Back To The Foodure
WITH the passing of the old year into the new, it is time once again to poke through the entrails of our food culture, and to endeavour to decipher just what the new year has in store for the food lover.
Regular readers of this column will know that our annual approach to predicting just what will be on your plate, in the coming year, is to behave not so much like a Sybil . . . rather more like a Basil.
We do, of course, have regard for factors such as accuracy, research and diligence. But, to be honest, our regard is rather scant.
IF they cook it, then you'll climb it: this should be your motto for 1996. The most delicious, and beyond a shadow of a doubt the most awkward, trend of the year will be for tall food - to wit: one ingredient piled atop another ingredient, with perhaps a couple more on top of those, to finish a dish which looks like it should have applied for planning permission before the waiter brought it out.
Tall food, basketball player's grub, Eiffel Towereating, is IN.
Tall food comes with a splendidly ironic addendum. The chefs who practice it most are also the sort of people who say: "I find I'm constantly trying to simplify my food, let it speak for itself."
Then out it comes.
The myriad layers of millefeuille which encapsulate the principal ingredient are balanced on top of a rosti which sits on a jus and on top of the centrepiece is a parmesan crisp made in the shape of an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat. A sprinkling of fish roe sits on top of the hat, and there is a light dusting of bonito flakes quivering on top ...
They haven't finished ...
On top of everything which is sitting on top of everything else, there is a poached quail's egg.
This is simple? Well, perhaps not - but it certainly speaks for itself. And what it says is: "I am very tall. And this is the future."
THE reason why the folk who construct Tall Food seek to disguise their skills by spouting nonsense about "simplifying" their cooking is because virtuosity is finished. The plate which arrives at the table and causes you to ooh! and cooh! at the elaborateness of its design is passe. In 1996 you've got to be able to do it, but you can't be seen to be doing it. That is why "simplicity" now allows you to build a modernist tower block of nosh, but means you cannot build a Regency palace. No way, Jose.
The most influential chap in food in 1996 will be Richard Rogers. Don't I mean Rose Rogers, his wife, who runs The River Cafe, in London? No, I don't. I mean Richard Rogers, the architect who built the Lloyds building and other tall buildings.
And how to respond when someone asks. "And how was your dinner?" Simple. You reply: I would have liked a little more Corbusier with the starter, but I thought the dessert was very definitive Rogers.
HERE they come now! Lathered in oyster sauce, meet pak choi! Swimming in a punchy garlic sauce, meet choi sum! Stir-fried with a little chilli, it's bak choi!
Oriental greens have slowly begun to make their way into modern Irish cooking - with Chinese mustard greens leading the way, rather good news for those of us who like their peppery attack. They have, of course, been a staple of Chinese restaurants for many years, except only the staff got a chance to eat them, and it was almost impossible to persuade the staff that you wanted to eat what they ate, and didn't want to order the pickled vegetables which came from a tin.
I have had low-key arguments in very many Chinese restaurants over my determination to eat their food, and their determination that I should have the pickled vegetables. It has been an argument I have lost every time.
1996 will, hopefully, see not only a change in this attitude, but also see a lot of restaurants experimenting with these delightful, flavourful leaves. But be careful to remember their names correctly. If you finally do persuade the waitress in the Chinese restaurant that you do want to eat Oriental greens, you must be careful not to say: "I'll have the Nam Pla with oyster sauce". (See "Nam Pla", below)
Mixed Salad Leaves
AL READY as dated as the avocado and the kiwi fruit, 1996 will see the end of the gathering of mixed salad leaves which has gracelessly graced so many plates in recent years. This neat idea has been subject to such abuse in the recent past - mortified leaves in a splashy vinegary dressing which suits not a single one of them, and the leaves selected without care as to how one paired with another - that the death of the mixed leaves will pass unmourned.
Instead, in 1996, cool cooks will concentrate on one variety: mustard greens with beef (see Oriental Greens, above); rocket with mushrooms, and the only way you can get away with serving radiccio will be in a risotto (see "Grains" below).
Nam Pla is not actually an Oriental green or even the brother of an Oriental green. It is, in fact, a pungent fish sauce which hails from Thailand, and is one of the staples of Asian cooking. You buy it in tall, clear glass bottles from Asian shops, and it adds oomph! and whump! to a whole range of dishes. What it does, writes that fine chef Rick Stein, is to "enhance flavours without actually being noticeable itself".
Perfect! Everyone thinks you have spent an eternity perfecting a stock and a sauce for your cookery, and all you have done is buy a bottle of something called "Squid" and dolloped it in to your dish. 1996 is looking good.
LEMONGRASS is not actually "Out" just yet, but I reckon it will make it through to about March, and then lemongrass fatigue will set in. Lemongrass is a fragrant, lemony stalk which you can use in almost anything. That is always bad news with a new ingredient, because what happens with ingredients that can be used in almost anything is that people start to use them in almost everything.
And, suddenly, you will be sick of lemon-grass. You will order the lemongrass sorbet, without the lemongrass. You will request its removal from soups. Your eyes will glaze over when you catch sight of promised dishes such as pommes puree with lemon-grass on restaurant menus. You will be heard to say things like: "I would like the brown windsor soup, but hold the lemon-grass.
And, rather like the care needed when distinguishing between bak choi and nam pla, care is needed to distinguish between lemongrass and lemon verbena. After March, it will still be safe to order dishes with lemon verbena. And believe me, you are going to be offered them.
IF 1995 was a bad year for the French - and it was very bad for the French - 1996 is going to be a better year for the French. At least, it will be for the already wealthy growers and merchants of Champagne.
Why? Because suddenly you are going to start hearing about Champagne shortages. Folk at parties will be saying things like: "I have a case of Ruinart and a few others which are N.V., so I think we should get through it okay".
Get through what, you may ask? Get through the millennium is what. I mean, you aren't going to toast the new age with a bottle of the brutal angus, are you? No, dammit, it has to be bubbly, and you can bet your last bottle of Yalumba Cuvee One that the smart men of Champagne will milk the next four years for all they are worth.
So, expect stories about how these good, gentle folk are concerned about not having sufficient stocks to hack it through the year that will be in it. The fact that their cellars contain millions upon millions of bottles won't knock them off their stride one little bit.
A LITTLE further south, there will be less happiness, amongst the merchants and growers of Burgundy. They have survived, indeed prospered up to now, with their hideously high prices, because we reckoned no one else could master the Pinot Noir grape and expose its subtle, elusive brilliance. Oh yeah?
Try telling that to the guys working in Oregon and California. Try telling that to the guys working in south west France who are beginning to produce raspingly fruity, complex wines with that awkward, damnable Pinot Noir. Tell that to the Chilean winemakers who have shown that they can produce Pinot Noir at an everyday price. Tell it to the Aussies and the Kiwis who are getting their Pinot act into some sort of shape.
Discovering the Midlands
AH, the lovely lakeshore region of Tipperary! Ah, the rugged charms of Longford! Ah. dear old Offaly and its amorphous character! Sweet Westmeath, with its subdued individuality!
In 1996, the midlands will hit back. Suddenly, you will find yourself saying things such as "There is some smart cooking going on in Laois/Westmeath/Offaly". Or, "For my money, the Tipperary cheeses show a clean pair of heels to anything from West Cork". Or. "Oh, I only eat those chocolates from Longford now". In 1995, the best producers from the midlands held a mighty impressive food fair in Longford. In 1996 you will be hearing a lot more about them.
IF 1995 was a bad year for France, 1996 is going to be even worse. The old shawl of the French style which has dominated cuisine is going to slip even further from the shoulders of our cooks, who will appreciate that it is more important to be up to speed with jerk seasoning and jambalaya, if you want to be a cool cook, than it is to have read right through the collected works of Bocuse, Robuchon, Georges Blanc and all the other old-school boys. France is out.
THERE will be barley - lots of barley - and there will be many experiments with polenta in 1996, and of course you are finally going to get into couscous (though you will have to point out to your friends that, of course, couscous is actually a type of pasta), and there will be bulghur and millet and so on.
Grains will be big in 1996, signalling the continuing trend which rediscovers and makes fashionable the peasant foods of yesteryear. Pearl barley will lead the way, mixed with beef in steaming casseroles, mixed with pumpkin in mock-risottos, used as a stuffing in dolmas and other dishes. And the cool grain dish of the year will see games being played with risotto, whereby the conventional grain - arborio rice - is replaced with other grains.
LET us be honest about pasta. We eat tons of it. We make masses of different sauces to go with it. We know all the different varieties. We have pasta machines and make our own. We even colour the pasta we make ourselves. We love it.
But we still don't understand it. Some of the finest cooks I know make the most Godawful pasta dishes, simply because they don't understand the pasta/sauce equation. And while pasta has become the standby of every second-rate establishment in the country, these are the places which, above all others, haven't got a clue what the pasta/sauce equation is about. And, until we do crack the pasta/sauce equation, pasta is OUT.
The 1990s Sandwich
REMEMBER sandwich spread? Nora Ephron may once have described pesto as the quiche of the 1980s, but in 1996, pesto will be the essence of the 1990s sarnie. The sarnie is going to get serious, real serious. There have been rumblings for some time now, of course, but these have still been rather timid rumblings - rumbles, if you like. But in 1996 the variety, the flavours and the sheer sock-it-to-'em stunningness of the humble sarnie is going to go into overdrive.
So, what will there be along with the pesto? There may be some olive paste to counterpoint the fresh greenness, and there will be finely chopped red onions, and groovy cheeses, and there will be sarnies with barbecued peppers in ciabatta with roasted chicken, and with feta and olives in baguettes, and with blue cheese and salad with a Caesar dressing, and with grilled lamb and rosemary with Ligurian olive oil. And on and on, deliciously, deliciously, it will go.
THE problem with fast food is that it has everything to do with speed and nothing to do with quality. And what have we learnt in the last year or so? That there is no tension between speed and quality, when it comes to grub. That fast food can be real. That real food can be made, fast.
Cooking only need take scarce minutes, but those minutes can produce fantastic food. No one has time to loiter in the kitchen anymore, so time spent at the stove needs to produce exciting, real tastes. And this is why fast food is doomed. The tastes of fast food are uniform, monotone, uninteresting. Your own cooking, in 1996, is going to be dazzling, fresh, dizzy with deliciousness. And fast.