Tout Hache, Meatballs – Tartares – Burgers, by Thierry de Vissant, Lucile Gargasson & Ahmed Yahi

Books
Tout Hache: Meatballs – Tartares – Burgers

There’s a little, traditional-looking restaurant on rue Keller in Paris that’s not what it seems.

It isn’t a bistro as such … there’s no fairly predictable list of French classics washed down with red wine, nor is it an ultra-modern temple of haute cuisine. Instead, it serves a menu based around minced meat, formed into tartare, burgers or meatballs.

The three friends behind Cafe Moderne – one a very handy chef, the other two addicted to street food – realised on a jaunt around New York that there’s more to the meatball than the grey and unappetising ones from that ubiquitous Swedish furniture store, the one where you always mentally factor in a second trip to return the stuff that just falls apart, or the burgers from that temple to Americanism, the one with the drive-thru golden arches.

They were right. At their best, a burger or meatball can be sublime – a carefully seasoned, carefully flavoured dish centred around either can change the course of your day. It’s simple food, but when it’s done well, it’s got the potential to be astonishing food.

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Chicken sofrito

Food & drink
Chicken sofrito post image

A lot of the food I cook at the moment is about convenience.

Not ‘convenience’ in the sense of ‘piercing the film on some ready meal and throwing it into a microwave’, but convenience in terms of getting the best results with the least effort.

That doesn’t mean that my food is becoming ‘bad’ – there’s a very real misconception out there about food that’s convenient not being good, but it does mean that I’m putting less effort into some meals than I might have done when I had, well, more time.

But again, there’s another misconception … ‘convenient’ doesn’t equal fast, either – far from it … many times, I spend a far greater amount of elapsed time cooking, it’s just that the active time spent at the stove is shorter, with longer gaps between interventions.

It’s lazy or smart cooking, depending on your perspective.

This is a classic example. It’s a chicken sofrito, a speciality of the city of Jerusalem, which arrived there via the Sephardi Jews millenia ago.

As with most dishes that stretch back that long, there’s good reason it’s endured – it’s simple, and absolutely delicious. The basic premise is that a butterflied chicken is lightly and slowly cooked in a big, shallow, covered pan in its own juices for a long time.

That’s just about it.

The chicken emerges tender and perfectly cooked, and there’s hardly anything to wash up.

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Beetroot and thyme baguettes

Food & drink
Beetroot and thyme French baguettes

In common with a lot of people, I buy big bunches of beetroot because I feel good about buying something that’s quite evidently been yanked straight out of the ground and that comes complete with leaves and dirt. I rarely have a clear idea about what I’m going to do with it, but still I buy it.

The leaves tend to wilt, and get lopped off and chucked in the compost bin, which in itself is something of a travesty as they make very good eating, and the purple roots sit in the fridge for a little too long, until they’ve got a hint of softness about them, at which point, they get sliced up, roasted and then thrown away because nobody actually likes them done that way, apart from me.

The biggest problem I have with beetroot is the mess – prepping a beetroot is a kitchen bloodbath that leaves everything covered in a bright reddish-purple slick. Don’t wear anything white when slicing beetroot.

I’m maligning this quite wonderful vegetable, though. Treated well, and eaten fresh or cooked properly, it’s a wonderful, if divisive, thing.

This recipe puts it to good use in a baguette, marrying the deep earthy flavour with the equally heavyweight flavour of time … this is like autumn distilled and condensed down into a piece of bread.

Baguettes are a little tricky, and after one too many disasters involving lovingly tended pieces of dough welding themselves onto baking paper intended to make the whole operation of moving ‘ready to bake’ dough around easier, I’ve decided to invest in two things: some proper silicon baking mats, like these, which have handy targets and rulers for optimum baked product placing, or these ones, which are far more sensible, and a proper baking tin that’s actually made for baking baguettes, like this one, which strikes me as about a tenner well spent.

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Roast figs with honey and Marsala

Food & drink
Roast figs with honey and Marsala

Here’s a ridiculously simple dessert for two:

Make two cuts in the shape of a cross in each of eight figs, plump them up a little so that they open up slightly, and fit them snuggly into a small ovenproof roasting tin or dish with a lid.

Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of honey over the top of the figs, letting plenty drip inside the cuts, and splash over a good glug of Marsala wine.

Put the lid on the dish or tray and roast in the oven for about twenty minutes at 200c.

Serve straight away, with vanilla ice cream, and some of the boozy sauce spooned over the top.

How easy is that?

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Sharing tables in coffee shops?

Food politics
Cafe etiquette

A few weeks ago, we went to Edinburgh. It was the Edinburgh Festival, and the whole city was heaving with people, half of whom were apparently students in a show of some kind … my favourite pitch was for a show that was apparently a cross between American Psycho and American Pie. We didn’t go to see it. Chainsaws and dessert don’t mix.

Walking around Edinburgh, trying to do the normal touristy things at the same time that the Festival is in full swing is a tad tiring, and it’s easy to get slightly frazzled after being jostled all the way up the Royal Mile and back down again, so we took to camping out in many of the city’s excellent independent coffee shops (flat white, latte, hot chocolate, mocha and two slices of that chocolate cake please? Finished? Feel human again? Right, back into the throng).

So, one afternoon, we stumbled into a typically stripped bare and basic coffee shop, of the type that looks like they decided to have a refit, then gave up after the initial demolition phase, deciding instead to leave it at just bare brick, ragged concrete and dangling light bulbs, with a load of mis-matched furniture rescued from a skip outside some sort of institution that closed in the Sixties. These places are fine by me, because usually, all the money that would’ve been spent fitting the space out has been diverted into some beautiful, hissing espresso machine sat proudly on the counter, the sort that you can feel the quality and the power from ten feet away. The coffee is normally world-class.

There was some space in the back, so the kids went to sit down. What happened next was just astonishing.

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