Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Ratatouille is the best foodie film

I sat down and thought about it, and there really aren’t that many ‘foodie’ films out there, and where there are; they usually have a sub-plot (usually romance) which detracts from the food aspect (think ‘No Reservations’). The big exception is “Ratatouille”, how sad that what is essentially a kids film is the only one (at least the only one I can think of) to focus on the food aspect!

Personally, I love ‘Ratatouille’; what a wonderful premise the film is based on:

‘Anyone can cook’

The idea being that you don’t have to be some high up Chef who trained with the best in the world to ‘know’ food. Look at Masterchef as an example:

There are all types in this show, one that stands out for the wrong reasons is Aaron, here’s a guy who seems to know a lot about food. He famously tried to impress the judges with a ‘molecular gastronomy’ style dish which looked very impressive but apparently tasted like rubbish. His knowledge seems to outstrip many of the other contestants but he just doesn’t seem to have the instincts. This is further demonstrated by the fact that he seems to continually turn out second rate dishes (why he hasn’t been voted out is beyond me). Those with less ‘technical’ knowledge than him are better at what they do because they clearly love it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that all the technical skills & knowledge in the world mean jack if you don’t have the heart for food. So realistically, there could be many ‘home cooks’ out there whose skills outstrip those of many chefs. Not all of course, but I’ve been to too many restaurants where the chef appears to have no taste buds (then I’ve been to some places where I’ve been completely blown away too). Watching the Cook & the Chef last night, I heard Maggie Beer say she had no formal training and learned everything she knows from reading books; and she’s a legend! I’d wager 90% of these Chefs in the average restaurant don’t have even half the ability that she does, it’s clear that she adores food, and obviously that comes through in her cooking. If I had even 10% of her ability I’d be thrilled!

Hence my point about the ‘Ratatouille’ movie; which I think embodies it’s concept that ‘anyone can cook’ perfectly. As it happens the lowly rat with a genuine passion for food (don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Maggie Beer to a rat!!) turns out to have more instincts for food and flavours than the head Chef of what used to be the best restaurant in France. I’m not minimizing the importance of training for one minute (then I’d be like one of those people I hate who pick up a paintbrush and declare themselves an Artist) but it seems to me that there are as many passionless and disenchanted chefs running sub-standard restaurants (i.e. the cranky, sell out head chef in the movie) as there are geniuses with a real gift who turn food into an art form (the rat).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Why offal is awesome

I remember hearing somewhere (it might have been ‘The Cook & The Chef, it’s a very educational show) that using every part of the animal shows the utmost respect for that animal’s sacrifice. The thought being that you show a level of disrespect by throwing away any part of the slaughtered animal; metaphorically ‘throwing away its life’ if you will. I guess vegetarians would argue that you should just shun meat altogether but I tend not to listen to most vegetarians after I see them wearing leather shoes and eating gelatine-based foods.

This was a light-bulb moment for me. I’ve always loved the parts that many other people would turn their noses up at and I know I’m in good company; Maggie Beer is a well known offal enthusiast, and why not? Offal is packed full of flavour!

It got me thinking; of course it’s a terrible waste to throw away whole parts of an animal because of our hang ups about what they are. Who cares what function it used to serve?
I get that some people just don’t like the taste, and that’s fine, at least they gave it a go. But on some of the occasions when I have dined out with groups and ordered an offal based dish (and when given the option, I will always go for it if it’s there) there is an inevitable ‘ewwww’ moment from one of my fellow diners. When I press them if they’ve ever tasted what I have been served, 9 times out of 10 they say no. How on earth can you say you hate something you’ve never even tried?

We Aussies are such a squeamish lot, we don’t like mould in our cheeses, we don’t like our sausages to be made with blood (but we’ll eat hot dogs, go figure?!) or our milk to be un-pasteurised. I guess I wouldn’t have survived evolution as I’ll pretty much put anything in my mouth. I’d be the person trying deep fried crickets in Thailand or eating the maggot-cured cheese in Europe (though I admit that last one may be a stretch if they’re not removed). I suspect it’s often not about the taste (ok, sometimes offal can be overpowering in large amounts) but what it did when it was ‘working’. Funny no one complains about eating what is essentially muscle tissue or in the case of eggs – a giant ovum.

Sparrow Kitchen & Bar in North Adelaide has the most divine Chicken Liver Pappadelle (I like to try new things but it’s hard to go past this favourite so I end up ordering the same thing when I go there). I think if most people tried this and other offal dishes that have been prepared correctly they might change their minds a bit. Perhaps they are scarred by unpleasant childhood memories (I wouldn’t know, all I remember is the tripe with white sauce and pressed tongue that my grandmother used to serve and I loved those).

I guess some offal items are a bit hard to prepare too (think tripe, brains), and a bit stinky when raw (Kidneys) but my theory is that it’s generally worth the extra effort. That and I don’t mind spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen. Anyway, some are ridiculously easy; chicken livers would have to be one of the easiest things to prepare (just don’t overcook them!) and they taste great. Don’t forget about the high iron levels in lamb’s fry! Liver Pate is surprisingly easy to prepare, if a little time consuming and kicks the butt of most store bought varieties (with some high end exceptions).

Access might be another thing, offal can be hard to find at times. When I asked a local butcher if they had any lamb kidneys a while back; their response was that the extra effort of removing these/getting rid of the surrounding fat (why not leave it on!!? I don’t care!) was not worth the measly amount that they can sell them for. What a waste, and they call themselves a butcher (I don’t shop at this particular place anymore, not just because of that reason though).

I am starting to notice though; my local supermarket has started to keep a small selection – most of the time kidneys and livers and the occasional heart or tongue. Not much variety but it’s a start. Problem is; if you don’t get there early their small selection is usually sold out. Obviously there is a small group of other converts in my area, which is promising.

In Europe, offal is reportedly very expensive (supply & demand, people actually WANT to buy it) and here we throw it away like garbage. In these lean times you’d think we’d make things stretch a little bit more and not be so wasteful.
If I’m completely honest, I do hope that Aussies continue to shun offal, as it will keep the prices low for devotees like me. Maybe one day it will go the way of the lamb shank, a once delicious but un-fashionable cheap cut that can cost as much as $10 for one shank.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What was on the home menu tonight?

Olive & Tallegio Arancini with Tomato Sugo

Why don't we cook anymore?

This week I read an interview in The Advertiser with the owner of Woodside Cheese Wrights. She spoke of the trouble they were having attracting a qualified Cheese Maker to their company and revealed that there were only 14 qualified cheese makers in South Australia. Her only solution was to look offshore for someone to fill this role.

This might seem like an isolated problem to some but I think it points to a wider problem of the loss of basic food preparation ability in our society. We’re in a situation where people have de-valued these skills as passé or unglamorous. Everybody wants to be a stockbroker (or some other high paying & glamorous but essentially soulless role) but they have no clue (or don’t care) about the quality of what they are putting in their bodies. I can’t tell you how many supposedly smart and successful people I have spoken to who seem to think its quite amusing that they ‘can’t even make toast’, as though this is something to be proud of. I find it just a little bit sad.

Perhaps I am an unusual case as my idea of a good weekend is de-boning a chicken and making a stock using the carcass (or maybe I should just get a life) but I think it’s a terrible thing that we are losing such basic skills. I remember watching ‘The Cook & The Chef’ where it was mentioned that the old CWA (that’s the Country Women’s Association for city dwellers) cookbooks had no methods listed in their recipes, just the ingredients and quantities. The reason being that people (Ok, let’s be honest, women) knew exactly what to ‘do’ with the ingredients. You wouldn’t be able to do this now. I guess nobody teaches their kids to find their way around a kitchen anymore. I know not all of us were lucky enough to have a stay at home mum (or dad!) to teach us the ropes, but that’s no excuse. Let’s face it; if we want to learn how to do something badly enough we’ll do it. Mum taught me a whole lot in the kitchen but I’ve gone on to learn a lot more myself as well.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that everybody should go out and learn how to make pasta and shun the store-bought varieties (though I can tell you it is well worth the extra time and effort), San Remo would go out of business for one thing! However, I wonder if some of our ‘problems’ in society (Obesity and many of the other health problems related to poor diet) would be solved if people actually took an interest in their food and how it is prepared.

Even the tryouts for the Channel 10 Series ‘MasterChef’ were a bit revealing, was I the only person who thought that 7000 entrants (total, not just here in SA) was very low? Of course, there’s no glamour in getting your hands dirty in a kitchen (not like getting famous on Australian Idol) and how many people really care that much about food anyway? Even the final top 20, whilst mostly talented, have a few contestants who make me wonder how on earth they got on the show.

We live in a society where we I have observed that we have two types of ‘kitchen phobics’:

1) People measure the quality of their food by its size. The general thinking with these types seems to be that if you pay $15.00 for a schnitzel big enough to feed a small African nation (leaving out the soggy chips underneath) then you’ve got ‘good value for money’. Is it any wonder that we’re a nation of fatties? Why make something at home (or go to a great restaurant that serves realistic portions) when you can feed the family for a few dollars at the local Maccas? Just imagine for a moment if these same people actually learnt a bit about the food they’re eating and took an interest, would they still want to eat that disgusting greasy and tasteless burger?

2) The other type is the highly educated professional type who seems to think that food preparation in the home is just too passé and old fashioned for someone as fabulous as they are. These are your ‘try hard’ types dressed head to toe in designer gear who order green Oysters in the middle of summer and don’t notice the spawn (gross) because they’re too busy trying to look good in front of their equally vacuous friends (“oh yes I’m a terribly adventurous eater with my green oysters that I secretly don’t even like, please approve of me”). Their food ignorance is particularly frustrating as they actually think they know what they are talking about. I have heard of a particularly wealthy SA woman who has 2 kitchens in her home; a large, ‘hidden’ one where she hires an actual chef to prepare delicious meals for her guests and a ‘for show’ kitchen near the dining area where she makes it appear as though she made the food herself, I hope that this is an urban food myth but I fear it isn’t.

Knowing how to prepare food means that you know how to pick good quality ingredients that are in season (so you don’t end up with those disgusting Coles/Woolies apples that have been in cold storage for 5 years), and it doesn’t mean you have to pay more. Anyone who has been to the Torrens Island Market can attest to that. It also means you know which flavours work together (and which don’t), which means you don’t have to spend a fortune on expensive ingredients. Importantly, it also gives you a sense of control over what you are consuming; has anyone actually seen how much butter goes into puff pastry? You don’t want to be eating that everyday unless you have a death wish (not that I have anything against it, just not every day!).

I wonder what the world will look like in 10, 20, 30 years. Will we be a society made up of half grossly overweight people abusing their body with crap food and the other half glamorous, designer clothes wearing, Lexus 4WD driving schmik professionals with no basic life skills?