Dinner With The Omnivore

Posts Tagged ‘winter

Oh all right, it's an axolotl not a fish. But I quite like them, so here he his.

I think may have discussed the importance of culinary compatibility in a relationship before. In fact I’m sure I have. I wonder if Ms Middleton has thoroughly vetted her prince for willingness to eat basic foodstuffs without complaining. Mind you, as a senior royal required to attend diplomatically cruical banquets in exotic locations, he has probably been trained from an early age to look enthusiastic when presented with chocolate-coated sea slug on a stick, so mere liver shouldn’t present him with a problem.

I can’t say I’ve eaten a vast deal of liver this winter, but given that someone else has been feeding the house man for the past five months, fish pie has featured heavily on the seasonal menu.

I first discovered the joys of fish pie when I lived in Southsea, round the corner from a fishmonger. We don’t see much in the way of fishmonging here, what with being about as far from the coast as you can get without ending up in Switzerland. This particular shop used to have a tray filled with fishy offcuts of various sorts and species, priced at something very affordable even for me and probably intended for the cat rather than for human consumption. It was, however, perfect for making fish pie, the whole point of which is to get together as many different sorts of fishiness as possible all at once.

Southsea. Arnold Schwarznegger used to live here, you know. No, really.

Living next to Portsmouth, fish pie was a cheap dining option, but in the Alps it’s rather a different story with fresh fish being limited and expensive, frozen stuff tasteles and expensive and …….. well that’s about it really. However, all is not lost because it’s possible to get your hands on little packets of smoked salmon offcuts at slightly less than eye-watering expense and when combined with tinned tuna this gives you a more than acceptably fishy vibe. It’s not quite the same as filling your pie with half a dozens sorts of fish and a handful of seafood, but nor does it involve an eight hour round trip to the coast and the nearest decent fishmonger.

Alpine Fish Pie

You will need: some smoked salmon; a tin of tuna; two hard boiled eggs; some capers; a bit of anchovy; mashed potato.

Sautee the salmon in a bit of butter than add tuna, chopped capers and anchovy (the anchovy isn’t essential but it adds extra fishiness, as does Thai fish cauce if you happen to have any). Add some flour and milk to thicken the mixture and season with pepper. Chop up the eggs and add them as well. Finally, turn the whole lot into an oven dish and spread the mashed potato on top, then bake at 180°C or so for about half an hour.

And voila fish pie, more or less. For some reason I always feel that this has to be eaten with peas, despite the fact that there are plenty of other vegetables which I like better than peas. I have no idea why this is the case.

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Wood burner. Nice in theory, at any rate.

Resort is open (all right, it’s only for a week, but what do you want in October?), snow is forecast all the way down to the valley floor and once more I spend evenings wrestling with the woodstove in a bid to get it hot enough to reverse the gale howling down the chimney and filling the house with smoke. Winter, we love it.

One of the plus points of risking frostbite all through January by recklessly stepping out of the front door from time to time is that you can eat anything you like at any time of the day without resisting the temptations of cake or restraining yourself from snacking between meals, because if you didn’t you’d probably implode shortly after New Year. This is why traditional montagnard cuisine consists largely of cheese, lard, starch, lard and bacon. Garnished with lard.

Keeping yourself alive and adequately fuelled whilst actually out on the hill can present a challenge, especially if you wish to arrive at the bottom as a reasonably civilised human being and not a ravening beast in the throes of hyperphagy. I once got through most of an innocent-looking baguette before brain managed to wrest control from stomach and register desperate messages coming in from the taste buds that incoming fodder was actually a cold chicken nugget and pesto sandwich with cheapo engine-oil mayonnaise, and not a food substance at all.

Which more than adequately illustrates the pressing need for a portable on-piste fuel supply. There’s always the mountain restaurant option, of course, but at 7€ for a handful of chips it’s well out of reach of a seasonnaire on £200 a month. Besides, there’s no point in wasting good ski time sitting on a terrace and stuffing your face when you can multi-task and do it on the chairlifts.

That's why they tell you to take it off, fool.

Unless you want to carry a backpack around all day, the key considerations in piste food are size, convenience,  resistance to freezing and general wear and tear, and calorie content. Not that there’s anything wrong with backpacks, but I can’t be bothered with the faff of taking it off on the lifts and I’ve seen too many people suspended from chairlifts by their backpack straps to risk leaving it on and suffering the resultant ridicule. Besides, they tend to make me fall over backwards, which is irritating.

The seasonnaire sandwich: probably the most popular munch out there, mainly because it’s free and you just nab one from the kitchen before you leave (free is a big plus for the seasonnaire). Resistant and filling, but doesn’t score too well on the size criterion in my opinion, unless you’re rocking one of those tent arrangements favoured by the park rats.

Kendal Mint Cake: a good high-calorie portable snackette, performs well in extreme conditions, and comes recommended by the likes of Edmund Hillary and Ernest Shackleton, both of whom took stacks of it with them. Invented in 1869 and still going strong. How could you go wrong? Well, there’s the fact that it tastes horrible even at -10°C when most food tastes of nothing at all, and the residual mintiness makes you feel as though your tonsils are about to freeze solid every time you inhale. But top marks if you don’t mind the mint thing.

Another Scottish contribution to haute cuisine

Scottish butter tablet: passes almost every test with flying colours. A sort of fudge arrangement, for those sassenachs amongst you unfamiliar with this nectar in solid form. Compact, impervious to the elements and basically made of sugar stuck together with butter. Half a day’s calorie allowance in every bite. The drawback is a) I’ve never seen it for sale outside Scotland and b) the commercial stuff is a mere ghostlike imitation of the true tablet. Realistically you’d have to make it yourself, an activity fraught with peril as in its liquid form it could be used as napalm. Falls down a bit on the convenience front.

Haribo crocodiles: this recommendation from a friend who used to be a competition rower and is consequently a bit of a connoisseur of energy foods. I was sceptical initially, but actually the crocodiles score well across the board, particularly on convenience, as thanks to the Baltic temperatures involved they can be eaten directly from the jacket pocket without leaving residual stickiness. Fried eggs, smurfs and gummi bears preform equally well.

Mars Bars: not bad on the calorie front, and reasonably convenient and cost-effective, but let down badly by its performance in the cold. Unacceptably high tooth-resistance quotient initially, and when warmed up turns into a tar-like substance liable to ruin any expensive dental work you may have. Avoid.

Fruit: pants. Sorry, I know it’s healthy and good for your teeth and all that, but it’s an awkward shape, it leaves you with pockets full of soggy cores and peelings, and you probably use more energy eating the stuff than you get out of it in return.

Token vitamin

Fruit compote: this stuff, on the other hand, scores quite well on convenience with its handy stick-the-nozzle-in-the-gob-and-squeeze system and while its calorie count is still a bit low it’s small enough to stuff in a pocket along with a second more heavy-duty snack. Allows you to feel virtuous about eating at least one vitamin during the course of the day.

Twix: probably the best all-round compromise, in my opinion. Good low-temperature performance despite the toffee, which somehow manages to avoid becoming rock solid. The twin-biscuit arrangement allows for convenient stashing of half your snackette for later in the day, and the Twix has the advantage of being weight for weight the cheapest thing in its class. Yes, I am the sort of sad obsessive who checks the per kilo price on the chocolate bars.

And the winner is ...!

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Innuendo. Fnar, etc.

At the risk of being accused of innuendo, I have to admit to being fond of a nice bit of hot crumpet. Well, who isn’t. (Apart from JC, apparently, though he confesses to a weakness for buttered muffins. And that’s all the double entendre I can muster for the moment.)

But while you can buy (frankly rather nasty and overpriced) muffins in the supermarket here, crumpets are off. I had thoughts of buying a load whilst on our annual Blighty outing last week, but for some reason I didn’t bother. We did come home with a big box of Rice Krispies and a year’s supply of  Golden Syrup, but completely failed to get decent loose-leaf tea for the parents, a result of going to a distinctly low-rent branch of  Tesco rather than shopping in Lewes as usual. This also meant we ended up with some rather average cheeses, as we didn’t get round to going to the cheese shop either, and on top of that we forgot to stop off at Middle Farm for scrumpy, so we ended up with a case of Dry Blackthorn, which turns out to be rubbish. I’m sure it used to taste of something back in the day, but maybe I’m imagining that. Clearly we need to raise our game on the shopping front.

On the plus side, I did manage to acquire a couple of crumpet rings, the better to promote self-sufficiency on the baked goods front.

What do you mean, cooking? Get lost.

Delia maintains that crumpet-making is an ideal activity for a cold snowy day, a ridiculous assertion if I ever heard one. What the bloody hell would I be doing in the house on a cold snowy day? Mind you, Delia is a self-confessed footy fan and clearly wots not of skiing, so presumably that explains it. Strange woman.

Crumpets

You will need: 276ml milk; 55ml water; teaspoon caster sugar; tablespoon dried yeast; 225g strong flour; teaspoon salt; butter

Heat the milk and water until hand-hot, add the yeast and sugar and leave in the warm for 10-15 minutes until it goes frothy. Add to the flour and salt to make a smooth batter, then cover with a teatowel and leave in a warm place for about 45 minutes, by which tim the batter will be light and frothy. Grease the crumpet rings and put them in a frying pan over a medium heat. Put a tablespoon of batterinto each ring and cook for 4-5 minutes until bubbles appear and burst, leaving those little holes you get on crumpets. Then lift out the rings, turn the crumpets over and cook for another minute.

Unfortunately I fell at the first hurdle here – when she says hand-hot, the Goddess means lukewarm, not hot. Hot will kill the yeast, resulting in a definite absence of froth. But the addition of an extra yeast sachet to the now rather cooler milk mixture sorted that out, and froth was duly forthcoming.

The next bit went quite well, and the batter came out of its warm place looking more than adequately risen and smelling reassuringly yeasty.

Unfortunately though, things proceeded to go somewhat Pete Tong in the final stages. First of all the bubbles which are supposed to lead to that all-important holey butter-trap effect were conspicuous by their absence. Then the dough mixture stuck like glue to the crumpet rings, resulting in a wrestling match with knife, oven gloves and red-hot rings.

I abandoned this whole ring strategy for subsequent batches, which wasn’t too bad as the dough was thick enough not to spread all over the place, but once again the entire thing with the bubbles just wasn’t happening.

So the upshot of the afternoon’s activity has been a load of  alleged crumpets which look more like scotch pancakes only more rubbery. They don’t taste bad, and are quite nice when smothered in butter and forest fruit jam (though let’s face it, what isn’t?), but they’re not what they should be. So it’s back to Tesco for crumpet again, much to my disappointment. Maybe I’ll try hot cross buns instead.

That's more like it. Pass the jam, someone.

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Cheeeeese, Gromit!

One of the quirks of alpine eating (apart from the wall to wall pigs ‘n’ cheese) is the communal DIY element. Restaurant diners paying good money for a meal would usually expect a) to get their own dinner which they don’t have to share with the rest of the table and b) to have their food cooked for them.

But this isn’t necessarily the case in your montagnard eatery, where fondue and pierrade are billed as being for minimum two people (the clear implication being that if you’re the sort of weirdo hermit who wants solitary dinner you should probably stay at home with beans on toast).

Fondue has had something of a bad press in the UK since the seventies, when it enjoyed a bit a vogue, with fondue sets making a regular appearance on the Generation Game’s  end-of-show conveyer belt along with teasmaids and cuddly toys. Eventually it all got a bit naff in a Margo and Jerry black forest gateau kind of a way (along with most of the rest of the 70s) and has never quite managed to muster up a renaissance.

Look, just get up and make the bloody tea, will you?

This is a shame, since despite the fact that involves nothing more gastronomical than sitting round a pot dipping stale bread into melted cheese, fondue is actually pretty fabulous. Unless you’re the person doing the washing up, in which case it becomes a total nightmare, since congealed cheese fondue could probably be used to surface motorways when we start running out of oil and its derivatives.

Pierrade, on the other hand,  never really made it over to Blighty as far as I know. This is not only a communal dinner but seriously DIY as well – the diner is presented with a hot stone and a pile of raw delicacies, which he and his companions proceed to cook for themselves on the aforementioned stone. You’d think this would be a cheap option given that all the chef has to do is whack a few chips in the fryer, knock up a salad and put out some dips, but for some reason it usually costs more than the steak.

We used to do pierrade as a resort ‘theme night’ back in the mists of time, using the old fashioned stones which had to be heated up all day in the oven, removed at peril to life and limb, and which promptly went cold on the table before the guest had cooked so much as a prawn. (I say we used to do this – I think we actually did it once, decided it was a bloody silly idea and then spent the rest of the season feeding people lasagne while telling management that of course we were giving regular pierrade evenings.)

Electric stones, definitely the way forward

Fortunately things have moved on somewhat, and electric pierrade stones with properly controllable heat have become the norm, thus avoiding both the risk of suffering full thickness burns while getting them out of the oven and the possibility of poisoning your customers with half cooked seafood.

Usually you would have to fork out a small fortune on a ski holiday in some nouveau riche ghetto full of armed Russian oligarchs if you wanted to sample the delights of classic alpine fare (unless you want to do your own post-fondue washing up, which believe me is not preferable), but the Omnivore just happens to know that it will be available to the select few this very week on the Isle of Wight, of all places.

Sam and Susie Mackay, former seasonnaires and current business empire-builders, will be serving pierrade at the Roadside Inn in Nettlestone, an unusual venue for this sort of thing, but why not. Nothing ventured nothing gained and all that. And since I believe that between the two of them they are currently working several jobs, running two pubs and bringing up a pair of toddlers I would urge anyone in the vicinity to get over there and make a success of the project, because there’s a limit to how long you can carry on doing that sort of thing without dropping dead from exhaustion.

Odd place for a fondue. But much better than doing your own washing up.

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This month's pay packet. Best hope you're not allergic.

One of the excuses given by ski tour operators for paying their staff a monthly sum which wouldn’t motivate a ten-year-old to get out of bed in the morning is that they also provide bed and board. In order to satisfy local regulations regarding the legal definition of people-trafficking, they quote an almost reasonable looking wage but then promptly smack you for an eye-watering amount of something they like to call ‘provision of services’ or other such HR marketing waffle, thereby bringing your income down to the £180 a month they intended to pay you in the first place.

I’m not about to go into the Rackmanesque economics of stuffing six people into a damp basement room with no window and charging each of them an amount which could cover the rent on quite a decent studio apartment. Or not today, at any rate.

The ‘board’ part of the deal is variable. Staff in chalets – with easy access to cake, fancy starters, meat bought from a butcher and (most importantly) their own budgets – can even fare quite well. Hotel teams, on the other hand, get what they’re given and are supposed to think themselves lucky.

Sausages. Hold the blue plastic.

Bangers and mash looked like a good hearty option after a day’s skiing and before the evening shift, until someone spotted the chef mixing powdered potato up with water. And the sausages, which looked slightly alarming in the first place, became positively terrifying when we cut one in half and found a lump of blue plastic in it. Add to that the bits of metal chain in the cheap ‘fish’ fingers and you can see why people might be forgiven for requesting emergency food parcels from home.

And it didn’t stop there. Frozen cordon bleus and chicken nuggets, both of them made of the same nameless spongy substance but each laced with a slightly different cocktail of chemicals. Five different kinds of frozen deep-fried potato-related products designed to fool the consumer that he wasn’t just getting chips yet again, honest. And rarely a vegetable to be seen unless it was a bit of limp lettuce leaf or a bit of previously frozen green sponge. (Actually I think that might have been broccoli, though it’s hard to tell.)

In fact, the lunchtime sandwich was the culinary high point of the day, although chefs did occasionally try to ambush the unsuspecting by experimenting unneccessarily with fillings. Bolognese sandwich was memorable, and the chicken nugget with pesto mayonnaise was frankly traumatising.

But the classic seasonnaire sandwich contains:

Mayonnaise: usually out of a cheapo five-litre catering bucket of the stuff, but you can’t have everything, and the buckets come in handy later on.

Sliced ham: and by this I mean ham and not epaule. Known to staff as ‘scary ham’ this stuff consists of unmentionable offcuts of pig stirred up with a load of fat and salt and then squashed until it all sticks together in a square shape. I once worked for a tour op whose policy it was to buy it for school groups – don’t you love the British attitude that it’s fine to feed your kids stuff you wouldn’t give the dog?

Sliced Edam: usually left over from breakfast, and therefore a tad curly at the edges. And why is it always rectangular when we all know Edam comes in a ball? Best not to dwell on that one, I imagine.

Salad: ie more of the above mentioned limp lettuce. Come on, it’s hard enough to persuade the chefs to put even that amount of effort into a staff sanger. You can’t expect cucumber and tomato as well.

Is that a sandwich in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Serving suggestions usually involve clingfilm, followed by stuffing the sandwich into a pocket slightly too small for it, falling on it at least twice while doing something ‘gnarly’, partially freezing it and then showing off by eating it two-handed on a draglift while riding a snowboard.

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Autumn. Very picturesque and all that, but it's still bloody June.

Well, summer came and went in the space of about four days sometime last week, and we find ourselves to all intents and purposes somewhere in the throes of late October. Were it actually autumn, I could be sitting at home in my slippers all day with my feet up drinking tea, which would compensate in some small measure for the Baltic temperatures and incessant rain.

However, since the calendar is under the impression that it is still sometime in June, I have spent the past several days standing at the bottom of a ski lift in rather fewer clothes than everyone else seems to have been issued with, for some reason. Clearly some kind of xenophobic plot if you ask me.

Even the most avid people-watcher would have to admit that there is a limit to the entertainment value to be derived from an endless procession of mud-encrusted mountain bikers, particularly when you’re expending all of your available energy on merely maintaining a viable body temperature. Top tip: if you wish to wring any sort of response out of the frozen cashier-cum-liftie at the bottom of the chairlift, forget the Francophone banter muffled by full face helmet and feed it a cheese sandwich.

Mud - cold and wet. Sorry, but you can keep it, frankly.

The result of all this unseasonally Arctic weather (global warming, innit) is that I have a fridge full of squishy salad ingredients because I absolutely refuse to eat all that healthy fruit and veg rubbish when my core temperature is hovering somewhere around absolute zero. I want lard. FEED ME LARD!!

Fortunately for the waistline, tartiflette takes rather more faff (and expense) than I was prepared for after working all day and then going shopping, so I went for the pasta with sausagemeat and carrot concoction. This is one of our standard winter staples, and is the ultimate cheap ‘n’ easy cold weather comfort food. It comes from a Sainsbury’s pasta cookbook by Patricia Lousada, which I assume is long out of print but is allegedly still available via Amazon marketplace at the thoroughly outrageous price of £8.40. I’d probably recommend biting the bullet and buying it even at that price, because it’s packed with all manner of tasty stuff, from basic student fare through to DIY stuffed fresh pasta, if you can be arsed. Which I really can’t, but it looks good.

Maccheroni con la salsiccia e le carote (Which I take to mean macaroni with sausagemeat and carrots – ever noticed how things sound much tastier in foreign?)

You will need: 225g sausagemeat; 3 grated carrots; 1 onion; can of tomatoes; chicken stock; bay leaf; oregano.

Fry off the onion then add the meat and brown it lightly, breaking it up with a fork. Add the carrot, tomatoes, stock, bay leaf and oregano, then simmer for 20 minutes. Top up with water so that there is enough to cook a load of pasta. Add said pasta (of whatever sort – I usually use penne, farfalle or macaroni) and cook until a) al dente and b) the sauce isn’t watery.

Patricia, being a proper cook, has you doing the pasta separately and measuring things properly, but I like a meal which fits into one pan, particularly when I’ve been freezing my tits off at the bottom of a ski lift all day and can’t be bothered with washing up.

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Several years ago I asked for a juicer for Christmas. Excellent, I thought – after reading all the blurb about healthy fresh-pressed juices and how potato could make a great milkshake, honest – freshly squeezed orange juice for brekkie, what a wheeze. Unfortunately the blurb didn’t mention the fact that you need about 150 oranges to make half a litre of juice, the kitchen ends up covered in a sticky orange film and it takes three days with wire wool and a scrubbing brush to get the thing clean again afterwards.

The ideal Jamie Oliver Blender

The juicer finally ended up on eBay during a clear-out and left me a tad cynical about exotic kitchen appliances. Is there really any sensible use for all those Gordon Worrall-Oliver waffle-toasting healthy grill and ensuite teasmade machines that people allegedly find so indispensible? Other than to fill up odd corners of landfill sites in China. (Mind you, I can definitely see the point in the Jamie Oliver Blender. Irritating little twerp.)

I’m baffled by the proliferation of specialist cooking appliances as well. Do I really need dedicated machines specially for cooking rice or making popcorn? I’m sure I’ve got some pans somewhere, can’t I just use those? I’m not sure how people manage to find the space for all this stuff either – admittedly my kitchen is far smaller than I’d like, but on the other hand it would have to be the size of a ballroom if it was going to accommodate all these gizmos.

At the moment I’m casting a jaundiced eye in the direction of the food processor, which apart from anything else is ridiculously too big for two of us. Much as I like home-made hummus, I don’t really need it in commercial quantities. The food processer has so far survived my ruthless decluttering purges because unlike the juicer, it has actually seen some action occasionally. Though since I use it predominantly for making curry paste I could just as easily manage with the hand blitzer, which fits in a drawer and doesn’t take nearly as much cleaning.

My favourite  kitchen widget, and the one I’d rescue from a house fire, is the slow cooker. These things are a bit out of fashion at the moment, probably because following their popularity in the ’70s they are irretrievably associated in people’s minds with Bruce Forsyth, fondue sets and Black Forest gateau.

slow cooker

Kitchen wonder-gadget

But the slow cooker is a wonder-gadget. Whack all the ingredients in the pot before you leave for work (or more likely round here a day’s snowboarding), leave it to do its thing,  and then dish up home made beef bourguignon within five minutes of piling into the house in the evening. Fabulous. Why doesn’t everybody have one?

Here’s my favourite thing to do with a slow cooker:

Take a whole chicken, brown it in the frying pan, then put it in the slow cooker pot. Fry off some lardons, an onion and veg of your choice (I favour leeks and carrots), add some stock, white wine, thyme and flour to thicken. Bring it to the boil and then pour it into the pot with the chicken. Tuck the veg down the sides so everything fits. Leave the whole thing for about eight hours until the chicken threatens to fall apart when you prod it. Turn the whole lot into a warmed serving dish and then scoff it with nice bread to mop up the sauce.

This proved to be by far the best way of doing Christmas dinner for two, as it left our rather small oven free to roast potatoes, parsnips and stuffing.

The only drawback to the whole process is that the cooker won’t crisp the chicken skin, but you can always bung it in the oven for 20 minutes at the end if you prefer it like that. I always make sure I do too much sauce with it as well, so that I can turn it into soup the following day.

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Food for thought

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

Food by e-mail - takeaway for the modern age.

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