Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Lager, Lasagne and the Rolling Stones

THERE are three things you can identify on planet earth from space. The great wall of China, the Grand Canyon and Shutts. The difference is you can also HEAR Shutts from space. Can't say that about the other two.
Shutts, in short, is not short. At the last guess-timate, and it's difficult to tell exactly because half of him is normally shrouded in cloud, he is about 14 foot 10.
He's just come back from the States where they like things big. I dare say he even shocked a few Texans who had never before been confronted by something quite so large.
The girls love Shutts cos he does girly things like bring sweets back from holiday, plays pattacake with them and leaves them little notes with kisses on. The blokes love Shutts cos he doesn't drink so he is a brilliant designated driver.
Yesterday, left work about 3.30 and adjourned to the pub which was rammed. The Rolling Stones are in Cardiff tonight and to pay tribute the Yard are playing all the band's old favourites.
A few pints of lager and I'm really into it and Beckett, who has had a two-hour head start, suggests we go to see them.
I am not totally convinced but after another few pints, wandering past a ticket tout, Beckett, his girlfriend Lindsay and I decided to make an inquiry.
"How much?"
"Sixty quid"
"You're joking, they've nearly started. We'll only buy them if we can get three together for £20 each."
There is a mad dash. The touts haven't been doing much business. Five minutes later he returns with the tickets and accepts our offer.
So there we go, watching the Stones at the Millennium Stadium. They are terrific but the Cardiff audience are like geriatrics watching a bingo caller - sat still as statues. I'm sure they only came so that they could say they saw Mick Jagger pop his clogs on stage.
I'm in the aisles dancing sans shoes and socks (how did that happen?) and trying to urge the old biddies into action, but failing miserably to persuade them that it's more exciting than a day trip to Clacton-on-Sea. They're having none of it, even though the Stones play for over two hours and hardly miss a hit. High point for me: Rambler, of course.
Going home afterwards for some Lasagne heated up in the microwave and I bump into Shutts (well, not literally, I wouldn't stand a chance). He and his girlfriend Claire have been to the Stones, too. Don't think either of them really get it - far too young. Not as good as Oasis says Shutts. Then again he's a fan of S-Club Seven so you have to take his critical view with a large dose of salt.
Still, rather than teetering home plastered Shutts kindly offers me a lift. Sorted.
Lasagne in the microwave and straight to bed. Busy day today. International One-day cricket in Cardiff. Wonder if cricket-fan Jagger will be there?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Bram sandwich and Sunday gravy

Well, I've got a lot to catch up from the weekend so here goes...

The longest day of the week in the life of a Sunday sports hack, particularly a desk jockey like myself. This is when all thoughts of culinary matters disappear and it's down to the serious matter of the day job. But sustenance is still important, and at lunchtime we make use of the House of Lard (a very convenient takeaway in the heart of Cardiff which provides us with baguettes, sandwiches and hot meals).
The trouble is that people tend to get hungry early on a Saturday morning and if the Robot is in charge of food orders then there is no time to slack. The Robot is our picture editor. His analytical brain is stored with useless facts. He can tell you, for instance, the life span of an Antipodean lesser-striped Hornrimmed lizard in seconds - and often does in conference, even though everyone else is discussing the merits of that day's stories.
To feed his circuitry board, the Robot needs to take on massive amounts of what we humans call food. And he must have it immediately or he is liable to slump across desk, totally immobilised and useless for the rest of the day.
If, like this week, the Robot is hungry at 11.30 in the morning, EVERYONE has until 11.31 to get their order in. Thus I end up with a "breakfast" chilli, chips and rice (or what the Welsh quaintly term arfandarf) . I'm hungry again by 5pm. That, unfortunately, is the busiest time of the day with the sports desk suddenly flooded with the afternoons sports stories. There is no time to waste on nipping around to the local chippie or butty bar.
By nine my stomach is rumbling like crazy and it is then I notice a neatly folded silver wrap on the table. Ah, he's doing drugs to keep him going, you may think. But this is far worse for your health - it's Bram's packed lunch.
God bless him, Bram is one of those guys you cannot do without. He knows everything there is to know about the building, the way the newspapers work and is friends with everyone from the toilet cleaners to the MD's secretary (some would suggest over friendly in the latter case).
What he isn't particularly admired for are his eating habits. He has been known to take about six hours to complete a steak and kidney pie and chips, returning to said meal throughout the day, long after it has passed its sell-by date. When office cleaners came in the other week they detected a strange smell from under his desk, only to discover a bread roll with a sell-by date from the last century (at least, we THINK it was a bread roll).
Recently he took to a new diet. I've been scouring Nigel Slater's various books and even read up on that wierdo American woman responsible for the programme You Are What You Eat. I've yet to find anyone, bar Bram, who resembles canned tuna, cold baked beans, raw carrot, chicken legs, lettuce and tomatoes. He ate this for about a month to try and lose some of his excessive beer gut, boasting that "it keeps me regular". But since I caught him sneaking a steak and kidney pie, he has finally admitted: "I'll never eat bloody tuna again".
Most people who know Bram would never dare sample one of his sandwiches, but I am so hungry I am about to start eating my own fingers. So I give in to temptation and he furnishes me with a ham, tomato and cucumber sandwich. And it's nice! Fresh bread, tasty ham, crispy salad.
Then again, I'm feeling pretty delirious at the time. It might well have been like that sandwich Tom Cruise mistakenly picks out of the fridge when having an eye transplant in Minority Report. Green and crawling. Still, I'm here to tell the tale, so: thanks Bram.

It's a bank holiday so I aint going nowhere. I don't want to go out and have fun, meet people, listen to some over-rated pop bands on some scrap of land littered with Kentucky boxes while paying for over-expensive, tasteless budweiser or camp in some over-populated part of west Wales or even spend an hour and a half watching the car overheat in a traffic jam. I want to stay in and watch a bit of footie, maybe a film and chill. Oh yes, and cook.
It seems, in fact, an ideal time for Sunday gravy. I'm not talking about the bisto stuff you put on your roast and veggies traditionally, but the gravy to which the Italians subscribe, a thick, tomatoey morasse that you can use with all kinds of pastas and is brilliant in lasagne.
The gravy, in fact, that Ray Liotta is trying to make while running from the FBI, hiding from a law enforcement helicopter, trying to ditch some hot firearms, organising a coke deal and looking after his disabled brother at the climax of "Goodfellas". Fortunately, I have no such distractions.
This gravy is also utilised in the zitti that those female elements of the Soprano family refer to often.
Anyway, make a big pot full and you can be living off it for a week.
Here's what you need:
Olive oil
Pork spare ribs or just plain chops
Veal (not easy to find these days)
Italian sausage (from a delicatessen or market)
4 garlic cloves
tomato puree
3 of those large cans of tomatoes
salt and pepper
6 basil leaves

First you heat the oil then fry the chops in it for 10-15 minutes until cooked and reasonably brown
Remove them and put on a plate. Then fry up the veal in the same way and then the sausages in the same way. You now have a big plate of cooked meat.
remove some of the oil into a non-stick frying pan or saucepan.
Add the whole garlic to the original oil and cook till golden then discard.
Fry up the puree for a minute.
Then add all the tomatoes. You can puree them first in a processor but I prefer to leave them as they are. Add water, salt and pepper, basil leaves and then return all the meat to the pan.
Bring to a simmer. You must wait now for two hours, but there is still plenty to do to make the Italian meatballs!

For the meatballs
1lb beef
half cup breadcrumbs
2 large eggs
tsp finely minced garlic
very finely grated parmigian cheese
2 tsp chopped, flat leaf parsley
Mix it all up but not the oil.
Wet hands and roll into balls the size of a marble. If you fancy some bigger ones you can make two or three.
cook in the oil.
When browned add to the gravy.
After two hours the gravy should be ready.
Heat up some pasta (I used spaghetti)
Rinse and return to the pan then add some of the gravy and whatever you would like. I had a chop and three meatballs. Mix in some parmigian.
Top with Parmigian and some chilli flakes.
Sit down in front of a film like Syriana, and understand so little of it first time around that you have to watch it twice.
Tomorrow we maka da lasagne which the remaining tomato sauce, tiny meatballs and italian sausage. That's if the FBI don't come calling.

Extra things; More parmigian, some mozzarella and some ricotta.
I don't like those "no need to pre-cook" lasagne sheets. On this occasion I try to pre-cook them first and have a hell of a time trying to separate them.
For the lasagne you just layer up like so...
layer of gravy
layer of lasagne
cover with ricotta
layer of little meatballs and slices of Italian sausage with Mozzarella, and add some squares of mozzarella in the gaps
layer with tomato sauce and grated parmigian.
Repeat as necessary.
Top layer should be lasagne, followed by gravy, then covered in Parmigian.
Cook in oven on about 350 degrees (I used gas mark 3)
Leave in for over an hour.
When it is bubbling turn up heat to get the top browner.
Keep checking until it looks good to you.
Take out and allow to settle for 15 minutes so it sets.
Cut up and eat. I had it with some baked beans. Nice.
And there is about three quarters of it left in the fridge now.
A lot of hard work, but worth it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pasta Fagioli

When you sit down to watch possibly the worst Mafia movie of all time then what could be better than first consulting your Sopranos cookbook and concocting a meal to make a capo proud.
Being fresh out of horses' heads, however, I had to settle for the elaborately named Pasta Fagioli (Fagioli as in Faj not fag, you'll find no left over filter tips here). Translated, it simply means Pasta and beans and its another one pot dish that it's nearly impossible to cock up even in the advanced stages of inebriation.
To proceed chop up one celery rib and crush a couple of cloves of garlic.
Heat up some olive oil in the pot and cook these for a couple of minutes over a moderate heat. When the garlic turns golden brown, discard it.
Add two chopped up fresh tomatoes, some tomato puree (I use the sundried tomato version) and about a quarter of a cup of water. Then stir in as much paprika as is your hearts desire. That's quite a lot in my book.
Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes before adding a tin of cannellini beans. Bring back to a simmer and mash some of the beans with the back of a spoon.
You need some small pasta of some description to go with this and I prefer breaking up spaghetti into 2 to 3 inch pieces.
Bring back to the boil and simmer until the spaghetti is cooked (about 10-15 mins). The sauce should be thick, but if it's too thick then add some boiling water.
Turn off the heat and let stand for 10 minutes with the lid on.
Add salt and pepper to taste and spoon onto a plate, before going to catch up with Mickey Blue Eyes.
This film is a load of old Tosh, like most American films featuring the boyish Hugh Grant. Absolute balderdash but it's amazing how many Sopranos are in it. There is Pauli, for instance, playing (surprise, suprise) a mobster. Of course, he was a mobster in real life. Then there is the guy Tony Soprano bumped off cos he was talking to the Feds, whatsisname? Oh, yeh, Pussy Bonasera. Some of the peripheral characters are there too, along with James Caan, brother to Al Pacino in the Godfather. One wonders how all these top-notch mobsters could have been persuaded to take part in such rot.
If I had mob connections I would be trying to organise a hit on the Producer, pretty darn quickish.
The Sopranos is the best thing on TV - this film is one of the worst in living memory. Hugh Grant? He should be swimming with the fishes. Gedoutahere.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Pork scratchings and peanut butter on French bread (eggs is eggs)

The cullinary conversation in the pub last night turned to eggs. Why? Haven't a clue. Roberts, I can now declare, is an egg connoisseur.
"I buy 12 ordinary eggs, and six large free-range eggs. The six large free-range eggs are MY eggs. The others I use to make batter or put in stuff," he tells us.
Withers and I found this a wee bit obsessive not to say chilling. One wonders what would happen if someone broke into the kitchen and used one of HIS eggs to make a toad in the hole for instance. They might end up in the Roberts torture dungeon. Perhaps that's why none of us have been invited to his house. He's still hiding the bodies behind the wall in his kitchen. This is why he spends all his time off DIYing in the house... sorry, getting carried away.
My preference for lovely runny eggs is to bring them to the boil in water, keep it boiling for three or four minutes, plunge them in cold water so they cool down, then peel them and crack them open over bacon or ham or whatever.
Later, taking the taxi option home, the driver revealed a startling fact. "Bruce Forsyth died this afternoon," he told me.
Well, I'm a journalist and we normally know things like this (particularly as someone is probably celebrating the fact they picked him for the Echo Dead Pool lottery).
"No!" I exclaimed.
"Yeh. Do you know how old he was?"
I thought deeply. "68?"
It suddenly dawns on me that I have been stitched up royally. My own fault for not watching Play Your Cards Right.
Strange man, the taxi driver. It costs me a fiver to get home and I give him a tenner. Then he declares he has no change - not even a fiver. Whoever heard of a taxi driver with no money for change?
I scrabble around and come up with a handful of coins. "That'll do" he says.
"Cheers mate," I say, making a sharp exit before he changes his mind. Taxi home = about £1.80.
Anyway, thinking about what to cook but Scooby, Pete and Gareth - three mates of mine - are meeting at the house for their usual Thursday boys night out. They twist my arm and I end up at the local.
Scooby, generously, supplies me with a packet of very tasty pork scratchings for the journey.
Two pints later, and back at home, I settle for two thick, crusty pieces of French bread, coated in peanut butter. It's a safer option than setting the kitchen alight.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dolcellate Gnocci with pancetta and mushroom

Just when I think I'm showing my educated, debonaire side I make a terrible food fopah. What's worse it is Withers that picks me up on it and the word debonaire should never be used in the same sentence as him.
Anyway, in the Yard again Wednesday night after work and we're discussing food. I ponder aloud whether Withers still uses the panini maker that someone bought him as a present.
To put this into context, Withers waxed lyrical about this for a week and then... nothing. So I ask the question: "Do you still eat Paninis?"
"It's not Paninis. That's the plural. It's panini," lectures Withers.
Then what's the singular. "Panino," he preens proudly.
Well, disbar me Delia, wallop me with a wok, Worrall-Thompson - I never knew that.
Anyway, three pints later I don't feel much like cooking and the original plan, which involved chopping lots of veg and keeping a regular eye on things has gone out of the window.
Manchester United are on the telly, too, so I don't want to spend too long in the kitchen.
So to the bottom cupboard, the emergency cupboard where things like hotdog sausages in a jar lurk ready to bail me out.
And there it is. The vacuum-packed Gnocci.

Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Cut open the Gnocci and put into the pan. Meanwhile pre-heat oven to mark 6 (or mark 4 if like my oven it tends to burn things when you put them on the recommended level).
Boil until the little Italian pasta potatoes rise to the surface.
Put them into casserole dish and cut Dolcellate cheese over the top, add about 1/4 pint of double cream. Add lots of black pepper if you like it.
Put in oven and leave for 20 minutes. Worth probably stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, fry up bits of bacon, or pancetta last night cos I forgot to take bacon out of fridge, with mushrooms.
Serve up after 20 minutes, sprinkling bacon bits or pancetta over top with mushroom.
If you're Withers and don't like meat JUST LEAVE THE BACON OUT!
At this stage I also sprinkle with parmesan and chilli flakes.
Once eaten, blob out in front of footie.
Warning: This is very, very filling. You can have a side dish of salad if you wish but, as those modern prophets the Simpsons say, "You don't make friends with salad". ta, ta.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ballay from Baltistan (Tuesday, Aug 22)

Tuesday is booze day.
When I am forced to come into work a whole 84 hours before our deadline (give or take) then I feel I'm entitled to some liquid refreshment. I mean, having done a 16-hour Saturday shift (insert violins here please) I normally get Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to recover.
But it's a busy week on the sporting calendar. The Welsh (well those butties south of Builth Wells anyway) worship an oval ball and a game in which the players must push their noses up each others backsides. It's called rugby and starts in Wales next week.
As usual it's a big fanfare, loads of anticipation and then a season-long inquest into how it all went wrong. Still, I'm told it will be different this year. We'll see.
Tuesday involves a meeting on how much we should do to preview this great event, which stories we should write, who we should interview and how we can best use a picture of four beautiful models in rugby kit. Roberts reckons they would look best on his wall (at home). And the picture would look equally good there, too.
Roberts is the rugby writer. He's alpha male but still finds time to do wonderful things with butternut squash and a few cherry tomatoes. He spent yesterday in Ireland for the launch of the Magners League with his fellow cronies. They will have talked into the early hours about the merits of one young hooker against those of an older, more experienced one. In their spare time they probably talked about rugby, too, bathed in the warm glow of their hosts wonderful Irish hospitality.
You will notice that we on the sports desk, like our heroes, all have those shortened nicknames. Rather than Becks, Lamps, Giggsy and Gabbs we are known as Rippers, Rosey, Roberts, Shutts and Owenov.
Anyway, Roberts was away and our deputy editor the Prince of Darkness (who can always be relied on to sound the pub rallying call) has spent the weekend at an outdoor music festival and is resting his liver at home. That means it's Withers, Becks (not David, but Chris), Mark and the new boy Mac (who was once in Goldie Lookin' Chain, nuff respect). Rosey's around but he's gone home to do his nails, I think.
We head for the Yard pub for a swift couple before Becks drifts away (to meet girlfriend) and Mac has to head back to the office (being the new boy he is afraid his absence may be noted).
Funny how the drinks slip down easily as you relax and watch the world go by on a Tuesday afternoon (or watch the lovely Polish barmaid Agata pass by, in my case). The thought of cooking is a mile away, but I know it must be done.
Withers knows he should be off, too. He's going to a gig tonight. He set up this blog for me because in the middle of our fifth pint we thought it would be a good idea. Could end up just being a fad, though.
Eventually we drift towards home, only to stop off "on the way" for a couple in the Goat Major. Lovely relaxing chairs, a couple of cold ones, my mind ponders the attraction of the local takeaway.
But finally I haul myself off home. The walk does me some good, as does a cup of tea. I decide to enjoy a bit of culture by watching Howards End on Film4, only to drift off to sleep for an hour. Still, it does me good and it's time to hit the kitchen.
What have I got in the fridge? Well I bought one of those cooked chickens (reduced to £2) on the Sainsbury's hot counter on Tuesday. I ate half of it in fajitas with a cajun dressing and peppers last night so I'd better eat the rest now.
I've two options. A kind of chicken stew thing from my Sopranos cook book with some small pasta that resembles rice called Orzo or Ballay from my Balti cookbook (A Taste of Baltistan by Sabiha Khokhar).
I plump for Ballay because it is a one-pot dish and I can leave it to simmer while watching the footie: Not Liverpool v Maccafi Haifa but Gillette Soccer Special on Sky because I want to monitor how the Coca Cola Cup first round games are going and my team, Bristol Rovers.
But I digress. I've got to admit I didn't even know there was a Baltistan, but apparently it's in the north east corner of Pakistan and is known as "Little Tibet". It's a difficult place to get to in the Himalayas. It's income comes from tourists and mountaineers, most of them looking to climb K2.
According to the book, this is a prominent traditional dish in Baltistan that is quite fiery and nourishing. Locals drink dollops of it in the winter evenings to keep warm.
It uses raw chicken, but I've only got cooked chicken. it uses Chinese noodles, but I find spaghetti is a bit more filling.
As I am using cooked chicken it only takes about half an hour rather than an hour.
So this is what you need:
Left over cooked chicken with bones
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chilli powder
three whole tomatoes (preferrably the vine ones)
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons Garam Masala
2 Cinammon sticks (or Cassia bark if you're lucky enough to find any)
4 whole cloves
1 tsp peppercorns
31/2 pints water
spaghetti (lots of)
This serves four or five or, in my house, one because I am a confirmed batchelor (not that I did any of the confirming).
The other day I bought a mega big pot from Sainsbury's for the purpose of boiling one whole chicken. I used this pot last night.
First you put in the chicken, the bones, everything else bar the spaghetti.
Then bring it to the boil.
Simmer for about 20-30 minutes while watching football, doing hair (not in my case I can assure you), having a go at Sudoku or reading a good book. If you're really sad, you can watch Eastenders.
Return to pot and get a spoon with some holes in it to ladle out the chicken onto a big plate while leaving most of the liquid in the pot. Remove bones from the chicken (this is the time consuming, annoying bit) then return chicken to pot and throw the bones away.
Rinse the dried spaghetti quickly under a tap, then add to the pot. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes while returning for the half-time analysis from Peter Reid and Paul Merson or giving up and shouting because you've gone wrong at Sudoku.
Return and dish up into a bowl or onto a big plate with a high lip.
You won't use it all up unless there is more than one of you but you can return regularly during the evening for little nibbles. If you're really adventurous you can heat up a small nan bread under the grill (flick with water then do one min each side).
After that it's back to the football, followed by Big Ron Manager, the new series on Sky One. As Roberts would say, fantashtic!

Welcome to What I Cooked Last Night

Hello my name's rippers and welcome to my new blog, What I Cooked Last Night.
Many people have a cliched view of sports journalists. They think we spend all our time watching sport, talking sport, dreaming sport, thinking sport, drinking sport, acting macho and trying to impress the ladies and failing miserably. Fair enough, that's 99 per cent of it.
But there is a new breed of sports journalist materialising. They use moisturisers, discuss the best "products" on the market, exfoliate, go to bed early, spend an inordinate amount of time keeping fit and care deeply about the environment. But that's enough about Rosey... he can write his own blog. This is mine.
It is fair to say, though, that the Wales on Sunday sports desk has taken recently to discussing the mysteries of cooking. Rather than the grunts, groans and expletives associated with exponents of our art, my colleagues and I can often be heard in conversation about the delicatessen counter at Sainsbury's or the nutritional values of the butternut squash (a favourite of ours).
A typical conversation might be:
"Hey, I tried some water chestnuts with mange tout and garlic last night"
"What was it like?"
"Very nice, I'll send you the recipe on e mail"
On that theme, I will be using this blog to tell the world what I cooked the previous night. Sometimes it might be my world-famous meatballs. Another day it may be Chairman Mao's favourite meal. It just depends how the fancy takes me.
A whole world of culinary experiences awaits... and there may even be butternut squash along the way.