Sunday, 23 October 2011

Jaws of Defeat

Following on from last weekend's triumph of Carrot and Star Anise soup from Tom Kitchin's book From Nature to Plate, I was anticipating another weekend of culinary success.

But I was mistaken.

The week started out promisingly enough, with leftover soup and roast chicken from last Sunday, reminding me how well we had cooked at the weekend and how much I had to look forward to.

The plan for Friday night was Smothered Poke (pork) Chops and Soul-Baked Macaroni from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. Ever since I had first read this book, I had wanted to cook the stodgy, soul-food macaroni recipe, not least because of the suggestion to chill some in the fridge, cut it into slices, dip it in egg and flour, and shallow-fry it the next day.

The poke chops were just the recipe the book suggested would go well with the macaroni.

So when we bought the seven tonnes of meat for £26 last week at Craigie Farm, I made sure the package included two pork chops.

Now, let me say I was a bit nervous about this recipe from the beginning. Firstly, though I joked about possibly having a heart attack from the high fat content, I was actually a little worried about it. I'm not used to eating food this...heavy. But more than that, I noticed the poke chops recipe was a little incomplete. The only listed ingredients were the chops themselves, and the components of the spice mixture (onion salt, salt, cayenne pepper, and mustard powder). The method part of the recipe, however, spoke of flour, (presumably) diced onions, and stock (probably chicken, but who knows). Clearly, these things had been left out of the ingredients by accident, so I had to guesstimate the amounts using previous experience.

I opted for 250 mL of stock, 125g of flour, and the equivalent of about half a diced onion (we've been using pre-chopped frozen onions since Abby was born, along with Very Lazy Garlic (pre-chopped and preserved in a jar), because having an under-5-year-old does not leave you lots of time for cooking).

Basically, I fell at the first hurdle. I had forgotten the chops were in the freezer, so they were still frozen solid when I got home on Friday evening. I did NOT want to defrost them in the microwave, as that would inevitably cook them a bit, and dry them out. (Microwaves function by heating the natural water content of food. The heated water in turn cooks the rest of the food product. The problem with this method is it tends to evaporate the water, leaving meat tough and dry.)

We solved this problem by putting the chops in a bath of room temperature tap water to defrost (Alison's idea). This worked so well that when I came down to the kitchen after putting Abby to bed, I found the chops cool and soft, with no trace of ice.

But it that wasn't the end of my problems. Usually when I cook at the weekend, we end up eating on "Spanish time", which basically means I serve dinner at 10 o'clock at night. This time I tried to avert this by making a tight schedule which would enable me to serve by 9 (I had tried to work out timings to serve by half 8, but it would have involved cooking during Abby's bath time).

My schedule required me to have the prep started by 7:45, but it was 7:55 by the time I left Abby's room. I raced downstairs thinking if I could start by 8:00 I would only be fifteen minutes behind schedule. But I was so flustered I made really stupid errors like hammering the chops with the handle of our wooden rolling pin without first covering them with clingfilm. I also forgot to turn the oven on. At one point I got so frustrated I actually threw a dish towel across the room, although the nadir was probably when I screamed so loud Alison came downstairs, thinking I had cut my finger off or something.

Though my schedule was quite a bit off by now, I did manage to get it together and get the macaroni cooked and in the oven, though I chose too small a bowl to beat the eggs and evaporated milk in, so I don't think they were fully combined in the end.

With the macaroni in the oven and the chops fried for 5 minutes on each side and in a baking dish, it was time to make the gravy. The first step was to add the mysterious flour to the oil and pork drippings and make a roux (my first ever roux, by the way). The recipe said to stir the flower constantly over a low heat for 10 minutes, then add the onions, then the stock, slowly, once the onions were soft. 10 minutes is a long wait, and as the flour got darker and darker, I really began to doubt this recipe, but I hung in there, because the authors spoke about a "creole roux" which is apparently much darker than a French roux.

I never made it the full ten minutes, because I started to smell burning. I went ahead and added the onions, but somehow that only increased the burning smell, probably because the water released from the onions loosened more burnt flour from the bottom of the pan.

When the onions were soft, I added the stock, slowly as directed. When there was enough "gravy", I tasted it with a spoon. It tasted of burnt salt. I asked Alison's opinion. She said she couldn't taste the burning so much as the salt, but we both agreed it was disgusting, so down the drain it went. Instead, I put a bit of sherry into the baking dish with the chops, to keep them moist, covered the dish in foil, and put them in the oven.

The rest of the timings worked out. Everything was finished at about the same time (even allowing the chops time to rest), and I managed not to overcook the brocoli which was using as our sole healthy component of the meal (I added habenero sauce to mine, but Alison ate hers as they come).

The final disappointment, though, was a macaroni. You'd think something with that much evaporated milk in it would taste decadent, but the 40 minute baking time prescribed by the recipe seemed to have robbed it of all moisture. Worse, it didn't even taste that cheesy.

The chops, however, were delicious: moist and tender and very savoury. We usually just put pork chops under a grill, and they always come out dry, but I'll definitely be using this method again (searing on a high heat, then finishing in the oven).

The next day was supposed to be smoother. The dish on the menu was  celeriac, turnip, and beetroot gratin, from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate. I was feeling confident because the carrot and star anise soup had turned out so beautifully. I was also very excited to be cooking with two ingredients I had never used before: celeriac and beetroot (beets to Americans).

On the BBC food website I learned that celeriac is in fact the root of the celery plant, and when I began peeling the celeriac, I was instantly struck by the strong smell of celery, though it looked like typical root veg flesh. The other surprise was that the beetroot didn't bleed as much as I had expected.

This is a really simple dish: simply slice the veg thinly (Tom recommends using a mandolin, but I don't have one; nevertheless I did get the slices much thinner and more uniform than I would have expected). Simmer some whipping cream with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Then butter a 20 cm baking dish, lay the veg out in layers, and cover with the cream. Then bake at 150 degrees (C) for an hour and a half.

The problem is I used way too much veg, so the cream I had couldn't cover it all. I also may have misunderstood what Tom meant by "cover generously". I thought he meant fill up the dish, but perhaps what he meant was just make sure the top layer was wet, so it wouldn't dry out. I was out of cream, so what I did was fill up the rest of the dish with full fat milk (seasoned like the cream).

Even after two hours' cooking, that liquid was never going to reduce, so instead of a gratin, I had some root veg slowly poaching in seasoned milk. Worse, because the milk and cream didn't mix, it looked like it had split (curdled to Americans).

The sauce was unusable, so I lifted the veg out with a slotted spoon and served it. The flavours were nice, but the texture was a bit soggy, except for the top layer.

In the end, the beetroot was my favourite. The turnip was far too watery, and the celeriac tasted like a slightly less sweet parsnip (parsnip being my favourite root vegetable).

So, though no victory to be snatched from this weekend's fiascos, at least I've learned some lessons. On the one hand, trust my instincts more. If I'd departed from the poke chops recipe and done what I thought was right, I may have ended up with a nice gravy. On the other hand, I should do more preparation. I had never worked with celeriac or beetroot, or made a gratin, so perhaps I needed a bit more than just the recipe to guide me. Then I could have estimated how much veg to prep, or how much cream to use. (It also wouldn't have hurt to have added a little cornflour to the milk, to keep the consistency thick).

This has not, however, put me off either of the books. I still have many more dishes from Two Cooks to make, and next weekend I'm attempting the pumpkin risotto from Tom Kitchin's From Nature to Plate.

And on the plus side, I learned that I know how to make an omlette!