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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Wispa it quietly – it’s all about the texture

I was going to write a piece on texture for the blog, then I remembered I’d already written one and published it to my personal blog a few weeks back.

In the likely event you missed it, I’ve reproduced it here. Hope you enjoy.

 

Originally published on 1 October 2013

AUTHOR’S NOTE: On the Guardian website today is a piece by Amy Fleming on the changing shape of the Dairy Milk bar. I admit that this particular furore had passed me by; but as it happened, I’d just finished a piece on a connected subject, but with the emphasis on what the shape and texture of our chocolate can teach us about cooking creatively. Here it is.

A couple of connected questions for you.

Firstly, how many dishes do you know how to cook? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? Enough to keep you and yours from staring sadly at your plates while thinking “oh, not spag bol again”?

Secondly, what’s your favourite chocolate bar?

The link between the two questions may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me. If you’re able to answer the first question with an exact figure, you might do well to spend some time thinking about the second.

Same old, same old

Recently, a report by Morrisons indicated that the average Briton remains stuck in a “repeat meal rut”, maintaining a rotation of as few as five different meals. And apparently, more than half of us are still eating exactly the same meals we were ten years ago.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is even less surprising is the fact that the supermarket is using the findings to promote its range of pre-prepared meals. The message is unambiguous: if you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, look no further than the ever-expanding ready meals section.

Well, here’s an alternative idea. If you’re about to cook the same meal for the 521st week running, don’t just admit defeat and reach for the convenience food. Instead, borrow a little trick from the chocolate-makers: take those familiar old ingredients, and look for a new way to put them together.

And if you doubt whether that will make any significant difference to your meal, may I refer you back to the chocolate question.

Wispa campaign

Do you remember the outcry when Cadbury withdrew the Wispa from sale in 2003? Attempts to rebrand it as a variant on Dairy Milk were unsuccessful, and the bar was finally restored permanently to our shelves in 2008, following a coordinated protest on social media – a Wispa campaign, if you will.

I can certainly recall being one of the outraged many when the Wispa disappeared; but why? Why didn’t I just shrug my shoulders and buy a Flake, a Twirl, a Spira – itself discontinued in 2005, prompting a Facebook campaign of its own – or any of the other milk chocolate bars made from exactly the same ingredients?

The answer, of course, is in the texture. The ingredients might be the same, but the eating experience is quite different in each case, solely as a result of the relative distribution of chocolate and air.

Whether we realise it or not, we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the power of texture, at least as far as confectionery is concerned. As a nation of eaters, we know our Twirls from our Wispas. But when we cook, it tends to be the forgotten factor. We’re forever looking for new and exciting flavour combinations; but we’re oblivious to the textural possibilities of the ingredients we buy every week.

Where flavour meets texture

Writing in the Scotsman, Tom Kitchin discusses the years he spent as a trainee chef, learning different ways to chop and prepare ingredients to produce a range of effects. And he makes the crucial point that “cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.”

This is a sentiment I’d wholeheartedly endorse – to the extent that I’ve just written an entire book about the benefits of cooking without recipes – but I have a slight problem with the terminology. To return briefly to matters chocolatey, is there actually any difference in taste between a Dairy Milk and a Flake? I’d argue not; but their contrasting textures lead us to perceive them differently.

So why wouldn’t the same apply to savoury ingredients? Our eating experience is determined by the combination of flavour and texture. The two factors might not quite be equally weighted – in that no amount of textural magnificence can rescue a meal that tastes repulsive – but they are as fundamental as they are inseparable. A gelatinous, mouth-coating, lip-smacking sauce is a world away from a watery broth, even if they “taste” about the same. And the coleslaw in your sandwich would be an altogether cruder – and, let’s face it, weirder – experience, if the vegetables were roughly chopped rather than finely grated.

Safe experimentation

When I’m encouraging people to get creative with their home cooking, I invite them to think of their kitchens as their own personal research and development departments. The potential problem with this, of course, is that few of us can afford the time or expense of a failed experiment when we’ve got a family to feed.

But this is exactly where textural innovation comes into its own. Experimenting with flavour can be a fraught business. Attempt to pair lamb with banana, and you might just create something wonderful, but there’s every chance that it’ll be disgusting to the point of inedible. Focus on the texture, however, and you run none of the same risks. The ingredients are all familiar, you already know you like them, and you know they work well together. So you can get as creative as you like, secure in the knowledge that there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong.

So when you’re next faced with the ingredients for that over-familiar spag bol, why not try putting them together in a different way? Roll the minced beef into balls – you won’t need any additional binding agent, as the tackiness of the meat will be enough on its own – rather than using loose mince. Try putting the garlic in the meatball mix rather than the sauce, so that each morsel carries a distinct garlicky hit. If you’re in the habit of leaving the vegetables as chunky dice, try chopping them as finely as you can, then frying them gently so that they melt away into the sauce. Experiment with solid cuts of meat instead of mince, and with how finely you chop them.

Alternatively, why not play around with how the constituent parts (pasta and sauce) are divided? Leave the bacon out of the Bolognese and the Parmesan off the table, and instead, toss the spaghetti with Parmesan and fried pancetta before serving alongside the sauce. And feel free to take your pick from the dozens of shapes of pasta on the supermarket shelves, knowing that each will produce a slightly different effect.

It’s true that several of these examples would fail to meet any accepted definition of spaghetti Bolognese. But to put it bluntly: so what? If it turns out that I prefer it, then give me “bucatini al Tom” any day.

The fallacy of authenticity

Here’s one final question. If it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we all in the habit of experimenting with texture every time we cook?

In my view, there are two reasons. I’ve mentioned the first already: we tend to underestimate the significance of texture in our meals. The solution to this is straightforward: think back to the chocolate bar question, and remind yourself that the same principles apply to everything you cook and eat.

It’s not just that we underestimate the significance of texture when we cook (though most of us undoubtedly do). It’s also that we’re all too bloody obedient for our own good. We follow recipes dutifully, rarely bothering to ask why. And we have an unhealthy obsession with authenticity, as if there were some omniscient spaghetti God watching our every move, ready to strike us down at the first sign of non-compliance.

Well, I’ll risk an eternity of pasta damnation by saying to you now: there isn’t.

Food, like language, evolves constantly. Moreover, there are only two characteristics shared by all of the world’s most celebrated dishes, from paella to haggis. The first is they were invented not by design, but by happy quirks of necessity and circumstance. And the second is that no two cooks can agree on the “right” ways to make them. So our quest for authenticity is doomed to failure, because the holy grail we seek simply doesn’t exist.

So, with all that in mind, might I nudge you gently in the direction of a little textural experimentation? Take the meals you know only too well and reassemble them in a way you don’t. You never know: you might just stumble upon your own savoury equivalent of the Wispa bar.

And best of all, the next time anyone asks how many dishes you know how to cook, you’ll be able to answer honestly and with pride: “I have absolutely no idea.”