by Rosie O’Callaghan
For some, it’s scallops. For others, souffles. On: Magazine presents the foods that think they’re all that… but really aren’t. Plus, below, the unsung heroes of the kitchen…
Even the waiter looked sheepish when he brought it over. He was honest enough to admit that he’d prefer a nice bowl of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. But what he actually placed at our table was truffle ice-cream. And it was at that point I knew that the truffle menu takeover was complete. It had even reached the desserts.
Truffles are probably the number-one-all-star-ingredient of the moment. But there are plenty of other contenders for world menu domination. Fois Gras. Pork Belly. Lamb Shank. It may well be illegal in some parts of Britain to draft a menu without a corn-fed chicken option.
Am I the only one wondering why, when interest in food in Britain is at an all time high, that too often our menus give us a bad case of déjà vu? Ever since the sundried tomato burst (pardon the pun) onto the scene in the late eighties, ingredient trends have ruled our menus and our plates.
“Too much of a good thing”
You’ll be pleased to know that truffle ice-cream tastes reassuringly bad. In fact, like a sweet mushroom version of cookies and cream. And it may have been served at a fancy New York restaurant. But rest assured, the menu takeover is going on at a restaurant near you too.
Exactly when did we become so fungus-obsessed? In season, there can be nothing better than freshly grated truffles. But they are turning up on menus anytime, anywhere. Or worse, being squirted over salads, sandwiches and pasta in the dreaded form of truffle oil. Which is often little more than olive oil mixed with artificial truffle flavourings. It’s far more likely to have been created in a lab than foraged for in the ground. Proof, if you ever needed it, that you really can have too much of a good thing.
I probably don’t need to refer to the other menu repeat offenders. You’ll already know them by heart: Baby leaf lettuce, or its trendier cousin, pea shoots. Polenta, porcini and parmesan crisps. Confit of duck/pork/salmon (delete as appropriate). Balsamic Vinegar – on everything. Like a favourite song on the radio, fine for the first five plays, but there comes a point when you start to question your devotion.
“No substitute to inventive cooking”
Take Scallops. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with scallops. I even like the fact that they encourage people who ‘don’t do seafood’ to try it as there isn’t the head / leg pulling off or peeling. But I would still love to find a restaurant or gastropub that didn’t have them on their starter menu. The problem is that they’re actually quite hard to cook well. Their mere presence on your menu is not a short cut to food heaven. Unfortunately all too often they are anaemic, rubbery and devoid of flavour.
Which brings me to the next repeat offender; foam. Speaking as someone who likes their cappuccino flat, I know I’m biased. But we’re well in to the 21st Century and it’s still out there. Beside, under and on top of your food. Maybe chefs are reluctant to let it go as it’s an easy way to dip a toe into the trendy world of ‘molecular gastronomy’. So on menus across the land we’ve seen mushroom foam, Parmesan foam, lemon foam and even fois gras foam. The idea is to introduce another flavour and texture without changing the substance of the dish. But in the wrong hands all you’re left with is a lot of lather and a hefty bill for your trouble.
As great as ‘superstar’ ingredients can be, their presence alone cannot guarantee culinary success. They are no substitute to inventive and talented cooking. Certain foods are good at grabbing all the attention – but a dish is more than the sum of its parts and some ingredients are just over plated and overrated.
Five Unsung Heroes of the Kitchen
Food trends come and go. But what are the unsung hero ingredients working behind the bright stars of the menu? These foods rarely take centre stage, but pack a flavour punch well above their weight that keep chefs – and customers – coming back for more.
Lemons have got to be the most underrated workhorse of the kitchen. They work equally well in both savoury and sweet dishes and their acidity magically brings out the flavour in food. A lesser known chef trick is to add a squeeze of lemon juice to finish gravy and pan sauces. Also to plate up like a pro, wipe dishes with a little lemon juice to banish any smears before serving.
No matter what s’leb chefs tell you in adverts, even the best shop-bought stock can’t come close to the flavour of good home-made stocks. Given that it’s the base to soups, sauces, braised dishes and stews it’s worth taking some time over. If you’re making it at home remember to start with cold water and keep skimming off any impurities from the surface of your pot to make sure you get a crystal clear and tasty result. Also, when it comes to a boil, turn down the heat so that the surface just trembles – or it will become cloudy.
“Raise your food a notch”
Scrambled, poached, fried, boiled. Omelettes. Mayonnaise. Hollandaise. Béarnaise. Meringue. Custard. Cake. Mayonnaise. Cake. Pasta. Pastry. Batter. Yorkshire pudding. Mayonnaise. Need I go on? The most nutritious and versatile of cooking ingredients, thoroughly deserving of their place on any menu.
Just about every cuisine on the planet has found a role for garlic. There’s no getting away from it on any menu. It’s a fundamental of Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cooking and its use is perhaps one of the few things upon which every culture seems to agree. For a quick and mild garlic hit, make your own garlic infused oil. Bring half a pint of olive oil to a boil and turn the heat down to low. Carefully add ten peeled cloves of garlic and heat for five minutes. Allow the oil to cool and the garlic to infuse then strain. Use in tomato based pasta sauces or for garlic mayo.
Home cooks can be too wary of adding salt in these health conscious times. But it really is the basis for good seasoning, which will raise your food up a notch. It’s important to season from the start of the cooking process – rather than adding all the salt at the end – to give the flavours time to develop properly.