Sunday Mail - Body and Soul
A DASH OF INSPIRATION
The food world can be a brutal place. The put-downs were cruel when a well-known food editor recently became an industry laughing stock for writing a piece about “discovering” chicken crackling... about a decade after everyone else.
It was a bit like when the French pastry chef at a posh chocolate company got excited when he made the pioneering move of roasting white chocolate... until someone pointed out the caramel-white chocolate bars Caramac and Caramilk had been available for more than 50 years.
This is all a little unfair, I feel, as I can certainly understand their enthusiasm for such discoveries and feel a vicarious pleasure that’s usually reserved for those big moments in your kids’ lives. Their culinary excitement vividly take me back to my first square of Caramac, and the joy of my first bite of golden chicken skin that had been cooked – shock horror – without a bird underneath it but on its own, between two metal baking sheets.
This got me wondering about other light-bulb moments when something familiar becomes something so much more. Those moments you want to sing about to the world. Who was the first person to smash an avo, add salt to caramel, or mix bacon with maple syrup? I think we need some statues erected to them, pronto.
And what about my light-bulb moments in recent years? Here are the “things that made me go hmmm” – or even “mmm”!
A TARTED-UP CHEESE TOASTIE
Adding a little mozzarella to a toastie or jaffle dramatically ups the oozy, stringy factor.
PORK WITHOUT THE PIG
The best thing about roast pork is the crackling. So why not save your coin and buy the skin on its own? Then turn it into crackling to toss through salads, crumble over buttery mash with a splash of vinegar, or throw into a prawn sub to add crunch and saltiness (because pork crackling and prawns love each other like Kanye and Kim).
MAYO MINUS THE EGG
I’ve traded far and wide on the instant mayonnaise recipe I was given a decade ago by UK chef Mat Follas, whose idea of blitzing everything together was as radical as it was brilliantly effective. The trouble is, people are increasingly concerned by raw egg in stuff like mayonnaise and chocolate mousse. A note from a friend in Canada offered the solution: “Use three tablespoons of the liquid from tinned chickpeas instead of the egg and the instant mayo still works.” I did. It did. And this vegan mayo version is lighter and less cloying so it’s now my go-to.
THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
MasterChef 2019 contestant Sandeep Pandit was the first to nag me about kasuri methi, and the dried fenugreek leaves have popped up in so many of my meat recipes this year – not just the butter chicken. I’ll crush the herb into curries, sprinkle it over barbecue meats, and mix a spoonful into all manner of meatballs (even those without an Indian slant). It makes meat taste more savoury, especially when there are smoky flavours from the grill, or smoked paprika, chipotle, bacon or cumin in the mix. You’ll find it in the spice aisle of your local supermarket.
SWEET AND SOUR, THE SEQUEL
We’ve reworked a number of retro dish recipes over the years with varying results; my personal favourites are prawn cocktails served san choi bao-style in lettuce cups, and the reworked apricot chicken. Less successful was an update of savoury mince with peas, feta and mint. Often the aim is to remove flour, deep-frying and some of the heft in these classic dishes. The simple idea of swapping out deep-fried pork in favour of light pork meatballs with sweet and sour sauce achieves this and cuts down the cooking time, too. Do try it.
There’s a suite of dairy dictators out there who don’t like the stealing of animal words for plant-based products, but I struggle with the alternative – calling a dairy-free milk “nut juice” or this canny mix of garlic powder, nutritional yeast and ground roast cashews “Veganesan” or “Parmav’gan”. Sure, it’s no replacement for the venerable Italian cheese but it’s still pretty delicious sprinkled on buttered spaghettini.
HOMEMADE JUNK FOOD
Why serve cold corn chips with your chilli when you could easily warm them in the oven sprinkled with cheese? Why open a bag of frozen potato gems when it’s easy, cheaper and tastier to make your own tater tots, especially when you can flavour them with good stuff like grated smoked cheddar, bacon, corn or smoked paprika? And why not put those leftover roast veg to a better use rather than just eating them cold out of the fridge? The latter led to a light-bulb moment of mixing some leftover roasted pumpkin with glutinous rice flour to make chewy, pan-fried doughnuts, and mixing the sweet potato with marinated feta and spicy chilli crisp (the oily condiment you get in Chinese restaurants, and can buy in a jar – or make). The result was creamy, spicy and really, really good with sweet chilli and sour cream chips dipped in it.
Boredom often breeds creativity. This was the case when I battered and deepfried cheap and cheerful caramel kisses to make tiny salted caramel doughnuts. It was also the case when I made a chocolate torte for a posh dinner in the South African city of Pretoria and, inspired by the local Friday-night drinking tradition, flavoured it with rum, coke and a smoky caramel. This, I fear, is a sign of a man with far too much time on his hands, even if both desserts were smash hits.