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In 1999, Anthony Bourdain wrote an article for The New Yorker on dining out.

‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This’ is a must-read article.

He was talking about top-end bistros and restaurants, but he raised insider facts which will interest aficionados of the dining scene.

I saw the article thanks to this tweet about steak …

… which led me to this one (click on image to see the full text):

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Fish

I nearly always have fish when eating out. Here’s the truth for fish lovers who dine out at the weekend or on a Monday (emphases mine):

The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Here’s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. He’s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and he’d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors don’t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplier’s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday night’s market.

Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday

Steaks

I cannot emphasise enough this bit about well done steaks. For those who missed the tweet above:

In many kitchens, there’s a time-honored practice called “save for well-done.” When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steak—tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age—he’ll dangle it in the air and say, “Hey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?”What he’s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: “Save for well-done.” The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.

Vegetarians

Apologies to any vegetarians reading here, but this is what chefs think. Bourdain prefaced this by saying serious cooks find preparing brunch dull:

Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.

Butter

Whether we realise it or not, a good restaurant will use butter — and a lot of it:

In a good restaurant, what this all adds up to is that you could be putting away almost a stick of butter with every meal.

Leftover bread and butter

Speaking of butter — and bread — you might wonder (as I did) what happens to whatever you leave on your table.

It gets re-used:

Recently, there was a news report about the practice of recycling bread. By means of a hidden camera in a restaurant, the reporter was horrified to see returned bread being sent right back out to the floor. This, to me, wasn’t news: the reuse of bread has been an open secret—and a fairly standard practice—in the industry for years. It makes more sense to worry about what happens to the leftover table butter—many restaurants recycle it for hollandaise.

Food handling

If you’re wondering (as I did) if line cooks and chefs wear gloves in the kitchen, the short answer is ‘rarely’:

As the author and former chef Nicolas Freeling notes in his definitive book “The Kitchen,” the better the restaurant, the more your food has been prodded, poked, handled, and tasted. By the time a three-star crew has finished carving and arranging your saddle of monkfish with dried cherries and wild-herb-infused nage into a Parthenon or a Space Needle, it’s had dozens of sweaty fingers all over it. Gloves? You’ll find a box of surgical gloves—in my kitchen we call them “anal-research gloves”—over every station on the line, for the benefit of the health inspectors, but does anyone actually use them? Yes, a cook will slip a pair on every now and then, especially when he’s handling something with a lingering odor, like salmon. But during the hours of service gloves are clumsy and dangerous. When you’re using your hands constantly, latex will make you drop things, which is the last thing you want to do.

Hair

Bourdain says that toques or other head coverings are not generally worn:

For most chefs, wearing anything on their head, especially one of those picturesque paper toques—they’re often referred to as “coffee filters”—is a nuisance: they dissolve when you sweat, bump into range hoods, burst into flame.

Bourdain’s conclusion

Despite having raised the hairs on people’s necks by revealing all this insider information, Bourdain is adamant that a top restaurant kitchen is cleaner than that of the average home:

The fact is that most good kitchens are far less septic than your kitchen at home. I run a scrupulously clean, orderly restaurant kitchen, where food is rotated and handled and stored very conscientiously.

My conclusion

Having read Bourdain’s article, I am happy I do not eat out all that often — at most, 10 to 12 times a year — and always in good restaurants.

I would dispute that their kitchens are cleaner than mine at home.

And finally, although I disagreed with his politics, I am sorry that Anthony Bourdain is no longer with us.

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On Monday, English home cook, author and former food journalist Mary Berry — star of The Great British Bake-Off and her own television shows (BBC) — introduced the British public to the traditions behind Good Friday and Easter foods.

The first of two episodes of Mary Berry’s Easter Feast on BBC2 saw her explore traditions in England, Jamaica, Russia and Poland. I highly recommend it. Below is a synopsis of the first programme with additional information from other sources.

Berry, an Anglican, told us that she is a regular churchgoer. She said she goes to Sunday services because ‘it is important to give thanks’. Easter is her favourite religious feast. (Finally, there’s someone who loves Easter as much as I do.)

Easter is the Church’s greatest feast. It has always been celebrated, from the earliest days after Christ’s death and resurrection. Christmas celebrations did not come about until much later.

Hot cross buns

Berry went to St Albans Cathedral to find out more about hot cross buns.

The cathedral’s historian explained that, in England, the precursor of this bun was the Alban bun. In 1361, Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a monk at St Albans Abbey, made highly spiced buns which the monks gave to the poor who appeared at the refectory door on Good Friday. The historian added that Brother Thomas was likely making peace with the locals who resented the Church. Monasteries at that time held an enormous amount of power.

St Albans Cathedral website tells us that their hot cross buns are still made locally — at Redbournbury Mill, which the abbey once owned. Anyone interested can find them the old fashioned way, by going to the Abbot’s Kitchen. They are available throughout Lent to Easter Monday.

The historian gave an Alban bun to Berry, who said it was much spicier than conventional hot cross buns. There is also no pastry or paste cross on the Alban bun, rather one which is formed with a knife before baking.

Although Berry and the historian did not discuss the significance of the bun’s ingredients, the spices symbolise those used to embalm Jesus after His crucifixion. I cannot find anything about the meaning of the dried fruit in them, but years ago, I read that it represents the gentle character of Jesus. I have also read that the fruit pieces suggest the drops of blood He shed for us.

For centuries, people ate hot cross buns only on Good Friday in contemplation of the Crucifixion. These days, sadly, they are available nearly all year round.

During the Reformation, England’s Protestants — and, later, Puritans — condemned the eating of hot cross buns as Catholic superstition. During Elizabethan times, one could only purchase them in London on Good Friday, Christmas or for burials.

Historians point out that fruit breads with a cross existed in ancient Greece. The cross made it easier to divide the bread into four pieces.

A number of superstitions about hot cross buns abound. As for them not going stale, I can assure you that they must be eaten within 12 to 18 hours. They get hard as a rock after that. And, yes, they also go mouldy.

Mary Berry makes hot cross buns for her family during Lent. The BBC has made her recipe available.

Jamaican bun

Berry spent time with Bettina, who is originally from Jamaica and belongs to a Baptist church in Nottingham.

Bettina makes Jamaican buns for the ladies at her church during Lent. They are actually large cakes, served in thin slices, often with Jamaican cheese. The buns are also very dark, because they have stout in them. This recipe looks like the one Bettina uses.

Escoveitch fish

Bettina also made a standard Good Friday dish of escoveitch (ceviche) fish for Berry to try. After marinating in a ceviche manner, Bettina pan fried the fish, basting it regularly. It looked delicious.

She served it with peppers, chocho and chilis. This recipe is like Bettina’s.

Bettina explained that marinating fish in vinegar dates back to the Moors, who introduced it to Spain. The Spanish, in turn, took the technique with them to the New World.

Russian devilled eggs and pascha

Berry met with a Russian Orthodox home cook and a priest, who explained how their Church observes Lent.

Father Peter explained that church members continue to follow the centuries-old vegetarian Lent, which starts two weeks earlier than the Catholic and Protestant one. They do not consume any food at all on Good Friday. Lenten fasting does not end until the Easter Vigil service ends, which is sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. Afterwards, everyone — including children — enjoys a feast.

Holy Thursday, which the Orthodox call ‘Clean Thursday’, is a busy, yet contemplative day, Father Peter said. It is the traditional spring cleaning day and it is also when the Easter cake, pascha, is made. Pascha is the word for Easter.

Pascha is a cheesecake with dried fruit. It is put into a pyramid mould with a Russian Orthodox cross on one side and ‘XB’ (‘Christ is risen’) on the other.

Another Russian Easter favourite is the devilled egg. A home cook made this for Berry. It involves peeled hard boiled eggs which are left to steep in beet juice. The programme did not mention this, but the red juice symbolises Christ’s blood. After several hours, the eggs are cut in half, the yolks devilled and piped back into the egg white centres. Caviar is a favourite topping.

Babka

Berry went to meet a Polish family in Cambridgeshire. They explained the importance of getting their Easter food blessed at church on Holy Saturday. I wrote about that in 2010.

In addition to coloured eggs, onto which the children were busy etching designs, olives are also an important Easter food for the Poles, probably because of their egg-like shape. Both symbolise life.

The husband made Berry a babka, the traditional Easter cake, which takes three days to make properly. Most of that time involves the rise of the enriched dough, similar to a brioche. He used a babka mould, similar to a kugelhopf mould, and added a chocolate insert. You could use a bundt cake mould.

Those who do not care for chocolate can add dried fruit instead.

A number of babka recipes exist, however, I have not been able to find the one this man used, which is the traditional one. He used his mother’s and, watching him make it, that’s definitely the original. Beware of ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ babka recipes. If anyone can point to one, please share the recipe or a link by commenting below. Many thanks!

Incidentally, he explained that ‘babka’ is also a complimentary word for a woman and a gracious name for a grandmother.

I’ll watch next week’s show and let you know what else Mary Berry discovers in the world of Easter food traditions.

It is exasperating to watch American cooking shows or read cooking magazines with their constant mentions of store-bought meat or seafood stock.

There is no reason why we cannot prepare our own at home. It is a responsible, simple and economical use of the meat and seafood that we purchase.

In our household, we use stock all the time, not only for sauces and gravies but also for cooking vegetables and potatoes. Stock adds much more flavour than water and, if you make it yourself, it’s free.

What follows are stock tips!

Basics

Professional chefs say, ‘Stock boiled is stock spoiled’. That said, I have not noticed any difference in taste if I’ve inadvertently left the stock pot boiling.

To further reduce the liquid and intensify the flavour, keep simmering for another 45 minutes to an hour.

Leave the finished stock to cool and absorb more flavour overnight. If your kitchen is very warm, decant everything into a large bowl, cover and refrigerate.

The next day, strain the stock into a large mixing jug and use a funnel to decant into a clean soda/mixer/spirits bottle. Put the cap on and refrigerate.

To freeze stock, use small plastic containers with lids.

Stock made without aromatics — e.g. herbs, vermouth — will stay fresh in the refrigerator for at least two, if not three, weeks.

Stock with aromatics — and fish/seafood — will last a few days in the fridge but should be frozen if you have no plans to use it immediately. They go mouldy remarkably quickly.

I used to add port or Noilly Prat to meat and seafood stock, respectively, but I don’t bother anymore. I didn’t think they added much flavour to the stock and were put to better use once in making a sauce.

Fish and seafood

Chefs advise against using bones from oily fish (i.e. salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring) for stock. As for seafood, any lobster, crab, prawn or crayfish shells can be used. They can also be combined for enhanced flavour.

Fish

Bones from bass, bream and other white fish make good stock which can be used for fish sauces or stews.

As the bones do not supply a robust flavour, use a smaller saucepan. Put the bones and heads, if you have them, into the pan, add water to cover and let cook over medium-low heat just until they come up to the boil. This takes about 45 minutes. Turn down the heat, season with salt and pepper and allow the stock to simmer for another 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how concentrated you want the flavour to be.

Let rest overnight or refrigerate before straining the next day.

Seafood

Generally, one can adopt Guy Fieri‘s ‘Everybody in the pool!’ here, with a few exceptions outlined below.

Seafood shells can also be combined with fish bones for extra flavour.

Crab and lobster: Both have feathery looking ‘dead man’s fingers’ — lungs — which are toxic. Remove and discard them before adding the rest of the shells to the stock pot.

Lobster: Depending on where you live, tomalley (from the Caribbean ‘tumali’) — the green stuff (liver, pancreas) in the head — may be dangerous or a delicacy. The US and Canada have warned people not to eat it because it is toxic and can cause paralysis. As we have no such restrictions in the UK, I add it to my sauces rather than the stock pot. In short, if you live in North America, throw it out with the dead man’s fingers. Those living elsewhere can use their own discretion. Tomalley, when untainted, has a marvellous, highly concentrated lobster flavour. It can be eaten raw or cooked.

Prawns: The heads have the most flavour, so be sure to add them along with the shells. However, the larger the prawn, the larger the waste canal. The really huge ones sometimes have waste slipping into the head. You can remove this with a kitchen towel and put the head in the pot. On that subject, once you remove the shell, carefully slide a knife lengthwise down the centre of the back of the prawn and prise out the waste canal. Discard immediately.

Skim any froth when cooking. Leaving it in may cause flatulence.

The higher the density of shells, the greater the flavour. Follow the instructions under Basics above for length of cooking, resting and decanting.

Meat

Sunday roasts are a staple in our house. They also mean we can have roast dinner the first half of the week, requiring simple reheating and fewer pots and pans. If more people roasted meat, they’d find cooking less of a chore. In most cases, it really is only a matter of putting a joint of meat into a roasting tin and sticking it in the oven unattended for 90 minutes at 180° C (350° F).

Roasted bones

Before carving the meat, have a large pot set aside so that you can put any bones into it straightaway. That way, you free up room on the tray as you carve.

This applies to poultry (including the carcass), beef, veal and pork.

Follow the instructions under Basics above for length of cooking, resting and decanting.

Raw bones

Escoffier advised that one should always sear raw bones with a bit of fat in a frying pan before making stock with them.

Not only does the caramelisation add flavour but one also avoids the semi-solid lumps of meat and blood by-products that spoil stock’s appearance.

Making stock with raw bones takes 30 – 45 minutes longer because they need to be thoroughly cooked. After cooking, follow the instructions under Basics above for length of cooking, resting and decanting.

Why use raw bones? If you are stuffing chicken legs, breasts or pork chops — or curing your own bacon from pork belly — you can put the bones to good use rather than throwing them in the bin.

Ham

Taking a tip from my grandmother, I always boil rather than roast a ham. The cooking water can be decanted for stock and makes a great base for soup.

Ham stock is also excellent for cooking black eyed peas.

Mixed stock

Purists often like to keep stock isolated by meat type, however, a professional chef on television recently used a combination of poultry and pork stock from the same container.

Because I sometimes have more stock than will fit in one bottle, I have another bottle on hand for the excess. My most flavoursome stock was a mix of chicken, pork and duck. I used it to make a soup which required very little extra seasoning.

So, yes, you can combine various meat stocks!

Aspic-like stock

For gelatinous stocks, use cooking liquid from boiled bacon (ham) collar, pig trotters (your butcher can supply these) and poultry wings. Once chilled, the liquid becomes jelly-like.

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I hope these suggestions pique more interest in the versatility of homemade stock. You’ll be delighted at the flavour they add!

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