The Obscurer

Category: Food

On A Plate: Italy

Talking of which (not that I was) here is the latest tip from my irregular cookery series. And that tip is…use passata.
Once upon a time I decided to make a pasta Bolognese for tea – I’m a big fan of using cavatappi myself, having bored with spaghetti a while ago – but all of a sudden I realised we were without a ready-made pasta sauce in the cupboard. We’d often rely on a jar of something like Loyd Grossman’s Primavera or a Sacla Cherry Tomato and Basil sauce for ease of thing; many are nice although none are perfect, the main problem being that the kids baulk at the sight of any “lumps”, such as a miniscule sliver of onion or a tiny cube of tomato, and so we’d have to meticulously pick those bits out prior to serving. Such concerns are irrelevant, though, if you don’t have a jar in; so what to do? Fortunately, way at the back of the cupboard, sat a carton of passata that I’ll have bought in with the intention of making something a bit more adventurous sometime (I’ve got a great recipe for puttanesca somewhere). That’ll have to do, I thought, because I’d my heart set on Bolognese and red wine by now and I couldn’t be bothered popping out to the shops.

Passata on it’s own I knew would be pretty dull – it’s just sieved tomatoes at the end of the day – so first I fried a bit of garlic, dried basil and dried oregano in a little bit of olive oil; then I added the passata and stirred well. I warmed it through a bit, then gave it a little taste. It was still a tad bland, so I added a bit of salt. Tasting it again the flavour had certainly pepped up but now I thought it a little bitter, so I chucked is a sprinkling of sugar. That did the trick, and soon I was left with a simple pasta sauce as nice as any I’d tasted before.

The first and most obvious advantage I noticed in making your own sauce is that there are no bits in to annoy the kids – or to annoy me when having to pick them out – so long as you don’t stupidly add them in the first place. But I also realised that this must be pretty much all that pasta sauce manufacturers are doing; taking passata and adding stuff to it. The beauty of adding that stuff yourself, of course, is that now, rather than shopping around and trying to find a pasta sauce that is just to your liking, it is just as easy to buy passata and then customise your sauce however you like depending on your situation or mood; so, just garlic, oregano and basil if we’re eating with the kids, but, say, onions, capers and chillies too if it’s just me and the wife. And it is, of course, far cheaper to do yourself what you’d otherwise be paying Sig. Dolmio to do for you. So, now you know what to do, take this rotten old tree and make it bear fruit.

But a warning; this knowledge is dangerous. There is a lucrative pasta sauce industry out there, charging up to £2 for little more than 35p passata with bits. That’s quite a mark-up, their profit margins must be enormous, but can this last? I doubt it. It can’t be long before word spreads and it becomes common knowledge that what had looked at first glance to be the manufacturers “adding value” now seems to be little more than “adding oregano”. I fear we have an enormous, inflated and overheated “pomodoro bubble” here which is about to pop, splashing tomato sauce all over the tiling and hob. So I’m entrusting you to use this new information wisely and cautiously. Sell your shares in Ragu for sure, but allow this information to simmer out gradually, so there is just a gradual decline in the sales of those inefficient and overpriced pasta sauces rather than a sudden crash, giving the manufacturers enough time to find another way to rip us off. The last thing I want to see is a penniless and dejected Loyd Grossman, his pasta sauce business in tatters, begging to be let back on MasterChef; but as a contestant, imploring one and all that the only thing he’s ever wanted to do is to work in a kitchen.

Tasting Notes

I drink too much. Far too much, you could say, and you’d be right. Some, though not me, try to counter this problem by making a New Year’s Resolution to stop drinking, or to at least cut down. But that’s difficult, when you’re dying for a pint after work, or fancy a cool beer on a hot day. So what do you do? Perrier? Kaliber? Oh fuck it, you say, let’s just have a beer. Just the one. And then…

One of my big problems is that I really love the taste of beer, which is why the aforementioned Kaliber is out of the question. As a kid I was always baffled when my mates moaned about the taste of beer, saying it was disgusting but, if you wanted to get drunk in those pre-alcopop days, you just had to get it down you. Were that mad? Beer’s lovely, I thought. From sipping my dad’s home-brew stout while watching the Five Nations Rugby Union, to passing around a sneaky Roughneck flask filled with the contents of one of those diddy cans of Heineken one school lunch time (which, amazingly now, I remember as tasting impossibly bitter), I’ve been hooked on beer; but more on the taste than on the variable effect. So, finding a drinkable low- or non-alcohol version of the fine beverage was always going to be tricky.

But not impossible, as I found out during the course of last year, and one of my many concerted efforts to cut down on the booze. So if you’re struggling with your New Year’s abstinence and certain that trying a Kaliber will almost certainly turn you to drink, here are my top choices for low-alcohol drinking; drawn, in fairness, from a not very wide sample.

  • Bohemia: 0.0% abv. This is the one that started it all off, a chance purchase that I was delighted to discover was not only not disgusting but was in fact actually quite pleasant. The first thing I noticed was that it doesn’t smell nasty, with that vulcanised rubber scent I had found with other alcohol-free brews. Instead it has a lighter, almost floral smell, and the taste itself I can best describe as exhibiting a subtle “lager flavour”, with a slightly bitter malt finish. Unlike most alcohol-free beers that pride themselves on being made in the normal manner but with the alcohol (and flavour!) removed at the last minute, Bohemia is brewed so that no alcohol is produced in the first place. The result, I guess, is more a beer-flavoured soft drink, which rather than trying and failing to taste like a real beer instead gives you something that is reminiscent of beer, rather in the way that cherryade is reminiscent of cherries without quite tasting like a cherry. But that’s fine by me as it’s still nicer than some regular lagers; Robinson’s Einhorn, I’m looking at you. Bohemia is especially good on a sweltering day when you could murder a cold one, or with a spicy curry or a chilli where it successfully fools me into thinking I’m having a real beer (until I finish the curry, that is, when the illusion is shattered and I tend to bail out). Bohemia is widely available in most supermarkets – Morrisons, Sainsbury and Tesco certainly stock it – and you can buy it in 33cl bottles and cans.
  • Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei: 0.5% abv. Bohemia is great if you fancy a swift half, but what should you do if you’d like a longer drink, perhaps a few beers while watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu? Well, I’d rather go to the pub myself, but if for some unfathomable reason you actually like watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu and want to accompany it with a few alcohol-free beers, what then? Well the clue is that I’ve started this paragraph with the words “Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei”, as that is the beer I would suggest. It comes in a decent-sized 50cl bottle, and for the benefit of non-German speakers is an alcohol-free wheat beer. First impressions aren’t encouraging; opening the bottles reveals that familiar Kaliber-like smell, and when poured into a glass it froths up unnaturally in a manner unlike any normal beer. An inauspicious start, then; but once it has settled down it looks much better, being reassuringly cloudy, and the taste, I reckon, could easily be mistaken for that of a real beer, a nice premium larger. You get a hit of sharpness at first, initial grapefruity-citrus notes, which then gradually give way to a smooth, mellow, and genuine wheat-beery finish. Very pleasant to drink at anytime, and it is certainly one I can enjoy a few bottles of in its own right, rather than something I’d take as a grudging alternative to the real thing (unless I want to get shit-faced, of course). Just when you think it can’t get any better you find that it’s even brewed in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, contains a mere 125 calories a bottle, is isotonic, apparently, and is rich in unspecified vitamins. What more do you want (except alcohol)? Erdinger is available from Tesco and The Alcohol Free Shop, and this entry would have a red “Best Buy” star on it, if I could be bothered.
  • Bernard Free Amber Beer: 0.5 abv. But what if I don’t like lager, you ask? Well, then I’d say that you need to pay better attention because I’ve already told you; then I’ll take a deep breath and again refer you to the words in bold at the start of this paragraph, because Bernard Free may be just what you need. It smells and looks like the real deal straight off, like a genuine dark Czech beer, which is pretty much what it tastes like; it has a delicious mildly-bitter nutty taste, a slight hint of burnt treacle, and just a lurking of liquorice. Very nice indeed. So nice that just as you’re thinking you’ve found the perfect alcohol-free winter ale the taste suddenly fades away to a watery nothingness and you realise it doesn’t have much depth to it; the answer is to take another swig, I guess. This wateriness may be the reason why I found that a bottle at the back of my fridge had actually frozen solid, so I tend to leave it in a cool corner of my kitchen instead. Still, the flavour is very nice while it lasts, and is an interesting alternative to the above lagers. You can buy it in 50cl bottles from Tesco; it actually won an award in the 2009 Tesco drink awards so I suspect it may be exclusive to them, but you may find it elsewhere. I haven’t, though.

So, they’re my three favourites so far, but it is just my opinion, and you may well disagree. I know people who like Beck’s Blue, for instance, and while it does taste impressively authentic it is just a bit unremittingly hoppy for my tastes. Others rate Cobra 0.0%, but I personally file it alongside Bitburger in the Kaliber bin with all those other unreconstructed alcohol-free beers. I’ve also had a couple of bottles of Holsten in the pub when the designated driver, and they seemed okay; but in truth I’ve had too few to give an opinion.

My main reasoning in writing this post was to a) fill up some space on this almost-forgotten blog, and b) tell people who’ve never looked at alcohol-free beer for years – not since they feel Lawrie McMenemy betrayed them over Barbican – that this stuff may deserve a second look. And there is much more to explore than those mentioned here as The Alcohol Free Shop website makes clear, with many more varieties of beers and a huge selection of wines also. And I for one feel far more virtuous tipping a load of Bohemia empties in the recycling; even if, to the casual observer, it still probably makes me look like a piss-head.

So, what will you be drinking tonight? Fancy a wheat-beer? Interesting. But will it be a brain-rotting, sclerosis-inducing Hoegaarden, or an alcohol-free, low-calorie, not to mention vitamin-rich Erdinger? Well, speak for yourself, but as I’ve a tense football match to get through I’m going to hunker down with a crate of full-fat Stella. Don’t look at me like that. I’ll be good tomorrow.

MasterChef Is Back

We interrupt our weekly Twitter digests with a quick word from MasterChef HQ. Because if it is said that a picture paints a thousand words, how few words can you get away with writing if, rather than carefully scripting a post, you instead chuck up a quick animated video?

A few weeks ago I came across this video, wherein Flying Rodent took some of the words from this post by Devil’s Kitchen and put them to his own animation, with a little help from Xtranormal, a new(ish) video-making site. DK’s original post actually starts off quite intelligently, more or less echoing my own thoughts on the differences between “positive libertarianism” and “negative libertarianism”; but then he goes and ruins it all – at least by my reckoning – in claiming that he belongs to the former category. I’m sure he honestly believes it; but the rest of his post is pretty much DK-by-numbers in my experience, the sort of thing I’ve read umpteen times before. Anyway, Flying Rodent’s animated version lifts up our Devil’s humble prose beautifully by placing his words in a more fitting context altogether, and with hilarious consequences.

Which got me to thinking about whether I could also use Xtranormal to amusing effect – perhaps by animating my MasterChef post from a few months back – and do you know what, I’m not sure that I can. But here, regardless, is the fruit of my efforts.

On A Plate: Spain

It’s Spain this week, and no food speaks more of that fine nation than paella. Except perhaps patatas fritas. Anyway, here is my authentic recipe for paella, gleaned from a tiny piece of card attached to a fridge magnet my parents brought back from Benalmadena some years ago, and you can’t get much more authentic than that I reckon. I have transcribed this recipe word-for-word from that precious text, so if you similarly follow its instructions word-for-word you surely can’t go far wrong.

Ingredients:

  • 600grs. rice
  • 200grs. loin
  • 200grs. eel
  • 200grs. sausage
  • 200grs. peas
  • 100grs. green beans
  • 10grs. paprika
  • 12 shellfishes
  • 1/8l. Oli litre
  • 1 Tomato chicken
  • 2 peppers
  • 4 ripe tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 3 garlics, saffron, salt and parsley

Method:

  1. Finely chop the onions and brown in rit healed in «Paella» cortingdish
  2. Add the tomatoes, prawns, feons and carjennt pepper
  3. Corb for appros 10 minutes
  4. Add the fish, rausage and chicken, miaing all together
  5. Put in the rice and pour bating water (about doulle volume tree)
  6. Leoson sal gratic partey
  7. Limofort 20 minutes all liquid up
  8. Decorte sitig of paper sever medi in the «Paella» coting dish

I publish this in the certain knowledge that were I to translate my instructions for, say, sausage, mash, peas and onion gravy into Spanish, the result would be similar. Still, with a scoop of good luck, your finished paella should look something like this.

On A Plate: India

What do you do when you find that the opinions of those you ostensibly agree with are as annoying as the views of those whose arguments you oppose? Well, in my case you finally delete your proposed blog post on the G20 protests, feel a weight lifted off your shoulders, a release of endorphins, and put that feeling to good use by clearing out all those other half-written posts in draft form that you always knew in your heart-of-hearts you would never complete. You see, what began as a post that attempted to look beyond the easy condemnation apparent on all sides when discussing the G20 demos, to appeal to reason and understanding, against prejudice, and to examine it all within the context of human nature and our inevitable fallibilities, soon degenerated into a downward spiral of criticisms, a swirling vortex dragging everyone down as I absorbed further revelations, reactions and responses, until I ended up alone in a place where I thought everybody’s opinion was a load of utter bollocks. Mine included. In fact I began to feel a little like Terry in that scene from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads…

Terry: “I haven’t got much time for the Irish or the Welsh, and the Scots are worse than the Koreans”

Bob: “And you never could stand southerners”

Terry: “To tell you the truth I don’t much like anyone outside this town. And there aren’t many families down our street that I can stand”

But enough, please, of such lycanthropy and other such knowing malapropisms. If I’m not going to write about the G20, what should I write about instead? Well, I was thinking: what about cooking? Because I like cooking, I do; I find it the perfect accompaniment to listening to the radio. I can relax and enjoy it, even if I am at best a competent, attentive but uninspired sort of a cook. And I can’t imagine a situation where someone criticises a recipe to the extent that they seem to be anti-recipes, or praises a recipe without apparently acknowledging some recipes’ failings, can you? Do people ever sound off about a recipe they know little about based only upon a few facts, plenty of speculation and a bucket load of prejudice? Does anyone ever, for example, assume there is either too much or too little garlic in a recipe before they have read the list of ingredients? I’m hoping not. Recipes, surely, are one area where one keeps an open mind in the absence of any facts, where one is prepared to adopt a “wait and see” approach, rather than to jump to a conclusion in the first instance and to then stick with it regardless of whether or not subsequent instances support or refute your initial assumptions (unless a recipe involves liver, of course, in which case damn it to hell and back).

So, I think I may turn this old place into a recipe blog, to build on the huge popularity of my toast, pensioner pie and MasterChef posts. And what better place to start than with the nation’s favourite (is it really?): curry! Yes, just follow my simple instructions and the most perfect Chicken Jalfrezi could soon be yours to enjoy.

  1. First, slice two good sized chicken breasts nice and finely
  2. Brown the sliced chicken in a splash of olive oil over a medium heat for a few minutes until just turning golden
  3. Take a jar of Geeta’s Spice & Stir Jalfrezi Sauce, remove the spice pot from the top of the jar and stir in the spices, frying for a few minutes
  4. Add the sauce from the jar, stirring well, until the pot is nicely simmering
  5. Chuck in some leftovers. I used the remains of a jar of Lime Pickle the other day, and a potato from under the sink that was past its best
  6. Transfer the whole lot into the slow cooker. Poor the mixture into the cooker off the back of a wooden spoon to avoid those splashes of curry sauce that you can’t fully remove from the worksurface until the sun has bleached them
  7. Cook for around an hour or more (the longer the better), then bung in a tin of chickpeas (I got mine buy-one-get-one-free from Morrisons) and stir. Leave for a further 20 minutes
  8. Rinse the required amount of basmati rice in water three times, then set to boil in unsalted water for around 12 minutes
  9. When the rice is cooked, drain and set aside for 5 minutes
  10. Rip up a good clump of fresh coriander and add to the curry, stirring well
  11. Serve
  12. Eat

Finally, a few dos and don’ts.

Do drain the rice thoroughly and set aside, as this gives a chance for any excess moisture to evaporate off the rice, leaving it light and fluffy, lovely and dry. Also, keep an eye on the curry; the longer you leave it the more tender the chicken, but you may want to add a bit of water now and then to ensure it doesn’t dry out.

Don’t read what it says on the side of the jar; not just the instructions which suggest you should cook the curry for a much shorter time – a mere twenty minutes or so – but also the part that tells you that Jalfrezi

was originally a dish of the British Raj named after Colonel Frazer of the British Raj army, and is now found on many restaurant menus. Generally cooked with chicken, peppers, onions and green chillies, Jalfrezi has an aromatic zesty flavour with an added ‘kick’. Jalfrezi, or jhal frezi, means dry fry and as such this delicious hot dish does not have much gravy. Instead the spicy thick sauce tantalisingly clings to the chicken or meat

Can Jalfrezi really be named after a Colonel Frazer and mean dry fry? Is this coincidence, or bollocks? Is Geeta trying to have her curry and eat it? Whatever; perhaps the money saved on proofreading the label – in failing to spot that contradiction, as well as in the clumsy repetition of the phrase “British Raj” (yeah, I now, like I’ve got room to talk) – has been ably deployed in creating the quite delicious curry sauce itself. If so, then who cares? For if you do try Geeta’s my recipe for Chicken Jalfrezi, you will find out for yourself that the resulting curry really is very fine indeed.

Anyway, here’s a picture.