Dinner for one

It is rare that I eat alone – and not at all ideal, I might add, simply because try as I might, I cannot by myself conjure up the delightful banter that the Philosophe (co-)provides on a daily basis. Not to mention that it is nowhere near as interesting trying to impress myself with delicious food as it is hoping to impress others. But sometimes that determined path of life leads you somewhere where inventiveness and sparkling conversation have no place, and the next best thing is a big old bowl of popcorn smothered in wasabi butter (no sharing!), and of course a good measure of whisky.

The great thing about popcorn is that it (generally) lasts longer than a plate of food, which makes it ideal if you find yourself watching two hour-long episodes of food competition (basically cues for hedonic hunger). I caught the first episode of Top Chef “Just Desserts” , which is entertaining enough if you enjoy imagining yourself as one of a bunch of hopefuls (each of whom is, gringo-style, *certain* they “have what it takes” to be the best) running around looking for ingredients to make their signature dessert, only to be told 5 minutes into prep that they have to reconfigure it as a … cupcake. (What the hell is it with Americans and cupcakes?). Their next task is to conjure up the “most decadent” chocolate dessert ever, and for a few seconds I felt cold sweat on my neck as I imagined what I would come up with and couldn’t think of anything fantastic. But then I remembered that I will thankfully never be in such a silly contrived circumstance, so I relaxed and carried on chomping my popcorn.

Then I chomped my way through Masterchef USA, which reliably delivers good verbal abuse with Ramsay at the helm (and given that they did their silly cupcake challenge three weeks ago, was fortunately focused on real food again).

Tonight – alone again, alas – I’ll watch the Masterchef season finale, even though Gordon-bloody-Ramsay couldn’t stop himself from tweeting the bloody winner this morning. Sometimes social media sucks (like, when people use it stupidly and spoil the surprise for the rest of us. Or when *some* people apparently can’t refrain from producing ever-more offspring, and must announce it to the whole world).

But I think I”ll head down delicious lane again and do something righteous with a couple of eggs. Because all afternoon I’ve had to deal with the goodness of a kitchen smelling of Ottolenghi’s apple-olive oil-maple syrup (and cinnamon) cake, which promises to be a delicious mess:

I’ll be sticking to Mr. O’s advice to leave it to “mature” for a couple of days before tucking in. Which means this evening, just an omelette and a glass of wine with my Masterchef. And only one more sleep till I can start cooking for two again. As it should be.

Strawberries soaked in vodka fail to impress

So after my recent bold declaration that this Doctor’s brownie adventures are officially over, I was naturally confronted with all sorts of Facebook banter offering yet more tips and tricks for that thing I had just renounced. The most evil of these was a recipe which calls for cocoa powder dissolved in hot water (rather than melting chocolate), along with the suggestion that the water be replaced by booze (Nina, you know who you are).

Talk of booze in food often takes the turn of trying to discover how best to keep it in there. If you dissolve cocoa in a cup of bourbon, won’t it all just evaporate during baking (for instance)? In other words, how does one maintain the integrity of a truly boozy brownie?

Well since brownies were out, and I had recently spotted a recipe for white-chocolate-raspberry blondies, things quickly spiralled downhill. In the fridge: raspberries, no; dried strawberries, yes. In the freezer: vodka, yes. The strawberries looked very pretty in their vodka bath, and the vodka looked very pretty when I removed the strawberries a few hours later (it was, in fact, bright red, which leads me to seriously doubt the naturalness of the dried strawberries. But hey, colourful vodka cocktail coming up soon).

Worse: the blondies were dry, and not boozy at all. Had they been presented at tea time as what old Danish aunties call “sandkage” (this one you can work out for yourself), they would have been a hit. But as blondies, they were dismal failures.

I’ve made blondies before, and they were yummy and chewy and more-ish, so I blame the recipe. But I should have known better – it came from a British magazine, and what do the Brits know about blondies? Like, who would actually follow a Jamie Oliver recipe for brownies? (Don’t bother, I already did.)

Speaking of which, I believe Mr. O is now doing his very own 30-minute meals. This is amazing. Because that is exactly what Rachael Ray has built an entire empire on. He was even on her show earlier this year. So it’s not like they don’t know each other. Couldn’t he have called it “29-minute Meals”? Or, “Dinner In A Jiffy”? Or, “Pukka Nosh in Half a Tick”? Really. Anything but “I’m Just Going To Take Someone Else’s Idea And Hope That No One Notices”.

Then again, maybe it’s all the same anyway. As Michael Ruhlman put it not long ago,

‘Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. It’s the wrong message to send. These editors and producers and publishers are backing the processed food industry, propelling their message. What I say to you magazine editors and producers, to you Rachael Ray and you Jamie Oliver and your 20 minutes meals: God bless you, but you are advertising and marketing on behalf of the processed food industry.’

Well, I don’t know about the God bless you part. And hey, I’m all for knocking things up in a hurry, and if the Ray and the Oliver can make that happen, then good for them. But when it panders to a public that (apparently) hasn’t got the attention span to realise that what Sir O. says is nothing new, then I’m off that bus.

Those people they create would probably even say my blondies were delicious.

PS. To clarify, when I first heard about the 30-minute meal venture, I tweeted the man himself to ask if RR hadn’t been doing the same thing for years. His response:

I guess we don’t all interpret “potential problem?” equally.

If I were a TV cook…

(or a cookbook author for that matter), I could imagine myself delivering all number of clever little tips and tricks – as they do – to give people the idea that I sit around and think hard and long about what works and what doesn’t.

For my (to die for) “caramelized brussel sprouts with pecan nuts and blue cheese”, for instance, I would tell you that the secret is to add the garlic at the last minute of pan-time. That way you get a kick of fresh garlic to temper the sweetness of the sugar and nuts, but without the harshness of actual fresh garlic. (Because don’t you also find that if you add garlic too early, it loses its oomph?) You want garlic. But you want it just right. This is how, trust me.

(Excuse the photograph. My stylist is away watching Argentina getting thrashed by Germany).

If I were Jamie Oliver, I would tell you that this goes fantastically with small, crumbed pork cutlets (and a nice dollop of horseradish on the side), and then tell you how easy crumbed pork is to throw together. (Like this: bish bash bosh).

If I were Rachael Ray, I would tell you not to bother with the bish bash bosh, because I don’t have the time, and you don’t have the time or money to hop on your scooter, head down to your friendly (organic) butcher, have a chat about the missus, get some beautiful hand-reared, grass-fed, acupuncture-tenderised local pork, and neither do you have half a loaf of day-old sourdough lying around waiting to be whizzed into crumbs in the KitchenAid (which you don’t have either).

Continue reading “If I were a TV cook…”

That’s Reality…wang.

Talking about the surprising popular success in 1988 of a near-700 page book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, Francis Wheen cites the New Republic‘s comment that ‘When a serious work of history with more than a 1000 footnotes starts selling in Stephen King-like quantities, you can be sure it has touched something in the public mood’ (you’ll find this in Wheen’s very amusing – and sometimes scary – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, p.66).

Let’s edit that a bit and apply it to Jamie Oliver’s American “Food Revolution” for a near-perfect description of what’s going on – ‘When a smutty work of Reality TV about a very serious issue gets the world talking ad nauseum, you can be sure it has touched something in the public mood’.

Continue reading “That’s Reality…wang.”

Gotcha!

I was so annoyed when I blogged about Killer At Large last night that I forgot to mention one of my main irritations during the film. That was probably as it should be, because I needed to do a little research to confirm my suspicions, and now I have. Continue reading “Gotcha!”

Beautiful chicken

I’m experiencing the photography dilemma again. Taking a picture of a roast chicken is crap! It looked so good, and smelt so damn fine, that I had to collect my husband to watch me pull it out of the oven.

“It’s beautiful!” I said.

“It’s beautiful?” he responded, with that sceptic’s smirk of his.

Well yes, and I dragged him into the kitchen to pull out this.

Well, not that. A better 3D copy of that, complete with a mind-numbing smell of roast chicken. It’s a bit like toast, or popcorn, or bacon. Just yum!, as Roger Webb may say as Jeremy in the excellent Peep Show.

Not being one of those people who has a roast chicken in my weekly repertoire, I had to look for a recipe, so I confess this was as easy and delicious as the one who will not be named promised it would be.

But that’s not the whole truth either. This bird, you see, had also been injected – via my new favourite gadget, the Williams Sonoma Flavor Injector. Thanks to that large syringey thing on the right, this chicken was pumped full of sherry, garlic, herbs (thyme and rosemary), a bit of dijon and a touch of maple syrup. Sweet baby Jesus succulent juicy chicken breast.

Tomorrow’s chicken and chorizo risotto will rock like a rocket.

In other news, I’ve committed myself to reading a complete stranger’s blog, only because in it she chronicles the unbelievable stupidity of actually living according to Michael Pollan’s food rules for a year. I should be saying yawn, but instead I am plotting my next book. It will be a chronicle, to borrow Rob Lyons‘ excellent phrasing, of ‘organic, cattle-produced fertiliser: bullshit.’ Oh, and of this excellent revelation: ‘The only reason privacy ever existed was because Facebook didn’t.

I’ll call it Addicted (with Security Settings) to Virtual Bullshit.

Saving bacon

So I finally got a chance to watch Jamie Saves Our Bacon, part of Channel 4’s Great British Food Fight, which has now confirmed the previously unofficial canon of food vocalists, or chefs who shout at us about what and how we should be eating: Heston, Hugh, Jamie, and Gordon (to be fair, Heston doesn’t shout much, or swear, so he’s probably the odd one out. But that’s always been his thing).

I’ve watched a lot of Jamie Oliver over the years, for many of the same reasons that millions of others do: his food generally looks good, and he puts on a good show. But unlike many others, I am strangely indebted to him for giving me enough to think about to churn out an entire doctoral thesis on the celebrity chef phenomenon. I could even say that were it not for Jamie Oliver, you wouldn’t be talking to Dr. Rousseau today. (Scary, but true).

After all that watching, thinking, talking, and writing, I thought I’d seen it all. But after watching the bacon show, I was left pretty much speechless. What he’s done, and what he’s able to do, is truly astonishing, in all the best and worst ways.

The show is hosted in a studio fitted out with the usual podium for the star to stand on, surrounded by guests and fans. But this studio also hosts a number of pigs (no surprise there): there’s a stall with a sow who’s recently given birth; another with a sow who proceeds to give birth to thirteen piglets during the course of the show (the first piggy assisted by a vet who we watch sticking his entire arm up the mommy pig’s gwat), and perhaps most disturbing of all, a door leading to the “Pig Brother house”, in which four human beings are (voluntarily) locked in small cages that supposedly simulate the conditions of industrially farmed pigs under the worst welfare conditions (little space to move, bad food, and toilets. By the time we are introduced to the human piggies, Jamie’s friend Hugh has explained to us that contrary to popular perception, pigs are not only super-intelligent, but also very clean, and hate to shit where they sleep. So this set-up is decidedly unconducive to natural piggy behaviour).

The point of the show is to convince consumers to buy British pork, rather than the cheaper stuff imported from the EU, where pig welfare conditions leave much to be desired. The main problem, according to the wel(l)-farers, is the use of sow stalls – essentially the real version of what the human piggies were locked into: no space to turn, scratch, play, or do anything but gestate piglets while becoming fat, weak, and developing some combination of porcine depression and aggression. These contraptions were banned in the UK in 2003, but continue to be used in the vague space of the EU, which in this case was represented by Denmark, where 20% of pork production uses sow stalls (interestingly, this seems to be the percentage of Danish pork that is exported to the UK – presumably the Danes save the better stuff for themselves?).

It is about animal welfare – we were treated to some fairly disturbing footage (no surprise here), including a visibly horrified Joanna Lumley (whose face lends itself remarkably well to looking sad, despite her main expertise in playing the drunk) – but the bleeding heart stuff is really for British pork farmers whose livelihoods are under threat from the nasty EU, not to mention from British consumers who would rather buy cheap than happy pigs.

So that’s all fine and well. It’s a real problem, and therefore a good cause (and this is where Jamie’s bacon show trumps Hugh’s chicken spectacle, which never really made it about consumers and industry as much as trying to make everyone love their chickens before they roast them). And judging from the world’s reaction since Thursday when it was originally screened , the show was a major success. Sales of cheaper cuts of British pork had gone up by 20% by Monday, claims the Telegraph.¬† The very morning after the show, supermarkets were told to start revising their labeling policies (this was one of the major loopholes Jamie identified: consumers aren’t sure what’s British and what’s not). So what’s my problem?

Probably what it’s always been, and what I spent a bulk of that thesis trying to make sense of. Not that it’s Jamie Oliver (I have due respect for his various talents, including cooking good food and getting in people’s faces), but that it’s a chef. Five years ago when I watched him behaving like a rock star – just ‘avin a larf, bit of pukka this and that – I asked the question: doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that this is a chef? Now, as a climax to everything that began with school dinners, and his own chicken story, when a once-off 90 minute show can¬†potentially save an entire industry, change the way people shop, cook, and eat, influence government legislation (and very likely wake up the Danes to something too), I’ll ask again: huh?

Of course it’s about much more than ‘a chef’, or even the power of celebrity, though it is about those things too. It’s also about media, and about trust: media as a platform to reach the kinds of numbers of people that need to act to make a difference, and the very strange power that media has to induce a sense of trust because it looks transparent, even as everyone knows it is a construct. I mean, there Jamie was wearing a SUIT in a studio with a bunch of pigs. But also with a bunch of very important people – government representatives, supermarket representatives, farmers, EU legislators – which he in turn got to pledge, on screen, in front of the 2 million people who were watching, to support British pork, so by the end of the 90 minutes he could sum up and say all these people have “promised” to do something. It was a piece of fucking first class bullying.

(Here we stop for an interlude of several hours, including lunch with a glass of wine, some decent limoncello, a nice massage, a good cup of home-brewed coffee).

So to wrap up, what I find remarkable about Jamie saving various bacons is not really the specifics of who’s doing it, or the fact that the most lucrative piece of bacon on the set is Jamie himself – these all confirm what I have suspected all along, and which brings us back to the issue of trust. The spectacle that he put on is just more evidence of a very real paradigm shift that is occurring at this very moment (but that many of us will miss because we are too mesmerised by the show). It’s about how things are mobilized in this society, and who we trust to be at the wheel.

We may be in the new age of Obama’s America, where millions of people have renewed faith in a politician’s powers of salvation (and real believers may even anticipate something of a revolution), but the powers of mobility have – or certainly are – shifting hands. There was a day when philosophers could write books with real power. Governments could, through generating fear or making promises, incite real change. And I sure as hell hope they still can. But I’m no longer convinced they’ll bother without being shamed into action by a figure who is now as likely to appear on the front cover of Newsweek as of People magazine. (Here’s an important non-trick question: which of those do you think has more readers?).

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is how something as momentus as this will slip silently into history as if it was meant to happen all along. I won’t be holding my breath for this year’s lists of the 100 most influential figures. I just hope that Obama at least makes it into the top 10.¬† (And I’m not talking about his action figure).