Do you think because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night – 2.1


Welcome to my blog. Since forever I’ve been obsessed with cooking and eating, and this is my way of sharing that as far as possible.

I love big-flavoured, comforting, simple, fresh food. Always searching for new flavours and combinations, techniques, recipes. I’m going to write about what I cook and eat. Expect sarcasm and literary references and polysyndetic sentences.

Bon Appetit


Roast Chicken and Other Love Songs

As an enthusiastic (and I absolutely mean ‘enthusiastic’ in the school-report-euphemism sense) cook, I love geeking out over process. Reductions and purees and veloutes and tempering. I like to make things as complicated as possible. But this is, of course, futile. The more I have to do, the more chance there is of me making a complete Horlicks of something and ruining some expensive ingredients.

And also, in these strange times, I’m coming to the realisation that it is the simpler things that I crave, roast chicken being a case in point. There’s something… elemental about a roast chicken. It somehow seems to encapsulate something essential, immediate about the pleasure of food. It’s something that is simple, achievable, and when done right absolutely sublime.

Simon Hopkinson’s famous book Roast Chicken and Other Stories was once voted the ‘most useful’ cookery book of all time. And the recipes are absolutely ace. But I find endlessly more fascinating the decision to ascribe in the title a connection between cooking and storytelling. I find it stupendously poetic – if stories are the way we make sense of the world around us, then surely cooking is how we make use of the world around us.

I’m trying to eat less meat – not entirely successfully, but I’m trying. Because, you know, the world. And when I do eat meat, to try and assuage the impending guilt, I try to make sure

  1. That it had a reasonable quality of life before ending up in my fridge, and
  2. That I treat it respectfully by using all of it.

Roast chicken is perfect in this respect because by spending a little extra on a quality bird, with a bit of skill and forethought you can stretch it further and really honour the thing that died to feed you. Leftovers can end up in all manner of incredible salads and soups and pies and sandwiches, and the bones can end up in a stock that will form the basis of so many other great dishes. Not an ounce of waste.

When I roast a chicken, I go to town. I try to concentrate all of those desires to do something technical and elaborate into ensuring the most perfectly simple (or simplistically perfect) chicken; salty, crispy skin, moist white meat, unctuous dark meat that yields from the bone with only the slightest prod, all perfumed with lemon and rosemary and bay and thyme.

I brine the best chicken I can afford in a 30% salt solution overnight, bringing the salt and water to a boil before adding my aromats of choice (garlic, bay, thyme, lemon zest, mustard seeds – get creative) as the brine cools. Boiling the aromats will just render them flavourless. Once the brine is cool, I pour over the chicken and refrigerate for a maximum of 12 hours – any longer and the salt will start to break down the proteins in the chicken.

The next morning, I remove the chicken from the brine and dry with paper towels. I do this as early as possible, because I want the chicken to air-dry as much as possible (at least 2 hours, preferable 6-8) before going in the oven – I want crisp skin, and moisture is the enemy of crispiness. This has the added benefit of bringing the bird to room temperature – if it goes into the oven fridge-cold, it will cook unevenly, rendering all your previous work moot.

I pre-heat the oven to 140 degrees, and season the chicken generously, all over, inside-and-out*. I use table salt – something fine-grained. Sea salt or rock salt won’t stick to the bird, and end up seasoning your roasting pan, not your chicken. Then I stick some more woody herbs (bay, rosemary, thyme, sage) into the cavity along with a sliced lemon, smear some soft butter over the breast and legs, and place in the oven for 3 hours.

For the last 15 minutes of cooking, I ramp the oven up to it’s highest temperature to crisp the skin, and rest (uncovered – otherwise it’ll sweat and you won’t get crispy skin) for 20-30 minutes before carving.

I’ve been thinking about Frank O’Hara a lot recently, and not just because I spotted Connell reading him in Normal People. My favourite poem of his is called Why I Am Not A Painter:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be

a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg

is starting a painting. I drop in.

“Sit down and have a drink” he

says. I drink; we drink. I look

up. “You have SARDINES in it.”

“Yes, it needed something there.”

“Oh.” I go and the days go by

and I drop in again. The painting

is going on, and I go, and the days

go by. I drop in. The painting is 

finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”

All that’s left is just

letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of

a color: orange. I write a line

about orange. Pretty soon it is a 

whole page of words, not lines.

Then another page. There should be

so much more, not of orange, of

words, of how terrible orange is

and life. Days go by. It is even in

prose, I am a real poet. My poem

is finished and I haven’t mentioned

orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call

it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery

I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

I’ve been thinking about this poem because, like the perfect roast chicken, it’s seeming simplicity belies an aesthetic and structural complexity – all of the hard work is hidden and what is left seems effortless and ephemeral and easy. But also because it gets to the heart of why I cook – why I am urged to create. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem or a painting or a ham sandwich, whether I am a poet or a painter or a cook. I’m just making things to try and make sense – to make use – of the world around me.

*What a hideous phrase.

Comfort Food

I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort food recently, whilst staring wistfully out of my kitchen window at a carpark. These are very much times for comfort food – we need as much comfort in our lives as possible. I’m just not entirely sure what it is.

I keep trying to define it in my head, and just when I think I’ve got it, something pops up to disprove it. “It’s got to be hot – like, properly piping. Steam has to be coming off of it, juice may well be bubbling over the side of it. Good. Nailed it. Now I can get back to eating this block of cheese”, and then later that day “Oh bollocks – ice cream.”

Perhaps it’s a dairy thing? Cheese, butter cream – those things are pretty damn comforting. But then I made a vegetable chilli the other night with butternut squash, black beans and chipotle, and that was pretty bloody comforting.

Of course, the whole endeavour is futile anyway. What is comforting varies from person to person. It’s why if you see a stranger crying in the street and give them a hug you could receive in return either a friend for life or a punch in the dick. Comfort food (for me) is about memory. In fact, food is about memory.

Everyone knows (or is) someone who hears a few bars of a song and becomes overwhelmed because it transports them like lightening to a certain place or time or feeling. I get that with smells and tastes. Mrs Ice-Cream and I bought some Ovaltine in a supermarket recently* when we were feeling particularly post-modern and ironic. We made a mug that night, and while Mrs I was underwhelmed, I was suddenly in my Grandad’s front room at 11am with a plate of buttered Cornish Wafers in front of me and the faint smell of damp rolling tobacco lingering in the background. It was uncanny.

Maybe we rely far too much on delusions of objectivity when writing and thinking about food; of course something can be too salty, or over-cooked, but isn’t that secondary to the feelings that it gives you, be that comfort of curiosity or confusion or compassion when we’re thinking about whether it was good or nice or tasty? Besides, our palates are all different. I know people who, if they saw how much salt I put in things, would have a coronary. Now that’s irony.

In the budding stages of our relationship, I made Mrs I mac and cheese; one of those dishes that any self-respecting foodie has nailed. It’s like a badge we wear: “Mac and cheese? Haw, haw haw… allow me“. Her mum made it for her. It had a special place in her heart.

Now, foodie friends, if the kitchen sink was made of gruyere, I would have thrown it at this mac and cheese. My lord, the dairy. The dairy. This thing was cheesier than a…** Anyway, it was bloody delicious. But when I looked up from my plate, cheese dripping from my chin, I saw her looking troubled. It wasn’t the same. It might have tickled the tastebuds, but it didn’t humour her hippocampus***. Her mum put tomatoes in it. The mustard was too pokey. It bore little relation to her memory of the dish, which trumped any objective sense of how nice it was. And it was bloody nice.

I just finished reading a book called Espediar Street by the late Iain Banks. A bit towards the end kicked me in the feels:

“…it felt like faith, like revelation: that things went on, that life ground on regardless and mindless, and produced pain and pleasure and hope and fear and joy and despair, and you dodged some of it and you sought some of it and sometimes you were lucky and sometimes you weren’t, and sometimes you could plan your way ahead and that would be the right thing to have done, but other times all you could do was forget about the plans and just be ready to react, and sometimes the obvious was true and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes experience helped but not always, and it was all luck, fate, in the end; you lived, and you waited to see what happened, and you would rarely ever be sure that what you had done was really the right thing or the wrong thing, because things can always be better and things can always be worse.

Comfort food isn’t about potatoes or cheese. It’s about reminding ourselves of the hope that those times when things were better will return.

*I say recently… it was about two years ago. Ah, the memories.

**I’m not going to lower myself to finishing this simile.


‘The Stew’

We live in crazy times. As I was queuing around the block to get into the supermarket the other day there was – I swear, I’m not making this up* – a spiv. We’re talking a full on 1940’s wideboy: a duck’s arse haircutted, trilby wearing, pinstriped profiteer standing (at a safe distance) next to the dog track, leaning almost suggestively on a bollard and smoking a gasper. People seemed to be reacting to this with a kind of measured indifference, which I found strange. Nevertheless, he caught my eye, and peeled open one side of his beige trench coat to reveal a half dozen cans of chickpeas. “Two bob a pop” he mouthed to me across the carpark.

Anyway, I like a chickpea as much as the next chap. I’ve got a Drama and English degree – I existed for much of my late teens/early twenties on hummus and own-label lager. Sometimes I make my own falafel. I have even been known to even buy dried chickpeas, soak them overnight and cook them for hours. It is (just about) worth the effort. However, I will never accept that chickpea water** is good for anything other than pouring down the drain.

As suspicious as I am of chickpea water, I am more suspicious of definite articles. Nothing good can come from referring to something as ‘the’. Let’s use the indefinite article and all live happily ever after. It’s not ‘the’ bag of crisps. It’s ‘a’ bag of crisps. Don’t @ me.***

All this aside, Alison Roman’s recipe for chickpea stew is pretty glorious. I made it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it’s quickly become a firm midweek favourite. It’s incredibly simple, rich, flavoursome, hearty and comfortable.

Some thoughts:

  • The cheaper the coconut milk the better. Honestly. No idea why.
  • Kale is the best green veg I’ve used. Something about the gnarly bits soaking up the sauce.
  • My only addition to the recipe is a spritz of lime at the end for acidity.
  • All I serve it with are these flatbreads, which are insanely easy and good.

So yes. A chickpea stew. Very good lockdown fare.

Only thing I’d have done differently would have been to finish it with some fresh coriander, but the spiv didn’t have any.

*I am, of course, making this up.

**I refuse to call it aquafaba – it sounds like a word that Boris Jonson has made up to describe the lunacy of nationalising the water industry.

*** I saw this on a meme and trust I’ve used it in the right context?

Arancini: A Story

I don’t know why I’ve never made Arancini before; I guess because I’ve never had any leftover risotto and the idea of making some specifically for another purpose seems a smidgen long-winded, even for me.

Apparently, arancini translates as ‘little orange’. The Italians love a diminutive. It reminds me of my favourite joke in Shakespeare – in Much Ado About Nothing when Beatrice describes Claudio as ‘civil as an orange’. See? Civil, like Seville. And also, because he’s all jealous and not very ‘civil’ at all. Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, I made a risotto the other day, and was left in one of those situations where there was about half a handful of rice left in the bag. Not enough for a single portion, but nevertheless the sort of amount liable to languish at the back of the cupboard for time immemorial. So I whacked it in, and even with my outrageous gluttony couldn’t finish it all.

Fast-forward two days, and the half-bowl of by now solidified rice in the fridge was beginning to annoy my partner and needed to be used. I started by making a simple tomato sauce – a can of tomatoes, touch of garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar – leaving it to slowly bubble all over the white tiles behind the hob.

I then squelched spoonfuls of the leftover risotto into roughly equal balls and panéed them. This means to dredge in flour, egg, and finally breadcrumbs. There are two main techniques to choose from here. Most would advise keeping a ‘dry hand’ for the flour and the breadcrumbs, and a ‘wet hand’ for the egg, thus ensuring the minimum of sticky mess. Sensible, really. I, on the other hand, espouse the ‘cack hand’ method, whereby I dive straight in without thinking about it and hope the resultant floury chaos rectifies itself later.

Then came the frying. I did this in a large saucepan, because the deep fryer is a bastard to clean, filling it to about a third with vegetable oil, heating it to the point where it hurts if you put your hand in it*, and dropping the balls** in for about 5-6 minutes until golden brown.

A quick dry on some absorbent paper later, and lunch was ready. Served with the tomato sauce, the dregs of a bottle of cava with an upturned teaspoon in it, and last night’s leftover Dominos.


*This is a joke. Don’t do this. Drop a bit of bread in or something, and if it sizzles you’re good to go.

**This phrase made me laugh.