Stretching the Bacon Ration

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From what I can gather, this is a weeks bacon ration for one person in the UK in WW2. Even this miserably small quantity is the very, very best I can find. Other sources I have read suggest the ration was only half this amount. The reader should realise this is what could be taken home. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there would even be this much available to buy. There were other options though. For example, restaurants, for those who could afford it, went un-rationed in terms of quantity although they were rationed by price. In turn, they also had restrictions and could only buy in what was available. For those engaged in war work also had other options such as the workplace canteen. Then there was the British restaurant. These “communal feeding centres” were created for those bombed out of their homes, run out of food stamps or otherwise needed help. Another option, I’ve been told about from those who were there at the time, was to keep a pig. This could be done individually or as a community co-operative of some kind. However, anyway you look at it, bacon, like many foods, was a scarce resource.

I recently came across a book called “Eating for Victory”, “Healthy home front cooking on war rations” (ISBN 978-1-78243-026-1). This book describes itself as “Reproductions of official second world war instruction leaflets”. Inside this book I found this:

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So then, this is it:

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Well, from our time, it doesn’t look very promising does it? But then, it is what it is, and you just have to make do with what you’ve got and get on with it. What else is there to do? After all, there is a war on you know.

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I’ve pre-cooked the bacon as lightly as I dare. Even this has reduced the weight from 8oz to 5oz. Imagine if you only started with 4oz? One thing I will not do is clean out the frying pan. I need to extract every minimal amount of flavour I can get.

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And here it is. Frankly, the potato completely swamps the bacon. If what I have done here in any way represents the reality of the time then I think I would have despaired. There was always the black market option I suppose. If it were me, back then, I think I would have used the ration as a flavouring. Fried to nearly crispy, very finely diced and sprinkled onto other things to make them more palatable. How lucky we are.

This posting is dedicated to the good work of the Women’s Institute (soon to celebrate it’s centenary) the W.V.S. (later R.W.V.S) and the late, great Marguerite Patten CBE.

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Cullen Skink

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It’s Burns night, 25th January 2014. All across Scotland people will be gathering to get sloshed on whisky, celebrate a great poet, ritually disembowel Englishmen and eat haggis. Haggis, the national dish of Scotland. It is amazing to me that such a miserable bag of offal should reach such heights. Seriously, think about it. Scotland has some seriously good food produce. This is a land which, probably, produces the best salmon and venison (fresh or farmed) that there is. Then of course there is the Aberdeen Angus. Which is, undisputedly, the best beef cattle there is. Arbroath smokies are legendary. These things are only the start of what could become quite a long list. And yet in the face of all this amazing stuff it is a sheep’s stomach of yuk which has risen to the top of the list. How? My guess it is a combination of the ritual of Burns night and the ritual disembowelment of Englishmen that provides most of the answer. But also, historically, the Haggis was the food of the common man. Salmon, venison and beef being only available to those at the top of society. However, there is one Scottish dish which is drop dead fantastic and is also available to the common man and uses a fish as fine as any fresh river salmon. It is Cullen Skink. Yet the people of Scotland seem to dismiss this wonderful, wonderful thing. What is it about us, the British, that makes us do this? We seem to have a kind of deep-seated inferiority complex when it comes to our own food. We seem to have this built-in assumption that if it originates overseas it must somehow be better. Why? Honestly the French bang on about things like Bouillabaise and Bourride but they simply are not in the same class as a dish as good as Cullen Skink. To me this is the kind of food that we should be celebrating.

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All you need. Potato, onion, parsley, butter, milk and undyed smoked haddock. Don’t skimp on the quality of the smoked haddock as it is crucial. Please, please, please, try to avoid dyed haddock if you can. The Talisker is for the cook and not the dish by the way.

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Skin the Haddock. If that’s a bit techy for you an alternative is to poach the Haddock in some milk for a few minutes, remove, cool, and pick the fish off with a fork. Keep the milk back to use later on.

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What happens next depends on how you like your Cullen Skink. I like mine quite chunky. Kind of like a stew. So I dice everything quite chunky. Others like theirs to be more like a soup or a chowder. In which case you should dice finer. Whatever your preference, the potato, haddock, onion and parsley need dicing. Then soften the onion in a good knob of butter. Soften the onion, don’t fry it.

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Add in the milk and the potato. The milk needs to be as fresh as you can get it and should be full cream. Don’t use skimmed or semi-skimmed. I find it really helps to part boil the potato.

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Next comes a mega important part. Mash up a few parts of the potato. Just a few. Enough to provide some thickening. I’m using a hand masher but pressing the potato with a fork works just fine. As an aside, I’m using a non-stick sauté pan so as to get some decent imagery. A regular everyday saucepan is ideal.

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Finally, add in the fish and the parsley. You may want to break up the fish a little if you want. It’s done when the fish is cooked through and the potato is soft. Some people like to add in a little cream at the end.

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It is very tempting to chef this up with wine, garlic, bay leaf and so on (for me it’s always a struggle to avoid lemon juice). But try to avoid temptation and keep to this simplicity. Please trust me, every additional thing you add will only take away from it. It’s the smoked haddock that really makes this work and is the star of the show. Let it do the talking.

Enjoy.

Brussels “Colcannon” Cakes

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This posting really follows on from an earlier post from this year when I dazzled the world with my deep insights into the world of the potato and Colcannon. Seeing as a Brussels sprout does seem a little like a mini cabbage then why not use it in a Colcannon? So I tried it and it was brilliant. Then I thought to myself why not go a step further and make it a potato cake? I tried it and it was brilliant. So here we are rapidly approaching the festive season and the inevitable avalanche of Brussels sprouts. So, dear followers, I present to you a possible alternative to plain boiling for your consideration. The Brussels ‘Colcannon’ Cake. By the way, I’m not claiming this is the most perfectly worked out dish since the creation of mankind. No doubt, any proper cook stumbling upon this could probably do a lot to improve.

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Chop up the ingredients of potato, Brussels sprouts, onion and butter. A fine dice for the onion and Brussels is good. The potato needs to be cooked until soft and the onion and Brussels sprouts need to be softened in a frying pan using the butter.

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What I really like about this is the colour. As the Brussels soften in the pan they take on a really bright and vibrant green colour. Contrasted with the red of the onion and the white of the potato it really looks the part. Mash it all into the potato. Then comes the tricky part that, I admit, I haven’t properly thought through. That is, turning them in to cakes. This is the tricky bit as they are prone to fall apart. Maybe some beaten egg as a binding would help?

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Turn the mix into “snowballs”. Form them really tightly just like you would a snowball you are about to throw. Then flatten them slightly whilst maintaining the edge. Add to a frying pan with plenty of hot oil. Fry them vigorously until you judge them to be browning (I can tell by the smell). It only takes a couple of minutes. As they cook gently squash and shape them with a fish slice. You may need to do this a few times to avoid breaking them up. You really do have to be very careful and vigilant with this. It is no time to take a phone call. Very carefully turn them over with the fish slice and continue to fry, squash and shape. When you judge the other side cooked (I do it by smell) serve them to a plate. There may well be a better way to do this. I’m open to suggestions. It’s the taste of fried potato that makes this amazing.

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So how would you use this? Well, serve them with anything you would normally serve plain boiled potatoes and Brussels sprouts with. Now here comes a variation. Add some bacon to the mix. What you end up with is the image at the top of this blog. Trust me, it tastes great. Bacon and Brussels, what a fantastic combination. Imagine this for a Sunday morning breakfast in Autumn or Winter. A Brussels potato cake made with bacon with a poached egg sitting on top. Maybe a lightly fried tomato and a couple of pieces of black pudding around the side. Imagine cutting into the yolk and seeing it run in to the potato cake and down the sides. Wouldn’t something like that just be great?

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It was 🙂

Something for St Patrick’s day: Colcannon

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Colcannon. An Irish classic. How appropriate for St. Patrick’s day. I love the name. Sounds as if it should be something very exotic doesn’t it? Wikipedia tells me it comes from the Irish cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage”. Basically, what we have here is mashed potato and cabbage.

Surely there can be no more versatile foodstuff on the planet than the potato. It is hugely taken for granted. For me, along with the chilli pepper, it was the greatest benefit for Europe to come out of the Columbian exchange (aka Grand Exchange). Surely, this story has to be the great food story in the history of mankind. It is a centuries long story of global power politics, population explosion, massive social revolution and upheaval. Don’t believe me? Then go and look it up for yourself. Brought to Britain by Sir John Hawkins in 1563, the potato seems to have mostly taken hold in Ireland in the mid 1600s. I can think of no better example of the mayhem and upheaval brought about by the exchange than the long association that Ireland has with the potato. This plant would, of course, have been unknown to the 5th century missionary, St Patrick, who bought Christianity to Ireland.

How to make Colcannon.

If anyone reads the postings on this blog they will have noticed the absence of quantities, precise technique, method and so on. That’s because this is a food blog and not a recipe blog or a cooking blog or a technique blog. I you want that kind of thing there are plenty of others around that can do a far better job than I ever could. If there is a food creation where precise quantities and method are less appropriate than Colcannon then I can’t think of it.

All you need: potato, cabbage, parsley, butter, milk, salt and pepper.

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Chop it up:

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Cook the potato until soft. Then mash with some butter and parsley. A splash of milk helps bring it together. Note: I’m using a hand masher. You can whizz it if you want but this gives a better texture. If it shouldn’t be quite consistent and I end up with the odd ‘solid’ bit that’s great. I like that.

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Then add in the cabbage which I’ve sweated down, kind of how you might sweat down onion, in some more butter and a smidgen of olive oil. I like quite a big dice and to put plenty in, roughly a third of the total, maybe more.

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As you can see this is simplicity itself and quick too. In contrast, I hope you will also consider the long and complicated history that goes with it.

A word on mashed potato: Recently, I’ve seen all to many tv chefs producing a sad, gloopy, soupy, puree of butter, milk and potato and calling it “mashed potato”. Yuk. At the end of the day mashed potato should be just that, potato mashed. Not pureed but mashed. You only need a very small amount of butter and just a splash of milk to bring the thing together. I have no objection to creamed pureed potato, you understand, but I do like it to have body and bite. I blame modern cheffery which, all to often, leads us to believe there is always a “right” way to do things. There isn’t. The everyday home cook when faced with a chopping board should be encouraged to do what is right for them. If I don’t like my salmon slightly pinky in the middle then I won’t make it that way. Any TV chef who says salmon should be slightly pinky in the middle can sod off. It is time for the masses to reclaim their kitchens! It is time for revolution! If only Che Guevara had written a cookbook. So there! Rant over. Anyway, I suspect I may not alone in this point of view.