To Judy Rodgers, Too Little Too Late

ImageIt was a disaster. Six free-range, organic chickens, reared by an ethically sound producer in the California sunshine had been overcooked. It felt disrespectful. These small birds had given up their relatively contented lives to feed us and we, I, had roasted them to a state that was so parched, the breast meat was difficult to swallow. They had been intended to feed twenty people for a family reunion, in a menu lovingly considered and prepared by my favourite aunt. A well-worn copy of the Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers had been bookmarked and it was my responsibility to roast them.

Rodgers died in December of cancer. I’d like to say that my historical food knowledge is so that I had actually heard of her that sunny weekend in October. But I hadn’t. Aside from the Zuni Café often being mentioned in the same sentence as Chez Panisse when my aunt and I spoke about Bay Area cuisine, I had no idea that she was of the same calibre as Alice Waters when it came to the California Food Revolution in the 1980s. But when the news hit, and her importance to the culinary tradition clicked into place, I realised I had had no clue, as I watched my aunt, mother and sister-in-law brine these birds two months prior, that I was going to be in charge of delivering on Rodgers’ most famous recipe.

She outlines three main points to consider when roasting a chicken. First, the size: 1.2-1.5kgs (2 3/4 to 3 1/2lbs) is key. The birds are small and are completely perfect for quick roasting at high heat. The second is the bird is a fryer, as opposed to a roaster, which tends to be much larger. The littler birds are often used for their parts and are usually overlooked for roasting because of their size. Finally, salting the chicken 24-hours in advance. I’ve always considered brining to be something overly complicated for some reason, and was perhaps a bit intimidated by the idea. But when Rodgers described the process, all of a sudden I understood. The point is to get your food to be “tasty all the way through”.

She explains, “…salt helps dissolve some of the proteins within and around the muscle fibres that would otherwise resist chewing…Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out. However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.” Ah-hah.

In the end, I was too generous with our roasting timings, calculated around multiple chickens instead of the one mentioned in the recipe. A different aunt, with a deep-rooted and irrational fear of salmonella, convinced me to allow more time than my instincts told me, and when we took the little golden bodies out of the oven, I knew we’d gone too far. Needless to say, when the party of twenty sat down to eat there was a quiet disappointment in the air. We are a family who likes food. We like to eat it, talk about it, think about it, worry about it, but that evening no one said a word for the first five minutes. The only person to comment was my cousin, my dear aunt’s son. In his quiet and aloof manner, he confirmed the unfortunate truth; the meat was dry and juiceless. It was tragic. She and I both lost sleep over it.

Once back in the UK and armed with a photocopy of my aunt’s cookbook, I penitently set about to roast another chicken. I found a beautiful small one from Dugard & Daughters, the lovely butchers in Herne Hill, SW London, and set about salting the little thing 24-hours in advance, studiously reading and rereading Rodgers’ instructions for roasting. My oven is notoriously over ambitious. I have lost battles to it several times over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, so this time I was going to err on the side of caution. The chicken was seared in a hot cast iron dish on the stovetop, then flipped over and roasted at 250C (475F) for 30 minutes, then back on its bottom at 210C (450F) for another 15. The result was a thing of glory. The brined chicken was juicy, flavourful and succulent. The skin is crispy, salty but not overly so; the meat tasted more of itself, all the way through. Simple, effective, this method is foolproof if you know your bird and you know your oven.

With such a late introduction into Judy Rodgers’ style, I can’t help but feel like I’ve arrived at a party an hour after everyone’s left. To become so well known for something as simple as a roast chicken shows a love of technique and an attention to detail that is entirely refreshing. As Alice Waters says, “it is a fundamental fact that no cook, however creative and capable, can produce a dish of quality any higher than that of the ingredients.” Indeed. But respect those ingredients as well. Knowing the best method of preparation is crucial, and yet, that isn’t everything. The learning curve continues, but one thing is for sure: I will never roast another chicken longer than an hour, and I must always listen to my instincts.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

2013-02-12 18.43.30Before Betty Crocker became synonymous with Devil’s Food Cake mix and General Mills, its cookbook, first published in 1950, was one of my mother’s and grandmother’s default cookery reference guides. At the time, my mother’s dog-eared edition, pages loose and some undoubtedly lost forever, held for me the mysteries of cooking in its bounty of recipes, but today I mostly remember it as a baking bible. I managed to track down a updated edition about 6 years ago and was thrilled to find the old favourites were there, plus many more which I will never begin to crack the surface of. Naturally, as it is an American cookbook, all the recipes are in frustrating imperial measurements, but it has been redesigned as a binder which makes it easy to remove pages, convert the measurements yourself and continue on your merry way.

The book had a seemingly fool-proof recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies (that has since been usurped by David Liebovitz), as well as other American classics like Buttermilk Biscuits, where the dough makes an effervescent whisper of protest as a dough cutter weighs down upon it, Lemon Bars that remind me of my grandmother and Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting, which seems to hold a certain cakey romance in my mind, although I am sure I could count on one hand how many times we made it. But Peanut Butter Cookies still, after all this time, stand out to me as supremely easy and entirely memorable even with such minor effort.

Marvellous thing, this book was and still is.

In honour of the Brixton Blog’s first birthday party, I was asked to prepare some little treats and figured it was as good a time as ever to give the delightful Peanut Butter Cookies another crack. Not only are they are slightly crumbly, there is a nice little give in the dough so they stay nice and chewy. And with only about 225g (1 cup) of sugar, the sweetness is nicely tempered by the salty peanut butter, making them rather addictive and not at all sickly. A recipe as straightforward as this can be built on quite easily and I have often toyed with the idea of adding orange zest or some spice. But this time, I went for plain chocolate chips as really, chocolate and peanut butter are one of the most glorious couplings of all time.

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One trick the original recipe doesn’t allow for is chilling time in fridge. I have made these before and often when it comes to pressing them into their little flat crisscrossed shapes, the dough sticks to the fork and ends up making them a bit mushed and sticky. After preparing the dough, it is advisable to give the fats and flours a chance to get to know each other and have a rest before moulding them into shape. I chilled the dough for about 3 hours, but that was purely due to circumstance. I imagine half an hour to an hour would do the trick nicely.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

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  • 115g or 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 115g or 1/2 cup brown sugar – if using cups be sure the sugar is packed
  • 115g or 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 55g or 1/4 cup suet (shortening)
  • 55g or 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 140g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 100g or 1/3 cup of plain (semi-sweet) chocolate chips

In a glass bowl, beat both sugars, peanut butter, suet or shortening, butter and egg together with an electric mixer. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Once all the ingredients are mixed thoroughly, add the chocolate chips and mix well with a wooden spoon. The dough may seem a little stiff and the chips tricky to amalgamate, but stick at it, they’ll get there eventually. Your goal is to have them evenly dispersed throughout the dough.

Chill in refrigerator for at least 1/2hr. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F and line baking tray with baking paper.

2013-02-06 17.37.06Shape dough into approx 3cm (1 1/4in) balls. Using a fork, flatten the dough, leaving crisscross marks along the top.

Once baked, these marks will add to the nice crumbly character of the cookie.

Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, depending on the speed and intensity of your oven, until light brown.

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Remove cookies from baking sheet and transfer to a cooling rack. Let them chill out there for a few minutes. You can see in the photo on the left that I left one batch in for a little longer than 10 minutes so they were a little more toasted. Don’t worry if that happens; they won’t dry out and they still taste delightful.

Makes about 24. Perfect with a cup of tea or a glass of cold milk.

Recipe adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Bonus Edition, pg 180.

Intellectual Foodieism

tumblr_lneyvuu5XU1qjcl1qBocca by Jacob Kenedy 

Last Thursday, I had the luxury of attending a talk at the V&A Reading Rooms in South Kensington featuring the charming Jacob Kenedy, Chef Patron of Bocca di Lupo in Soho. He was there to read from his new cookbook, Bocca, and give us a little insight into his healthy obsession with food, whilst graciously answering our questions.

This cookbook is beautiful in every way. It is weighty but if anything, this is thrilling because I know it will be comprehensive, and most importantly, true to the different regional Italian tastes from Venice to Naples.  This appeals to me as opposed to something like the Silver Spoon, which as many foodies know is the lexicon of Italian cooking (the Larousse for Italy, really), which I shamefully admit to you that I’ve never cooked from. Its so epic and to be honest, it doesn’t have pretty pictures and this does nothing for the salivary reaction that the home cook craves when choosing what to make next. In Bocca, the photography (by Howard Sooley) beautifully captures the food but also the Italian culture and countryside.  However, what is different about this cookbook is that Jacob’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, imaginative, and most importantly, gives me warm fuzzies when it comes to the food. Even the raw food.

Jacob himself is warm and open about his love of food and as my friend said to me after, in his own way, hearing people talk about food in a way that speaks to me confirms that my obsession with good food and good eating is not really all that crazy. He has no favourite foods, he loves what’s been put in front of him and he’s completely unapologetic about being ever so slightly greedy when it comes to eating.  To him, feeding people is about more than just food, it is about showing the people you care about that you love them. This I get. I am a feeder… I normally don’t get complaints from friends and family about my desire to feed them, but I do get the fear that when I am a ripe old age and still cooking for people I will begin to channel my Italian grandmother’s lovely skill of forcing more food on people than they really need.  But hey, we love you, its what we feeders do.

I will leave you with this: when I asked Jacob about my pasta maker sitting on my shelf collecting dust, I expressed my concern over my inability to make a small amount of pasta and therefore leaving strands of hardening pasta over chairs and drying racks. He gave me this tip – 1 egg (preferably Italian; something to do with the egg yolks being really yellow) to 100g of ‘00’ flour is the ratio. If the pasta over chairs is too much, stick to this and you can make as much or as little as you need. Amazing. Nonna would be so proud.


 Fire and Knives Food Quarterly

This week I got my first issue of the Fire and Knives Food Quarterly.  This is no throw away food magazine; this thing is a work of art. The Quarterly, founded by Tim Hayward, gives writers, both established and novice, the opportunity to write about food in a literary arena. Food as literature. I love it.

I’m only about a third of the way through but so far, I’ve read a brilliant article by Tom Parker-Bowles about the joys of that oh-so-English delicacy, the Savory, plus another great diatribe by David J Constable about the Scotch Egg.  I had no idea reading about a Scotch Egg could be so brilliant! I wouldn’t touch them when I first moved here but had the change of heart when getting a taste at the Hinds Head in Bray (Heston Blumenthal’s pub).  I have since learned that a quail’s egg wrapped in handmade sausagemeat and then covered in Panko is not standard… pity…

However, the best quote from this article is in the final paragraph:

“This spherical delight, then – like a model assembly of the sun – beautifully designed and crafted and ooohhhh, that memorable meaty aroma to treasure, as if God were to fart. It’s a winner, always has been. A masterpiece returned.”

What I love about the Fire and Knives Quarterly is that writing about food has suddenly become clever, erudite, and less about feeding oneself, but more about treating it as if it something to be thought about in the same way as painting perhaps, or even design…food considered in an intellectual manner…even if Constable did mention God farting, I’m sold…