|Cooking "Perfection" - part 1 - Spaghetti Bolognaise
||[Dec. 29th, 2006|01:09 am]
So, just before Christmas I aquired a copy of Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection", where the genius chef behind The Fat Duck explores 8 different classic British dishes and attempts to come up with a recipe for them that gets as close as possible to his idea of perfection. |
(I'm not going there. He knows perfection's not possible. You want more, read the book.)
Several reviewers have described his recipes as being far too complex for anyone to actually cook. I then proceeded to describe their reviews as "bollocks". And to prove it, over Christmas, my mother and grandparents agreed to act as guinea-pigs for a try-out of Heston's recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise.
His recipe is reasonably traditional, but complex, boiling down over a kilo of onions and another kilo of tomatoes, plus a list of about 20 ingredients, over three distinct stages of preparation and about 10 hours. Given that I'd probably say that I can cook a Bolognaise better than any other dish, and my version's evolved from one that my mum taught me - one that can be cooked in about an hour - "Perfection"'s recipe was up for a challenge.
Blumenthal's recipe has a few unique elements, at least to my eye.
Firstly, the meat used is a mixture of minced oxtail, which provides a lot of the flavour, and pork shoulder, both meats that will work well with the bolognaise sauce's traditionally long cooking time. He also uses star anise as a flavouring for several parts of the bolognaise sause. He cooks the meat and tomatoes seperately until two hours before serving (giving the meat, onions and other veg approximately 8 hours cooking time), and uses a selection of unconventional flavourings in the tomato compote, including Thai fish sauce and Worsester Sauce. Finally, he stirs an absolute ton of butter - 150 grams, in total - shortly before serving.
(I was particularly interested by the addition of the Oriental notes here. I've been using Oyster Sauce in my Bolognaise for a while now, and the fishy/sweet notes - represented in Blumenthal's recipe with star anise and fish sauce - really do add to the flavour.)
The recipe also contains a number of classically Italian touches that British audiences might not be familiar with, most notably its *extremely* long cooking time, and the use of milk - 250g of whole milk - in the meat sauce, which seems weird at first, but which I've been doing for a while in my bolognaise, and which works remarkably well. I believe the sherry vinegar, used as a sweet and sour agent both, is also traditional.
So. "Perfection" hit the real world with a jolt in Waitrose, where I discovered that, two days after Christmas, I wasn't going to be able to lay hands on oxtail or star anise. Some frantic faffing around the shops ensued, but to no avail. Sainsburies didn't stock them. The town butchers were shut. The sleepy little town of Ringwood in Dorset just didn't have the ingredients I needed. In the end, we went with stewing beef rather than oxtail (beef shin, another suggestion, also wasn't available), and chinese five-spice rather than the anise.
Faffing around had meant that we'd gotten back around 13:00, rather than the 12:00 I was hoping for, but I didn't figure on that being too much of a problem - I'd already figured on reducing the principle cooking times from 8 hours to 6 hours for the main bolognaise, giving me a total of 8 hours' cooking time, for an ETA of 21:00. Later than my grandparents are used to eating, but we're a pretty Continental family. We'd manage.
Can you spot the deliberate mistake?
Fifteen minutes into chopping a kilo of onions, I was pretty sure I'd found it.
Even with Mum jumping in to assist with chopping and peeling, the initial chop/peel/season/slice stage involved well over a kilo of veg. I'd not anticipated the time that it would take, nor the fact that we'd then got 20-plus minutes of slow stewing of onions, celery and carrots before we could even get to the main stewing event. Add to that the fact that I'd sorta forgotten to have lunch, and had to break for that, and we were already running late when I got to browning the meat.
Heston likes his olive oil. He likes to use lots of it. For browning the meat, he uses 50ml of the stuff, just to brown 500g of meat. Well, I'll give him this - it browns damn fast and damn well. It also throws up a fine mist of boiling oil around the hands and forearms of whichever poor bugger happens to be flipping the meat to ensure it gets browned properly. With howls, curses, and possibly just the faintest whiff of deep-fried Hugh emenating from the kitchen, my grandparents were starting to look distinctly concerned.
Meat - browned. Onions - caramelised. Soffrito (that would be "all the other stuff" in Italian), er, soffrited. Dump it all in a pot - I discover that we have a legacy cast-iron stewpot and dance the dance of triumph, then mutter the swearword of a man who's just danced around with a 4kg stewpot.
Deglaze the crap out of the meat pan. Discover we'd accidentally washed up the other pot I was meant to deglaze. Swear (under my breath. This whole "cooking around relatives" thing is a strain to a man who likes to think of his cooking style as 50% Floyd, 50% Ramsey - although with about 2% of the talent that implies). Pour the rest of the wine into the meat pot and reduce it anyway - 375ml of Jacob's Creek Chardonnay just for the deglazing. Dump that in the pot too. Milk, water to cover, low heat, and we're done for about 4 hours.
One trip to the post-Boxing Day sales and a watch of "Celebrity Mastermind" (Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall got his ass kicked) later, we're back in, and we're getting with the compoting. I've been smart this time - I've allowed 15 minutes' prep time. Sure, I've also got to soften some onions in that time, but other than that, all we've got to do is prep the tomatoes. Plenty ... of...
Whoa. Prepping 1.2 kg of these-could-be-a-lot-riper vine tomatoes, straight from sunny Spain, is a bit of a challenge, particularly when neither I nor Mum ever peel the damn things. But Heston, he say peel, so we're peeling. And peeling. And peeling. We're getting pretty fast, but 1.2 kg of tomatoes is a whole sodding lot of toms. The onions are starting to turn, so it's off the heat with them. And after that, I've got to clean them of their seeds (which are tenacious little bastards, and don't want to be seperated from the Mothership), then "roughly chop" the tomatoes - which I get quite aggravated about at the time, as it's imprecise, but it turns out what Heston means is "do whatever the hell you want, you're going to be reducing them to a fine mush in a minute anyway". Pile of bizarre and less-bizarre condiments go in, and it's off to the simmering races - about 15 minutes later than intended. Bugger.
A bit more planned-time chopping later, and we're looking at about a 1 hour simmer for the tomatoes, and then 1 hour 30 or so for the finished sauce. The bolognaise sauce, meanwhile, is looking good, but bloody hellfire is there a lot of it - and on tasting, it's awfully, well, sweet. I'm at a loss for why until I remember it's got about half a bushel of caramelised onion in it. I trust Dr Blumenthal's cooking (yes, he's a doctor now), but this is starting to look a bit.. perculiar.
Half an hour into the simmer, and I taste the tomatoes. And they're bloody fantastic. Possibly the best-tasting tomato sauce I've ever tasted. Just sensational. But they've still got half an hour to go, and when I taste later, the Worsester Sauce is starting to dominate. Was there too much in there? Did I over-pour?
Hour and a half to go! Tomatoes out. Dump them into the Bolognaise Sauce. Remember too late I was meant to roast them for a bit first. Another sub-parent-hearing-level Ramseyism. Oh, well, there's nowt to do about it now but wait. Oh, and grate a metric asston of Parmesan, and prep the absurd amount of salt Dr Blumenthal insists, in several books, is the only way to cook pasta.
Both my grandparents have heart conditions, and I'm about to feed them pasta cooked in 50g of salt with 150g of unsalted butter in the sauce. This had better be the best damn Bolognaise ever.
Twenty minutes to go. "The Rose In The Smoke" is starting. Haute Cuisine, sadly, triumphs over Billie Piper in a corset. Time for the pasta.
Heston, or Doc B as I'm going to call him from now on, has this rather odd presentation method for the pasta, winding the spaghetti around serving forks, then laying them on a plate, spooning sauce over - it all looks complex as hell and frankly I'm not sure how you're meant to eat it when you're done. So I've gone for a simple concigle pasta instead, 500g so that we've got enough, and I'll prep it as a standard pasta sauce. Into the water.
Waitrose says 25 minutes for the pasta to cook. That's bollocks, surely? I think so, Mum thinks so, and about 12 minutes in the pasta thinks so too.
Drain, rinse in an attempt to get some of the salt off so that my grandparents' cardiologist doesn't come after me with a blood pressure meter fashioned into a makeshift garotte. Mum's doing that, as I get to the final stage of the Bolognaise sauce, which involves seasoning with sherry vinegar - come on, Heston, more vinegar in a tomato sauce? You're 'aving a giraffe - oh, no, wait, that does improve it. Damn you and your three Michelin stars both.
Parmesan (but not too much, reserving some to sprinkle over), and - gulp - 100g of butter, sinking into the sauce like a cardiovascular depth charge. Leave to stand for 5 minutes, stirring, in with the pasta and coat and - we're done.
Start time? 11:25 when we left for the supermarket. Serving time? 20:52. Oh, and Heston's claim that "the day's your own" after some early preparation might be true if you're arguably the greatest chef in the world, but if you're some schmuck trying to cook food that's been designed on a culinary level as far above what you're used to as the B&Q power tools sale is above a flint club, you're going to be rushing back and forth, chopping, peeling, tasting and worrying for most of the day.
Or that might just be how I cook anyway.
Tasting time. It looks pretty good, and amazingly the vast, vast amount of food I thought we had seems to have divided pretty neatly between the four of us.
Short version? It's good. In fact, it's damn good - rich, smooth, with almost no hint of the tons of onions, just a complex, multi-flavoured sauce that's going to have the same sort of knock-out potential for hunger as Sudafed claims to have for sinus pain. The pork shoulder's awesome - fibers melting on the tongue - but the beef's pretty much disappeared. Oh, and there's far too much sodding pasta. See that bit above where I reckoned I knew better than a three-star Michelin Chef? Technically, in the industry, I understand that's known as "being a pillock".
But the actual bolognaise sauce is going down a treat. Even adjusting the fulsome compliments around the table for the "blood relative has spent the day on this" factor, people seem very impressed - and my grandfather actually goes for second helpings of the sauce, which is a *major* positive sign. He didn't even go for seconds of the Christmas day turkey (which he cooked, and was very nice indeed). We've got no Bolognaise sauce left, in fact, and I don't think I'm the only one disappointed.
It certainly is very good - false modesty aside, at least at the level I'd expect from a good Italian restaurant, probably better. I've not had the Bolognaise sauce at Valvona and Corolla, probably our finest Italian restaurant in Edinburgh (in pure cooking terms, anyway), but I'd reckon this sauce could take it on about equal terms, maybe getting beaten, but not thrashed.
But it's not perfection. And I think, on reflection, it's the shortcuts I took that limited the perfection. I don't know what the longer cooking time would have done, but a roasted note to the tomatoes would definitely have added something to the sauce. And what the sauce really needed was a heavy, rich, meaty flavour at its base - the flavour I'd have gotten from the oxtail, rather than the rather mediocre stewing beef. On reflection, I should have abandoned beef altogether and tried for venison rather than settling for a less flavoursome cut. It's very clear to my palate that the sauce is pretty close to being something very special - but it's not quite there yet. And that's where the ingredients, and the cook, make the last 10% difference.
My suspicion here is that Doc B's scientific approach to cooking extends to very, very precise ingredients - there's no Jamie Oliver "just slosh it in" blarney here. Use the right quantities, the right ingredients and the right timings, because Heston's tried it the other way too, and it wasn't as good. On the upside, given how close we got on this try, and how the shortcomings can be directly linked to the bits we skipped, it seems like "Perfection"'s spot-on - do what he says, and good stuff happens.
Still, for a first time, it's damn fine. It's the best Bolognaise I've ever made, and given I've made at least one a week for the last 10 years or so, that's saying something. And the recipe's perfectly doable if you've got a day spare, even accounting shopping in a small market town. You do really need a second cook to help out with the peeling and chopping (I'd have been stuffed if Mum hadn't jumped in to help), but for a dinner party, it's achievable.
Perfection? Well, we didn't hit it this time, but I think we can see it from here. Doc B comes up trumps on the first test.
Excellent, a good read, Hugh.
Santa brought me Dr B's book, I'm not sure when I'll feel brave enough to tackle a recipe though.
I think the most extravagant recipe I've followed was Delia Smith's lasagne, which took about eight hours (and destroyed a pyrex dish) but tasted great.
Yeah, if you put the time in to a long recipe, it tends to be worth it in my experience.
Glad you enjoyed it!
> Several reviewers have described his recipes as being far too complex for anyone to actually cook. I then proceeded to describe their reviews as "bollocks".
Would you care to reappraise this sentiment in retrospect?
> My suspicion here is that Doc B's scientific approach to cooking extends to very, very precise ingredients
I think that's a natural consequence of molecular gastronomy in general. My approach is usually more towards the ``slosh it in'' side of things, but that's treating cookery as an art not a science, which is not what Heston does.
Art can go a bit wrong and still be art. Science doesn't have the same leeway. It would be interesting to try and find a way to combine the two.
Fancy trying the steak next? Need a commis?
Yes, and almost certainly. Perfect Steak and Perfect Chips, anyone?
And I still stand by my statement. I managed to cook one of his recipes, as a moderately-skilled cook and not-at-all-skilled chef (in that I've never cooked professionally), in less than a day, in a normal home kitchen, without too much fuss. It took a while, but it was fun.
I got given the book for Christmas as well, by a well-meaning relative who clearly hadn't realised that my love of food does not extend to cooking.
Still, subject to having the facilities, I do want to take a shot at his steak one day.
I'll be taking a swing at the steak some time in the New Year - I'll post my results.
Fucking Nora if you cost your time as well as the ingredients can you imagine what that cost?? I'm really not sure spag bol deserves it.
For the record my family have long out both Worcester sauce and sherry or sherry vinegar in our spag bol and yes , they really work. And lately mum started adding a bit of soy sauce too so I guess that's the oriental note (the fish is in the Worcester). See? Easy.
In most cases IMHO what makes spag bol superb is simply length of cooking. And yes, using cheap slow cooked meat not lo fat mince helps too - my mum does this too using a pressure cooker to prepare the meat (a good trick for cutting time by about 90%). I jjust buy mince :)
So in fact what Dr B has done is taken a number of well known peasant tricks and added huge amounts more labour and a dash of scientification. I have a whole rant about this: cooking well is something most women used to do as a fucking daily chore, but mske it "science" and For Boys and suddenly it's High Status and Perfection.Food isn't about perfection -\like someone else said it's somewhere between work and art. Perfection is food for Aspergers .
No I am not a fan of Mr B:-)
Interesting stuff. Yeah, a bunch of this stuff has accumulated in various recipes.
If you don't like cooking, of course it's a bloody stupid idea to spend ten hours cooking spag bol. For me it was the most fun I had all Christmas.
I'd strongly disagree with most of your fourth paragraph, but that's not really a surprise. To summarise:
- The hard bit isn't finding the original ideas (although both the oxtail and the star anise certainly are original). The hard bit is a) figuring out which to use (because lots of peasant recipes contain stuff that's stupid or wrong too) and b) figuring out how to get them to work right. Doc B does it so I don't have to.
- Women are not the only people who cook "as a daily chore". I do that too. Have done for a decade. Cooking for an hour at the end of the day is not miraculously easier because I have testicles.
- Huge amounts more labour? Yes, for better food. If you can come up with a recipe that produces a better spag bol than the "Perfection" one, for less time and effort, I'll be interested. Hell, I'll organise a blind taste test. But I think you'll find that the labour's in there to make the food better.
- Heston Blumenthal's cooking isn't high status because he's a bloke or a geek, it's because he's really fucking good at it. Frank Lloyd Wright is a higher-status architect than the bloke I get in to paint my walls, for the same reason.
- "Food isn't about perfection" - I'd answer this, but Heston Blumenthal already has, in the introduction to his book. And, as mentioned above, he knows more about this shit than I do.
2006-12-29 07:09 pm (UTC)
The point aboyt cooking as a gendered task is that historically AND TODAY most cooking is done by women. And most males who cook are single and have to;\or do it on high days and holidays as a pleasure not a chore. hence in gender studies terms, cooking is a female identified task and therefore low status.
Unless you're a chef in which case it's still high status - because for a variety of reason most chefs were and are stgill ,ale. Ever wondered why we use the word chef not jkust cook? (AS in army cooks,\ in fact.) It's because cook is female = low status and chef is male = high status. the odd mama on Gordon ramsay doesn't change this sociatela assumption.
And what HB is doing it introducing science - another male identified high status cultural icon - to emphasise that chefs are not just cooks.In otherw ords emphasising that REAL cooking -\perfect cooking - is what he and others like him do, not what most women have had to do at least once a day throughout history.
I'm not blaming HB personally. As it happens the spag bol ep was the only one I watched and his enthusiasm is clearly genuine. I t may taste fantastic -\ prob does - and I wasn't ctiticising your own cooking or dedication to the task. But this is mopre like spending Xmas making a fantastic airfix model of a plane than anything resembling the kind of cooking people do day in day out (and in my case,enjoy). That's why I called it "aspy food". I'd like to taste it , for sure (can i come to the dinner party pretty please???)but culturally i'm not sure it's an advance.
Sorry this is a theory I have had in my head for a while and you just sparked it :)
> cook is female = low status and chef is male = high status
Sorry, but I'm having some difficulty agreeing with you there.
Cook is low status because everyone is a cook. Boiled eggs and toast are cookery. But chefs are high status because chefs do chateubriand in red wine jus, venison escalopes and coconut tuile. The food is higher status. The gender of the person who makes the food isn't the point.
Ask me why most chefs are men and I don't have an answer for you. But the cause and effect in this issue doesn't go from chauvinism to food, it goes from food to chauvinism.
> this is mopre like spending Xmas making a fantastic airfix model of a plane than anything resembling the kind of cooking people do day in day out
It's not supposed to be. That's why people spend a week's wages to eat once at a restaurant. Cookery is a day-to-day thing; cheffery is for special events.
Well, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. I don't go to a restaurant to have expensive cuts of steak - I'd buy it myself for a quarter of the price and cook it myself. Go back to elizabth david - a good French cook or a good chef can make an omelette and a glass of wine a magnificent meal.Chefs can do some techniques I balk at eg making souffgles. But basically chefs are different from cooks in that (a) they turn out food for 100s of people not 2 or 4, which requires special equipment and organisation and (b) they're male.
No. Chefs are different from cooks because professional cooks work in organised groups, and the head of the group is the Chief, which in French is Chef. And he (or she) is the only person in the kitchen allowed to be called Chef. And women can, are and always have been chefs. The high status of a chef doesn't derive from their gender, but from their level of responsibility.
The organisational principle came from the French army (a group of professional cooks is a brigade) and this might be why they are mostly men. They certainly weren't before Escoffier popularised the brigade system.
If you want another insight into why professional restaurant cookery is mostly male, have a look at Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential...
oddly I just referenced the Bourdain book (which i adore) on the entry i wrote about this on my own Lj..
Of course, the true difference between a cook and a chef, as we used to say on my cook/stewarding courses, was
three years at college and five pounds an hour.
Historically most cooking was done by women - granted.
Today most cooking is done by women - in what age bracket? I know a bit about the demographics of cooking today, and they're more complex than you might think. (And how does the fact that most people who are likely to try one of HB's recipes *are* female play into your calculations?)
Definition of "chef" - see Stu's comments below. I'm just going to add that the first Michelin-starred restaurant I ever ate at had a female head chef.
Chefs are higher status because they are male - A "chef" is, as mentioned, formally the head of a professional kitchen, and informally is used to designate a professional cook, as opposed to someone who cooks for small groups of people - a "cook".
Chefs may be considered higher status than cooks because they are professionals, as opposed to a cook's amateur status - a distinction that holds in most or all fields, regardless of gender politics ("designated carer" versus "nurse", for example).
Science = male - OK, I'm not touching this one with a ten foot barge pole. Anyone who wants to can go off into their own special corner and get a kicking from all the female scientists.
"And what HB is doing is... emphasise that chefs are not cooks" - This seems to be the lynchpin of your argument. Evidence, please, because I can't see any.
Evidence against this argument includes - "In Search of Perfection" is not aimed at chefs, but home cooks. Nowhere in the book or anywhere that I have seen does Heston claim that chefs are superior to cooks. Heston himself is not a trained chef, instead having trained himself as a cook. Heston's methods are looked down upon by many chefs.
You assert that HB claims his is the only real cooking - Again, evidence, please. Again, nowhere have I heard Heston Blumenthal say anything of the kind.
You assert that lengthy, complex cooking does not resemble "the kind of cooking people do day in day out" - This is a bit of a side point, but - have you ever seen anyone - like an Indian wife, say - cook a curry from scratch? That's at least as complex as the recipe we're discussing. And that's an everyday dish in India.
You've got some interesting hypotheses, but you seem to be ascribing some opinions to Heston Blumenthal that my knowledge of his background suggests are unlikely, and in general you seem to be lacking evidence.
A follow-up to that - I saw the linked comment about thirty-something women doing most of the cooking.
That's actually kinda reassuring. My reading suggests that amongst twenty-somethings, no-one does any cooking...
Sounds wonderfully delicious. :)
I can however confirm that a flint club is far above a B&Q power tool in the technology stakes. Its ideal for its intended purpose, lasts thousand of years without wearing out, and whilst not biodegradable, is made of totally natural materials. A B&Q power tool is none of the above :)
I did, indeed, Laugh Out Loud.
If you want to try his perfect Black Forest gateau I will be glad to help sample it. :D
I'm not certain I'll get around to that one - I don't really do puddings. But if I do, I'll mail you.
A Doc B-inspired dinner party is probably happening some time in the New Year, though.
Oooh. I'd be interested. And I'd be happy to chip in extra if that meant you used organic meat, as that's always been part of my vegetarianism (long-winded hippy-granola-fluffy-bunny explanation available on request).
The digested read
version is amusing.
No need, I understand the principle, and I'd be using organic meat anyway, because most or all the best-quality meat available in this country right now is organic.
Well, I do that too, but it's a different type of cooking.
Hmm. Peeling tomatoes I can't help with (or rather I can; I would buy tins of peeled), but I use a Boerner V Slicer for chopping. The dish I intend to make today has far, far more than a kilo of veg and the entire chop-and-sautee stage takes only about 30 minutes. Nothing you have said above seems terribly out of the ordinary for bolognese sauce (apart from peeling and deseeding the tomatoes; what's wrong with sieving later?) so presumably the HB touches are in the details.
To be fair, my grandparents' knives are OK for simple use, but they were kinda blunt - with a good knife I could have probably cut the peel/chop stage down a fair bit.
Hmm. I'd not considered a mandolin slicer - to be honest, they looked a bit "infomercial" to me, so I'd assumed they'd just be shite. But if it actually does what it says on the tin - great. Thanks for the tip.
Doc B recommends use of a mandolin in a whole lot of recipes. Often it's vitally important to him that all the slices are exactly the same size.
I managed to fuxor Heston's cheese on toast the other week with the wrong cheese.
Sounds yummy, though :)
I'm no cook, let alone a chef, but I thought the trick to peeling tomatoes was to drop them in boiling water for a few seconds, thereby freeing skin from flesh?
Yep, it is, and that works - but particularly with less-than-ripe tomatoes, there's still a bit of a knack to it.
Hugh, many thanks for yer super description of what I would call a fine day well spent. I'd be most interested in helping out with a Dr.B day, if ye'd care to get in touch?
Regarding the Cook/chef thing, it's about control. Cooking in a brigade, or as I've had the privilege, running a kitchen running at balls-to-the-wall volume doing 70 hour weeks as normal means many things. However it's where I firmly part company with the G.Ramsay style of management; if you need to shout & go off yer head at an underling, then that just means you've lost it around 3 hours previously. If you are in command then, being a chef is juggling all aspects of the restaurant which includes a large amount of people management. Ramsay is a good cook, but he'll never have my respect as a chef.
2007-01-26 01:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Note the name
Only just saw this comment now - thanks!
Yeah, I'd tend to agree. I don't have experience running a kitchen, but I do have experience of running a film shoot, and it's a similar deal. Shouting and screaming isn't The Win for long-term satisfaction.
I notice that chefs who shout a lot tend to have a lot of "alumni" - people who are very proud of having worked with them. Chefs who are famous for being nice seem - and this really isn't a representative sample, but it makes sense - seem to have lots of people who *still* work for them.