The importance of a good Yorkshire pudding

Food & drink, Food politics
The importance of a good Yorkshire pudding

When we were kids, our mum used to make Yorkshire puddings in bread tins, served as a starter before a main course of beef.

We had one each, a great boat of a pudding to fill the plate. We’d pour gravy into it, my sister holding the onions back with a fork because she hated them.

Mum’s Yorkshire puddings were incredible – big, bold, crisp, and light – and I’ve never really come close to replicating them. I tell myself that it’s because my modern electric oven doesn’t have the sheer ferocity of mum’s ancient gas one, or that I can’t match the precise proportions of egg, milk and flour, but the real reason is that those Yorkshire puddings exist in the legend and lore of our family, and they’re incomparable because of that. They’re part of our childhood, and they’re untouchable.

My mum and dad are both gone, and I’ve tried many, many times to come close to those idealistic Yorkshire puddings, but I’ve never done it. My Yorkshire puddings are flat and depressed, as well as depressing. Every time I’ve served up a frankly pathetic Yorkshire pudding, I’ve thought about my mum serving hers, dashing from kitchen to table as quickly as possible to present her triumphs in the best condition possible.

The other day, I cooked twice.

The first was  a batch of falafel with far too much salt. I knew I was doing it as I shoved the spoon into the salt cellar, knew it was a bad idea, told myself not to, but I still added an extra spoonful, because that’s the kind of stupid thing I habitually do.

Those falafel were pretty much inedible, and despite trying to convince myself they were good, they weren’t, and I had to fall back on the stash of emergency samosas hidden in the freezer.

When I cook, I can feel when it’s happening, and I can tell when it isn’t, but I’d do well to start to listen to myself a little more.

The second meal was much more successful. Lara dropped a succession of hints, that developed into an outright demand for toad-in-the-hole, so that’s what I did, with proper butcher’s sausages, big sausages full of good cuts of pork.

I was nervous about this.

Yorkshire puddings and me don’t have an easy relationship, and after the complete fuck-up that was lunch, I felt uneasy about trying to deliver something I’ve spent a lifetime trying to perfect, never coming close. I sometimes have to work hard to get over kitchen setbacks and try again. The temptation to go back to that freezer and fish out a pack of chilli or something like that was immense.

But this time, it worked.  More…

A ballotine of guinea fowl, stuffed with bacon & nuts

Food & drink
A ballotine of guinea fowl, stuffed with bacon and nuts

It’s New Year’s Day.

I thought it important to try something new today, but I had to push myself past the point of no return last night to make sure that something happened today. Before all the partying started, and in anticipation of the inevitable tenderness of this morning, I fished a Guinea fowl out of the freezer and let it defrost overnight.

Last night was a good night, full of food, wine, laughter and happiness, and the temptation to just smear the by-now-defrosted guinea fowl in butter and chuck it in the oven was great, but I avoided that lazy option and spent an hour deboning it, stuffing and rolling it, tying the lot up into a reasonably neat parcel – a ballotine – ready for the oven.

Guinea fowl isn’t particularly common, but a good butcher will be able to get hold of it, and it crops up in some supermarkets every now and again. Mine came from Callards on Leeds Kirkgate Market. Guinea fowl is a good alternative to chicken – it has a stronger, more game-like flavour, but it isn’t as strongly flavoured as pheasant. It roast well, so chucking one in the oven really isn’t such a bad idea, just make sure that some bacon or foil protects the breast, as it has a tendency to dry out quickly.

Taking the bones out of a bird is a tricky operation, but it’s possible with some care and a slow approach. A small, sharp knife is invaluable.

The same technique stands for any kind of bird or fowl. Start by removing the wings, then place the bird breast down on a chopping board and carefully carve away the meat at one side of the backbone, staying as close to the bone as possible, and trying to keep the skin intact. Work slowly, and study the anatomy of the bird to find the best cutting route.  [click to continue…]

Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends, by Ryan Chetiyawardana

Books
Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends, by Ryan Chetiyawardana

WHAT:

This is a book about cocktails, and how to make them. It’s by the brains behind a couple of London’s most exciting cocktail bars, the sort of places where the weird meets the wonderful in a glass.

WHY:

Cocktails are a dark art, an art that’s ripe for demystification.

That’s exactly what Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends does – it sets out in scientific detail how to build and construct some stunning and complex drinks.

This is about more than just slamming some gin, tonic and a slice of lemon in a glass and hoping for the best. This is about pushing things out there a bit, about trying to bring some of the knowledge honed in high-end and professional cocktail bars within reach of the home mixologist, and it definitely succeeds in doing that.  More…

Ox Club, Leeds

Eating out
Ox Club, Leeds post image

Way, way back, I used to have a Saturday job in the centre of Leeds.

This mainly involved constantly folding jumpers and failing to stop shoplifters, but it gave me one precious hour at lunchtime to wander in a big, arcing circle around the city, from one record shop to another.

I’d inevitably end up in Crash on the Headrow, and I’d walk past the single most terrifying sight in the whole of Yorkshire: Big Lil’s Saloon bar.

Tucked away down an alley, with a resident collection of violent-looking men ready to explode loitering outside, the place scared me to death. It closed in 2004, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, following a long and notorious run of trouble that culminated in a murder.

Let’s just say that it wasn’t the nicest of places and leave it at that.

The building stood derelict for a decade before catching the eye of the people behind the superb Belgrave Music Hall, who re-opened it as Headrow House, a multi-purpose venue, with a couple of cocktail bars, a roof terrace complete with R.E.M lyrics immortalised in red neon, a beer hall, gig space, and a restaurant.

Even in a city of such regular bar and restaurant openings (seriously, all the time), Headrow House stands out as something different, conjured up from a huge, rotting warehouse-sized space hidden between the main shopping streets that few knew existed, cleaned-up and fitted out in that slick, bare brick, metal and wood industrial look that plays oh-so-well in old industrial buildings.

More…

Pork belly braised in beer, with Cajun spices

Food & drink
Pork belly braised in beer, with Cajun spices

It’s good to plan ahead, and it’s even better to have something substantial sitting in the fridge ready to go for those ‘look, it’s been a long day, can’t really be bothered cooking anything at all’ kind of nights, of which, in December there are oh-so-many.

It’s a busy time of year, and I feel as if I’m being wrenched all over the place, balancing this with that and sometimes failing at everything. I don’t suppose that sense of busy-ness is helped by being married to a vicar. They tend to be run off their feet in December, perhaps understandably, what with the whole upcoming virgin birth celebration thing.

There’s a tax return to do in the middle of all this, too.

I often find that the best way to cut through all of this mayhem is to take things ultra-slow.

Really slow.

As slow as possible.

I read a superb book this year, by Carl Honore, called In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. It describes the ‘slow’ movement, which aims to ratchet things down a notch and enjoy life a little more simply.

It’s an influential and important read, and I think of it often, mainly when my laptop collapses under the strain of trying to wrangle eight spreadsheets and a conference-load of Powerpoints all at the same time.

Stop.

Relax.

Do one thing at once.

Whoever made up that rubbish about people being able to multitask was completely wrong – people multitask even worse than Windows PCs.

Cooking is an obvious way of putting some of these slow principles into action. Here’s a recipe that will produce, when the time comes to put it together, when you’ve battled through the driving, freezing rain, stumbled in through the front door, trod on the cat, and shed your dripping coat, a delicious meal in a few minutes.

The key is preparation and planning. You need to think ahead, but a little planning will pay huge dividends.

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