Under-floor heating in the kitchen

HORROR FICTION

On the odd occasion that recipes crop up on this site, I’m usually posting for someone else’s convenience: It saves them from me having to cook for them. A writer has to eat more than their words, so I do cook for myself, but I’d rather be known as the writer who can cook, than the chef who can write. While readers follow my recipes, I like to think they read my stories too. So tonight I have an open kitchen, so that prospective diners can look around before trying the food…

cannibal2014-10-14-20h59m25s71-660x349Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust

AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S DINER

If the proprietors of this new place in Islington were looking to make it almost impossible to find, then make diners regret the effort when they did arrive and found a shuttered steel door, they have succeeded magnificently. But this was just a prelude to the rest of a pleasingly disturbing night at London’s first horror-themed diner, in a converted old warehouse on the edge of Holloway.

The weirdness begins as soon as my partner and I walk in on a gloomy Friday evening, not to anything resembling a restaurant, but an old lighting shop, frozen somewhere in the 1980s, and a large sign: ‘No children’. The business had clearly been one of selling lights, lamps and an array of artists’ materials. The shop – or showroom – occupies a large studio on the ground floor, where the previous tenants had apparently manufactured their own designs as well.

A plastic pink elephant, big enough for a child to sit on, holds a human skull in its trunk, and the skull’s eyes glow green. There’s a naked androgynous shop window mannequin, decapitated, and the head replaced with a shoulder-width light unit, with red, amber and green bulbs. It’s like a humanoid hammerhead cyborg traffic light. On the far side of the studio, a metal sign bears the previous occupant’s name: SHADES. But the first letter is obscured by a neon pink, flashing arrow, pointing down some stairs to what is now HADES.

Downstairs, the basement restaurant is starkly and sparingly lit with bare red bulbs, like those still in front of singed lace curtains in some of old Soho’s upstairs windows. And again, ‘No children’.

The place is like a horror and cult film museum, with rare old posters framed on the walls. I note Night and Fog, Man Bites Dog, Gummo, August Underground’s Mordum, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. I somehow think the night will be.

There are display cabinets, some free-standing on the floors, and others on the wall. In the larger displays are costumes, including Pinhead’s leathers and Freddie Kruger’s jersey, hat and glove. There’s a stuffed alien in a cabinet, and a face-hugger pickled in a jar on the wall. There’s a stuffed St Bernard (presumably Cujo), and (my favourite) an E.D.209 enforcement droid outside the toilets. I could go on (about the Bates Motel guest book, Damian Thorp’s tricycle and lots of other paraphernalia), but I’m here to review the food.

A few other diners are dotted around: a young couple, having a horrifically romantic evening, and a group of business types, clearly working on someone’s bonus or expenses. There’s a dog under the young couple’s table, a beagle I think. Dogs are okay here, but children aren’t.

We’re seated in a booth, and I discuss my next project with my guest. After this restaurant article, I’m embarking on a slightly new path, that of horror fiction. How a food critic came to write horror may be the subject of future stories, by me or by others. But with this opportunity providing the perfect link, it’s perhaps relevant to fill in some details.

I’m here with my agent, which is entirely in parallel with the journey I’m about to make. It was he, after all, who advised me to stick with factual writing, and specifically food, when I foolishly tried to convince him I could be a horror writer. With the benefit of hindsight, he was right to keep me away, and indeed my restaurant reviews have picked up what I like to think of as a cult following (and I do have spellcheck on).

The problem with a cult (it’s still on), is that once it gets too big, it ceases to be. So it seemed logical to maintain that status by going underground, where only the determined and curious follow. Therefore, it is completely logical for me to now be sitting in an underground horror-themed restaurant with the agent who has held me back, as I move from one life to the next.

One of the businessmen clicks his fingers and shouts “Garçon!”, which I’m not sure is the correct etiquette here.

The menu is like a coffee table book. There’s the menu itself, with ‘Jemma’s’ at the top. Then before the dishes, an obituary for Jemma Redmond, an Irish biotechnology pioneer and innovator, who first used human stem cells in 3D printer ‘ink’, then developed the technology to make it affordable and portable. The upshot: Replacement human organs, on-demand where needed. Jemma Redmond died 16.08.16, aged 38.

After the menu is a history of the kitchen, presented as a retro-futuristic brochure for ‘Kitchens by Jigsaw’, with photographs of industrial food processing and preparation machinery, like room-size interlocking clockwork engines made from brushed steel. There are mechanical drawings of the industrial cutters, grinders, mincers and cooking appliances, like Cenobite puzzle cubes splayed open into diagrams by Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The book finishes off with a few short stories by writers who already enjoy cult status in horror. They’re like Lovecraft, Kafka, King and Poe, but sick and twisted Teletubbies, writing tributes to the YouTube trollbot films of old, made from spliced children’s shows. Seeing Lady Penelope gang-raped by Thunderbirds, Zebedee nailed to the ground, and Dylan decapitated, will turn anyone from food critic to twisted fiction writer, trying to excuse what they’ve seen. And at the bottom of every page, the message is repeated: ‘No children’. This seems almost a mission statement.

The menu itself is horrified, with things like ‘Steak by Leatherface*’, ‘Suicide Club Fugu*’, ‘Triffid salad*’, and the simply-named ‘Naked Lunch*’. There’s a nod to the trollbots, with ‘Peppa Pig, hand-prepared by Kruger’s’, and there’s ‘Specials’, more akin to challenges, in the size and heat of dishes.

A ‘Crispy aromatic hind quarter of suckling’ at 64 ounces, can be had for free, if it’s eaten in under an hour. I’m more intrigued by what kind of animal could still be suckling when a part of it is that size. It comes with ‘optional extra ghost sauce’, implying that a dollop of burning ectoplasm has already begun to eat into the flesh (you get fries with that).

Another is ‘Dante’s wings’, described as ‘Nine wings of increasing fire, before you wish that more heat might rescue you from the hell pain of death.’ (That comes with fries, too). If I’m to remain outside Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and ‘survive’, the book of the dead says I will go free.

*Vegetarian options can all be printed.

As this is on me, I pay. I settle up when we order, so as to be done with the formalities. There’ll be no quarrels over splitting the bill, and the tip from my anticipated earnings is sufficient to cover any kind of evening we decide to enjoy.

I’ve seen a few staff walking around, like cosplay characters at Jack Rabbit Slims. But where Tarantino’s joint was staffed by 1950s and 60s film stars, August’s has horror icons.

Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees serve tables, while Pennywise and Leatherface work behind the bar. Freddie Kruger taps his fingers on the counter, speaking to Pinhead (presumably both have more than one set of clothes). And they really get into character here too. If it wasn’t for the (understandable) adults-only entry, I could imagine those two gleefully popping birthday balloons at children’s tables.

Samara Morgan approaches the business types and reminds one that “Garçon means boy.” The server is a young Japanese girl, so perhaps she’s Sadako Yamamura. After she leaves, one of the men says something and the others laugh, attracting Pinhead’s gaze. I wonder what a headbutt must feel like.

We’re served by Candyman (or one of them), and I wonder what it might be like to come here on one’s birthday, would these characters sing ‘Happy birthday’? Perhaps, but only before killing the patron who’d asked for such a thing, so that they may not speak of it again.

The Candyman character isn’t all bad (really, if you read the story): The Candyman of legend emerges from a mirror. He has a hooked hand, he’s covered with bees, and he has revenge on his mind.

The Candyman was once a slave, called Daniel Robitaille, who was an accomplished painter. The plantation owner asked Daniel to paint a portrait of his daughter, and she and Daniel fell in love. Her father, the racist, had Daniel hunted down by a mob and run out of town. They chased him until he collapsed, exhausted, then cut off his hand with a rusty saw, smothered him in honey and threw him into a beehive, chanting “Candyman, Candyman…” Before he died, Daniel vowed to return and exact his revenge upon them.

Conversely, many classic fairy tales, enjoyed by children for centuries, have their origins in ancient folk tales, myths and legends. Little Red Riding Hood is a particularly gruesome one, based on a 16th century French fable. Back then, rape wasn’t a crime. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it. The story is a warning to young girls, of all that stalks the night. The wolf is a representative predator and the woods a metaphor for the world beyond childhood. The girl collects flowers before going to her granny’s house, where the wolf entices her into bed, dressed as her granny. The wolf eating the girl is a metaphor for rape (and the granny before, the man this wolf represents being a particularly perverted individual). The huntsman cutting them free can be seen as a metaphor for childbirth or abortion. It’s no wonder the stories are dressed up, but those ancient horrors served to protect. Like ‘No children’ here.

One of the men from the other table nearly bumps into the E.D.209 as he walks in an arc to the toilet, and the remainder carry on talking quietly. The young couple seem oblivious to the horrors around them, as they’re lost in their own story of dark love. If I were to guess, I’d say they’re art school graduates, or possibly musicians. The dog seems content, with a steady supply of food handed down to it.

I order a steak from Leatherface’s list of prime cuts, a rare rump (you get fries with that). My companion orders from the printed menu, and I wonder if he’s a vegetarian. Our working relationship has been distant, so we’ve never dined before. Truth be known, I’d never have taken him out for a meal unless it was to celebrate us parting company.

The tension only became tangible recently, when in fact it’s been simmering away for some months now, as I’ve been finding myself, and trying to redefine myself, but I’ve felt restricted, bound and gagged by an employer who dictates and dismisses rather than listen. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a restaurant review to slag the guy off, but he’s paid me for this and I want to use it as a crossover, an artistic gift to demonstrate to someone who’s set in their ways, that people can change. He says writers should stick with one discipline, where I grow restless when compartmentalised. I want to express myself more, and write more useful things.

He says a food critic is useful, as are all factual writers, because they inform people. My point has become one of having many points to make, and fiction will better allow me to do that, like all those classic fairy stories. For starters, I can tell of the wonders in this place, while making it very clear why they have a ‘No children’ policy. I believe more than he does that more people can be spoken to through fiction, because while one demographic might see a wonderful story, another may see the unwritten parallels and warnings. The man’s a total arse, but in a way, I’m doing him a favour. Let’s face it, I’d never get paid for another review after this one. But a shocking venue deserves a similar review.

I’m bored of writing for the same people, the kind of people who can afford to come to a place like this, but it was from within those that some of my cult following (still on) emerged, and it was their encouragement which gave me the push I needed. So readers, you know who you are, I salute you and I will see you in other places soon. As for the rest, try this place (but don’t bring the kids).

The businessmen are still one short, as they continue their muted banter. The young couple are still young and in love, and the dog asleep.

There’s nothing shocking about my steak when it arrives, perfectly cooked and seeping blood (you get fries with it, to mop up). But it’s curious and surprising in its taste and texture.

Although I just called my agent an arse, there is one word I will never use, in a review or elsewhere. It’s that word beginning with ‘M’, so beloved of some foodies, but if I even see the word on a menu, I’ll leave a place immediately and vow to never return. I’ve seen some savage cinema but that word is a monstrosity on its own and in any context.

This steak is juicy, sweet, marbled with fat and perfectly seasoned. A quick glance at the menu again and I learn that the meat is produced on the premises daily. The burgeoning horror writer in me imagines the kitchen by Jigsaw extending into an on-site abattoir, with this old warehouse site easily able to accommodate one. I’m slightly disappointed when the businessman returns from the toilet. The young couple are still very much into the atmosphere, and one another.

We choose desserts from the ‘Peter Davidson trolley’, all of which are from ‘The Universe at the end of Upper Street’. My ‘Ectoplasmic jelly’ is a green snot-like goo, which I can’t help think kids would love for its sheer grossness. But although it looks like a freshly caught Slimer ghost, it tastes of toasted marshmallow. My companion has something resembling a splayed vagina, which he says smells of fresh body odour (it does) but tastes like scented cream (lavender). It tastes to me like something I couldn’t mention, even in horror fiction. It’s that fucking M-word.

We finish with cocktails from a list of horrors, which aren’t the drinks themselves but the theatre which surrounds their delivery. Our bloody Marys summon the Candyman with our drinks, then Pinhead offers olives, from his head.

The businessmen are getting raucous and the young couple amorous, so we decide to leave, bidding the place farewell.

Back outside, it’s long since dark and a few of the other buildings around the old warehouse are lit up, a couple of accident repair and MOT units, and a children’s adventure play centre.

Now we go our separate ways. He’s off to pander more to the privileged, while I remain a cult and still poor, writing more fiction. Some will be horrible tales, but with a moral message.

As for August Underground’s Diner, for the kind of people who can afford to come here, I’d say bring the kids and leave them in the play centre. For those who can’t afford it, try one of the food challenges and eat for free.

© Steve Laker, 2018

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency, available now.

Noodles in the soup of memory

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Far be it from me to post a restaurant review, because I never have. I’ve dined at the odd fictional place I made up because I don’t get out much, so what good would it do to post an opinion on a real place? It’d probably get as many more visitors to a Chinese takeaway as I might expect sales of a book if a restaurant were to review one of mine.

blade-runner-2049-700x290SlashFilm article, on Asian cultures and characters

In the interests of reporting all which needn’t trouble the world outside my own, and in supporting local business, this week I visited a China just up the road.

It’s rare that I get out, let alone as far as the Asian continent. I went to France once on a family holiday, and happened to be in Chicago on a business trip when the world’s political axis was tipped on 9/11. I don’t fear the wider world any more than I do the planet in my head, which still makes travelling a challenge.

At the most recent surveilance of the horizons in my mind’s world, it was a narrow perspective. Rather than gazing and wondering outward, I was looking in; kind of like having a telescope round the wrong way.

The limited stocks of food I had wouldn’t go to waste, but my miscomprehension of why I eat told me I didn’t fancy what I had to hand: Such a first world problem. As I contemplated what to think about cooking and eating, the paradigm was shifted by a neighbour.

The kind of guy who’d offer you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine, my friend is harmless if humoured, and a social tenant like me with a past. Nevertheless, when I had no instant coffee which he’d forgotten to buy in the morning, he asked me if I’d make him one of my nice filter ones (which I did).

Like me, my neighbour doesn’t get out much. So I decided to save both me and him further bother by going out to buy him some instant coffee. Then I wondered why I was out on my own in the dark. To solve problems, I guessed: Those of others, which might alleviate my own. As fresh as the coffee I’d just bought from Tesco Metro, the air drew my attention to my local Chinese takeaway.

I’ve lived here for two years, but I’ve never troubled the local cuisine. I’m happier instead to buy food to look at (and sometimes not cook) from the supermarket. So I crossed the road.

I wasn’t particularly hungry and neither did I want to eat, but both were down to my own inaction. I forced myself to eat by buying a takeaway, from a place not unlike many whose windows I’d gaze through longingly when I was homeless.

For all of twenty minutes, I was back on the streets again, but now looking out on a world in which I had a home to return to. It brought back memories, so I reverted to type and ordered what I always used to: sweet and sour king prawn balls, with rice vermicelli, Singapore style. The walk home was less eventful than the paranoid mind imagines, and nothing happened.

The words “Fresh” rest uneasily in my mind with Chinese takeaway, but my king prawns were somehow new in their batter, the sauce not like that I remember from artificiality, and the noodles disguising nothing but the sweetness of fresh chillis from that other continent, just outside my door.

It’s a place called “Lovely”, it’s right on my doorstep and it helped me find my way, by way of Chinese takeaway. It also served well as a day-after snack, where the measure is now less of a hangover cure and more about preserving food inside the body.

Once upon a time, I shared many meals from China and around the world with others, without actually going there. This week, I fed myself with a breath of outside air. I don’t go out much, and it’s no wonder when I’m let loose for a few minutes and all this happens. It’s a reminder of why I’m not allowed to roam free-range and why I just write about it. Anyone passing through and who can’t be arsed to cook, should call into a lovely place not a million miles from me.

I guess I just used this post to write.

I previously reviewed August Underground’s Diner and The Green Inferno in fiction. Lovely Chinese takeaway really does exist.

Pan-seared poached chicken and broccoli with butter and cheese sauce

COOKING FOR ONE

This is a bit like poaching fish in a foil parcel, but using chicken (which needs to be sealed first). Devised when I was bored recently, and with my attention deficit, child-bearing, adopted kid sister in mind. It’s an easy, quick new signature dish of mine (tested and approved by others).

Seared poached chicken

Costs £1.50, takes 50 minutes (15 prep, 35 to cook, and you can do the dishes for this as you go). Serves one (adjust all figures accordingly):

Use these: Chicken breast fillet (skinless), purple sprouting stem broccoli, cooking oil, butter, salt, pepper, tin foil.

Do this: Heat a teaspoon of vegetable / sunflower oil (about the size of a 10p) and a credit card-sized slice of butter, in a pan over a medium / high heat. Fry the chicken for about 5 minutes either side (don’t move them around too much, and turn the heat down to medium when you turn it). At the same time, fry 3 or 4 broccoli stems, shaking the pan to coat them with butter. You’ll end up with chicken which is sealed and browned on the outside, and broccoli which is charred: This is what you want.

Get a sheet of tin foil, about A4 size and lay it shiny side down. Put a little oil and butter on the foil, then season the foil with salt and pepper (for the underside of the chicken). Put the chicken and the broccoli on the foil (with the excess juices from the pan if you like), season on top and close it loosely around (like a purse, or a pasty), leaving a small gap at the end for excess steam to escape.

Put the parcel on / in a baking tray / dish in a pre-heated oven (190c) and cook for 35 minutes.

For the cheese sauce, use shop-bought stuff: Plonk some chunks of strong Cheddar in, for more cheesiness and heat it in the microwave. Take the chicken etc. out of the oven and let it rest in the foil for a couple of minutes.

Serve the chicken and broccoli (drizzle some juice from the foil over if you want), with the cheese sauce on top, then grind a bit of black pepper over it. People would pay a tenner for that in a gastro pub 🙂

Kormamelion

10.05.15 (Day 504 / 62)

20.42

It’s been a quiet weekend here at the pub, for me at least. What a lot of people sometimes can’t grasp is that, despite my often extrovert nature, I’m naturally a solitary person. When I’m in company, for whatever reason, it’s normally me that’s centre of attention, providing the entertainment and doing all that I do. When I’m alone though, it’s not that I get to spend time with myself so much as me wanting to do solitary things, like reading the weekend newspapers and writing.

Now that my life is settling down to a degree, I do sometimes wish that I had someone to share it with but that’s not my focus for a number of reasons. Someone who struggles to understand themselves is not likely to be understood by anyone else, so any special person sharing my life would have to be really quite special indeed. They would need to understand though that sometimes I need my own space, despite being with them. Only one person has managed that in the past but ironically it was my own insecurity and wondering constantly how I’d managed to be with someone so wonderful which destroyed the partnership. She used to say that it was because, quite simply, I was me. Well, it was me that fucked up the love of my once upon a time.

This place isn’t big enough for anyone else really. Certainly not someone with lots of personal belongings, because there’s barely enough room in this crooked place to accommodate me.

Having said that it’s been a quiet weekend at the pub, it hasn’t been quiet in any part of the building other than the little space which I occupy. Often there are more people in the private parts of the building than there are in the bar and the people upstairs can be very noisy. With the landlord being of a particular nature, it’s sometimes like living aboard an overcrowded prison ship of refugees. With a multi-megawatt sound system below decks. But I do love it. It’s crooked, has very few luxuries and costs too much. The story of my housing benefit not covering my rent and me having to make up the rent from my ESA, rendering me unable to see my kids next weekend is already documented. But the place has a certain edge; a sort of danger. It’s like the scene where Clarence first visits Drexl in True Romance, or the house party in Night of The Demons: it’s cool; it’s me. And all I need is somewhere to do what I do: write. This place is the perfect writer’s pad, given all of the ideas it throws up.

Maybe I should be down there in the bar and I would socialise, were it not for the lack of funds preventing me from doing so. I’d like to have a game of pool and see my friends but I have plenty to occupy me up here: writing, reading, books, CDs, DVDs… A recent addition to the latter collection is Prometheus, which is actually on TV tonight. Just like good books though, I like to have DVDs as well as CDs on my shelves. That way, I can watch good films over and over and not have to worry about schedules and commercials. And I have a good supplier. Wait until a movie has its network premier and you can buy a used – but pristine – copy for a couple of quid: that’s the same price as my book. Maybe one day an agent may recognise the potential of that for a film. After all, one of my short stories had already been made into a short film, albeit for a school media studies project. But we all have to start somewhere.

People worry about me spending so much time upstairs but think about it: an alcoholic living above a pub. As I’ve said before, my drinking is under control and that extends to the bar downstairs but friends are concerned that I’m wasting away up here or getting into another agoraphobic positive rut. I’m not: I’m fine. That’s difficult to appreciate by those who don’t see me while I’m shut away up here, by choice, but one of my closest current friends is someone who lives here. She knows and will tell others that I am okay, because she’s seen me and we’ve had one of our occasional hug chats. This is the girl who I had to be careful to not address as the word which was on my mind. I need fear no longer for we have had that conversation and she knows. We have a mutual understanding I believe.

So, a few people who are out of reach aside, who would want to live in a place like this? With me? I rest my case and am resigned to getting on with life and indulging myself in writing.

I’m in talks with a potential agent on the writing front. More news on that as it becomes apparent; no news if it doesn’t.

People worry that I’m not eating. Well, tonight I had this:

image

And here’s what it was like.

This was Lidl’s chicken korma, under the Chef Select label at £1.59.

Six minutes in the microwave and turned out onto a plate, it looked like it does in the picture.

There were ten large bite-sized pieces of chicken breast, neither too dry nor moist and which tasted of chicken: an obvious statement and one often applied to things which aren’t in fact chicken; even things of indeterminate origin. But the chicken in this korma tasted as though it had been char grilled prior to cooking as a curry. A quick check of the packaging revealed that the chicken is in fact marinated.

The pilau rice was very yellow but another quick look at the packaging revealed that there are no artificial colourings in this dish at all. The colouring comes from turmeric. The taste of cumin was very apparent in the rice, as was at least one whole cumin seed: more encouraging than distracting.

The sauce was plentiful, as would be expected of a ready meal and especially at this price. The consistency was good though, with the sauce clinging to the chicken and providing a vehicle for the rice. I’ve had better kormas but for a lot more money. I’ve also had many worse. This one was creamy, with a coconut flavour, as evidenced by the ingredients on the packaging. I’d have preferred more cream and coconut flavour but those are premium ingredients which one shouldn’t expect to be in abundance in a budget meal. What was pleasantly surprising though was the gentle, spicy warmth from the marinated chicken pieces coming through the sauce, which can sometimes be simply a barrier.

Overall, a good result: certainly a 3. And with a naan bread, this could easily be a 4. So, 3+.

This lone diner would have preferred a greater chicken over rice ratio but economics dictate at this level.

Perhaps some company as well one day, to improve the whole thing.

 

Liver and Bacon With Mash and PTSD

01.05.15 (Day 495 / 52)

19.42

Tonight’s dinner and today in general almost forced me to get a new piercing done: that’s my coping mechanism; a mid-life crisis. I get myself pierced when I’m stressed.

For the uninitiated, I have a scaffold in my left ear cartilage and in the lobe, I have a hoop and a safety pin. In my right ear lobe, I have a stud and in the cartilage I’ve got a helix. Finally, I have a bar through my eyebrow. All are like anger lines: they’re markers. My tolerance to stress varies but at the moment, I’m pretty volatile, suffering as I am with PTSD. My tolerance levels to stress can be measured on whether or not I get a new piercing done. For example, the scaffold went into my ear when I’d lost two friends to a heroin overdose: they took it together in a suicide pact. Two of them, hence two holes form that particular piercing. Once I got beaten up but I didn’t get a new piercing done. When I found out they were changing the name of Marathon to Snickers, I stuck the safety pin through my ear.

So it varies. My current tolerance is pretty low but I resisted another piercing. My stress was down to two things: dinner and hassle. The latter is people who think they’re helping when it’s not just them I don’t want to see but anyone at all. I need to concentrate on myself at the moment, as some people recognise but some of those same people still persist. It’s not that I’m too polite to say no; it’s because I don’t want to make arrangements and prefer to do things on a whim when the fancy takes me. I can’t make plans at the moment, unless it’s for something really important. This is not to say that anyone needs to put their life on hold for me but I wish they would just stop hassling. I appreciate the concern but the pressure stresses me.

As it was, I spent the day with my eldest daughter. She texted me and asked if she could see me. When? Now. Okay. That’s spontaneity and me doing something on a whim; not pre-arranged for a time in the future when I don’t know if I’ll be in the mood. And although my eldest little girl is as misunderstood by others as I am myself – disliked by some of the others who want to spend time with me – I understand her. And although she is only sixteen, she understands me better than all but a very few of my inner circle. She knows just how to be around me: no awkward silences, no pressure on me to lead the conversation, no hassle or persistence, no neediness; just company we both feel comfortable with. Others think it strange that girls aged fifteen and sixteen would attach themselves to me and adopt me as their daddy but I love those two so much because they get me and I get them, when so many do-gooders who think they do, simply don’t. Some of my best times are spent with those two daughter types and anyone who doesn’t like them gets placed firmly in the back seat. I am not going to cut my time with someone I love so that I can see anyone who may not like my girls. Love me, love my girls. We’re part of the same package.

Once the eldest had left, it was on to dinner and tonight’s was meant to be chicken, leeks and bacon with roast potatoes. It’s not suitable for microwave cooking though. My fault for not checking and I may even try it in the microwave by way of an experiment but it nearly pushed me over the edge. So instead it was liver and bacon with mash, which looked like this:

image

Billed as “Marinated British lambs’ livers in a rich onion gravy, served with buttery mash and topped with pieces of smoky bacon”, it had promise. It actually delivered. 

The cooking time was seven minutes: three minutes on full power in the microwave, a minute to rest, then a final three minutes on full power. Dished up with a lack of aplomb but with a degree of urgency, it didn’t look all that at first glance but a quick poke around in the brown stuff revealed two fairly large pieces of liver and three small rashers of bacon – fat on, good – among the onions in the thick gravy. Then the tasting:

Taken separately, the individual components of the dish taste as they should: the liver of liver, bacon of bacon etc. The gravy is indeed rich, like a red wine sauce and full of flavour in itself. The real test was in the tasting, so stretching my mouth to the sort of size John Torrode would be proud of, I shovelled a fork full of everything into my gob and the combination worked as this classic dish should and it has texture with those various flavours.

I’d taken the precaution of seasoning this one before eating but it only needed a little salt and ground black pepper. I actually enjoyed it. Score wise, this is a 3+.

It was comfort food, just like my eldest is comfortable company and both were the order of today.

Corned Beef Hash, in a Dash

Morrison’s M Kitchen Corned Beef Hash

image

This was tonight’s offering from the M-for-microwave kitchen chez moi, supplied by Morrison’s M Kitchen.

The M Kitchen Corned Beef Hash is currently available in a promotion: three ready meals for six quid, so this was two quid and it was worth every penny: make of that what you will. This is what I made of it:

Two of your earth pounds Sterling for a 450g serving isn’t bad from a bang-for-your-buck point of view. But was it tasty? We shall see, after we’ve cooked / re-heated it.

The dish is described as “Corned beef and onions blended with buttery mash and topped with crispy roast potatoes. Sounds good. It looks good on the packaging. Into the microwave…

I followed the instructions as given, with no deviation: remove from outer packaging, pierce film lid several times and microwave on full power for four minutes. Peel back film lid, stir, then microwave for a further four minutes. Stand for one minute. So I did, as instructed. Serve immediately. Given that I wasn’t playing tennis and that I couldn’t wait an undefined period of time, I took the instruction literally and turned the thing out onto a plate.

As you’ll see from the picture, my serving reality isn’t dissimilar to the serving suggestion pictured on the box. To be fair, I did rather tip this one out, rather than spend too much time matching what was on my plate with how they imagined it.

The first observation is that there are no crispy roast potatoes. This dish does give instructions for cooking in a conventional oven and had I prepared it in that way, no doubt the roasts would have a crisp to them. They do have brown edges but the roast potato topping is on the bottom in the picture, so you can’t see the potatoes which proclaim to be crispy but which aren’t.

The meal was served with no additions: no seasoning, sauce, nor accompaniments. As such, it was quite bland.

The corned beef tastes like corned beef, although not the tinned stuff full of seasoning which I would use if I were making this from scratch. There are onions but they’re a bit crunchy for my liking. When I use onions in a hash, I sweat them slowly in butter, so that they are soft, then caramelized in the pan when mixing the hash. There was no “goo” in this dish. The whole thing is held together by mashed potato but I wouldn’t describe it as “Buttery”, as Morrison’s do. That said, I use a lot of butter when I make mash. The roast potatoes are not crispy, as I’ve mentioned but we make allowances for microwave cooking.

Overall it was functional, as it was on its own. I wouldn’t say I relished it but it was filling and had the flavours I expected: those of the things which were in it.

Before I rate this dish or any others, an explanation of the scores:

0: Just don’t. The only reason you may see this rating is if there’s something I wish to warn you away from.
1: Functional. It serves the purpose of filling a gap in your guts but not in your life.
2: Passable. Merely acceptable. Something you might eat alone but may not wish to share.
+: Right in the middle. A 2-rating at least but which can be elevated by additions, not in the instructions: seasoning, sauce, or just something else.
3. Pleasant. Something you may savour and wish to have again. Some ratings below this achieve this score and those above it by the addition of something else. That’s the plus symbol.
4. Enjoyable. Really actually quite nice. Something you would eat again, many times over and enjoy. Something to literally make a meal of.
5. Quite literally, five stars. The sort of thing you would rave about, serve to others and try to replicate yourself. Like the zero rating, five ratings are not likely to be seen here in these reviews. But I’ll keep looking, researching, tasting and reviewing.

The Corned Beef Hash then:

Score-wise, this is a 2+: as it is, firmly a two. Add some seasoning, or just a dollop of ketchup to improve it slightly but it’s really not worth revisiting. Do that, then plonk a fried egg on top and it gains a 3 rating.

Currying Around

25.04.15 (Day 489 /46)

16.42

Having only a microwave oven and as I sometimes can’t be bothered to prepare meals from scratch, ready meals are often on the menu. In much the same way that cooking from scratch using only a microwave has it’s limits, so the range of microwave ready meals is also limited. But if you like curry, that’s one area which is well catered for in the ready meal market.

Being on a limited budget and sometimes with not much time on my hands, a microwave ready meal is a bit of a treat. I like to think of my minimalist kitchen as being of the eighties: the decade in which I was supposed to grow up but never did. Back then, when microwave ovens were invented, they were a luxury, costing a week’s salary of the average earner, as highlighted in the recent TV series, Back in Time for Dinner. Back then, families sometimes even abandoned their conventional oven for a microwave.

So here I am, back in the eighties. I have little money, so I’m unable to go out and eat a meal prepared and cooked by someone else. The microwave oven ready meal is the net best thing. I try to keep my daily food budget to around two to three quid and I actually eat surprisingly well on that. Jamie Oliver, watch out. This is the weekend though, so I can afford to splash out a bit and this one comes in at the princely sum of a fiver. The preparation and cooking time is around five minutes, so Jamie Oliver, you should really move aside.

Obviously the main part of an Indian night in is the curry – really – and there are lots available, everywhere. I’ve found a real champion though, through much searching in unlikely places. There are a range of microwave ready meals sold under the “Independent” brand, and as far as I know, they’re only available from one chain of newsagents, in the chilled section if a particular branch has one. There are only three ready meals from the Independent range stocked by my local McColls: cottage pie, lasagne and chicken tikka. The cottage pie and lasagne are mediocre at best but the curry is an absolute delight.

Personally I like a curry with heat but I also enjoy milder ones if they’re well flavoured. Although tikka was invented for the British and isn’t an authentic Indian curry, I don’t care when the flavours are this good.

Two quid will buy you a 400g curry with pilau rice. The proportion of rice to chicken is about equal. The amount of actual chicken in the dish is fairly modest but the chunks are large and they’re breast meat. There’s plenty of sauce, delicious when mopped up with rice or a naan bread. The tikka sauce has a mildly spicy flavour, with lots of coconut coming through and a hint of lemon and herbs. The rice is neither too dry nor wet; just sticky enough to cling together. Ready in five minutes in the microwave, served on white crockery with some green herbs sprinkled on top, it looks as good as it tastes and could pass for something home-made. With some added accompaniments, one of these could even stretch to a modest meal for two. I tend to go for sag aloo and onion bhajis, both available cheaply as microwave ready meals, or relatively cheap from the local Indian take-away. One thing that no supermarket has yet to master is the naan bread, so that comes from the local Indian.

So that’s a meal for one – or two – costing less than a fiver and ready in five minutes. And it really is delicious.

The nineteen eighties just called and asked for their ideas back.