When did we all get so cross? We are, it seems, in a permanent state of outrage. A quick glance across various social media platforms suggests that to be disgusted is no longer the preserve of those living in a Spa town in the South East of England – it is now the default setting of the entire nation, nay the entire species.
We are a seething mass of hot-headed indignation, not just with regard to the big ticket stuff – (Trump, Brexit, Scottish independence, the price of courgettes) but, if Twitter is anything to go by, about EVERYTHING, from news that “ex-drug fiend” Noel Fielding is to host the new Bake Off, to Ronaldo’s laughable bust (pun entirely intended), to the fact that Nestle is changing the recipe for KitKat to make it ‘healthier’. (“Stop messing with our chocolate.”) Red faced emojis all around.
Whatever you do don’t mess with a recipe. That’s when we get our Twitter knickers in a right old twist. Just the other week national treasure Mary Berry got it in the neck for what were considered controversial additions to her bolognese sauce. One tweeter (or twit?) said they were “shocked and appalled” and another switched off because Mary used, no not a jar of Dolmio, but white wine and cream in her sauce (Italians often use white wine and add milk to their ragus so hardly controversial). Jamie Oliver received similar flak from Spanish twits last autumn with his take on paella. “Your paella is an abomination,” wrote one. “An insult not only to our gastronomy but to our culture,” added another. Jamie only added chorizo, for crying out loud, not a tin of baked beans.
This level of fury over food I just don’t get. The truth is, there is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ recipe. What people put in their bolognese or paella, or Shepherd’s pie for that matter, will differ from household to household, from region to region, from one generation to the next. Ingredients will be added and omitted according to what’s in season, what’s in the cupboard and, certainly in my household, what the kids will or won’t eat. It is essential for recipes to evolve lest we all die of boredom, both in the cooking and in the eating. Cooking is about trial and error, creativity, putting your own mark on a dish – that way great food combinations are discovered. And there is no right or wrong – except maybe baked beans in paella – as long as it tastes good.
All the Jamies, Marys and Nigellas of this world want, as well as for you to buy their books and merch of course, is to encourage people to have a go at cooking, from scratch, at home. They don’t care if you swap sage for oregano, leave out the mushrooms, or use a stock cube rather than the real thing – much rather that, than give up altogether and call in a pizza.
If people feel intimidated by recipes, or fear doing it wrong, they won’t bother to cook at all which is not only a great shame but also has major implications for our health. According to food writer and all-round good egg Michael Pollan, if there’s one thing that can be done to improve a nation’s health it is for people to take back control over what they eat by cooking. “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself,” he says. “It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”
A third of our children are overweight or obese, two thirds of adults are the same and yet we spend less time in our kitchens than ever before. And that, my friends, is an outrage.
Coq au Vin
On that note, here is my not entirely authentic take on Coq au Vin. I do not use a rooster, I do not use red Burgundy (any bottle of bog standard red will do), I add a bit of port and I do not marinate the bird in the wine overnight. Do your worst Twitter…
- 6 whole chicken legs (ie. thighs and drums)
- 1 tbsp olive oil plus 1 knob of butter
- 2 large carrots, washed and cut into rough chunks
- 2 onions or 6 banana shallots, roughly chopped
- 2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 2 bay leaves
- a couple of sprigs of thyme and rosemary
- 1 bulb of garlic cut in half horizontally
- 2 strips of orange peel (if you have it)
- a glug of brandy and port (again, if you have it)
- 1 bottle (750ml) red wine
- 40g cold unsalted butter, to finish (optional)
- salt and pepper
- to garnish: button mushrooms, bacon lardons, shallots, chopped flat leaf parsley
- Heat the oil and butter in a wide, lidded pan. I use this one from Jamie O and it’s perfect for the job (I’m not being paid by him, honest.)
- Season the chicken legs all over and fry skin side down over a medium/high heat until the skin is golden brown (about 10 minutes). Flip the legs over and cook for a further five minutes on the other side. Remove and set aside on a plate, leaving the fat in the pan.
- Fry the onion, carrots and celery in the same pan until beginning to caramelise (this adds flavour), then stir in the tomato puree and cook for a few minutes until the veg is a brick red colour.
- Add the brandy and port and let it bubble a way for a couple of minutes, then bung the herbs and orange zest into the pan. Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up and arranged so there is no overlapping, nestle the halves of garlic bulb between the chicken, then carefully pour in the bottle of wine. It should cover 3/4 of the chicken, leaving the skins on the top of the legs exposed. If there is not enough wine, top up to this level using a little chicken stock or water.
- Bring to the boil on the hob, cover the pan and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hours at 170°C or until the joints in the bone give without resistance when bent. The meat should be almost falling off the bone.
- When cooked, remove the chicken legs once again and set aside, and strain the sauce into a large bowl using a sieve, giving all the veg a good squeeze to get maximum flavour into the sauce. Skim off the fat from the sauce (a gravy separator like this one would be useful here) and return the sauce to the original pan.
- Put the pan back on the heat and reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon ie. like a thickish gravy. Taste and add a dash of port if it needs more sweetness, a tiny splash of red wine vinegar if it needs acidity and salt if necessary.
- For a luxurious, shiny finish to the sauce, whisk in cubes of unsalted butter one or two at a time. Return the chicken to the pan and heat through.
- Fry the lardons until crisp in a little butter, remove, then add the shallots to the pan. Cook until soft and golden, then add the mushrooms. When cooked, scatter the shallots, lardons and mushrooms over the chicken along with some chopped flat leaf parsley. Serve with mash and greens of your choice.