Friday, 28 September 2012

Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson: The Secret of St John

Welcome to the big leagues

St John is one of only two restaurants in the UK with a truly global reputation.

And by global I don't mean Daniel Boulud global, or Nobu Matsuhisa global. Or even Gordon Ramsay global. Nowadays it seems anyone with a reliable line of debt financing can role out an intercontinental line of fine diners (I believe the Singapore branch of Pollen Street Social is just wrapped up the dinner service as I write; Hakkasan Mumbai likewise).

No I mean El Bulli (RIP) global. Fat Duck Global. French Laundry "please-give-me-a-reservation-I'll-sell-you-my-kids" global.

Global in the sense that if you're remotely interested in food, and happen to be anywhere within a three hundred mile radius you will book a table and move heaven and earth to get there.

Which is weird because St John isn't that kind of restaurant.

The secret of St John

St John is a humble sort of place. You wander in through a whitewashed hallway with plain tables shunted to one side. The bar area - high ceilinged and well lit - is noisy. The stairway down to the loos looks vaguely unstable. Behind you the main dining room is crammed into an awkward space running back out the front of the building. It looks for all the world like a prewar works canteen.

No chintzy carpets or argumentative china here. No French bloke in a double-breasted jacket and a winning smile. The staff wear white smocks. The tables are plain. The menu is printed (twice-daily of course) on plain A4.

So what's the secret?

Lean closer and I'll tell you.

The secret is this.

St John is the finest Italian restaurant in London.

A British cuisine that never existed

By which I mean this. Good Italian cooking is stripped-down, perfectly cooked and ingredient led. There is no faffing around with sauces, liaisons and garnishes. If you go into Locanda Locatelli in London and order the mackerel you will get literally that - a piece of mackerel unadorned on a plate. They simply take the finest ingredients, cook them perfectly, and arrange them together.

That, in a nutshell, is what St John offers. The plates are famously miminalist - most dishes are simply three perfect ingredients on a plate. If wander in during the Spring and order "Peas in the Pod" you will literally get a pile of fresh peas, still in their pods, for your podding pleasure.
Cucina St John: Does what it says on the tin.

What St John does of course add the best of British ingredients and a liberal sense of humour. They they do is take traditional British dishes, ingenuity and combination (with the notable exception of the puddings, which are 100% authentic) and prepare them with a most un-British zealousness and attention to detail.

There is very definitely a sense of place to this book - no exuberant Mediterranean vegetables or exotic fish (although his Green Sauce does feature olive oil). Instead hearty British ingredients - pork, beef, duck, squirrel (yes, squirrel. I've had it and it tastes like chicken). And a fair amount of salting, pickling and preserving involved to to get us through winter months.

Mmmm... Eccles cake...
And what your end up with is a sort of pastiche of Britishness. Think Gilbert & Sullivan: The Restaurant. Much like Marcus Wareing has done at The Gilbert Scott or Heston at Dinner (I can assure you that at no point in the history of this isles did we ever eat a foie-gras enriched chicken liver parfait and call it Meat Fruit). In fact even the famous bone marrow toast may be borrowed - the Brasserie Georges in Lyon does a very similar dish, minus the parsley.

EDIT (Oct 4th): Although intriguingly whilst looking through Unmentionable Cuisine for the piece I published today, I found another recipe for Baked Marrow Bones labelled as an English preparation. So maybe it does come from these isle's after all!
Baked Marrow Bones / EnglandThe fresh femurs or humeri of a choice beef animal are cut into fourths and the cut ends plugged and capped with dough. They then are baked. The baked bones are wrapped individually in napkins, served with salt, pepper, and toast (or on trenchers) and eaten with a long marrow spoon.

In reality, there was never a British cuisine like this. The British never had such a ruthless pursuit of sourcing the best ingredients in season. The British never showed a hint of the skill required to take a piece of meat, cook it perfectly and serve it on a plate. And they never had the bravery to restrain themselves from dousing it in bread sauce, redcurrant gravy and all manner of over-boiled roasties.

But most of all St John isn't about an idea or a cuisine.

It's about Fergus.

Mr Henderson's remarkable voice

Fergus Henderson, author of Nose to Tail Eating and co-author of its sequel Beyond Nose to Tail (yes I haven't forgotten this is a cookbook blog). Is the laconic, eccentric and altogether unique driving force behind St John. Having originally trained as an architect (a rarity in this country, where cheffing is very much a blue-collar career), he opened the dining room at the French House in London's Soho 1992 before moving on to St John three years later. Oh and he's battled Parkinsons along the way too.

His singular voice, and sense of humour pervade both St John cookbooks. It is gently mocking and ironic, sometimes verging on satire. But it is also joyous and emotional, fearlessly reveling in the beasts he bakes. Consider the recipe for Warm Pig's Head (Book 1, p32) which begins:
The flesh from a pig's head is flavoursome and tender. Consider, its cheeks have had just the right amount of exercise and are covered in just the right enriching layer of fat to ensure succulent cooking results, and the nozzle has the lip-sticking quality of not being quite flesh nor quite fat, the perfect foil to the crunch of the crispy ear.
Or his pointed observation to open the recipe for Roast Woodcock (Book 1, p116):
Woodcock defecate before they fly, so they can be roasted with the guts in, which heightens the flavour.
Or this dry commentary on the truffle-oil glugging classes (Book 1, p85):
Is it not splendid when you have a guest to stay who cooks delicious things for you? A fine example is Ken, a chef from Sydney, who prepared this splendid dish full of most of my favourite things. He even finished it off with a healthy splash of truffle oil, which I have omitted from this version, but please express yourself.
Like a well trussed roast, this book is generously larded with "Fergus-isms". The pink ham and the orange swede look like sunset on a plate (Book 1 p65), he memorably declares There is nothing finer than warm little buttock-like buns (Book 2, p109), and the recipe for Nettle and Snail Soup begins Address your snails: pop the chopped garlic and butter into a heated frying pan. Allow for a little sizzle, then add the snails. Roll them around until piping hot, then season with salt and papper (Book 2, p14).

Unlike the ghostwritten gallimaufry which passes for much modern chefbook writing, Fergus' voice shines through clear and true. Cut out the text of a recipe and read it blind, and you will instantly know who the author is.

The whole beast (including the bouncy bits)

Another thing that distinguishes Fergus is that he cares about the beasts he roasts. Not "cares" as in takes them home, coddles them and feeds them warm milk. He is quite happy to kill, disembowel and char-grill the cutest of piglets (as my first witness I call the Roast Whole Suckling Pig, Book 2, p72). But "cares" as in for him an animal is the whole beast. Not just meat. Not just a collection of pork chops in a delivery crate. As he says in the introduction to his first book
Nose to Tail Eating means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet.
Bone Marrow Toast - Salty Jellied Goodness
In saying this he shows a remarkably un-British approach to texture. In modern Britain at least food should either be shattering-crisp or meltingly-tender. Any state in between (in particular the crime being gelatinous and not made of fruit) is a capital offense. In contrast Fergus glorious in the chewy, yielding, sucking bits. Tripe is served jellied in a terrine mould (Book 1, p42), pigs ears likewise (Book 2, p30). And the signature roasted bone marrow (Book 1, p38) is scooped out hot and jellylike onto warn toast before being salted, parsley-ed and crunched.

In some ways this focus on texture and on the "whole beast" is very Asian. Like Fergus the Chinese eat every part of the animal, and are extremely partial to a nice piece of jellied pigs ear (apparently there is good business to be done sending sows ears to China). But in other ways they are worlds apart. The Chinese word for animal (动物) means "moving thing" - entirely inanimate, devoid of a soul and just there for the stewpot. In contrast Fergus instead thinks of a pig as a glorious "beast" which should live a whole and satisfying life - culminating in the stewpot.

Different attitudes, same results.

Grand Finales

There is one area of course where this doesn't really apply, and the British don't need to make any culinary excuses. And that is the puddings.

More puddings please!
Although most of the recipes are a subversive re-casting of British classics, the dessert section is one where Fergus doesn't need to take any liberties. All right, except for his famous Eccle's Cakes (Book 1, p196), where he substitutes puff pastry for the more traditional lard-flaky pastry. But by and large the dessert recipes are presented as straight English classics.

I've always felt that good English desserts are one of the strengths of St John. I will always remember a simple steamed treacle pudding many years ago, indescribably sweet at the base but mellowed with ice-cold cream. If I have any complaint against the cookbooks, its that there simply aren't enough dessert recipes This is particularly true in the first volume where they are lumped, almost as an afterthought, with savouries.

The second volume does its best to make up for this, with longer sections on desserts, puddings and ice-creams (the Blackcurrant Leaf Ice Cream on p203 is particularly intriguing). It also features a lengthy digression on their buttock-like buns, now a feature of their Soho hotel. But if there was one request I would make of Fergus (apart from "pass the bone marrow"), it's "more puddings please"!

A word of warning

A word of caution with how to use this book. I've talked at length about Fergus' philosophy and voice, because without them these books are much less than the sum of their parts. Actually looking through the recipes, some of them seem quite pedestrian.

Parsley sauce: Not rocket science
For example the recipe for Boiled Ham with Parsley Sauce (Book 1, p66) is an entirely straight piece of boiled ham served with a bog-standard white sauce (milk thickened with butter, flour and doused with parsley). Now I know it will taste damn fine in the clattering environs of the restaurant, but I suspect if you cooked it yourself for a weeknight supper it might be something of a disappointment. Similarly the recipe for radishes is just that - A bunch of radishes on a plate with salt, butter and vinaigrette. But then again, maybe that's the point.

I'm not saying you won't enjoy cooking from these books, just don't expect to just buy them and recreate St John at home.

This contrasts very strongly with Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen which I wrote about recently - that was a book which was all about clever recipes. This is a book which is all about a clever author. The difference is vast.

So with that point dealt with, which book to get? Obviously the answer is both, but if forced to choose it get tricky. The first book, Nose to Tail is a more momentous book. If you want the grand signature recipes (the Bone Marrow Toast, the Eccles Cake), this is the one to get. It is less cheffy than the second book, and more about sharing (interestingly all of the photos show dishes being shared.  They are never pictured in individual portions).

The second book is more elegantly presented in an extremely cute pocketable format. The design is more affected, but also more attractive. The recipes also are fuller and better (particularly the puddings), and if you are a baker there is an extensive section on breads.

For my money I'd take the second one away to read a desert island, but I'd prefer to have the first one at home in the cookbook library.

It's a kind of British cooking. And I kind of like it.

Note: All page numbers are taken from my versions of the books (UK Paperback edition of Nose to Tail Eating, UK hardback edition of Beyond Nose to Tail). Your page numbers may differ, particularly in the US edition of the first book which I understand had significant revisions.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Happy in The Kitchen by Michel Richard: If you're happy and you know it...

Real chefs don't do cake

The gap between pastry and cooking is one of the great divides in the modern kitchen. Although it might physically be only a few feet patissiers and chefs are very different animals.

A perfect patissier's of lemon tart. Bonus points if you
 can spot what's wrong with it (answer below)
Chefs are the free thinkers. The dreamers. The guys who can come up with three ways with caviar and chocolate. If a recipe doesn't quite work they can tweak or improvise. Or just claim "it was always meant to be like that".

Patissiers (and their half cousins, bakers) are the mathematicians. They work in weights, measures and ratios. If you're quantities are off you're dead. No excuses (ok, perhaps an exception can be made of the Demoiselles Tatin).

So a chef pastry is a rarity indeed (straight up - I'm a chef. I can terrine a foie gras but my attempts at puff pastry inevitable end up as pancake en croute). And a patissier who can cook is a pearl beyond price.

Anthony Bourdain summed up his bewilderment Kitchen Confidential as he marvels at the career of master-chef Scott Bryan (then at Veritas in NYC, now at Apiary):
The Gotham with Alfred. Back with Kinkaid at 21 Federal in DC. Square One in California. Back to New York with David Bouley. A Hamptons interlud with Jimmy Sears. (Pause for breath here.) Sous-chef for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin (!)
As if his career wasn't going swimmingly enough for a guy who only a few years earlier had been considering a life installing light sockets and fuse-boxes, the then opened Lespinasse with Grey Kunz.
And if this isn't rich enough meal for you, to round out his skills and ensure his usefulness as an all-around major league player, he crossed the line from a la carte cuisine to pastry - a nearly unthinkable act - and went to work with the awesome uberpatissier, Richard Leach, at Mondrian.
Michel Roux - A rare example of the chef-patissier
Off the top of my head I can only think of a handful of chefs with a real background in pastry. Michel Roux, who held three stars at the Waterside Inn, is one of them. He started his apprenticeship in a Monsieur Loyal's patisserie, and went on to win the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the same discipline (MOF en patisserie is French for "I'm the Chuck Norris of lemon tarts.").

Then there's Michel Richard, most recently of Citonelle in Washington DC and the author of the extraordinary book Happy in the Kitchen (Artisan, 2006).

The happy chef

Michel Richard, with snack

Michel Richard wasn't originally a chef. He started off in Paris, training with French pastry-god Gaston Lenotre, coming to the US in 1974 to open a cake shop. It was only then that he made the leap to cook behind the stoves, pioneering French-Californian cuisine at Citrus and Citronelle. Then in 1994 he made launched Citronelle in DC (a city more associated with wood-panelled power-breakfasts than Californian cuisine de soleil), finally relocating in 1998.

But it isn't the West-East swap that's extraordinary. It's his food. It achieves the holy grail of combining the technique and discipline of a pastissier with the free-wheeling whimsicality of a chef.

Opening up Happy in the Kitchen is a disorientating experience. Cuttlefish are marmelised and turned into schnitzels. Tomato's are used to make a savoury trifle. Yellow tomato and mozarella is set with gelatin and turned into trompe l'oeil boiled eggs. But as I said, it's not just technical.

There's a playfulness here which is reflected in the names of the recipes. In the first section alone you encounter the All-Crust Potato Gratin, Virtual Fried Rice and Sociable Garlic and Potato Puree. Later on you are introduced to Shrimp "Einstein", Low Carb-o-nara and Chicken Faux Gras. There's a whimisicality here which reminds me of Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Cooking (the book which lists Bath Chaps and the inimitable Hairy Tatties).

If your mother ever told you not to play with your food she was wrong. And Michel Richard is here to tell you why.

The Book of Michel

Happy in the Kitchen is a handsome book, laid out in the large landscape format favoured by many high-end US cookbooks (e.g. the French Laundry Cookbook). The recipes are reassuringly lengthy and, importantly for such a technical book, there are step-by-step pictures for many of the dishes.

But that's nothing special. What is special is the sheet inventiveness which leaps off every page. A good cookbook is one that delivers just that one "amazing who would have thought of that!" moment. But in Happy in the Kitchen I'd found half a dozen before I'd got off the potato section. Here are just a few:

You think that's pasta? Think again...

  • All-Crust Potato Gratin (p2): Making a gratin so thin   that there's no mush in the middle - just cheesy crust (OK it's sort of a rosti-in-a-frock).
  • Yellow Tomato Tart (p44): Looks like a classic lemon tart, but the custard is made with yellow tomatoes (yes, that's what was what was wrong with the lemon tart above!).
  • Tomato Trifle (p48): A savoury dish, made by layering ripe tomatoes, mozarella, fennel and brioche... like a trifle!
  • Wild Mushroom Potpie (p64): Mushroom's baked with a pastry lid, where a custard is piped in under the lid halfway through to keep the pastry crust crisp
  • Low Carb-O-Nara (p91): Cutting an onion so it falls apart in long strands, then steaming these until they have the texture of pasta before tossing with a carbonara sauce.
  • Crisp and Creamy Bacon-Onion Tart (p92): A version of a traditional Flammenkuche (a very thin tart from Alsace), but made using pancakes instead of bread dough for ultimate thinness.
  • Scrambled Scallops (p124): Scallops pureed, creamed and gently cooked so they have the texture of snow-white scrambled eggs.
  • Cuttlefish fettuccine with Crab and Corn (p134): Cuttlefish pounded and sliced just like tagliatelle (I think Nobu also does a variation on this).
  • Cuttlefish Schnitzel (p137): Cuttlefish marmelised and bound with gelatin, then crusted and fried like a schnitzel.
  • Virtual Eggs (p161): Faux hardboiled eggs made by pureeing and setting yellow tomatoes and mozarella to make the white and yolk.
The egg that isn't...

  • Almost-No-Fat Chicken Sausage (p187): A sausage where the filling is bound with gelatin. To make up for the lack of moistness from the fat, pureed aubergine is added instead.
  • Foie Gras Brulee (196): It's a creme brulee. But with foie gras mousse instead of custard. 'Nuff said (Angelus in London also do a good version).
  • Caramel and Corn Ice-Cream (p253): A combination which feels natural and really works. (I've had these prepared as a Creme Caramel elsewhere. It's great.)

Hint: That's not caviar either...
There's a number of obvious themes here.

First he clearly shows his fondness for for trompe l'oeil (or as he calls it, trompe la langue) i.e. making one food look like another one. He's particularly fond of dressing up unexpected ingredients (cuttlefish, onion, snow-peas) masquerade as pasta. Or in fact doing the opposite - his famous Lobster Begula involves colouring giant couscous with squid ink to make it look like caviar!

Secondly (as befitting his background), Richard takes traditional patisserie preparations (lemon tarts, trifle, creme brulee) and reuses the techniques with savoury ingredients. Although one surprising thing I'd note - the dessert dishes don't seem quite as interesting as the savoury ones. Maybe this is because dessert for Richard is more like home ground - transmogrifying patisserie into savoury is where he shows off.

Thirdly he understands the importance of texture in his dishes, particularly of getting "crunch". This feels like another inheritance from his pastry background; it is an old truism in the pastry world that a good plated dessert should have 1) a primary ingredient, 2) a sauce and 3) a "crunch".

Finally he loves reconfiguring foods - by which I mean changing their physical form. His most common trick is to puree an ingredient (e.g. cuttlefish), bind it with gelatin and freeze it in a block which can then be sliced into new forms and shapes.

In some ways this feels very much like molecular cuisine. For example his Cuttlefish Schnitzel is not that far off the shrimp noodles prepared by Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 (except Dufresne uses the more space-age transglutaminase rather than gelatin which has the advantage of retaining its binding properties when hot). In fact while there's little direct use of molecular cuisine techniques in this book (no space-age ingredients, weird equipment and only case of sous-vide I noticed) you can very much see the direction in which the cuisine is headed.

In other ways though it actually hearks back to Escoffier. Pounded food up, contorting it into different shapes. Turning them into something they are not - that feels very much like the traditional cuisine where a potato could not be potato unless it was pureed, enriched with eggs and turned into a pomme duchesse.

But to obsess about that is to miss the point. Michel Richard doesn't care how he gets there. He just wants his diners to be delighted and surprised.

And happy.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Heston's Secret Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal

Memories of the Fat Duck

It used to be quite easy to get a table at the Fat Duck. You basically rang up on a Friday afternoon to sort out a table for Saturday lunch. It was extremely convenient for anyone living in west London, as they were one of the few places that did a cheapo set lunch on the Saturday (twenty-something quid - plus a bit for coffee).

The Duck itself used to be a homely sort of place - not like that posh French joint up they road which charged fifty quid for a lobster. The first time I went there they had slightly rickity wrought iron tables but when we came back they had table-clothed up (and put in new loos upstairs, too). The food wasn't bad either, although we did send back the skate-wing once because it was underdone at the bone. Chef sent it back out again, saying that was how he preferred it. I don't recall how we sorted out that one.

They had the snail porridge on at the time - it actually came as a starter on the cheapo set. Actually it wasn't all that scary - it was basically a risotto made using oats instead of rice, flavoured with the classic snails-garlic-parsley combination. For the main course I liked the duck "petit-sale" - a braised duck leg made to look like a mini lamb leg, swaddled in a lovely shiny sauce. Desserts were always quite fun - although they kept on doing a carrot-salt-toffee thing which I never quite saw the point of (I've had an aversion to salt caramel since a visiting uncle left us with a ginormous box of See's Salt Water Taffy many years ago).

The advice I used to give any friends going was avoid the tasting menu, because if you went on the a la carte you got about half a dozen inter-course bits anyway. For example you got the mustard ice-cream on a bed of red cabbage, and the green-tea snifter (originally a foam in a glass, later a nitro-blasted quenelle). Leave the tasting menu for tourists, the a la carte had plenty good. I vividly remember tiny cubes of jelly accompanying the pigeon, which went off like firecrackers on the tongue, and the intensely flavoured crab biscuit which was nothing like what I'd expected - a sort of shimmering crab glass. I always had my eye on the lasagne of langoustine and pigs trotter, but I don't think I ever tried it. The six pounds fifty supplement was too rich for us.

Heston was also out and about too. I remember having a good twenty minute chat with him one time, by the kitchen hatch. He was banging on about the bacon and egg ice-cream at the time, and how they kept on changing how they served the dish. We always hoped he wouldn't realise it was us who'd sent the skate wing back.

Then of course he got the third star and it all went crazy. We didn't go back for a long time - if only because it became such a faff to book, plus we moved away from West London. When we did finally try again, for my brother's birthday, the place had changed. The room seemed darker and and was packed to the rafters. The menu had transmogrified into a giant leather-bound slab. Against our better judgement we went for the tasting menu (after all, it was a "destination restaurant" now). But when mum asked to sub out the snail porridge (she'd never really liked it on past visits) the waiter gave a condescending smirk as if she was a scaredy tourist. It felt more like a theme park ride than a restaurant.

Then they had a power cut right after the nitro-green tea mousse, and all the customers had to be sent home. I think we ended up getting supper from a Chinese takeaway in Ickenham.

Heston's Golden Years

It's always tempting to look back with rose-tinted spectacles. Especially when you had somewhere like the Fat Duck pretty much on your doorstep (okay, a short hop via the M40/M25/M4). But I do think some of Heston's finest food writing also dates from those early years. From 2001 until 2003 - the era when he won his third star - he wrote a regular column in the Guardian, full of recipes and insights. After the *** was awarded in 2004, it was scaled down to a recipe-less magazine column before finally petering out in 2005 when he jumped ship to The Times (if I recall, he took umbrage with the Grauniad for reporting on his dodgy health and safety inspection, or suchlike).

I was never quite as impressed when he was writing for The Times. At the time they had a remarkable all-star roster of food writers (including Gordon Ramsay in his pomp), which seemed to spend the whole time giving inane recipes for homebakes. I blame slack ghost-writing.

But the early Guardian columns were quite something else. You can see iconic recipes like that Caviar and White Chocolate Buttons and the Bacon and Egg Ice-Cream being born before your eyes. Sous-vide, low-temperature cooking and popping candy are passe now, but at the time it seemed like cooking from Mars. The classics I remember from the Duck are all there - the Petit-Sale of Duck (that brine is also a great alternative to the traditional salt-rub for duck confit), the pigeon, the green-tea-lime sour (pre-nitro version). Just as White Heat captures Marco Pierre White in his pomp, this is Heston at the bleeding edge.

And as far as I know, this stuff never made it into print, at least not in its original form. When Heston did pour his formidable talents on his book, it was the quixotic Family Food, a volume about food for kids that presumably suited his stage of life but left the rest of the hard-core fans panting for something more. Then he got diverted into TV with a series of tie-in volumes that had lots of hard science, but little soul. Yes the Big Fat Duck Book did finally land in 2008, but that felt more like a tombstone than a book. For sure it's worth getting, and has all the greatest hits. But they are prettified, refined version. Not the raw originals.

But the good thing is, all those Guardian columns are still out there on the website. You just have to find them.

Introducing Heston's Secret Cookbook

I like to think of them as Heston's Secret Cookbook - the volume he never wrote detailing what he saw at the revolution. So what I've done here is a sort of culinary archaeology. I've collected links to all the articles below, with a brief note about what he discusses in each article, and what recipes are included. This is the Table of Contents

I've also taken the recipes, and grouped them into a more conventional cookbook format, each with a link going to the relevant article. As he often included two or three recipes in each article, many links are duplicated. But it lets you see when this might have looked like, if he'd adopted a more conventional approach. This is the Recipe Index at the end of the post.

So feel free to browse, and cast your mind back to a more innocent time. When savoury ice-creams were shocking, rather than something you find in the supermarket. And foams were fun.


Heston's Secret Cookbook - Table of Contents

ArticleTheme (Date)Recipe
The appliance of scienceIntroduction to food science (10-Nov-01)Green Tea and Lime Sour
Confit salmon with lentils
Herve This's chocolate Chantilly
Bean there, done thatNot cooking vegetables in salted water (17-Nov-01)Haricots verts a la Crème
Salad of haricots
Runner beans with cucumber
Love me tenderLow temp meat cooking (24-Nov-01)Saddle of lamb
Gigot a sept heures
Braised shoulder of lamb
The proof of the pudding…Tenderising with pineapple (08-Dec-01)Roast pineapple
Pineapple and chilli jelly
Crab Syrup
Let the festivities commenceHeston's Christmas meal (15-Dec-01)Pot-roast pork
Pears poached in red wine
Where's the sense in that?Playing with preconceptions about food (22-Dec-01)Spice mix for chicken or fish
Parsnip cereal with parsnip milk
Beetroot jellies
A whole new bowl gameStocks and soups (05-Jan-02)Butternut squash soup
Lentil soup
Clear chicken soup
Absorbing experienceRisotto (12-Jan-02)Basic risotto
Cauliflower risotto
Pea risotto
Soak it and seeBrining meat (19-Jan-02)Petit sale of duck
Two preparations for fish
Butter them upPotatoes (02-Feb-02)Basic potato recipe
Good old-fashioned mash
Crushed potatoes
Pommes puree
Sunday bestPerfect Sunday lunch (09-Feb-02)Roast chicken
Roast potatoes
Buttered cabbage
Cut and driedPasta (16-Feb-02)Spaghetti carbonara
Gratin of macaroni
Spaghettini with clams
The heat is offLow temperature roasting (02-Mar-02)Roast rib of beef
A sauce for the roast
Beef juices
The light fantasticDesserts with Herve This (09-Mar-02)Chocolate fondant
Rice tuile
Avocado rice
Mind over matterPerception of taste vs. flavour (16-Mar-02)Strawberry soup
Fine and dandyMackerel (27-Apr-02)Rilettes of macherel
Escabeche of mackerel
Red peppers marinated with anchovies
Weird but wonderfulFlavour matching (04-May-02)Caviar and white chocolate discs
Beetroot and green peppercorn jelly
Mango puree
Cream crackerIce cream (11-May-02)Vanilla ice cream
Mrs Marshall's almond cornets
Mrs Marshalls' apple ice cream
Top tipsAsparagus (25-May-02)Pot-roast asparagus
Parmesan ice cream
Asparagus soup
A burst of flavourFlavour encapsulation (01-Jun-02)Bacon and egg ice cream
Caremlised brioche
Tomato and red pepper 'jam'
Tea jelly
Drink and thriveCooking with alcohol (08-Jun-02)Red wine sauce for fish
Coq au vin
Good fry dayEgg & chips (22-Jun-02)Chips
Fried egg
Ahead of the gameFood technology research (29-Jun-02)Blue cheese chantilly
Paint the town redTomatoes (06-Jul-02)Tomato fondue
My heart belongs to umamiUmami (13-Jul-02)Marinted squid with Parmesan
Poached sea bream with konbu borth
Salad of green beans and tomatoes
Bursting with pleasureFlavour encapsulation (again) (20-Jul-02)Butternut squash and red pepper soup
Vanilla ice cream with encapsulated flavour bursts
Keep a lid on itCooking in a cocotte dish (24-Aug-02)Cocotte of duckling and chicory
Cocotte of potatoes and peas
Cocotte of cod
Lord of the ringsOnions (31-Aug-02)Onion puree
Maliks onion bhajee
Dried onion slices
The nutty professorPistachios (07-Sep-02)Pistachio ice cream
Pistachio scrambled egg
Sugared pistachios
You won't know till you try…Food for kids (28-Sep-02)Cream of tomato soup
Pot-roast cod
Couscous salad
Mission possibleVegetables for kids (05-Oct-02)Braised lettucs
Glazed carrots
Gratin of potatoes
Keep them sweetDesserts for kids (19-Oct-02)Jacks' raspberry crunch
Nectarines poached with star anise and rosemary
Great shakesJelly (26-Oct-02)Mead and sichuan peppercorn jelly
Beetroot and orange jelly
Kir Royale jelly
Under coverBraising (02-Nov-02)Rognonnade of veal
Chicken with vinegar
Braised turnips
Happy ever aftersBritish desserts (09-Nov-02)Vanilla junket
Rice pudding
Basil blancmanger
A flash in the panLiver (30-Nov-02)Sauteed calve's liver with cream of bacon sauce
Parfait of chicken livers
Black olive puree with red mullet liver
Take your timeStewing meat (07-Dec-02)Beef juice
Chicken broth
Ox cheek (or oxtail) stew
It's a crackerChristmas recipes (14-Dec-02)Mince pie ice cream
Hazelnut red wine drink
A Christmas version of Mrs Blumenthal's cheesecake
Accidentally on purposeIdea generation (04-Jan-03)Carrot toffee
Butternut ice cream
Dried carrot
Shuck it and seeRecipes from Sydney (11-Jan-03)Liam Tomlin's freshly shucked oysters with Vietnamese dressing
Tetsua Wakuda's slow roasted rack of lamb with miso and blue cheese
Neil Perry's confit of green-lip abalone with fine noodles, mushroom, soy and truffle oil
Practice makes perfectRestaurant-level cooking (18-Jan-03)Poached Anjou pigeon breast, a pastilla of its leg with cherries, pistachio, cocoa and quatre epices
Mind over matterFood memory (01-Feb-03)Crab ice cream
Vanilla-pine sherbert dib-dab
Sardines on toast ice cream
Memory is everything?Food memory (again) (08-Feb-03)Crushed meringue and pistachio with soya sauce mayonnaise
Toothpaste and mouthwash
Celeriac soup, curried marshmallow, bacon
Hang on in thereHanging meat (15-Feb-03)Steak with sauce moelle
Potatoes sauteed from raw
Golden WonderLemon tart (01-Mar-03)Lemon tart with butter-based filling 1
Lemon tart with butter-based filling 2
Custard-based lemon tart
Flour powerPastry (08-Mar-03)Shortbread pastry
Chocolate shortbread
Make ends meatSpag bol (15-Mar-03)Bolognese sauce, or ragu
Wilted baby spinach with mortadella
Mortadella chilli oil
Gaga for AgaAga cooking (29-Mar-03)Brine
Shoulder of pork
Pot-roast pork
It's a choux inChoux pastry (05-Apr-03)Profiteroles
Vanilla ice cream
Chocolate sauce
It's crunch time!Spring vegetables (12-Apr-03)Charlotte of vegetables
Tomato fondue
Olive puree
The secret ingredientPopping candy (24-May-03)Popping candy base
Chocolate mousse
Chocolate glaze
Heston Blumenthal easySimple cooking (31-May-03)Toasted cheese
Marinated peppers with anchovies
Confit tomatoes
No messingEton mess (28-Jun-03)Eton mess
Strawberry juice
Mini marvelsLentils (05-Jul-03)Braised lentils
Lentil soup
Lentil tuiles
Gee WhiskEmulsions (12-Jul-03)Mayonnaise
Bearnaise sauce
It takes all sortsLiquorice (09-Aug-03)Liquorice made for treacle
Liquorice jelly
Liquorice ice cream
The acid testAcidity and fruit (16-Aug-03)Balsamic mousse
Raspberry juice
Raspberry jelly
If the cap fitsMushrooms (13-Sep-03)Duxelle
Bouillon de champignons de printemps comme un cappuccino
Dried mushrooms
Taste not, want notFlavour combinations (again) (20-Sep-03)Cauliflower puree
Braized shoulder of lamb
Poached peaches with pistachio and almonds
Fire awayBlowtorching food (27-Sep-03)Chicken in salt crust with hay
Jasmine crème brulee
Magic dustQuartre-epices (11-Oct-03)Quartre-epices
Ballotine of foie grast with quatre-epices
Jellied beef
We have blast offMicrowaves (18-Oct-03)Nicholas Kurti's stuffed profiteroles
Braised' shallots
Game onGame (26-Oct-03)Loin of venison
Sauce poivrade
Fried muscat grapes
The twist in the tailStewing cheap cuts (15-Nov-03)Oxtail stew
Pickled daikon
Parsnip puree
The great all-rounderCouscous (22-Nov-03)Couscous with hazelnut and rosemary
Couscous-c'est moi au pain perdu
Sweet couscous
Chill outWinter vegetables (06-Dec-03)Pumpkin risotto
Mushroom tart
Osso bucco of carrots
Golden globeOranges (13-Dec-03)Carrots glazed with orange and cumin
Terrine of blood oranges
Orange bavarois
Net gainsFish (20-Dec-03)Macherel tart
Escabeche of red mullet

Heston's Secret Cookbook - Recipe Index

How it works: Links take you through to the full article containing the featured recipe. Note that components which go together to form a final dish may be split between categories - but obviously the source link will have them all together. If a name comes up twice its because he used the same dish in different articles (although actually the recipes themselves are often subtly different).

Meat, Fish and Fowl



Soup, Pasta, Risotto and Eggs

Desserts, Jellies and Ice-Creams




Sauces, Pastry and Drinks

Sauces (Savoury)


Sauces (Sweet)

Drinks and foams

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbook by Fu Pei Mei: The best Chinese cookbook you've never heard of

How to know when you've really made it

As every fule kno, there is only one way to tell if you've really made it as a chef.

No it's not cooking at the White House (looks like they take anyone nowadays).

Nor is it being on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List (lets face it is a PR stunt. A very elegant choreographed one but a PR stunt nonetheless. I mean for heaven's sake my mate Gary Marshall used to be one of the judges! How low can they go? :-p ).

No, as every fule kno, you've really made it when someone starts a blog about you.

Like Julia Child - housewife, cook and TV superstar.

Or ubermensch David Chang of Momofuku.

Or our very own Heston.

Or Fu Pei Mei.

Fu who?


Pei-Mei is best described as the Julia Child of Chinese cooking (that's Delia Smith to you Brits, but without the special crunchy roast potatoes). Like dear Julia she was the mysterious combination of housewife, cook and TV superstar. She educated generations of Taiwanese housewives via her weekly cookery show, clattering through more than 4,000 different dishes over the course of 40 years.

Of course that wasn't originally the plan. Also like Julia she was shaped by the Second World War. Born in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1931, she grew up speaking not only Mandarin but fluent Japanese. After the Chinese civil war she joined the Nationalist exodus to Taiwan where she established a Chinese cooking school (renowned Phildelphia chef Susanna Foo was an alumnus), before branching out into TV. Although she never ran a restaurant, she was an ubiquitous presence preserving Chinese cookery in Taiwan, at time when the mainland government was closing down restaurants and generally taking a wrecking ball to their culinary heritage.

She died in 2004, but she left her magnum opus - a trilogy of Chinese Cook Books (nattily titled Pei Mei's Chinese Cook Book, Volumes I, II and III). Once considered vital for a bride's dowry (think Silver Spoon, but with recipes that actually work), they are the best Chinese cookbooks you've never heard of.

The greatest Chinese cookbook ever?

I have to admit it, set against today's multimedia productions it doesn't look like much. There's no accompanying DVD, spin-off website or exclusive ebook. This is strictly old-school - badly typewritten recipes, insert colour plates and laughable page design. Hey, this was state of the art in 1969!

But in other ways these books were way ahead of their time.

For one thing they are regional. Regional Chinese food is one of the uber-trends here in London, spearheaded by Fuschia Dunlop's books of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine and backed up by a rash of regional restaurant openings. Whereas previously you were strictly limited to bad Canto-Anglo food, now you can gorge yourself on Manchurian hotpot, Xinjiang lamb skewers and an ubiquitous dose of Sichuan Dan Dan Mian.

Pei Mei was well ahead of that, particularly in the first book where recipes are laid out by region rather than ingredient. Different sections cover Eastern (Sichuan, Hunan), Southern (Canton), Western (Shanghai) and Northern (Beijing, Shandong). Within that there's comprehensive coverage off all the greatest hits - Drunken Chicken from Shanghai, Tea-Smoked Duck from Sichuan. Not to mention an eponymous dose of Peking Duck. If you want a basic primer on the great dishes of Chinese cuisine, this is an excellent place to start.

For another thing this is authentic. Traditionally Chinese (and other ethnic) cookbooks are toned-down and Westernised for Western tastes. Ken Hom (bless his shiny hubcap) is a great exponent of this. It's only more recently we've seen a search for more authenticity and complexity in our ethnic cuisine (as exemplified again by Fuschia Dunlop).

Well Fu Pei-Mei says sod that.

Her books are uncompromisingly authentic, because they date from a time before such niceties. They are basically straight translations of what she wrote for those Taiwanese housewives. Actually the original books are unique because they are bilingual - with Chinese recipe and English text on opposite pages. Even now it is very unusual to have straight translations of foreign works published (the only ones I can think of are the Silver Spoon and Nobu Now (not many people realise this is a straight translation of his Japanese cookbook).

Now that has its disadvantages as well. Let's say that her translator wasn't exactly Hemingway. Sometimes the translations are unintentional hilarious. A dish called Chuan Jia Fu which literally means "Blessing for the Whole Family" gets titled "Assorted Dish with Brown Sauce" (presumably the translator was rushing to get home that day?).

How not to translate a cookbook...

The book goes beyond the standards. The other good thing about being authentic, is that this book isn't afraid to go off-piste into the wilds of Chinese cooking. For example the whole of Volume III is devoted to formal Chinese banqueting dishes, a whole other branch of Chinese cuisine which is not touched on in any other Chinese cookbook I know of.

You also get a lot of dishes which appeal to Chinese tastes which are censored out of more Westernised books - for example cold/gelatinous meat dishes (Spiced Duck Cold Cuts is a family favourite), steamed custards (similar to Japanese chawanmushi). And where else can you get a dish who's first step reads "Kill fish by striking a blow on the head (do not remove head)."

Step 0. First catch your fish...

There are also whole sections on pastry and dough work which are very very unusual in Chinese cookbooks (the only book I've seen which does this in decent detail is Beyond the Great Wall). This involves some particularly interesting techniques e.g. the recipes for lard-based flaky pastry (used for egg tarts and turnip puffs) which roll and fold two separate types of dough together. Along with recipes for a whole battery of Northern Chinese dumplings and pancakes.

Plus in book three there is a recipe for Braised Turtle. 'Nuff said.

And finally the recipes do actually work! That's the big danger, particularly for cookbooks of a certain age  (Larousse Gastronomique 1984 Edition I'm looking at you). Thankfully not an issue here - as the Pei Mei a Day blog shows these recipes stand up pretty well. And I can also defer to my mother on this one - having cooked from volumes I and II for over twenty years she can certainly say they work.

Okay, there's some catches...

Note the hilarious spot of cutting and pasting on her head!
Of course that's not to say this is perfect - with cruddy 1960s typesetting, cut-and-paste and a slightly creaky translation (do count the number of ingredients in the Chinese vs. English dish to check they haven't missed something out). As I said before this is not a user friendly book and unless you have a serious Mad Men/retro thing going on you may find it hard going.

And most annoying of all there is very little context given to the dishes or the cuisine. Pei-Mei gives tantalising hints in the introduction, discussing the need to harmonise colour, taste and aroma, the importance of cutting and noting that even the order in which seasonings are added affects the final taste of the dish. However the doesn't expand on any of this. If you want a deeper understanding of the philosophy and techniques behind Chinese cooking, the introduction to Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery remains the best place to look.

So this shouldn't be the only Chinese cookbook you buy. But it one you shouldn't miss out on.

Back in print! (sort of)

Of course the problem as with all of these older books is where to get them - they are long out of print from all the usual outlets. Thankfully there are reasonably price copies of all the books floating around on Amazon (much better availability on the US site than the UK one from the looks of it).

More usefully I've noticed that they've been republished as ebooks on the iTunes Book Store: Although these versions lack the Chinese translation they claim to have tidied up some of the inaccuracies in the English Translation.

I wonder if they still call that dish "Assorted Dish With Brown Sauce"?? :-x