The Ultimate A to Z of Cooking

Amchoor: (1) Spice powder made from unripe mangoes, popular in North Indian cuisine. (2) Geordie expression of complete certainty.

Blanch: (1) Of a vegetable, to boil very briefly so it retains its colour and crunch. (2) Of an older person, his or her reaction when presented with said vegetable

Crepinette: (1) A small flattened sausage wrapped in caul fat. (2) What posh people do when they visit the lavatory.

Dim sum: 2 + 2 = 5

Escalope: To run away to get married while disguised as a wiener schnitzel.

Flageolet: A small French bean with a penchant for S&M.

Guacamole: Popular but violent game in Mexican amusement arcades, in which burrowing animals rise from their holes for the player to hammer to a lurid green pulp.

Harissa: Co-presenter of the Tunisian edition of Two Fat Ladies.

Insalata: A popular uprising led by vegetarians.

Jus: Any gravy in which you can’t taste the Bisto.

Kedgeree: The recipient of a kedger.

Leguminous: Plants such as peas and beans that produce seed pods and glow in the dark.

Marinade: Flavourful concoction used in the restaurant trade to extend the shelf life of meat for up to 6 months.

Nougatine: The highly addictive active ingredient in a Milky Way.

Offal: The edible internal parts and extremities of an animal, whose use was championed by chef Fergus Henderson in his pioneering cookbook From Eyeball to Anus.

Petit Four: Diminutive Beatles tribute band.

Quinoa: Grain secretly developed by UK Government scientists in the 1980s that instantly confers aspirational middle class values on anyone who eats it.

Radicchio: Unique variety of radish that grows longer when it tells a lie.

Skim: To remove fat or other impurities from the surface of a liquid by bouncing a thin, flat stone across it.

Taramasalata: Distinctive and delicious pink dessert, much loved by children as a healthy alternative to ice cream.

Umami: The fifth basic taste after sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, who defined it as “a bit like eating all three flavours of Monster Munch at the same time”.

Veal: Delicious but controversial meat, produced by locking one-day-old calves in a broom cupboard, attaching electrodes to their genitals and forcing them to listen to Sting albums.

Well-fired: Marketing term coined by Scottish bakers when sales of their “hideously burnt rolls” proved disappointing.

X: Distinctive spray-painted mark to indicate meat fit only for use in pet food and doner kebabs.

Yam: (1) A brown-skinned tuber of the genus Dioscorea. (2) In south east England, a colloquial expression meaning “my, how perfectly delicious”.

Zucchini: A two-piece swimsuit made entirely from courgettes.

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If it’s a yes…

I realise this is supposed to be a blog about cooking. But today, I’m a little preoccupied with something else.

I’ve avoided broadcasting my voting intentions for the referendum for various reasons, the most obvious being that I haven’t been certain which way I’d be voting.

The past months have brought home to me that I’m not cut out to be one of life’s campaigners. I admire, and in some ways envy, those on both sides who’ve been pressing their case on the streets, on social media and in any number of pub and workplace conversations. And I realise that if everyone was like me, consciously standing apart and stubbornly refusing to pick a team and wear its colours, there’d have been next to no useful debate at all.

But for all my admiration for those who reached a firm decision quickly, I was never likely to be one of them. And when I did vote today, it was with some trepidation and regret as well as optimism and excitement. I don’t know – and nor, if you’re honest, do you – exactly what a Yes vote might bring. I’m pretty certain it would bring some economic hardship at first, but I couldn’t say how much or for how long. Nor do I know what additional powers – if any – will be handed to Scotland in the event of a No. I do know that, as an Englishman who has made Scotland his home, I’ll have a different sense of my own identity tomorrow morning if we vote to end the union; but I don’t know quite how that will feel or what my overriding emotions will be.

For life’s switherers and ditherers, voting in a General Election is relatively straightforward. It’s not a binary decision; there’s always an option that offers solace to an uneasy conscience. If you can’t face voting for one of the main contenders, there’s almost certain to be a minority alternative that sits more comfortably with your world view. So you still get the fuzzy feeling that comes from participating in a democratic process, albeit without any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome. (But in a first-past-the-post election, that feels OK too, because most of us live in constituencies that are never going to change hands anyway.)

In a referendum, there’s no such luxury. Once you’ve made the decision to take part, you know that a change of mind will have a double effect: switch sides, and you’re not just handing a vote to one side; you’re withdrawing a vote from the side you supported yesterday.

You’re also forced to share a position with people with whom you vehemently disagree in almost every other respect. If I voted Yes, I’d be standing alongside Brian Souter, as well as the guy who once hounded me out of a pub for being an “English c**t”. If I voted no, I’d be agreeing with the Orange Order and Nigel Farage.

So, for my first and only post about the referendum, I’ve deliberately waited until the polls have closed, so that it’s clear this isn’t a “vote yes” message (though that, ultimately, is what I did).

The reason I’m posting anything at all has less to do with readers in Scotland, most of whom have been engaged with the referendum for a long time, than readers outside it. For the past fortnight – in other words, ever since the shift in the opinion polls prompted a sudden and dramatic twitch in the collective sphincter of London politicians and media – I’ve heard several variations on the same stunned question: “How has it come to this?”

It’s a fair question. For decades, opinion polls have shown a significant majority of Scots to be opposed to independence. The SNP boasts the grand total of 6 MPs in Westminster – in other words, just over 10% of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Only one mainstream newspaper in the UK (the Sunday Herald) has come out in support of independence, and the huge majority of papers have actively opposed it. So how on earth can the referendum result be on a knife-edge on polling day?

Having watched Scottish politics for the past 15 years or so – sometimes from afar, but mainly at close quarters – I’ll try to offer a potted history.

I’ll begin in 1997. By then, we’d already had 18 years of Conservative rule, including the dismantling of heavy industry and the infamous Scottish “dry run” of the Poll Tax. But it wasn’t until ’97 that the Conservative vote finally collapsed, reducing the party from 11 Scottish seats to none and ultimately making “Tory” a dirty word in a historically fairly conservative country. This had the effect of creating a political space for the SNP to fill. But at the time, it still wasn’t enough to turn independence into anything more than a minority concern.

On finally coming to power, Labour proposed, campaigned for and won a referendum on Scottish devolution. The Scottish Parliament was formed – or rather, reformed – in 1999, using an electoral system (the Additional Member System) that was expected to ensure that no single party would ever secure a majority at Holyrood.

This system was primarily intended to ensure that Labour, which had won an overall majority of seats in Scotland at every General Election since 1959, would not have perpetual control of a Scottish Parliament. Such a system was essential for Labour to secure Lib Dem and SNP support in the devolution referendum; but it also suited Labour’s purposes, in that it provided an apparent guarantee against a future referendum on independence. Even if the Nationalists grew in popularity, there would always be a pro-union majority of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories, so no proposal for a referendum would ever be passed. Or so it was thought.

With the independence issue apparently booted into touch for the foreseeable future, almost all of the Labour and Liberal Democrat big guns at Westminster, faced with the choice of forging their careers in London or Edinburgh, chose the former. The main exception – Donald Dewar – sadly died less than 18 months after devolution. And with so few political heavyweights in the Scottish Parliament, and the Holyrood building project spiralling in cost and slipping in timescale, the Parliament and its ruling Lib/Lab executive (it wasn’t officially a “Government” until 2007) became objects of widespread ridicule.

All of this was a tremendous help to the Nationalists; as was the decision of the pro-union parties, fresh from completing one disastrous, overspent, delayed construction project, to launch straight into another: the Edinburgh trams. The SNP opposed the project, announcing its intention to cancel it in its 2007 Scottish election manifesto. Meanwhile, in contrast to Labour and the Lib Dems, it continued to send its big hitters to the now-completed Holyrood, not Westminster, including its newly re-elected leader: Alex Salmond.

At that 2007 election, I was asked by a friend to cast her vote by proxy. To my surprise, she asked me to give her first vote to the SNP; not because she had any great sympathy for the independence cause, but because she felt their politicians in Holyrood would govern Scotland more capably than the existing lot. Apparently, a lot of Scots felt the same way, and the SNP was returned as the largest party, albeit by a single seat.

Over the next four years, the SNP did indeed govern capably. Salmond, to his credit, moulded what was widely perceived as a ragtag, ideologically disparate, single issue group into a largely coherent, left-of-centre, social democratic party. The SNP differentiated itself from the Westminster parties with popular (or, depending on your point of view, populist) policies such as free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions; and it cleverly presented itself as something of a martyr over the Edinburgh tram project, graciously “allowing” the project to progress. In reality, it had no choice but to allow it, as it lacked the required majority to defeat it. But the Scottish people were left in no doubt that it was doing so under protest; and when the project inevitably descended into chaos, the SNP emerged with its credibility further enhanced.

At the UK General Election in 2010, Labour once again won a significant majority of Scottish seats – 41 out of 59. But the Tories became the largest party, and to the horror of many of their supporters, the Lib Dems joined them in coalition. Arguably, that was the decision that allowed today’s referendum to take place.

The immediate (and indeed continuing) upshot of that decision was that support for the Lib Dems plummeted. The Holyrood elections took place a year later, and the Lib Dems lost 12 of their 17 seats, 8 of them to the SNP; and the SNP secured the narrow majority that was never supposed to happen.

At that point, it became a certainty that there would be a referendum on independence. And you’d have thought it would also have been the point at which the pro-Union parties realised the seriousness of their situation and got their act together.

They didn’t – despite the fact that, in Salmond, they were facing a politician they respected and feared; and despite knowing that independence supporters dominated social media almost as effectively as independence opponents dominated traditional media. Instead, the parties reverted to type, directed their rhetoric towards issues that they thought mattered to potential “swing” voters in England – benefits, EU membership and immigration – and paid scant attention to Scotland. When MPs talked of a referendum, you could be 90% sure they were referring to the one about Europe that didn’t actually exist, rather than the one in Scotland that did.

Realising that their collective brand was toxic in Scotland, the Tories and Lib Dems deferred to Labour on much of the campaign, even though Labour’s own image, still tarnished by the Iraq war, was barely any better. Alistair Darling – not exactly a Scottish folk hero – became the figurehead, and Labour was allowed to take the lead on the desperate last-minute pledge to grant more powers to Holyrood, despite the fact that it, as a party, was proposing fewer enhancements than either of the coalition partners.

And the Holyrood leaders of the three main parties were barely seen – perhaps because hardly anybody in Scotland knows who they are. And on that, I refer you back to that decision of so many pro-Union MPs to stay put in Westminster rather than up sticks to Scotland. I understand that, independent or not, Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy are likely to stand at the next Holyrood election. From the No campaign’s point of view, it may be too little, too late.

And the No campaign itself has been almost tragicomically dismal, shifting from indifference, via scaremongering, to blind panic. If that really is down to complacency – and the panicked reaction to the more recent polls suggests little else – then it’s the most extraordinary misjudgement. Because in this referendum, whatever the overall outcome, every vote really does count.

Had the No campaign got its act together, treated Scotland as a priority rather than an afterthought, and committed to increased powers at the outset rather than in the final week of campaigning, it might have won this vote by a distance – something similar to the 2-1 anti-independence majority that was supposed to exist in Scotland all along. That would have put the debate to bed for a generation, or perhaps even more.

Instead, they’ve made a colossal Horlicks of it; with the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, have done something they never quite imagined they’d do: placed a cross in the box beside the word “yes”. And so, as I prepare to stay up all night watching the results roll in for perhaps the most significant poll of any of our lifetimes, the vote is – to use a phrase I’ll hear more than once tonight – “too close to call”.

Even if the result turns out to be a narrow no, Cameron and company would be ill-advised to celebrate too wildly. The die has been cast, and the issue will arise again, in Scotland and perhaps elsewhere in the UK. If the main UK parties renege on their pledge for increased powers for Scotland, and try to carry on as if nothing has happened, it will arise again all the sooner. A lot of Yes campaigners will be gutted; but they shouldn’t be disheartened.

And if it’s a yes, it will be a reflection on a number of things: a competent, hard-working Yes campaign; a discernible rise in Scottish self-confidence; but perhaps most of all, a catalogue of cock-ups and misplaced confidence by the pro-union parties, not just over the past few months, but over the best part of two decades.

If it is a yes, it’ll be more than a bit scary. But it’ll be bloody exciting. And, in common with all the countries that have achieved independence from Britain – usually much more bloodily than this – Scotland will never ask to go back.

Labelled with Lies

99% meaning free

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing…kill yourselves.

I don’t take quite such a hard line as Bill Hicks on marketing and advertising – like it or not, any product demands some degree of marketing, even if it’s as basic and innocent as telling a few friends about the existence of your blog – but I do have a certain sympathy with some aspects of his rant, if not with the ruthlessness of his solution.

So perhaps it’s a kindness of sorts that Hicks died so tragically young; because in the twenty years since his passing, marketers and advertisers have assumed an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive role in our lives.

TV commercial breaks have got longer, just as the bits of programming in between the ads have been opened up to legitimised product placement. Facebook and Google, among many others, tailor their advertising based on the information we’ve consciously or unwittingly provided about ourselves.

And on a less obviously sinister note, the continuing trend towards packaged food has created millions of additional canvases, all ready to receive the varyingly sophisticated daubings of the latest generation of marketers.

These range from the endearingly gormless – I recently saw a pack of fresh mint that extolled the product’s virtues as “an essential ingredient in mint sauce” – to more blatantly cynical spin around the relative healthiness of foodstuffs.

We’d all like to imagine we’re too smart to fall for the old “99% fat-free” trick, but if we were, no company would bother doing it. In practice, we tend to gloss over the second digit of the percentage figure, meaning that we don’t perceive much difference between products that are labelled as 99% and 95% fat free, even though one contains five times as much fat as the other. (And as this piece on the BS Health website points out – albeit rather shoutily – we’re even less likely to realise that if a food contains 5% fat by weight, that doesn’t equate to 5% of its calorific value: the true calories-from-fat percentage is more than twice that.)

Moreover, products that have been largely stripped of fat will often contain higher levels of salt and/or sugar, by way of taste compensation. This is why you’ll often read claims about processed foods being low in fat or sugar or salt; but rarely more than one of those, and almost never all three. (Professor Sandra Jones, of the University of Wollongong, usefully demystifies this and other food labelling tricks here.)

Similar examples of selective labelling are there to see on every supermarket shelf; but we only really notice the more amateurish and desperate efforts. A packet of crisps carries the boast of “no artificial colours”; but on brief reflection, we could have guessed at that – because they’re crisps, and they aren’t blue. There’s no equivalent claim around artificial flavours, and with extremely good reason.

Perhaps most insidious are the vices presented as virtues. The large majority of steaks now sold in supermarkets are vacuum packed soon after slaughter, thus minimising weight and water loss before sale and maximising profits for the retailer. They’ll still shed that excess water eventually, but not until you cook them; so ultimately you get less meat for your money.

Sitting in a bath of their own moisture, the steaks will still tenderise somewhat over time, but will be less tender and tasty than properly hung meat, because the tenderising effect of the meat’s natural enzymes is arrested by the vac-packing, and there’s no moisture loss to concentrate the flavours.

Nonetheless, because we’ve (correctly) come to perceive aged beef as good beef, the packaging will still carry the boast that the meat is “21 day matured”. The only problem is that most of those 21 days have been spent not hanging in a well-aired cooler, but sitting in an airless plastic wrap on the shelf of a fridge. It’s only marginally more appealing than the idea of 21 day matured milk.

Should we wish to buy properly aged beef – “dry-aged”, to use the new vernacular – we’ll pay heftily for the privilege. It’s almost certainly worth it; but it’s still galling to see a centuries-old method of meat preparation being presented to us as a luxury.

When you finally come to fry the steaks, there’s one last opportunity for misinformation: the cooking instructions on the packet. These take me back into my favourite “no recipe” territory; because if you allow a standardised prescription to take precedence over your own senses and judgement, you’re almost certainly destined for a disappointing meal.

Here are the cooking instructions for a Tesco fillet steak (source here):

Remove all packaging. Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Lightly brush each side of the steak with oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Fry in a very hot dry heavy based pan over a high heat for 2 minutes on each side to seal in the juices. Reduce to a medium heat and continue to cook for a further 9-11 minutes (rare), 11-13 minutes (medium) or 15-17 minutes (well done), turning once. Remove the steak from the pan and allow to rest in a warm place for 3-5 minutes. Add a knob of butter to the pan and allow to melt. Pour the cooking juices and butter over the steak and serve immediately.

Like any bad recipe, this is a prime example of too little information being worse than no information at all. One steak might be significantly thicker than the next, meaning that it’ll take longer to cook through to the middle; but there’s no place for such nuances in these standardised directions. And without any definition of what “high” or “medium” heat represents, the cook is left to guess what is meant, and the timings become essentially meaningless. (That said, even a thick fillet steak, cooked for a total of 15 minutes, will be a long way from rare; but then, your litigation-fearing retailer would much rather you ate a “safe” steak than a pleasant one.)

Furthermore, doing the initial frying over a high heat doesn’t actually “seal in the juices”; instead, it produces a charred exterior that greatly enhances the flavour. So there’s absolutely no point in setting your kitchen timer and giving the steak precisely two minutes on each side at the high heat; instead, your aim should be to get the meat well browned on all surfaces, as quickly as you safely can.

Not everything about the instructions is wrong-headed. As I’ve said, the initial high-temperature cooking is a good thing – just not for the reason specified – as is giving the steaks time to come towards room temperature before cooking (though ten minutes won’t make a lot of difference). But anyone who’s tempted to use them as a definitive guide would be far better doing an internet search for “how to cook steaks”, spending ten minutes reading over the results, and never again having to bother with the directions on the packet.

(As a further option, you could buy one of those purpose-built contraptions that claim to “take the guesswork out of cooking steaks”. Better still, you could use a simpler, cheaper and more traditional cooking tool: your hand.)

In fairness to Tesco, it’s not as if they’re any worse than their competitors when it comes to ludicrous cooking instructions. And unlike the “21 day matured” label, this is an example of the inadequacies of recipes generally, not of cynical marketing.

But just occasionally, the worlds of shabby marketing and false prescriptions come together in perfect disharmony. The outstanding example I’ve seen – “the crowning turd in the water pipe”, to borrow from General Melchett – can be found on packs of Waitrose minced beef.

At least this particular instruction is nice and straightforward:

Simply pan-fry for just 24-26 minutes.

Many a tweeter would envy the sheer quantity of nonsense Waitrose have managed to pack into 37 characters there – or, should I say, into “just 36-38 characters”. So let’s subject it to a little analysis.

Maintaining the Blackadder theme, it’s rather like the Prince Regent‘s definition of the word “a”: “It doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”

It doesn’t tell us the form in which we should “simply pan-fry” the mince: in burgers (in which case, how thick?); as meatballs (how big?); in some other moulded shape; or as it comes. It doesn’t tell us how much heat to apply. It doesn’t tell us whether, or how, to season or otherwise flavour the meat. If we took the advice at face value, we’d be left with a plate of bland, chewy mince. So, while I’m all in favour of simplicity, I’m not sure this guidance will quite do the trick on its own.

Best of all is the direction to cook the meat for “24-26 minutes”. Presumably, Waitrose began by plucking an arbitrary cooking time – 25 minutes – out of thin air; then, in a token acceptance of the falseness of that premise, expanded it by a minute either way. If that’s supposed to encourage us to exercise discretion, it’s not inviting us to use very much of it.

In practice, depending on what you’re making with the mince, you might end up cooking it for anything from 5 minutes – for a thin burger, say – to 5 hours, after which a Bolognese sauce, simmered very gently, will have come to no harm at all. If you cooked these dishes for 24 minutes each – or 26 for that matter – the burger would be cremated, and you’d be chewing the Bolognese as a dog would a slipper.

So all the instructions really succeed in doing is offering essentially bad cooking advice, on false pretexts of simplicity and speed. They are, in the specifically Scottish sense of the word, pure mince.

But fear not; because just underneath, we find a second option.

Try Heston’s chilli con carne with spiced butter for a smooth finish.

That’s quite a logical leap, isn’t it? If the instruction to “pan-fry for 24-26 minutes” inexplicably fails to produce delicious results, you might as well give up trying to think for yourself and slavishly copy Heston Blumenthal’s recipe instead – which, I’d note in passing, stipulates rather less than 24 minutes’ “pan-frying” and upwards of an hour’s simmering – and which will improve your cooking as assuredly as using a Michelangelo-endorsed paintbrush will pep up your frescos.

Somewhere in between the two presented options, we might insert an alternative, far more meaningful set of cooking instructions:

Fry the meat until you’re happy with the colour. Add vegetables, aromatics, some appropriate liquid and whatever else you fancy, until you’re happy with the flavour. Simmer until you’re happy with the texture. Bask in the pleasure of having thought for yourself and invented your own dish. Eat and enjoy.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s the same as the moral to most of my other stories: that the person best placed to decide what to buy, what to cook and how to cook it, is you. Not Heston; not some advertising executive; and certainly not a beleaguered supermarket staff writer charged with filling the space beneath the words “cooking instructions”.