Random ramblings about food…

Not really random – there is a structure here, honestly – but I was stuck for a title.

I don’t make resolutions at this time of year, not least because it’s futile, but also because I never have. However, what I do need to do is cook more.

My ability to cook – not my cooking ability, which is excellent (sorry, don’t do false modesty) – is severely circumscribed by two things – my ability to stand, and the degree of pain. Sometimes both at once. This is why, when I can cook, I tend to cook for the freezer – the pain to food ratio is better.

The last thing I did was cook a hunk of silverside in the slow cooker,  with onions, carrots, and a handful of dried veggies, plus some dried thyme and basil, and a couple of beef stock cubes – Oxo is fine, as the volume of liquid mutes its characteristic taste which, personally, I don’t mind. The cooked meat was sliced and portioned, and the stock strained, beefed up – sorry – with a little Bovril. thickened with bread flour (mixes more easily than any other in my experience, and lump free – never use cornflour, there’s an enzyme in saliva that breaks it down, and it’ll revert to watery on the plate), became the gravy. The result resides in foil trays in my freezer, and very good it is too. And even though it was spread over two days, over a week ago, my hands still hurt (even with a razor-sharp knife, 11 portions make themselves felt. (Not complaining – well, OK, I am – but rather setting the scene for why I can’t cook as much as I’d like or, often, at all.

If, say, you were to give me a pork steak (loin or leg), some new potatoes needing scraping and, say, some fresh runner beans, one of two things would happen. First, there’s every chance I wouldn’t be able to cook them at all (scraping spuds is pretty much impossible), so would give them back to you or, were I able to cook, I’d send you off for some nice cherry or mini plum tomatoes, and some summer garlic (forget the garlic if there are no summer bulbs available – this needs delicacy), to make a sauce, with a little butter, for the runner beans (tomatoes and runner beans are a great combo). The pork chop would be seasoned and wrapped in foil with a slice of butter, a good splash of dry cider and a thick slice of apple, and baked in the oven, and the spuds boiled in water, with sea salt, and the runner beans with Maldon sea salt – nothing better for cooking veg of any sort – except spuds, where it makes no perceptible difference.

The tomatoes would be halved, cooked over a brisk heat with butter, oregano and a little Maldon and black pepper and a finely chopped clove of summer garlic, until the liquid was well reduced. If tomato skins and seeds bother you, push the result through a sieve – me, I’d just pour it over the beans as is.

Serve with the buttery-cidery juices from the pork poured over the lightly crushed spuds (crushed spuds might seem like a poncy affectation but, trust me, it’s not – they absorb flavour much more easily), and the pork with its apple and some of the juices.

Quick, very simple, and mostly beyond me these days.

And I’m pretty sure I’ve already written something very like this! Had a quick look, can’t find it on my blog though.

I was highly critical, some time back, of Birds Eye’s anonymous fish fillets, peddled under the name Simply Fish. Basically, you didn’t know what sort of fish it was; some you really wouldn’t want to eat (basa, for example – the most dismal fish available, a South-East Asian river catfish), others were fine – you just couldn’t tell unless you cracked the code – which, of course, would be no help online. And very shortly thereafter, the product disappeared from the Birds Eye website.

Now, it’s reappeared, but instead of the fish species being pot luck, it’s now specified was “wild Alaskan pollock” – actually pollack, Pollock being a sodding painter! Which is fine, pollack being extremely acceptable. So, whether or not I had anything to do with it – and I like to think I did – we now know what we’re buying. As to the quality – previously abysmal – I don’t know, but I’ve ordered a pack to see, though the fact it’s reduced from £2.99 to £1.49 doesn’t fill me with confidence, even though that’s a far more realistic price. Am I good to you or what?

Regular readers will know – no, don’t yawn! – that I had an abortive return to vegetarianism recently, but gave up because I felt it was making me ill. And I was right – it was. For whatever reason I’ve felt much better for reverting to a normal diet. Not meat-based, I hasten to add, but a little of everything – meat, fish, veggie, even vegan if the mood takes me.

My theory is that a veggie diet makes the body work harder at assembling essential items, like proteins, from vegetable sources than it does from meat or fish and if, like me, your body has no resources to spare, it protests in the only way it can – you feel ill.

That won’t, as I said, stop me eating veggie meals occasionally – just not all the time. After all, I have a load of very good veggies sausages to eat yet.

On the subject of meat, every meat product I’ve bought from Sainsbury’s recently, and even some fish, has been loaded with excess water (except where it was excess grease!). I had a silverside joint that lost 43% of its weight when cooked, a ham hock terrine that was positively waterlogged, smoked haddock (a process that removes water), filled the frying pan with white glop, as well as free water, and Cumberland sausages yielded an absurd amount of the wet stuff (there is, traditionally, a lot of water in commercially-produced sausages). In contrast, a portion of coarse Ardennes pâté was just a slab of grease studded with little nuggets of dubious meat!

It was this sort of crap that drove me back to vegetarianism.

I could get quality meat by shopping at Ocado/Waitrose, but they are staggeringly inept and have not yet failed to randomly screw up an order through careless picking**. I also resent being forced to spend a minimum of £40, especially in the face of such carelessness. Though if I stick to meat, and maybe some fish, it does take the pickers out of the equation as they can be packed by the relevant instore counter staff. Must check that out.

**I once ordered some plaice fillets. These, as you probably know, come it two types, the meatier, black-skinned top, and the skinnier, white-skinned underside, which are not near as good to eat, the ratio of skin to flesh being too high (dusting with flour and frying until the skin is crisp fixes that, especially if you make a slit so air doesn’t get trapped underneath – there’s a lot of flavour in plaice skin). I expected that, by ordering an even number of fillets, I’d get equal numbers of top and bottom fillets – let’s face it, that would be sensible. But, no, I got all skinny underside fillets, and no response when I asked what species their place were, that didn’t have top fillets.

A partial solution is to go back to making my own sausages. I use Sainsbury’s Basics boned pork shoulder, better quality than the normal pork shoulder – go figure – though boned rather raggedly, and some fragments of bone get left behind – I can live with that. Importantly, pork joints seem to have escaped the attentions of the water-adding brigade, though their Streaky Rashers, which I also use for their fat content (skinned and boned belly pork, cut into thick slices), haven’t.

If Ocado doesn’t work out, I don’t eat a hell of a lot of meat, so it might be best to buy from a quality online butcher every few months, and freeze it. Though there, too, you run up against minimum orders (usually less than Ocado’s though), and high delivery charges, £10 and up.

Whatever happens, in the absence of decent High Street butchers, and my inability to get to them even if they were there, buying meat almost anywhere but Sainsbury’s has to be a good thing!

So – update – had a look at the Ocado/Waitrose website, and it’s certainly looking pretty good for fish from the fishmonger’s counter – less good for meat from the butcher, where choice seems to have diminished since my last visit in December 2010 (when they screwed up my plaice).

And mysteriously, some of their fresh fish carries a deeply weird warning:-

Due to production methods we cannot guarantee that this product does not contain traces of shellfish, milk or mustard.

To which one can only say WTF? Traces of shellfish suggests the prep area isn’t cleaned as well it should be between products, but what the bloody hell are milk and mustard doing there? Do workers eat their lunch at their station or what?

Whenever I see warnings/disclaimers like that I always get an uneasy feeling that hygiene is not what it might be.

When it comes to online butchers, the only one I have any personal, on the ground, experience of is Steadmans, in Sedbergh (no, I haven’t dropped an apostrophe – they don’t use one).

Backpacking the Dales Way in 1980, I was laid low by food poisoning (dodgy steak and kidney pies in Grassington was, and still is, my guess), and wound up, after a day spent on buses as walking any further than the bus stop wasn’t going to happen, camped just outside Sedbergh for a week, recovering, and living on Steadmans pies, plus milk, and beer at the Red Lion, which seemed to be all I could keep down.

Digression: Five years later, having grown a beard and got married in the meantime, I went back to the Red Lion with my wife. As soon as I opened the door, the manager popped up from behind the bar and said  “How do – still bitter is it?” Not many pubs where they pay that sort of attention!

Anyway, Steadmans pies were excellent, and their meat looked brilliant – still does, as you can see from the website pics, though like many butchers they can be over-keen when it comes to fat removal. Prices compare very well with supermarkets, too, and most, if not all, the meat is locally-sourced. Delivery is a tenner, inclusive of VAT, and burgers and sausages have minima of 12 units or 1kg respectively. No minimum order.

And I do believe they’ll be getting an order from me pretty soon.