How to Eat Ice Cream

August 7, 2009

My father took these photographs while we in France last month.  This is in a restaurant in Albi, near to my parents’ home.  This is my daughter Catherine, who is four, and who is displaying a gratifyingly Epicurean streak.  Good to the last drop, or dollop.

Update: my mother has written to tell me, somewhat indignantly, that she was the one who took the photos, thank you very much.  She also says that the music is rubbish, and they are working on adding something appropriate Gallic.  I can hardly wait.

Latest Update: same movie, new soundtrack with added French flare.  Allegedly.


Distractions and Prevarications, Part 3

August 3, 2009

Patatas a lo Pobre

Poor Man’s Potatoes

We quickly worked out that the real reason these are called “Poor Man’s Potatoes” is because only a poor man – specifically, a man without a job – would have the time to make them very often.  But they are absolutely worth the effort.  This recipe is from the utterly wonderful Moro CookbookThis fabulous restaurant remains one of the few reasons to miss living in London.

What with all the preparatory chopping, slicing and peeling, to say nothing of the actual cooking, this takes an improbably long time.  But if I’m going to avoid writing, this is one of the very best ways of doing it.

poor man's pots

Serves 4

15 tablespoons of olive oil

3 large Spanish onions, thinly sliced

5 garlic cloves, thickly sliced

3 green peppers, halved, seeded, and roughly chopped

4 bay leaves, preferably fresh

1 kg firm, waxy potatoes, peeled

sea salt and black pepper

Set a large saucepan over a medium heat and add 5 tablespoons of the olive oil.  When the oil is hot, add the onion and a pinch of salt.  Cook the onion slowly, turning down the heat if necessary, for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and sweet in smell and taste.  Now add the garlic, pepper and bay and cook for 15 more minutes to release their flavor.  Meanwhile, cut the potatoes in half lengthways and each half in two or three wedges, depending on the size of the potato.  Salt them lightly and leave for about 5 minutes.  When the pepper has softened, add the remaining oil and when the oil is hot again, add the potatoes.  Let everything simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for another 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.  Drain in a colander or sieve, keeping the onion oil aside for further use.



Technology is a Wonderful Thing, Part 2

July 31, 2009

People occasionally roll their eyes when they learn that I get up every day at five o’clock to write, but it’s really very easy.  All you need is a good coffee machine, like this one:

machine

I love my coffee machine.  It is a truly wonderful thing.  It’s made by Nespresso.  I am sure that without it (and its predecessors) I would never have become a writer.  I can also honestly say that I have only very rarely tasted better coffee anywhere.  The reason for this is that the coffee comes in little, air-sealed pods which are only punctured when you pop them in the machine.  As a result, every cup is completely fresh.  There’s always a perfect crema on the top.  mmmNespresso offers a choice of several varieties of coffee of varying strengths and flavors, but we don’t muck about.  We like Ristretto, which is the strongest one they do.  I have one each morning at 5, which kicks starts the old bean (as Bertie Wooster would say), and then another one at about 6.10, just to maintain adequate levels of caffeination, and on I plod.

A while ago my doctor was concerned about my blood pressure and suggested that I cut down on my coffee intake.  I tried kicking it cold turkey (yeah, me and Miles Davis both) but got such blinding headaches that I could hardly see.  So I began taking my morning dose again, and only cut back later in the day.  I admit that I continue to be a little spooked by what appears to be my clinical addiction to the stuff, but I suppose there are worse things.  You do what you gotta do, right?


Lobster Pad Thai (a second helping)

July 31, 2009

[Apologies for rehashing an old post, but this was such a popular one when I first stuck it up last October that it seemed worth doing again.  It drew more readers to the old blog than any other post – to the point where if you googled “lobster pad thai”, it was the first thing that popped up.  And it’s extraordinary how many people google exactly that.  As an added bonus, this time it comes with pictures.  Yippedy-dip.]

This lunatic quest began some time ago as I was reading an amusing piece by a fine writer named Steve Almond about eating lobster pad thai in Maine.  As I read, I licked my lips and pictured myself serving up a similarly ravishing masterpiece to a rapturous reception.  The fact that I had cooked neither (a) pad thai nor (b) lobster before did not strike me as much of a problem.

I could not get the thought of that lobster pad thai out of my head.  It just sounded ridiculously delicious – perhaps that stands as testament to Almond’s mouth-watering prose more than anything.  The only time I could remember actually eating lobster was my first ever visit to Missouri, just after we were married, when we went to a restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks and Christina ordered deep-fried battered lobster.  (I know, I know.  So many jokes, so little time.)  I wasn’t even quite sure if I liked lobster or not.  That didn’t matter.  I knew I had to try this dish.  I looked everywhere on the internet for a recipe, but no dice.  I knew which book the recipe came from, because Almond had been good enough to name the book, but obviously there was no way I was ever going to fork out twenty bucks for a book for just one damn recipe.  Such wanton profligacy was needless, and immoral, and just plain wrong.

Once the book arrived from amazon, I spent a couple of months contemplating the amounts of lobster required to feed even a modest number of people, lobsterdebating all the while whether to re-mortgage the house.  Christina asked whether I couldn’t just use frozen lobster tail, or perhaps shrimp.  These were good, sensible suggestions, and obviously entirely missing the point.

I dithered endlessly, until, as the global financial markets went into meltdown all around me, I decided to act.  Heroically undertaking to rescue mid-Missouri’s retail economy single-handedly, I went into Schnucks and bought three live lobsters.   I hopefully asked Walt, who was working behind the seafood counter that afternoon, whether two might not be enough, but he shook his head and told me I’d need at least three of the little fuckers.  (Not his precise words, I should add.  They’re very polite in Schnucks.)  I drove home fast, trying to outrun my guilt at the ridiculous amount I had paid for my salty, snapping booty in the back seat.

Back home, I explained to Hallam what was going to happen next, and with a morbid streak that I suspect not all seven year-olds possess, he watched silently as the water in the saucepan slowly reached boiling point.  When I picked up the first lobster, it began to flail about, eyes bulging, arching its tail upwards in a furious cortortion.  I felt like Jason (of Argonaut fame) fighting that fake scorpion.  I squealed and dropped the lobster back into its box.  Hallam did not look impressed.  Neither did the lobster.  Suitably abashed, a minute later I grabbed the thing again and dropped it into the water with a triumphant harrumph.  We watched as it turned red.  I turned and looked proudly at my son.  He stared at the creature as it continued to twitch, and soberly murmured, “I’m glad I’m not in there.”

Once I had murdered all three of the little critters, I spent the next hour redecorating the walls of the kitchen with shrapnel from splintering lobsterlobster cartoon carcass and the rather unpleasant brown stuff that spewed out of the lobsters when I cracked them in two.  This hideous effluent is called the tammale, but giving it a posh-sounding name doesn’t make it look any less like shit.  By the time I had finished with all three beasts I was left with enough lobster meat to fill, oh, a small matchbox.

The actual cooking of the pad thai was uneventful enough.  I’d discovered a new Asian supermarket the previous week and had been led through it by an inscrutable lady who gabbled away on the telephone in unintelligble dialect as I trailed her around the store, meekly holding up my basket as she threw items into it.  I’d chopped and diced and measured and poured everything in advance, and the stir-frying was all over rather quickly in the end.

But was it any good?  Well, it wasn’t bad.  It was quite pad thai-like, I suppose.  Everyone made suitably appreciative noises as they slurped on their noodles.  But all I could think of was how much I had spent on those tiny little bits of rubbery, over-cooked lobster meat that flecked the bowl.

Since this is a blog, I am contractually obliged to extrapolate some sort of neat moral aphorism from all this.  Nemesis follows hubris?  Don’t cook fresh seafood in Missouri?  Both valid points.  But I’m going with: listen to your wife.  Next time – if there is a next time – I’m going to use shrimp.


What’s for Dinner?

July 27, 2009

One summer afternoon about four years ago, my wife and I knocked on the front door of people we did not know, anxiously clutching a Tupperware box of spicy pork balls.  We had been invited to the inaugural get-together of a new recipe club.  Everyone was asked to cook and bring their favorite Asian appetizer.  On the kitchen counter was an array of spring rolls, exotic salads, dumplings, and the like, all elegantly presented on beautiful dishes.  (I immediately began to regret our own plastic box.)  The kitchen was filled with people we did not know.  And I couldn’t help wondering: well, aren’t we a bit old to be making all these new friends?

The answer, thankfully, was an emphatic no.

This is how it works: about once a month, a couple volunteers to host the next event and proposes a theme, which sends the rest of us scurrying to browse our cookbooks and epicurious.com.  A flurry of emails then descends on our in-boxes as people volunteer ideas and recipes until a balanced meal presents itself.  Depending on the theme, people either choose tried-and-tested favorites, or else they use the opportunity to experiment.  How often, in these heavily-scheduled, frantic days, have you read a recipe and thought, when would I ever have the time to do that?  The club is an excuse for some of us to indulge our inner Emeril and attempt things that we would never usually even contemplate.

Since that first foray into Asia we have we have done a gastronomic world tour, visiting Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, South America, Sicily, San Antonio, and the Caribbean (this in the midst of last winter’s ice storm).  We have celebrated Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras and the Kentucky Derby, and we’ve paid homage to the pig (a spit-roasted hog) and the cow (last July’s “Red, White and Moo”.)  One of my favorite evenings was “Everything Fancy You Ever Wanted to Cook on Thanksgiving but Knew Would Be Wasted on the Ravenous Hoards”.  Other more recherché ideas that haven’t yet made it to the table yet are having everyone cook something the same color, or doing an evening of music-inspired food.  This last project was abandoned due to the risk of a surfeit of Meatloaf (the artist, not the dish.)  The food may vary, but the pleasures of familiar ritual become sweeter over time.

One recent gathering was billed as Mafia Night.  The genesis of the idea came from an article I read about a dinner party game which involved people trying to guess who sitting around the table was a member of the mafia in a small Sicilian village, while the participants are being killed off, one by one.  The theme inspired dishes from various incarnations of the mob in popular culture.  There was fish stew from Sicily, cannoli (a nod to a famous scene in the first Godfather movie), and the spirit of Carmela Soprano, bling and all, hovered over us all night.  Thankfully there were no recipes which involved horses’ heads.  Marlon Brando and Al Pacino brooded silently on a large screen behind us and music was provided by Andrea Botcelli and other purveyors of questionable Italian pop (thereby obviating the need for a cheese course.)  We even had some of those fat, wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles.  Surprisingly, it was the first time we had tried an after-dinner game of any sort – usually we just lie back, utterly replete, and chat happily until it’s time to go home.  Even with all that food inside us, everyone joined in the game and enjoyed themselves.  Those murdered first gamely started on the dishes.

There have been a few interesting changes over the years.  When we first began, we brought our children along.  (That first afternoon, our infant daughter vomited on the lap of a doctor we had never met before and he just laughed it off.  I knew then we were on to a good thing.)  Having fourteen adults and fifteen children all crammed into someone’s home was chaotic, to say the least, so we soon agreed to pool baby-sitting resources, depositing children in one home and congregating (somewhat guiltily) in another.  But we were still beholden to our children’s moods, and we always partied with one eye on the clock, waiting for the witching hour when the worried baby-sitter would call to report that someone’s head had fallen off.  In other words, the kids were cramping our style.  We finally decided it was easiest to get our own babysitters and leave the children at home.  That way we, and not they, got to decide when the fun was over.

But perhaps the most telling difference of all is this: for the first few meetings of the group we all brought copies of the recipes we had cooked to share with the others.  That didn’t last long, though.  The food is important, but it’s not the reason we keep doing this.  The most valuable nourishment from our monthly get-togethers lies in the shared joys of camaraderie and friendship.  Long may it last.


Lobster Pad Thai

October 7, 2008

This lunatic quest began some time ago as I was reading an amusing piece by a writer named Steve Almond about eating lobster pad thai in Maine.  As I read, I licked my lips and pictured myself serving up a similarly ravishing masterpiece to a rapturous reception.  The fact that I had cooked neither (a) pad thai nor (b) lobster before did not strike me as much of a problem.

I could not get the thought of that lobster pad thai out of my head.  It just sounded ridiculously delicious – perhaps that stands as testament to Almond’s mouth-watering prose more than anything.  The only time I could remember actually eating lobster was my first ever visit to Missouri, just after we were married, when we went to a restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks and Christina ordered deep-fried battered lobster.  (I know, I know.  So many jokes, so little time.)  I wasn’t even quite sure if I liked lobster or not.  That didn’t matter.  I knew I had to try this dish.  I looked everywhere on the internet for a recipe, but no dice.  I knew which book the recipe came from, because Almond had been good enough to name the book, but obviously there was no way I was ever going to fork out twenty bucks for a book for just one damn recipe.  Such wanton profligacy was needless, and immoral, and just plain wrong.

Once the book arrived from amazon, I spent a couple of months contemplating the amounts of lobster required to feed even a modest number of people, debating all the while whether to re-mortgage the house.  Christina asked whether I couldn’t just use frozen lobster tail, or perhaps shrimp.  These were good, sensible suggestions, and obviously entirely missing the point.
I dithered endlessly, until, as the global financial markets went into meltdown all around me, I decided to act.  Heroically undertaking to rescue mid-Missouri’s retail economy single-handedly, I went into Schnucks and bought three live lobsters.   I hopefully asked Walt, who was working behind the seafood counter that afternoon, whether two might not be enough, but he shook his head and told me I’d need at least three of the little fuckers.  (Not his precise words, I should add.  They’re very polite in Schnucks.)  I drove home fast, trying to outrun my guilt at the ridiculous amount I had paid for my salty, snapping booty in the back seat.
Back home, I explained to Hallam what was going to happen next, and with a morbid streak that I suspect not all seven year-olds possess, he watched silently as the water in the saucepan slowly reached boiling point.  When I picked up the first lobster, it began to flail about, eyes bulging, arching its tail upwards in a furious cortortion.  I felt like Jason (of Argonaut fame) fighting that fake scorpion.  I squealed and dropped the lobster back into its box.  Hallam did not look impressed.  Neither did the lobster.  Suitably abashed, a minute later I grabbed the thing again and dropped it into the water with a triumphant harrumph.  We watched as it turned red.  I turned and looked proudly at my son.  He stared at the creature as it continued to twitch, and soberly murmured, “I’m glad I’m not in there.”
Once I had murdered all three of the little critters, I spent the next hour redecorating the walls of the kitchen with shrapnel from splintering lobster carcass and the rather unpleasant brown stuff that spewed out of the lobsters when I cracked them in two.  This hideous effluent is called the tammale, but giving it a posh-sounding name doesn’t make it look any less like shit.  By the time I had finished with all three beasts I was left with enough lobster meat to fill, oh, a small matchbox.
The actual cooking of the pad thai was uneventful enough.  I’d discovered a new Asian supermarket the previous week and had been led through it by an inscrutable lady who gabbled away on the telephone in unintelligble dialect as I trailed her around the store, meekly holding up my basket as she threw items into it.  I’d chopped and diced and measured and poured everything in advance, and the stir-frying was all over rather quickly in the end.
But was it any good?  Well, it wasn’t bad.  It was quite pad thai-like, I suppose.  Everyone made suitably appreciative noises as they slurped on their noodles.  But all I could think of was how much I had spent on those tiny little bits of rubbery, over-cooked lobster meat that flecked the bowl.
Since this is a blog, I am contractually obliged to extrapolate some sort of neat moral aphorism from all this.  Nemesis follows hubris?  Don’t cook fresh seafood in Missouri?  Both valid points.  But I’m going with: listen to your wife.  Next time – if there is a next time – I’m going to use shrimp.

Happiness

September 4, 2008

How to make a 3 year-old happy:

1. Melt some chocolate.
2. Dip ice cream cone in chocolate.
3. Give to 3 year-old.