Saturday, 27 October 2012

Dear Evelyn Waugh (1903 - 1966),


No, no no no, no, NO, no.

You had it all wrong.

As the author of Brideshead Revisited, a book whose most redeeming feature (some might say, its only redeeming feature)* is its descriptions of delicious feasts, you MUST not revise those away. If you're going to force us to sit through snobbish dinner conversations, you should at least make the dinners sound tasty.

And you did, at first:

I remember the dinner well—soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904.

Sounds sumptious! Thanks, Waugh old boy!** But you wrote that from hunger. From your sickbed in the Second World War, such richness was merely a memory. And when you revised the novel, you wrote: “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful”.

I'll say  again: NO.

What's distasteful is writing a novel glorifying the English nobility over the 'common man' at a time when Englishmen from all walks of life were fighting together. But to write of food? That's universal. We all take pleasure in the aromas and varieties of our national cuisines. If you are embarrassed about the wealth on the table, then surely that's only a symptom of a deeper embarrassment. Keep your red pen off the blinis! They never hurt anyone.

In fact, I'd like to rescue your blinis. For a lass of hardy Irish stock, that means just one thing: I'd like to take your blinis-and-caviar out of the English country estate and add potatoes!

Potatoes make everything better.
Because there is, in fact, a form of potato pancake, beloved in Ireland, called boxty. My Irish nana told me stories about boxty. (This is possibly a lie. I don't remember if she mentioned boxty. But in my head, I heard it from her.) Boxty is an Irish potato flatbread - somewhere between a pancake and a hash brown. As someone who loves pancakes and hash browns, this is a major selling point. You would normally serve boxty with soup or stew, but why not make 'em mini and top them with fancy brunchy toppings?

Beats trying to make a caneton a la presse or a lemon souffle, that's for sure.

* I could rant long and hard about Brideshead, but many left-leaning secular humanists have done that already. Suffice to say,  it was written towards the end of the Second World War, by an Oxford-educated Englishman, whose writing leave was arranged by the Minister for Information.*** In other words, it was enabled by the person responsible for encouraging patriotic writings. Shall we then read any ideological motives into the novel's valourisation of English nobility and (as Martin Amis put it) its rubbishing of post-war egalitarianism? Yes. Yes we shall.

** Yes, Evelyn Waugh was a man. Didn't stop the Times Literary Supplement calling him "Miss Waugh" though, in the days before he was famous.

*** The Minister was Brendan Bracken, a.k.a. Orwell's model for Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Says it all, really.


Brunchy Boxty Blinis

Makes approx 40-50


1kg potatoes, peeled & washed
3/4 C whole milk
2 tsp salt
1 egg
1/3 C plain flour
Ground pepper
Few small knobs of butter

Feta cream:
100g feta
100g aioli
Dash of milk

Toppings - choose from:
Asparagus tips
Halved cherry tomatoes
or anything else you can think of


To make the blinis:
Divide your potatoes into two even piles. Cut one pile into small chunks and boil until soft. Grate the other pile and transfer the gratings into a sieve over a bowl. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of salt over the gratings to help them release their juices. Let them sit for half an hour or so to drain. Once the gratings have dried out, the bowl below them will be filled with potato water, with a starchy layer at the bottom. Pour out the potato water, but leave the starchy layer in the bowl. Dump the dried gratings into the bowl with the starch. Next, mash the boiled potatoes with 1/4 cup of the milk. Add the mash to the bowl of grated potatoes, along with the rest of the milk, the egg, remaining salt, and pepper to taste. Mix together. Heat a pan on medium-high and melt some butter. Drop tablespoonfuls of the blini mix into the pan and cook until browned; about 5 minutes each side.

To make the feta cream:
Blend the feta with the aioli and enough milk to form a creamy sauce. For ease of daubing on the blinis later, it should be about the consistency of firm Greek yoghurt.

To make the toppings:
Fry some veges of your choice in butter or olive oil. I used mushrooms and asparagus tips.

To assemble:
Top each blini with a daub of feta cream and a piece of vegetable topping. Sprinkle the serving plate with a little parsley for extra colour.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dear Herodotus (c. 484 - 425 BC),

I am of the opinion that modern society is only just beginning to catch up to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks:

You and your peers had free democratic elections without corporate sponsorship.
Your education system aimed to produce intelligent citizens, not productive workers.
Your society valued mathematicians and philosophers.
Your theatres were full of audiences.
Your stomachs were full of wine.
Your fashions were comfy. 

Now, it's possible that the rampant slavery and marrying of one's siblings were not ideals we should aspire to. But other than that, your society rocked.

I also envy the ability of ancient Greek scholars to make careers of creative embellishment. You, Herodotus, were a master at that. Your epic tome "The Histories" -- purportedly, as its title suggests, a work of non-fiction -- was widely believed to contain as much fiction as fact. I would love to try that in my thesis. E.g. Chapter One: Margaret Atwood is a purple monkey. Her books are about badgers who run for busses in the rain. I could screel out 80,000 words of that, no sweat.

Your own histories were more a conglomeration of fact, oral history, rumour, and just plain stuff-made-up. The bit I want to cook from, though, is based on a real historical figure. In the passage, Cambyses II, the Persian King, is chatting to his wife. This all sounds quite normal, until you realise that they are talking about his recently having murdered his brother. Hmm, drama. Oh, and also, his wife is his sister. And this is the second of his sisters he has married. Jeez, I hope you were lying about this, Herodotus:

The two were sitting at table, when the sister took a lettuce, and stripping the leaves off, asked her brother "when he thought the lettuce looked the prettiest - when it had all its leaves on, or now that it was stripped?" He answered, "When the leaves were on." "But thou," she rejoined, "hast done as I did to the lettuce, and made bare the house of Cyrus." Then Cambyses was wroth, and sprang fiercely upon her, though she was with child at the time. And so it came to pass that she miscarried and died. 

Admittedly, incest and salad did not have a happy ending in "The Histories." But I think there's something to be said for 'incest' in food. I'm not suggesting we mate chocolate buttons with chocolate flakes... except that HOLY CRAP, yes I am!

But I am suggesting that we draw our food from the same soil. Think about it: the whole philosophy of farmer's markets is inherently incestuous. We want to buy local. In other words, in order to minimise food miles and ensure freshness, we want foods that are grown near us and therefore, near each other. What could be more incestuous than wanting to become one with the fruits of our own land?

Have I grossed you out yet? Sorry. Stick with me here.

What could be better than a salad of local produce, freshly grown nearby and bought mere hours ago at a farmer's market?

Well, since I'm no rabbit, I can make that salad better with cheese! And beans! And tuna! And... and... ok, the incest-levels are falling. But perhaps I'm just improving the genetic diversity of my dinner. That's plausible, right?

See Herodotus? You're not the only scholar who can make stuff up.

Incestuous Farmer's Market Salad

Serves 2


2C salad leaves (I used rocket and pea sprouts)
5 red cherry tomatoes
5 orange cherry tomatoes
1 pear, sliced
1/2 avocado, sliced
1/3 pomegranate
1/2 can (200g) cannelini beans
5 broad beans, shelled & beans extracted*
90g tuna, flaked
Small handful mint, chopped
Small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic
100g haloumi
Sesame seeds (I used black sesame)


Arrange the salad leaves, tomatoes, pear slices, and avocado slices on two plates. Extract the seeds from the pomegranate and sprinkle them over.

Mix the cannelini beans, broad beans,* tuna, mint, and parsley in a bowl. Dress with lime juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Spoon the mixture over the salads.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Smash the garlic cloves in their skins to crush them a little, and drop them in the oil. (The garlic is just to flavour the oil, but eating the fried bulbs afterwards is a worthy cook's treat.) Slice the haloumi and coat it in sesame seeds. Fry in the hot garlicky oil until browned on both sides. Arrange the haloumi over the salads.

*Some people are sensitive to raw broad beans because of their lectin content. Steam the beans first if you're worried about getting a stomach ache from them.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Dear William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616),

Oh dear.

I have become one of those literary scholars who writes about you.

There are thousands of 'em already. I swore I'd never join their ranks, because no offence Bill, I like chatting about your plays and all, but they've been done to death. They've been performed in every conceivable way, from the classic interpretations at the Globe, to musical / gangsta / teeny-bopper versions, to such brilliant cinematic creations as Hamlet 2 starring David Arquette.*

The producers are currently in talks with Lindsay Lohan for "Lady Macbeth Outs Her Spots: Brought to you by ProActiv"

Plus they've been scrutinized more closely than a presidential candidate's tax records. Forget, for a moment, the thousands of brilliant minds committed each generation to the study of your works. There are teams of scholars performing research on your handwriting - which is astonishing when you consider that the only known examples are six signatures on legal documents. Not to mention the whole industry of 'attribution studies' (read: literary conspiracy theories) trying to prove that you were not even the author of your own plays. Honestly: I don't care to read a full catalogue of all the bird species you've even mentioned.** Or perform a geneological study of your aunt's great-uncle's second cousins.

But it is necessary that I write on "Othello" this week, because damn it, I made something with strawberries. And nowhere in all of literary history do strawberries mean as much as they do in Othello.

Because in Othello, Desdemona's virtue is symbolised in a simple white handkerchief. And that handkerchief is decorated with embroidered strawberries. And those strawberries are sewn in thread dyed in maidens' blood, just so you know that they're meant to symbolise fidelity:

She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?

I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift.

I know not that; but such a handkerchief --
I am sure it was your wife's -- did I to-day
See Cassio wipe his beard with.

What comes to mind, when I read about the handkerchief, has nothing to do with Desdemona's supposed affair with Cassio. I'm more interested in how the heck you sell the concept of blood-dyed thread to the maidens? I mean, let's say I'm a 17th Century textile worker. I'm manufacturing some red thread, and it has to be symbolic. So I find a troupe of innocent looking young girls, paste on a beseeching smile, and approach them with a syringe? No, because syringes weren't invented. It would be a beseeching smile and some sort of hatchet. Perhaps they decorated the hatchets with Hello Kitty? Now there's a topic for some original Shakespearean research. 

Now that we are all thoroughly repulsed, let's eat some strawberries! Since they feature on a creamy-coloured luxurious handkerchief, I'll combine the strawberries with some cream. And just to distance them from the visions of blood and hatchets, let's add some nice distracting basil and balsamic vinegar. Something this unusual would never have shown up on a Jacobean menu. And if it did, I'm sure the blood that the strawberries were marinated in came from the most virtuous of innocents.

*In which the prince and Jesus, with the use of a time machine, try to save Gertrude and Ophelia. Not a joke. I couldn't make that up.

**Not only does this exist, but in 1890, an American fan decided to import every species into the USA. 122 years and 200 million birds later, the starlings are a bit out of control.

Strawberry, Basil & Balsamic Ice-cream

Makes 1 litre, with a little extra for sneaky tastes

2 punnets strawberries
2 big handfuls basil leaves
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2C sugar
3C cream
1C milk
1/2C Greek yoghurt


Blitz the strawberries, basil, balsamic, and sugar in a food processor. Combine the cream, milk, and yoghurt in a bowl, and slowly mix in the berry puree. Chill for a few hours.

Pour into an ice cream machine and  churn until a taste makes you swoon! Done.

If you don't have an ice cream machine, you can freeze the mixture in a bowl or tin; just be sure to stir it every hour or so during freezing to stop ice crystals forming. A proper whisk with electric beaters about 3 hours in is a good idea too.