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6 things I really don't like 🥦🤨
Yes, I'm probably wrong about most of these
I was in Italy recently. Ostia near Rome to be precise (hence the lack of newsletter last week). It was my first time in Italy, and I don’t think I could have asked for more. The kids were happy, the wife and I had a chance to see some sites for the first time, and the food was as good as I’d hoped.
I wish I had a raft of beautiful pictures to share with you but, being one of those dreadful parents you read about that lets their kids watch iPhones during restaurant meals, I've come away with only one. I do however, think it’s a good one.
I have written before about what I consider to be the best bun ever created. It’s this Finnish bun called Dallaspulla. But, having had a genuine Roman maritozzo for the first time, I may just have a new favourite.
A maritozzo is a light brioche bun from Rome filled with perfectly sweetened whipped cream. Simple, but an absolute dream.
Sorry, my beloved Finland.
One night on my holiday, after my second glass of cheap Chianti and just before bed, I shot off a post to this new “notes” platform that Substack have launched (it’s like Twitter but friendlier).
I asked people what their most overrated food “thing” was. It could have been anything from ingredient to cooking technique, anything at all.
I chose steak to get things started because boy do I think a plate of steak is boring.
(Un)surprisingly, it really seemed to get people talking.
Hero of Italian food writingreplied with one pot pasta as her choice owing to its “glutinous texture” and “muddied flavours”. even suggested the (in my opinion delicious) cep mushrooms were low on her shopping list.
Maybe my favourite choice was the proud Swissmanadmitting he didn’t care for fondue.
Check out more of the fun responses here. It really is fascinating how we can all have such wildly different feelings about the very same things (I mean come on, what’s not to love about brioche??!!)
I’m still working on the next instalment in my Memoirs of a Line Cook for you. That should be making its way to you next week. So I thought I’d put a slightly shorter post together this week that picks out some of the things I dislike or just don’t “get” about the food world as I see it today.
Other than steak, that is.
Please feel free to tell my how much of a misguided idiot I am in the comments regarding any of these. Really, go right ahead, I’m working on getting better with criticism.
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Number 1: Undercooked veg
Maybe it’s the filthy Brit in me, the land of roast joints of beef served with 2-hour-pressure-cooked cabbage, but I find something deeply unsatisfying about vegetables served hot but practically raw inside.
Some people call it “having bite” or more romantically “al dente”, but to me, it’s simply undercooked.
Green beans, broccoli and, perhaps most importantly of all, brussel sprouts, to me, delicious vegetables such as these simply must be fully cooked through for them to be at their tastiest and most satisfying texture.
I know this puts me out of joint with the trend for “fresh”, “vibrant”, blanched then iced then reheated veg that you’ll find in most (good?) restaurants nowadays. But if I have to work to cut a vegetable with the side of my fork, it’s just not cooked enough.
There. I said it.
The second thing: Flabby meat fat
At one point in my cooking career I worked the line at a very special restaurant called Oaxen Krog and Slip. I talk about that place in my interview with my old head chef here.
The owner was something of a culinary artist, and his name was Magnus Ek. This is, if you aren’t aware, the guy who was creating ground-breaking “New Nordic” food long before the term even existed.
At staff food one day I accidentally let slip to him that I couldn’t stomach the fat on the pork belly we were being served. I say I “let it slip” because after so many years of cooking alongside “real” chefs, it has become clear to me that not adoring the rich, full-flavour of un-rendered animal fat makes me something of a persona non grata. An outcast. Someone not worth inviting to family holidays. Someone only one level up from that uncle who was caught hanging around the bushes outside a kids’ play park that one time.
The fat is where the flavour is, after all.
When he heard me that day, Chef Magnus looked at me like I was a 4 year old refusing to eat his chicken nuggies.
Lucky number 3: Unsalted butter
Unsalted butter is entirely meaningless. Any recipe that calls for it would be better served using salted butter. Yes, even sweet things like cakes and biscuits (it isn’t the eighties anymore, we all know sweet things taste better with a touch of salt.)
In my research to back myself up here I found this really fun article.
Instead of repeating his argument, I’ll pull a single quote. The writer says:
“No cook would ever tell you to use unsalted Parmesan cheese, or unsalted soy sauce, or unsalted pickles, or unsalted Prosciutto, or unsalted miso. So why unsalted butter?”
Number four: Things cooks say to make themselves sound like they know more than you
This is probably the thing I hate most of all, probably because I’ve had to suffer sous chefs that are convinced they’re actually chemists or some kind of culinary bio-mechanic. There are so many so I’ll list out just a few examples:
Searing meat to “seal in the juices” (pretty sure Jamie Oliver still trots this one out)
Not putting salt in scrambled eggs before they are cooked (Gordon Ramsey is a fan of this one. I checked my copy of McGee, this rule is rubbish)
Sifting flour to make cakes/bread (waste of time unless you are living on a ship in the 18th century and you need to remove weevils)
The fifth element: No waste cooking
OK, I’m being an arse here. I don’t mean all no waste cooking. No waste cooking is, of course, the kind of cooking we should all be trying to do. If we’re going to eat animals, we should eat all the animal. If you throw away the broccoli stem, you are doing broccoli wrong. If you don’t use herb stems for pesto and they end up in the bin, you’re genuinely missing out.
The thing that makes me roll my eyes, however, is when “no waste” cooking is used as an excuse (often on TikTok accounts looking desperately for their next video idea) to expend ridiculous amounts of effort (and even actual energy from the plug socket) on repurposing trash for the most infinitesimal of gains. Such videos make me wonder if the effort itself undermines the original purpose: to save resources.
I saw a particularly “good” one this week on a popular no waste cooking account. It was about how to use your “leftover” cucumber peels(!). The “influencer” blitzed his peels to make a juice with which he coloured homemade noodles.
Who ever peels a cucumber to find themselves in the position of potentially wasting it in the first place?
He gave no use for the cucumber peel pulp which I assume was thrown away.
And finally: The idea great cooking is possible only with the “finest” ingredients
One of the many reasons I love a book called Roast Chicken and other Stories by Simon Hopkinson with Lindsey Bareham is because of a small passage about the titular chicken. They write:
The better the bird, the better the dish cooked.
Well, up to a point.
A good cook can produce a good dish from any old scrawbag of a chook. A poor cook will produce a poor dish - even from a Bresse chicken.
You can probably figure out by “chook” they mean a cheap bird, and by “Bresse” they refer to the beautiful French chickens that are cared for and nurtured better than most people probably are.
Food sustainability is one of the issues of our age. And ideally we could feed the world on Bresse chickens and low-yield vegetables grown by monks on the fertile banks of volcanic mountains or whatever.
I don’t have a doctorate in the matter, but I have tried to read more about the state of our food system in books written by people more intelligent than me (I particularly value the work of Bee Wilson and Jay Rayner on food sustainability).
What I’ve learned is that industrial agriculture, inevitably, feeds much of the world. Hopefully the future sees a better, more ecological industrial food system, but it will still be industrial. And most people will still depend on it. That food might not be hand-reared or bespoke or delivered in a paper bag from a small farm down the road, but it will be food.
And, if the cook is good, good food will still be created from it.
Thanks for reading as far as this. Like I said, feel free to tell me all about why I’m an idiot, why unsalted butter is actually really important for some reason, or why sifting flour actually makes tastier crumpets or whatever.
I love you all.