good half hour, adding a handful of cowboy-turned carrots and a spoon of redcurrant jelly towards the end, checking the seasoning and leaving it to cool.

Today I was rewarded greatly. I had been checking the meat at various stages to try and fathom the dryness issue. After about 15 minutes it was tasty and chewy, but when I had switched it off half an hour later it was as dry as fuck. But it didn’t let me down overnight, as I had hoped. When it came to about 15 minutes before dinner-time I simply melted the pot over a slow heat, and served a spoon of it with some uniform blocks of roast parsnip and tattie, and a pile of braised Savoy cabbage tossed in mustard and sharp, wholegrain mustard.

By fuck it worked. The stew was a piece of luxury, traditional but extremely classy indeed. A simple but very deep richness, and a sheen like fine gold lace, the parsnips providing a mushy sweetness and the mustard-cabbage a valuable edge. It was flawless, although I will cook the meat for even less next week. What is it with stews that makes me want to fucking cook the fuck out of them for hours? I mean, I was the one who made the stock, so I know how much stewing has gone on. It’s that horrible nagging feeling I get from time to time, reminding me that my cooking has not quite reached the heights of abstraction from student-cooking that I often think it has.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Foodie fashion

I’m clearly not up to speed with the latest in foodie fashion. Just the other day I mentioned to the Wife two items that would make great Christmas gifts for me: a pastry knife and a multipack of dish cloths; no more than a tenner each. But I find in today’s Weekend magazine that I should in fact be aspiring to greater, rather more expensive, things.

First, I should be reading the remarkable story of an Italian chef who set up an Italian restaurant in London: Giorgio Locatelli, who has a column in Weekend magazine and who I would guess, thanks to numerous TV and media appearances, is far better known for his grubby great hands and Romanesq features than he his for his 22 different types of risotto. Next, I should be making sure I’m armed with one of several River Café Pocket Books (£8.99 each from bookshops nationwide) just in case I happen across a pile of rocket, basil and some sun-blushed tomatoes this yuletide and am unsure as to how to turn it into a quick, rustic pasta dish. Finally, for £65 I can engage in some “Outrageously Organic Tasting” at Berry Brothers which includes wine and canapés. It’s a damn shame I don’t live in London you know.

Branding, branding, branding. A huge-conked personification of classic Italian food, a bite-sized serving of the contemporary version, and a trip to the only wine merchant’s you’ll ever hear anyone go on about, at length. Oh yes, the metropolitan foodie set is going to be skimmed proper this Christmas.

I, meanwhile, have been skimming the froth from a venison stew in practise for the Wedding next week. I need to get that meat cooked to perfection if this is to come off at all: not too chewy from undercooking and not too dry from overdoing it. So I put together a classy little pile of meat&sauce made from excellent wine and veal stock which is setting in the fridge ready for tomorrow, studded with properly-attempted turned carrots and uniform, peeled shallots. It is an experiment.
By the time I was able to sit down to supper myself, on account of the stew, a lightning-speed fish pie I felt I had to make for the kids and the fact that I had said kids to myself all FUCKING day, it was almost 11pm. But I couldn’t have chosen a better meal, having only to slip half a dozen firm sardines under a hot grill and slicing a lemon in half.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Human stock

I fantasise about piling up on the richest creamiest buttery frenchy food and bolting the door shut to spend three slow months eating myself to death. With the Wife too, although she helpfully pointed out over dinner that this would put too much strain on the kids. But fuck it, we can use them for stock and prolong our twisted feast for weeks. I feel like this, I hope, because I have for two days now eaten nothing but fine fatty food the likes of which can kill if not kept in check.

Tonight, for Christ’s sake, were leftovers. Yet I sit here bloated and slow and hurting at the seams from the richness. I had held over half a celeriac and a quarter of a red cabbage from yesterday, so I braised the latter with half a mango that I found in the fridge and grated the celeriac for a rosti. This rosti ended up as the base of my tower, standing firm thanks to its egg-bound structure and supporting a spoonful of purple cabbage, a twist of rocket and five tiny discs of the tenderloin that I had eased out of the venison saddle and just rolled around in hot nutty butter for a few minutes. It looked spectacular indeed, surrounded as it was with some of the purple cabbage juice (which should have been a mustard vinaigrette to cut through the sweetness).

But it was blown over by the courses either side, the first being more crab ravioli and cream sauce. I spiked the crab with small-dice mango and the sauce was made by reducing a couple of glasses of leftover Cava, adding in the remaining cooking stock from yesterday’s celeriac and finishing it off with double cream and finely chopped parsley. There was a huge ratio of filling to pasta, and this is the way it should be done. The finale was precisely the same as yesterday’s, only the pie had had time to go slightly soggy and responded well to 15 minutes in a hot oven; and the ice cream had had time to shine.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lonely success

The only thing I have eaten all day is the finest three-course meal I’ve ever made. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed a bit of it. It was by no means a delight to put together, for instance, and I barely savoured a mouthful. This is what happens with a meal of this nature, which basically took a day and a half to make: I end up gobbling it down in mere minutes because I am running high on mild adrenalin as I sit down before it.

It must have been a different experience altogether for my guests to be presented with spaceship-shaped ravioli stuffed with fresh crab meat tossed in melted butter ready for take-off on a mound of pea puree and coated with a truffle cream sauce. After all, these were not your run-of-the-mill guests -- a university friend who is much more successful than I and who is no stranger to high-end cuisine. I remembered how pointless the pursuit of percieved success is when he politely interjected as I poured a welcoming glass of chilled Cava and asked if he could use the taller, slightly more slender article he spotted on the shelf above. Now I know that Tesco value balls-on-stems aren't the last word in table glassware, but was it really neccessary for him to make his stand there and then? It wasn't as if the Cava was up to his usual standards no doubt.

In any case, I knew that expectations had to be met today, so I threw out the frenchy stuff as best I could. Gastronomic grammar my guests could understand. The crab I picked up at the farmer’s market this morning, the peas a pack of sugar-snaps that happened to be in the fridge and the sauce made from reduced beef stock with white truffle paste and double cream mixed in at the end. The dish completed with a neat pile of flat-leafed parsley.

But rich and fine as it was, the main overshadowed it by far. It was all thanks to the venison saddle that I had ordered from the game bloke last week, a foot or so of prime roe spine, from which I gleefully slipped off and trimmed two dark striploins to be tied up with string, wrapped in cling-film, twisted into a cylinder, and left to set a bit in the fridge. And with the vertebrae I hacked them off and boiled them up in a good half pint of veal stock with some shallots and red wine for half an hour. They imparted a deep gaminess to the sauce, which I countered with a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly and a few cubes of ice-cold unsalted butter towards the end.

The loins I browned off in a hot pan and then threw into the oven for about 8 minutes, and then sliced and arranged them in overlapping discs on a large white plate. They were soft and reddish purple, perfectly cooked at rare and coated with the deep brown hot game sauce. Next to it sat a small pile of red cabbage that I had braised with apple for about an hour, topped with a quenelle of celeriac puree that had been cooked in aromatic stock, and a small pile of rocket and herb salad. The colours were rich and classy, the food similarly. I don’t recall ever eating a more tender piece of meat, and one with such a deep flavour for such a lean cut. It was gamey without the sulphur; it was fucking mind-blowing. The rest of the stuff was up there with it, with definitely more precision involved than usual.

The finale was an(other) almond-studded apple pie, served warm with a few curls of fresh vanilla and cinnamon ice cream. It was a show-stopper. The ice cream is unbelievably good, even if I did commit the ultimate culinary sin by leaving my guests to wrestle with the dish with nothing but a clumsy soup spoon. How could I? We wrapped up at about 5 and I have been in a dreamy state ever since.

But that’s a biological thing. From kneading pasta dough and baking-blind a sweet pastry case while in my dressing gown, to melting down the stock for the sauces four hours later, putting this meal together felt robotic and mechanical - perhaps a sign of how it must feel to do this for a living. I knew what had to be done by when and there was lots of it, but although I took little enjoyment in each task I felt satisfaction when it had all been done. The actual cooking time was very short. As will be the duration of my life if I continue to eat like this. T h e r e w e r e 1 3 f u c k i n g e g g s a n d p i n t a n d a h a l f o f d o u b l e c r e a m i n t o d a y ‘ s l u n c h . . .

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Heston & Gordon for tea

I hadn’t watched television for something like 8 months until tonight. But it seems as if some strange food- and work-related triangle has transpired to put me in line to meet Blumenthal in the coming months. I therefore thought I should sit down to his an installment of his “Search for perfection” series being aired on BBC2 this days. Tonight it was the perfect steak and salad, which involved plenty of close ups of the best aged beef marbled with hard creamy ribbons of blue-cheese-scented fat. Large hunks of the stuff were being variously blowtorched, cooked for 24 hours at a temperature of 50 degrees, rested, seared and finally served with smoked salt, stilton-infused butter and a 250 year old mushroom sauce. I like Heston. He comes across as a nice bloke. And I sat there watching him while doing another thing I haven’t done for 8 months: eating a pasta bake. My head has disappeared up my arse regarding food since the weekend, just like most other things have lately. But the idea was to use some of the random veg I returned to find in the fridge, so I roasted a couple of sliced courgette with garlic and rosemary and tossed in some ad dente penne in three rough layers filled with handfuls of salty cheddar cheese and topped with thick slices of deep red tomatoes. Plenty of oil to loosen things up. The idea was for something for us to eat tonight that would also do the kids tomorrow if they are unable to eat the Wank I am going to be throwing out for a friend’s visit.

So after Heston I finished off some of the prep for tomorrow’s lunch, cooking up an egg custard infused with cinnamon and vanilla to accompany a freshly made apple and almond tart; and completing an aromatic veg stock in which to braise some diced celeriac that will sit next to a neat row of purple venison medallions and a rich game sauce.

Then came the next audiovisual feast in the form of a brand new series of Ramsay’s nightmares. It so happens that I have recently been watching the best of Ramsay’s “Boiling point” on YouTube, in which he looks like a real fucking nutbag. He is fatter in the face and vile, yet at times deeply witty. But this couldn’t be further from the square-jawed alpha hunk gleaming back at me from the box tonight. It was the usual set-piece, this time with a Spanish backdrop. And it struck me all the more how junk-choked and polluting television is.

The content was minimal, and mostly containing shots of Ramsay’s flaccid chest or laughable pseudo-psychological stunts to drive the chef’s message through (a bullfight this evening for the arrogant, daddy’s-money-wasting victim). And that was just when the show was actually on – for about 15 minutes of the hour we were being sold lies in the form of washing powders, rock-bottom party-snack packs and sinister insurance deals. Christmas is in full swing apparently, with even Jamie popping up in a giant Sainsburys hot-air balloon talking up a cranberry-stuffed chipolata. The selling-out is so blatant – who in the world could have thought of sponsoring Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares than a certain brand of gin that rhymes with boredoms?

Monday, November 13, 2006

He wouldn't get very far in the Highlands

“Saturday mornings are always soup and cheese days in our house. The cheese is generally something British bought from the Saturday market trip…there will be bread of some sort or oatcakes and maybe a pear or a bunch of grapes afterwards. We eat it in the kitchen off pottery plates and bowls for no other reason than it feels right.”

Oh Fuck Off Nigel, please. For fuck’s sake man, what the fuck are you twittering on about now. Who’s “we” anyway? It conjures up shivery images of some faceless figure in a black polo neck hanging around Nige’s large London house in awe of its master and playing along to his delusions of culinary grandeur.

“Saturday is also my baking day,” he continues. “The day in which the kitchen wears a white shroud of flour and the smell of warm dough winds its way up to the attic. Sometimes there’s a wobbly, flour-dusted loaf of sourdough waiting [to take all 5 inches of my cock one lonely winter’s evening].”

So Saturday is Nigel’s baking day, is it? I mean, I am fully aware that he is not simply describing his day-to-day life, and that in fact he makes his comfortable London living from a full time media job that takes up a sizeable chunk of his home life. He may even spend many a happy hour testing and refining a recipe for us too downstairs in the basement with his Aga. But that only makes his rosy idyll column even more despicable. Would it really alienate the middle-England ladies and more effeminate types so badly if he threw in the occasional anecdote about how the photographer slipped on a wedge of “indecently oozing Wigmore” during one shoot and ended up in A&E with a pestle stuck in his ass; or about the time when the food-stylist who, on running out of varnish for the Christmas goose, ended up using some specialist lube that happened to be lying around the bathroom that weekend? Why does he have to tell us that the walnuts were organic?

My Saturday was spent recovering from a night of fine dining in George’s kitchen, which as it happens is conceptually identical to mine. He was trying out some ideas for the Wedding in a couple of weeks (which I can no longer bare to talk to anybody about), beginning with two takes on the “Inverskink” hot-soup+smoked-salmon combo. The first was served as a fine tomato consommé tasting of a thousand fruits yet the colour of light tea, but it was the creamed celeriac soup with a pile of fish and surrounded with a slick of parsley oil that took the crown. It will be superb when it comes off. Then we ate a huge octopus covered in olive oil, paprika and salt and eaten from a large wooden bowl with cocktail sticks. Finally we had two rounds of oaty-biscuit [a supremely rich and moist flapjack] desert, the first dealt as an oaty sandwich of cool white-chocolate mascarpone topped with a teaspoon of rose sorbet, and the second a triangle of biscuit topped with brown bread ice cream and surrounded by a warm rose coulis. In the end we opted for something in between. The boy can cook, and never is a song and dance made of it. The way food should be, provided you're sober enough to notice.

From there on, however, the weekend’s food intake was rough and sporadic, present as I was at a party that lasted until 11am the following day. Surrounded by drink and drugs and partially enacted teenage fantasies, I had a wild if at times extremely difficult night. The concept of sobriety is little understood up there, let alone that of abstinence. Having been asked the same question “why aren’t you drinking?” repeatedly by the same people all night, I started varying the answers -- one simply being “I am an alcoholic”. Down here in civilization that would be met with some surprise and probably a flustered change of subject, but up there it was more like: “Right. Was it the doctor’s advice or is it the Wife?” Says it all really, although being sober certainly opened my eyes to the wonder of ever better drugs than the usual class Cs.

And then home after no sleep to a burning cunt of a Thai green curry made by the Wife, which failed as did everything to bring me down to Earth or provoke much mental activity. Something about being back home go to me this weekend, and I don’t quite know what it was. But right now this place doesn’t feel right and I need a change. I even, despite being faced with a fridge full of vegetables and various cheese and general mid-week meals material, settled on a good Highland tattie and leek soup for tea, albeit one that was sweetened up by a couple of wrinkly old parsnips and wanked up with a mouldy lump of Cornish Yarg brought by George a couple of weeks back. And there was no pottery in sight, nor any signs of fruity discussion about whether the Yarg would have been better matched with a sweeter bread than the soggy thin slices of insipid brown rectangles spilling out of the bag before me.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Drying out

A full complement of females in the house once again, a warm home-coming provided by a swanky curry. It is possible to cook properly as well as look after two children, but only just. And that rules out anything like, say, a Nine-T-Fve-You-Fucking-Hate or even a phonecall of an evening. I have hardly stopped moving: bending down, lifting, placing, cleaning, wiping, running up steps, chasing along pavements, responding, correcting, acknowledging, not to mention cooking for the little sweethearts. Yesterday I made them a shepherds’ pie of the highest quality, which although looked dry when I retrieved it from the fridge this afternoon, was soon melted into the richest, beefy meal by a minute or two in the microwave.

So, somewhere in between I had managed this morning to trim and score the four chicken thighs I’d picked up at the airport shop two days ago and marinate them in a sweet chilli, fennel and coriander mash; and this afternoon to sweat a few onions, a carrot, parsnip, some ginger garlic and some dried spices (mainly tumeric and coriander) in a heavy pan, which I deglazed with a good glug of pastis and topped up with half pint or so of my latest stock and some tomato puree. Half an hour alter, just before I left for the airport, I switched off the boiling brew and left it to impregnate the Home with a sense of welcome. And we eventually sat down before a neat pile of white rice surrounded with a thick, golden sauce (made from the strained brew made earlier with some full-fat yoghurt and a good inch of creamed coconut) and topped with some rocket and parsley and a crispy thigh and a sloppy slither of roasted red and green pepper on top. A nice, if not revolutionary, departure from the regular spicy stew + rice affair.

But little was said before she toddled on up to bed, exhausted and rough from her holiday and its rum binge -- a “binge” being a event that lies somewhere in between the modern-day accepted definition of “5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more for women per occasion” and the Highland interpretation: a prolonged period lasting up to several months during which the alcoholic turns everything in his or her life over to drinking so as to spend all day every day drinking heavily and working out how to get more drink; all meetings being off and the agony only ceasing when (in the young) the cash and tick run out or (as with the old) the body gives up, comes out in a rash of bright red sores and leaves the alcoholic fighting for his or her life for the following six weeks in a Free Presbyterian hospice cum drying-out clinic.

Clive James you bastard

Keeping two children happy is a lot of work. There are no shortcuts. But food can be a handy device, both for fuelling the madness (done to great effect this afternoon with a perfect shepherds’ pie. Standing in my kitchen on a midweek afternoon, pouring a small pot of my fresh beef stock over a simple layer of fatty mince, onion and carrot, generally wiping dishes with butter wrappers and feeling slightly excited and deeply satisfied about the fact that most of the world, at least the part of it familiar to those of my generation throwing themselves into the fire for the pitiful return of pointless career progression, is hard at work. I feel very much alive during such moments, immersed in the effortless details of the task before me while also being acutely aware of my contentedness. And in the company of my daughter, desperate to much any morsel of the sweet shortbread dough we were making.

Gear enhances all of this. But it also fucks the brain up. Today’s shortbread is a case in point, fucking as I did the ratios to produce a rather rock-like disc which I am too embarrassed to let anybody see or taste. I will throw it and its packet of best butter away in the morning before the Wife returns.

Gear, in fact, is a case in point in itself. I knew I was going to run out this evening, so I made sure to chat to the neighbour in time for a 10-bag re-stock to tide me over until that precious day when I will stop so that I can be sure my decisions in life are not being affected by my grubby and increasingly boring addiction to cannabis. Each time it comes down to the last pipe or two the same thing happens. And my justification for not making today my quit-day was a radio monologue by that Australian cultural commentator Clive James in which he calmly described his addiction to extremity, whatever the fuck the substance actually is; the need for more of it, to abuse it until you ruin the relationship. It rang true, so true. And the simple line about how much creativity he suddenly lost once he had straightened-up struck a resonance within.

If only I could apply the same determination to other aspects of my life, including cooking for that matter. Why not try more things, experiment more instead of throwing out the same old roast-meat-and-carbs fat- and salt-fests? Like, for instance, the rose-petal jam George is making for the wedding? As for the short term, as in tonight’s tea, I could do with a lesson in frying squid. I picked up some creamy thick slices of a giant at the farmers’ today so marinated it in a sweet chilli and garlic mash, fried it in the grill oan and tossed it with some roasted tomatoes&peppers and a handful of lovely fresh rocket and flat-leafed parsley. And none of it from Tesco, as I have been going for the semi-rotten displays of veg from the languishing fruit&veg shops I come across.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Suicide meal

Well, it could have been. For tonight I am on my own, bar a couple of divine little girls and the shapeless company provided by the vapours from a well-stoked pipe of sticky green. But the actuality couldn’t have been more different. Having dropped the Wife off at the airport this afternoon I could hardly not drop into the airport shop for a steak or something. It was calm in there, much quieter than the Saturday mayhem. I walked out with 6 searingly fresh sardines, a kipper, a loaf of three-seed bread and a bag of beef bones for £6.50. I couldn’t have been happier.

But I am not supposed to be fannying around in the kitchen at all, only to look round and find my daughters twitching [I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t something else to this] in their chairs as they frown awkwardly into the middle distance. The afternoon turned into a bit of both I suppose, given that I can hardly count my throwing together of a kids’ broccoli and pasta cheese bake as indulgence but did find time to set a beef stock in motion for general winter purposes. It was 10 by the time I sat down to the platter of crispy grilled fish, scored deeply and scattered with parsley, Maldon and lemon; a good glug of olive oil and some soft brown bread and butter. I haven’t had fresher sardines that I remember, it was an awesome feast, even if one that was bathed in the carnal aroma of boiling beef bones.

I love food like this. Normally I would have sourced a steak under such circumstances, but I felt after Sunday I needed to stay away from the artery stuff for a wee while. It was a blow-out perhaps, but not an uncivilised one. From the morsels of herring-in-oatmeal thrown out before the salmon and parsnip soup to the other-worldly quality of the fresh vanilla ice-cream -- a pint of double cream, 6 egg yolks, two vanilla pods and 100g caster sugar – it was smiles all round. And the menu couldn’t have been better matched to the limitless appetites around the table. We got through a fucking shed-load of meat, I did you not. And it was fucking good meat too, the salt marsh lamb carrying a flavour the likes of which I have never tasted in a ruminant.

But now, alas, it is time to start straining that vat of hot brown brew congealing behind me. I don’t have the time for it. I am stretched to the limit and will be standing here, moderately monged, carefully pressing root vegetables through a sieve for a meal the cooking and eating of which may take place months after I am dead. But at least it beats making a Monday stir-fry from them.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

In prep for the Sunday feast

My grandchildren, according to the most extensive scientific survey ever undertaken into man’s effect on the global marine ecosystem, will probably never get the chance to savour, in adulthood, the joys of a fresh oyster on a Christmas morning or a grilled fresh mackerel in the later summer sun; an not a firm wild salmon steak for love nor money. The fish are doomed, basically. Worse still, the report comes just two days after we learn from the world’s leading economist that we are burning up. Even if we do all that we can immediately to cut our greenhouse emissions, we’re still facing human displacement on a scale never seen before. Finally, today some clever clogs has worked out that the cost to the UK of tackling, whatever that means, climate change is precisely teh same as that involved in upgrading our nuclear deterrent and maintaining it for the next 30 years.

So, rather than let it all get on top of me I jumped in my ten year old petrol automobile and drove a round trip of 20 miles to pick up a bit of salmon. If I’m going to burn up I’m going to be doing it with a mouthful. In fact, I learned today while chatting to members of my extended family in the airport shop, that the luxurious oyster I had consumed at Mr Blumenthal’s a month or two back actually came from the same clear plastic tub of shells staring up at me from the oh-so-familiar fish counter. The salmon too, and it turns out that my suspicions at the time while savouring the alien sensation of a liquorice parcel of room-temp cooked salmon melting on my tongue were well-founded: he buys-in farmed fish, rather surprisingly. The owner, Steve, happens to be good mates with Heston and rates him as a “top bloke” (apparently he was there on Day 1, cutting the ribbons …). Ramsey, on the other hand, lost all his accounts on account of his 90-day credit requests.

Oh well, before I start to sound like a celebrity column. I have in store a meal of memory tomorrow, a meat-fest for three hungry blokes – a half leg of salt-marsh lamb and a well-hung forerib of beef. And cream, so much fucking cream. I made the dauphinoise this morning in a big rush in between a humanity-searching trip to the horrific out-of-town Tescoland and a brisk walk in the crisp November air. Two-fifths or thereabouts celeriac andwrapped up safely in the fridge, as they will be at the wedding in a few week’s time. They were road-tested by the youngest, who stuffed her face with the creamy layers until she could take no more. It is going to be cholesterol blow-out tomorrow, the meat clotted between a creamy smoked salmon skink starter and a rich custard desert.

So tonight it was fitting to eat more nimbly, although as ever it never really turned out like that once the butter, oil, bread and salt had been factored in. Herring fillets, virtually free, rolled in the usual flour-egg-oat layers and fried until a nutty brown in hot butter; and with it a pile of herby leaves rolled in a sweet wholegrain mustard dressing and a large wedge of lemon. A lovely, lovely meal as ever. But it seemed for some reason even more juicy, fresh and delicious than ever this evening. And my sterile glass of chilled, sparkling mineral water, for once, could not have made a better match.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The salmon of doubt

Fucking dithering Highland bastards have left me feeling like a right cunt, having finally admitted that there will not, after all, be three prime wild salmon frozen and waiting for me and George to scale, fillet and roast and serve as the first of three themed courses to a table of 40 at my sister’s wedding in 4 weeks’ time. Two nights ago, the pair of us sat here arriving at a menu.

A budget of £150 EXCLUDING the salmon and venison. A five course meal at three pounds per head that will be 10 times better than the hotel-catering equivalent for 10 times the price. Yes, that means an overall improvement of a factor of 100. Of course, most of the reason for this absurd differential is that the cooks, namely me and George, come for free and that the proceeds don’t need t cover the family holidays of a fat absentee hotelier. You might think, therefore, that the people getting this deal of the century would go out of their way to make sure your every catering need is, well, catered for.

How wrong you could be. For one, we are dealing with the Highlands here – where arrangements are somewhat more laid back and empty promises rue the day. For two, it’s only their brother, so it doesn’t matter that much. “Oh don’t worry about the food; the salmon is in the freezer and the venison is running around somewhere with my name on it.” But they don’t care because they don’t cook. They don’t realize that it takes time to plan a sit-down meal for 40 on a budget of £150. They don’t realize that it is better to hear a flat “No” than it is to find out after 6 months of expectation that in fact none of the food you have been picturing prepped and later propped up by a few heat lamps probably never existed in the first place.

That plan had been hatched a few days ago, on Monday, when George turned up here laden with goodies from Cornwall to thrash out the menu and shopping list. It hadn’t got off to a great start anyway, as I was not very welcoming of his ideas for brown-bread ice cream or elaborate ways to cut dauphinoise. He has never made brown-bread ice cream, for example, and my trust in his ability to pull anything at all off is still suffering badly from out hellish kitchen-building experience here last month. But by the time we were tucking into a bowl of spicy pumpkin and coconut soup and a fat pasty served with nothing but a dollop of sweet, salty, vinegary ketchup we had arrived at a menu solution. It felt right to eat this food, as talking about how we were going to prepare the wedding feast had put me right off the idea.

The course in question was going to be a perfectly trimmed fillet of wild salmon from the river 100m across the road from where the guests will be sat. It was to be perched atop a soft pile of confit tomatoes, surrounded with a drizzle of parsley oil and topped with a twist of fresh herb salad. Difficult, but not impossible, to fuck up, and certainly a lot of time to prepare the fish. But by fuck, a simple way to blow people away and, moreover, to get as far away as possible from the sorry sitting-on-the-table-waiting plate of cold pate on toast or perhaps a small goats cheese and caramelized onion tart or whatever served next to a few bitter salad leaves and a boresamic reduction of some fucking sort or other. I know where I am with salmon.

But it was all in vain, as less than 24 hours later I was listening to the painful sound of family members I know, love and respect stumbling over pathetic excuses to the negative as to why the salmon was off. Feuds, delinquency and a total inability to view life from anyone else’s viewpoint but their own left us empty fucking handed.

But all is not lost, as it turns out that there is a small freezerful of the smoked variety. Now all we have to do is find a way to serve it hot. 7lb of best wild smoked salmon, and I can't quite bring myself to get excited about it. Fucking cunts. Fucking dithering Highland cunts man.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The bottle

I should watch more television. I see Blumenthal and Hugh battling it out in their new-format food shows, the former apparently trying but totally missing the mark with ludicrous recipes that we will never, ever follow. Ditto Fearnly-Twitteringshalll, and his attempt to get a load of ready-meal munching zombies from an estate up north to experience the flavour of fresh vegetables and happy chickens and to marvel over the spherical sight of one of Hugh’s plump and ripening apples hanging in his small but eclectic orchard. Whatever he’s feeding himself he’d doing a good job if it, that’s for sure.

Spending my time semi-engaging with these people on screen would also have been the perfect fodder to help down my tea of “leftover pasta”, basically some spaghetti tossed in an eggy, creamy sauce with bacon and cabbage and parsley. The weather has turned for sure, the evenings sparkling with a light frost and the air cold and chemical. It si the weather for smoking, for sure. The temperature to sooth the plumes of smoke impacting on the back of your throat for cool comfort. The climate for a dram, a bottle of which I just bought. It may be hard to avoid temptation but I do not feel as though my home is complete, particularly at this time of year, without a dram. You never know when you are going to need it. You must always have it to hand.