Add a touch of tripe to your coleslaw…

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Sainsbury's coffee ad

Wandering past my local Sainsbury’s today, I was delighted to notice a poster in the window advertising various pieces of Halloween-related tat. Not that I’m particularly fond of Halloween, you understand; my happiness came from the hope that this new ad campaign might spell a merciful end for its predecessor.

In case you’ve been judiciously avoiding all media, social and otherwise, for the past month or so, I should probably explain what I’m on about. In its “Little Twists” campaign – I can’t quite bring myself to include the obligatory hashtag – Sainsbury’s encourages us to wax experimental with otherwise familiar meals, adding horseradish sauce to macaroni cheese, instant coffee to spaghetti Bolognese and pickled herring to banoffee pie. (I may have made one of those up.)

It’s not that I’m opposed to innovation in cooking – quite the contrary – although as I’ll come to in a moment, these suggestions aren’t really innovative at all. And I can just about accept the fact that they persuaded the otherwise impeccable Jarvis Cocker to do the voiceover – even though a little part of me dies every time I hear it. My greater problem – and admittedly, it’s a terribly self-centred one – is that people seem to think I must be all in favour of it. “Ah, that coffee Bolognese thing – that’ll be right up your street, won’t it, with, you know, your make-it-up-as-you-go-along no recipe whatnot?”

Well, it’s not up my street. It’s not even in my council ward, postal district or school catchment area. This isn’t creative cooking; it’s just babble – reminiscent of a concussed Manny in Black Books spouting jumbled-up entries from the Little Book of Calm. Not all of the suggested combinations are necessarily awful – Alison Lynch wrote in Metro that she’d tried out the coffee-in-Bolognese idea and found it surprisingly palatable – but that’s not really the point. The problem with the Sainsbury’s ads is that they represent the worst of all cooking worlds: miserable conformity, dressed up as innovation.

For all the [adopts best Christopher Morris voice] FURORE about this campaign – which, of course, is exactly what it was designed to generate – there’s nothing revolutionary about putting coffee in a Bolognese sauce. People – albeit not that many – have been cooking with coffee for years. It even gets a semi-honourable mention as a last minute stew addition in my own food bible, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book. It’s vaguely rich and vaguely savoury, and as such, makes a vaguely OK addition to most dark, meaty dishes – though a decent beef stock cube will do much the same job, but better.

Ultimately, just as you’ll struggle to come up with an idea that nobody’s had before (cf. every proprietary argument about a Twitter joke ever), there’s barely a combination of ingredients that hasn’t been explored. Be it coffee, Irn Bru or blue WKD, if you can drink it – and in this, blue WKD finds itself on the borderline – you can probably get away with bunging it into a casserole. As long as its predominant characteristics correspond roughly with the effect you’re after – coffee for savour, Irn Bru for sweetness or blue WKD for, er, blueness – you won’t go far wrong.

When it comes to adding the weird and not-so-wonderful to your food, the relevant question isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, or possible or impossible: it’s why you’d want to. Without a coherent answer to that question – an answer that might encompass flavour, colour, availability and necessity, among other factors – you’d be well advised not to bother, pending further investigation.

This is where the Sainsbury’s ads fall down: they rely on us asking “why not?”, rather than the more pertinent question “why?”. They remind me of QT, the forgotten-but-not-gone instant tea, which was advertised in its early ’90s “heyday” with the somewhat plaintive tagline: “Try it – you might like it.” (We did – and we didn’t.)

If you’re in the food business, and the best selling point you can come up with is “well, you never know, it might not be awful”, you probably need to ask some serious questions of your product development and/or marketing teams. Yet, nearly 25 years on, this is effectively what Sainsbury’s are doing. Moreover, it seems to be working, in that their sales of spaghetti and instant coffee have apparently boomed since the campaign began. Which just goes to illustrate one thing: we really are a bunch of pliant, unthinking, head-nodding numpties.

Why else would we go through the joyless exercise of making the same handful of largely boring meals again and again, to exactly the same prescription, then suddenly decide to stir utterly random things into them because some bright spark in an ad agency has planted the idea in our heads? I don’t believe in God, but if I did, this is exactly the sort of situation in which I’d implore him/her/it to help us.

This isn’t just an advertising phenomenon; it occurs on an even more startling level via food programming, when an ingredient used by a TV chef one day becomes virtually unobtainable the next, as thousands of us rush to mimic what we’ve just watched, because it seems easier than thinking for ourselves. How wonderful it is to live in a society in which we can think and do largely as we please; and how depressing to discover that, given the opportunity, we generally elect not to bother.

Is there a better way? Well, of course there is. And because I’m good to you, I’ve already taken the trouble to write about it. Just use the same skills you employ every time you pick a meal from a menu, or decide which components of your fry-up should form the next forkful. In other words, pick the flavour and texture combinations that seem right to you. Add something if it fits with what’s there already and the effect you’d like to achieve; and if it doesn’t, don’t. Develop your meal as you would a painting, pausing for thought before you add to it, and it will make sense in its final form, because every decision in its development will have been the product of your own critical analysis and taste.

And if, by that process, you end up adding coffee to your Bolognese, Monster Munch to your burger or Kia Ora to your duck, then that’s absolutely fine. You might just happen upon something surprising and wonderful. At worst, you ought to end up with something unusual (if not entirely new) but still edible.

More often, though, you’ll come up with a meal that may not be radical or outlandish, but is original nonetheless: your own creation, not one of Jamie’s, Nigella’s or Sainsbury’s(‘s). Instead of putting horseradish in your macaroni cheese, you might decide to add English mustard instead: similarly warming and spicy, but in both flavour and colour, a more appetising addition to the cheese sauce. And if you don’t feel like eating the same boring Bolognese, then make it with different meats, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, whatever. As long as you remember to think and taste as you go, it really will turn out fine.

And don’t worry too much about whether the dish still qualifies as a spaghetti Bolognese. If something tastes good, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. And in the extremely unlikely event that you get a knock on the door from the authenticity police, you’ll have an irrefutable defence: “At least I didn’t put instant f***ng coffee in it.”

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Calling All Curmudgeons

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Kiss me

Christmas is a time of joy, peace and goodwill to all men.

If you agree unreservedly with that statement, you might not want to bother reading on.

If, on the other hand, your spirits sink on that day in mid-September when all the shops simultaneously fill their shelves with all manner of Christmas tat, and only really recover on Twelfth Night when the tree finally comes down – leaving in its wake a deadly sprinkling of pine needles and shards of shattered bauble – I’d like to suggest a way to inject just a tiny bit of joy into your otherwise dismal festive period.

Get cooking.

Why? Well, I can give you three extremely good reasons.

Avoiding relatives

You’ll recognise the scene. It’s late morning on Christmas Day. Auntie Hilda, who’s been on the sweet sherry since 9.30, is already slurring her words and has taken to hanging around in disconcerting proximity to the mistletoe. Little Eddie, high on a cocktail of Irn Bru and a whole bag of chocolate coins, is in the living room, flailing away wildly with the light sabre his parents so prudently bought him for Christmas. If the telly survives the onslaught, it’ll count as a bonus. And Grandpa’s flatulence is already so noxious that you shudder at what might happen once sprouts are introduced to the equation.

Given a free choice in proceedings, what you’d really like to do is retire to your room with a good book and an enormous whisky, and stay there until sometime on Boxing Day when everyone’s finally buggered off. But you can’t do that, or you’ll be roundly decried for being the miserable git you so obviously are. So you have to grin – or at least grimace – and bear it.

Unless…unless…

Take on the role of Christmas chef and you can guiltlessly avoid all this. Better still, you’ll amass a load of brownie points as you selflessly toil away, magnanimously refusing all offers of help (but graciously accepting all offers of drinks). Your family and guests will be universally grateful for your efforts – and they don’t have to know that peeling three pounds of spuds represents unimaginable bliss by comparison with having to sit through another microsecond of Uncle Derek’s golfing anecdotes.

Music

I really can’t emphasise this one enough.

I don’t mind a Christmas carol or two. Very occasionally, I might even catch myself singing along to one. On the scale of festive assaults on the ears, they rank right at the bottom.

Worse – much, much worse – are the Christmas “hits”. These are the songs that have tormented you every time you’ve made the mistake of turning on the radio or setting foot in a shop over the past six weeks: Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Mariah sodding Carey. And worst of all (apart from Cliff, obviously): Paul McCartney and Wings.

(N.B. The above link will take you directly to the offending song. You should only click it if you utterly despise yourself – or if you have some sort of aural S&M fetish, with a particular focus on the “M”.)

It beggars belief that the man responsible for some of the finest pop songs of all time could have vomited up this particular festive “classic”. Despite your most determined efforts to avoid it, sheer repetition causes its hideously jaunty melody to burrow its way into your brain, until you wake up screaming on Christmas morning, incapable of thinking of anything else. The Frog Chorus would be better than this, or even – and I don’t say this lightly – Mull of Kintyre.

Simply having a wonderful Christmas time? My arse.

So this Christmas, my playlist will comprise the likes of the Phantom Band, Camera Obscura and Withered Hand, performing songs that have precisely naff all to do with Christmas. And if someone swans in and tries to put on “The Most Depressingly Generic Christmas Album in the World…Ever!”, I shall hack the CD to pieces with a meat cleaver, take out the offending relative with my patented Sprout Cannon, and put Leonard Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat on repeat until dinner’s ready.

(I do appreciate that there are some honourable exceptions to the horrors of Christmas music – but even Fairytale of New York begins to grate after the 237th listen. So the only Christmas songs permitted under my watch come from Slow Club – but to be honest, they could write songs about management accounting and still sound bloody fantastic.)

Control

Finally, being the Christmas Day chef gives you one further vital benefit: control. You can make the meal exactly as you’d like it.

Granted, there might not seem to be all that much room for originality in the Christmas meal, given all the compulsory elements.

But even if the core ingredients don’t leave you much room for manoeuvre, there’s still a surprising amount of scope for innovation, and for catering to your own tastes. So if you’ve a particular distaste for massively overboiled sprouts – and to be honest, why wouldn’t you – you can shred them and stir-fry them with pancetta and chestnuts until crisp and glorious.

And if the turkey normally turns out dry and miserable, and you’re left munching through its depressing leftovers, in the form of sandwiches and curries, for days afterwards, why not try a variation on Chicken à la Gran.

Cut the crown (the breasts and breastbone) away from the rest of the carcass and just cook that for Christmas Day. This spares you the conundrum of trying to keep the breasts moist while the legs cook through. And you’re bound to have ordered far too big a turkey, just as you do every year, so nobody’s going to go hungry.

The legs and other sundry bits can then be put to whatever use you like, making a far nicer Boxing Day meal than the usual Leftover Surprise. I’ve had particular success in the past by jointing the bird (don’t worry if this is somewhat haphazard) and using the pieces, backbone and all, to make a turkey equivalent of coq au vin.

Lastly, since we’re on the subject of control, may I remind you about the art of stopping. If everything seems to be happening too fast, and you’re losing track of the various pans, just turn off the heat for a moment and replan. The turkey (or other roast dead thing of choice) will sit very happily on the worktop, lightly covered in foil, for as long as you need to finish off the veg and gravy and get those f***ing roast potatoes to crisp up. And even if the meat ends up a little cooler than planned – that’s to say, stone cold – some hot gravy, strategically poured, will ensure that nobody’s any the wiser.

Ho ho ho

Lastly, a confession.

It might not be obvious from what I’ve written here, but I really enjoy Christmas.

That doesn’t mean that everything I’ve said so far is a lie – simply that it can be read with either a positive or negative spin. And as I’ve given you the negative spin at some length, here’s the positive one. An opportunity to cook Christmas dinner to your exact specifications, and to the delight of your friends or family, while enjoying many a festive eggnog and listening to all your favourite music, – well, what’s not to like?

Merry Christmas!

Kiss me happy

(N.B. Photographs are the copyright of Don Wheeler Enterprises. The No Recipe Man takes no responsibility for the extent to which they may frighten small children.)