19 July 2005

I started to write a reply to the latest comment from Matt, and it set off a firestorm of food-inspired prose, so why not save myself the wrist strain and just make it a regular post. So here goes:
I would be interested in the aforementioned food, if it is as good as you say. When I was in Great Britain, I thought most of the things I ate to be extremely bland. I was willing to excuse the first few meals off of the plane because of my airsickness, but it just never got better. Eventually we all started craving the greasy meat-like patties of McDonalds.That being said, we didn't spend months and months there, as Orwell said that only the well traveled would know good English fare.
--Posted by Matt aka aulservant aka Throckmorton at 7/19/2005 11:47:32 AM


Yes, and what might pass for quick meals and restaurant food in London might not accurately reflect traditional English food. I once read that you could never get quality Cornish Pasties outside of Cornwall...everywhere else in Britain they are a sort of "fast food" slopped together with precooked meat and veggies.

I'd say with few exceptions my English cooking is hardly bland. While it is very traditional and therefore shirks the annoying gourmet convention of making every ingredient exotic and weird (ie. mango and chile infused haddock with Spanish nutmeg vinaigrette, or what-have-you), I use lots of traditional ingredients, simple ingredients such as Worcestershire sauce, freshly cracked pepper, seasoned salt, butter, sauteed onions, leeks, various herbs, etc. Also, if you've got really good meats you don't need overly spicy food...really choice lamb or beef would be a waste if you bury it under tons of overly spicy seasonings. Lamb in particular has a very pleasing, softly sweet taste that I'm rather keen on...something to augment rather than obscure.

Which isn't to say I abstain from using powerful spices...another pseudo-English dish is my Chicken Curry, and Debra and I have gone to church sometimes embarrassed by how strong the curry reek is on our clothes. That is potent stuff. My recipe only has four ingredients...chicken, onions, butter, and a special hot curry powder. I've made Lamb Curry twice before but lamb is so hard to come by...it was excellent though. I really ought to live in New Zealand, where the sheep outnumber the people 9 to 1, or something like that.

I think, as Orwell points out, the problem with English food isn't that English food isn't good, its that there are so many instances of poorly executed English food that give it a bad name. Having not yet had the experience of visiting in person, unfortunately, that's mostly conjecture combined with some degree of satisfaction with the recipes I've honed. However, I've seen several recipes that sound like they would bore me to tears. I imagine Lincolnshire sausages (the chief sausage for Bangers and Mash and Toad-in-a-Hole) would be rather bland compared to spicy bratwurst and Italian sausages, and plop a bunch of Yorkshire pudding on them, and your bland quotient just doubled. However, the Bangers and Mash I made (with Swedish potato sausages...the closest thing I could find) was tasty, if not exceptional. Other things I've made, aside from my signature and favourite dish (Shepherd's/Cottage Pie), are the aforementioned Leek Soup which is surprisingly good, an English Beef Soup similar to what we know as steak soup, an Irish Beef Stew made with Guinness stout (very, very tasty), fish and chips, and various other things.

There's a simple lack of pretense I love about English cooking. French cooking is rife with snobbery, and basically has morphed into modern "gourmet". Complexity, to my thinking, can ruin a dish far quicker than simplicity will. English ingredients are simple, mild, and unpretentious. Simple flavours like beef, ale, butter, pepper, carrots, potatoes, cheese, onions, lamb, apples, etc...these sort of ingredients present something of a challenge to a cook (I dare not use the self-important moniker "chef"), to allow their flavours to meld and not distract from each other. Most modern recipe books engage in "one-upmanship", trying to outdo the other books by creating wild, new, sensational recipes using all new ingredients and weird flavour combinations. It has almost gotten to the point that you can walk into a restaurant and never find something as simple as a grilled steak and potato (now its a bourbon-sauteed ribeye topped with crispy onion curls served with garlic-parmesan mashed turnips) or roast beef. I mean, you can still get simple stuff, but the trend is to overcomplicate everything in order to sell it. Case in point...the simple appeal of Fettucine Alfredo. A good dish of this should contain noodles, milk/cream, butter, and Parmesan cheese, maybe with some freshly cracked pepper on top. Nothing else. When you start dumping broccoli and chicken and chives and mushrooms and peppers and mozzarella and sausage....etc....you ruin the simplicity of the dish.

But all in all, there are three things I think the English do better than any other nation. Meat pies, cheese, and ale. The excellence of the latter in particular, is what prompted my experimentation in small-scale brewing...now well underway.

6 comments:

Matt said...

So, what you're saying is that Chirac's desperate pomposity in degrading English cuisine is false?

I did enjoy the food at Odoud's Irish Pub down on the Plaza, but I don't know how truly authentic the food is there. I'll just have to get on a kick and try cooking some...especially curry anything.

I'm currently predisposed with coffee. I bought a french press and a large supply of green coffee beans for home roasting in my air popcorn popper. Mind you, I can't be so exact as to make a Light City Roast as opposed to a Dark City Roast, but it's a heck of a lot better than the coffee at most coffee shops.

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

Chirac is an odious little toadie. No, I did not say frog. I will not degrade frogs so. But yes, the French pomposity regarding their cooking is misplaced. English cooking is maligned and misunderstood. All too often, as mentioned, it is poorly executed...but when done right it is excellent.

Have not as yet been to O'Dowd's. I've been researching local establishments, and I've read a PDF of O'Dowd's menu which sounds like a curious mix of the authentic and the Americanized, but overall, it is probably the closest thing to English food here locally, outside of the kitchens of various expatriates and myself. It is Irish, however, and not English, but for us Americans, that's often close enough.

Your coffee predisposition sounds interesting! I was just having a chat Thursday night with a Mr. Lucian Cannole, who is a bit of a coffee cognoscenti, about the availability of green coffee beans and home roasting equipment. One rather expensive variety I've read about is from Yemen, and appears to be actually partially fermented by local bacteria and yeast, which, as fans of Belgian lambic will tell you, is not always as bad as it sounds. The link:

http://www.williamsbrewing.com/AB1605000/showdetl.cfm?&DID=7&Product_ID=1026&CATID=17

I'll have to relay to you my curry chicken recipe. Granted its very simple and was adapted from the side of the curry powder tin, but its quite forgiving, easy, and tasty. I'll post it here in a moment.

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

Chicken Curry

First, get a good curry powder. Standard store brands I've found to be not good. My brand is Sun Brand Madras Curry Powder...perfectly balanced heat, in my opinion, not too hot, not too mild, and all the spices in perfect balance. I get mine at World Market, here's a link with info on it:

http://shop.store.yahoo.com/chefshop/sunbranmadcu.html

But anyway. Chop up one onion to a reasonable degree of fineness, don't mince it but get it into small bits. Then chop up about a pound of chicken. I find its easiest to buy chicken already sliced for stirfry, and then cut it up a bit more if you prefer smaller pieces. Heat up a large skillet with about a tablespoon (maybe a bit more) of butter, and when completely melted and hot, toss in the onion. Fry until the onion is slightly translucent, maybe taking some colour. This usually smells quite good. Then, add about three rounded teaspoons of the curry powder. You might also have on hand a glass of water...if need be, pour in a tiny bit of water to keep everything wet and pasty so it doesn't burn. Cook that for maybe 30-60 seconds, then add the chicken. Stir up, and then keep on frying this for a while. Don't know the exact time...just until done. I tend to overcook it just to be sure, but the trick to it is to keep adding a bit of water to it so it always stays moist and never burns. That will keep the chicken from drying out. You don't want a big curry soup, so don't pour the glass in, but add just an ounce or so at a time when it starts to stick. I really forget exactly what a good time to cook it would be if you can't tell otherwise when its done...cook the chicken for 10 minutes at least I'd say, and you should be fine. 10-20, but cut open a piece and make sure it isn't pink. When its ready, if you still have some water left over, cook it down a bit more until the sauce is thick and pasty, and its about ready to burn...then take it off the heat.

Serve with rice or noodles. And for those of at least 21 years of age, I'd recommend pairing it with Samuel Smith's India Pale Ale at cellar temperature (55 deg Fahr). The crisp, snappy hoppiness and subtle spiciness of the ale would complement the curry marvelously.

Matt said...

You have inspired me to make an attempt at British food...and it was quite good. I checked out an English cookbook (quite interesting, really, it reads like a history book with recipes in between) and made Beef Wellington last night. It was extremely good! Though I do wonder at what altitude the author cooks at, because I know that 30 minutes at 250 degrees will not cook beef. Or the crust. Or much of anything in there.

I also meant to make Cabbage with Milk, but I completely forget to buy cabbage while I was at the store. Another day.

I usually get my green coffee beans at this site:

www.sweetmarias.com

There are many methods of roasting the beans, some using the oven and the stove, but air roasting produces the most even results. I simply use an air popcorn popper, which gets to a temperature well high enough to turn the earthy smelling green beans into a fine cup o' joe. You can also buy the unroasted beans at the Broadway cafe roastery in Westport, but he charges quite a bit more a pound than Sweet Maria since it's unusual for him to sell them green.

Oh, and if you want to read a very knowlegable coffee site with the most pretentious aficionados you will ever see, try

www.coffeegeek.com

Matt said...

Oh, and thanks for the recipe. I can't wait for the spice to arrive.

The Irascible Neufonzola said...

Beef Wellington, eh? That's a bit more ambitious than I've yet been willing to try. The recipes I've seen as yet for that have all stipulated very expensive ingredients. Still, perhaps a good holiday dish. Tonight I'm again making a Cottage Pie...it's becoming second nature almost.

Cabbage with Milk? I've never been a huge cabbage fan so I should withhold judgement I suppose. I have meant to try Bubble and Squeak...it uses cabbage.

Another good and simple recipe (that I made over the weekend)...Cornish Pasties. A nice little meat/vegetable pastry that is quick to make and quite palatable. Simply take one onion, one medium to small potato, one pound (or slightly less) of stew or stir fry beef. Chop all up into fairly small bits, including the beef. Mix in a bowl, add (going off the top of my head here) perhaps a 1/4 tsp of dry mustard, 2 tsp of ketchup, some freshly cracked pepper to taste, a healthy slug of worcestershire (lea and perrins) to taste, parsley for colour...perhaps some herbs...but the point is, season to taste. Then (here is my shortcut) get a box of pre-made, rolled up pie pastry. It comes two in a box (one for the bottom, one for the top). Roll one out onto a pan, and spoon half the mixture, or at least as much as you think will fit, onto one side of the pastry, and fold the other half over. Crimp the edges. Do the same with the other pastry. You should have two half circle "pies". Cut slits in the top to let the steam out. The oven should be preheated to about 400 degrees (my recipe says 390, because that is the equivalent of the Brit gas mark used) and cook for about 45 minutes. It might be a bit dry by itself, but I find it pairs nicely with a good steak sauce, like A1 for example.