Going off the gluten

img_7427I’m not really the kind of person who would give up something like wheat just because, under my 21st century clothes, I’m still a caveman who didn’t evolve to eat refined white flour. I’m aware of course of the one percent of the population who have a genuine health reason (coeliac disease) not to eat gluten, but I’ve also been peripherally aware of a number of people who have taken to a gluten-free diet for unspecific lifestyle related reasons, in much the same way as one might give up red meat, or go organic.

But, see, I’ve had this eczema-like itchy rash for several months now, and I was at the hospital for a biopsy, and the doctor asked if I had tried giving up gluten.

Well, I said, I cut it out for a couple of days in the summer (because I’d been reading widely about possible causes for my mystery rash), but it made no difference.

A couple of days isn’t enough, she said. You have to go for several weeks at least.


So, okay. I’m giving it a go. It has been a week and a bit, and no change is yet perceptible in the itching. It tends to be worse when my brain’s processor is idle; it’s almost like restless feet in that respect. So I’ve been sitting here thinking, two, three more weeks, maybe. And then I read this:

It is important to appreciate that a gluten free diet may have no effect on the rash for approximately six months and sometimes, even longer.

That sound you hear, like water going down the plughole, is my life draining away. I’ve spent 30 years of my life, for example, perfecting my home-made pizza(s) recipe. I’ve got a 25kg bag of Italian 00 pizza flour in the cupboard and home-made sweet fennel sausage (containing gluten) in the freezer. And I want to cry. Obviously, I can still make it for other people, but not to be able to eat it myself is like (*reaches for grandiose comparison*) Moses not being able to enter the promised land or Jonny Ive not being able to use an iPhone.

The supermarkets are making a lot of money out of the gluten-free crowd. It’s kinda criminal. A teeny tiny loaf of urky bread full of holes costs more than a full-sized standard loaf. A ciabatta roll costing twice as much as a standard one is also half the size. If something costs a couple of quid, the gluten-free version is £1.50 more, and has a weird texture and tastes worse.

So here’s hoping my biopsy result is negative for that thing, that dermatitis herpetiformis thing.

Anyway, I’ve tried quite a lot of gluten free food over the past week or so. Oats for breakfast, and oat biscuits: acceptable. Almost every variety of bread: glop. Pizza: cardboard*. On the plus side: Pieminster chicken pie: good; quiche: also decent. Tesco carrot cake: actually pretty similar to the real thing. So it seems that cakes, biscuits and pastry can be replicated, but anything bread-based is a big fat nope.

*The pre-packed pizza problem is not aided by the fact that I KEEP FORGETTING the damn things are in the oven. They don’t cook like a normal pizza. They seem to use weird cheese that doesn’t MELT, which means I usually end up carbonising it, like the one above.

The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani

photograph_copyright__2014_by_sara_remington.jpg__800x600_q85_crop“11-Time World Pizza Champ” is not something that would normally impress me much. Competitions are bunk, but I read about this online and saw some illustrations and was intrigued enough to add it to my Amazon wish list. After thinking about it for a few weeks, I ordered it. I’ve been given a few pizza books over the years, and there are some decent ideas in them, though I find it’s the quality of the food photography within that has the biggest influence on whether I want to try a recipe or style.

The Pizza Bible has excellent photography, and almost every page makes you want to try something – even atrocities I’d normally dismiss like the Chicago deep dish, though maybe not the cheese and lard pizza.

Bible implies a certain comprehensiveness, and I think that’s the case here. The book covers pizza styles from all over the United States and Italy, but also Barcelona, Dublin, Greece, Munich etc. There’s also a section for wrapped and rolled pizza, calzone, and so on. The pizza sausage roll is especially intriguing (flatten the sausage meat over the whole of a disc of dough and then roll it like a Swiss roll before cooking), and looks like a great lunch-box staple. I also like the look of the Pizza Romana (pictured), which is a giant slab of pizza with a variety of toppings, leading you through a meal from starter to dessert.

I chuckled at first over the idea of making your own sausage, but while I wouldn’t ever go as far as buying the attachment for my Kitchen Aid and some wraps, idea grows in your mind until you decide to try it.

I’ve always been fairly lazy about my pizza, though in comparison with someone who just orders junk pizza from Domino’s or buys supermarket ready-made ones, obviously not. But I’m not trying to win a world championship. I do buy Caputo pizza flour (excellent), but I don’t make my dough 24 or 48 hours in advance. Instead, I bung in a tablespoon of instant yeast and sit it in a warm place to rise in about an hour. Even this, of course, is more than most people do to prepare pizza, and people are generally very complimentary about my crusts, notwithstanding the quick’n’dirty preparation method. I haven’t got a wood-fired pizza oven in the back garden (though I’d have one if I won the lotto), but I do cook pizza on a slab of granite in my gas barbecue, and (in winter) I use a Ferrari electric pizza cooker, which does a decent enough job if you use it right. I’ve also got one of those Uuni wood pellet ovens, but I’ve been disappointed in the results and don’t use it (ought to get rid of it really). As for the sauce and the cheese, I generally just spread sundried tomato paste and use grated mozzarella from the supermarket. And family tradition dictates the use of a repertoire of toppings, including the divisive pineapple as well as olives, chorizo, bacon, peppers, and sometimes exotica like avocado, fig, or banana.

But this weekend, I went for the full Pizza Bible experience. I started the dough (with a tiny amount of yeast) on Thursday night, left it in the fridge, then knocked it back on Friday and divided it into three balls, which were again refrigerated until two hours before use on Saturday (my house is generally on the cool side, so two hours was needed to reach ‘room temperature’). I made the ‘New York-New Jersey’ (no-cook) tomato sauce using the best ingredients I could find on this side of the pond, and even prepared garlic oil. And then the sausage. Once you read the Bible, and realise how this ‘home-made sausage’ works without skins, it makes perfect sense.

Instead of pork mince, I bought some sausage meat from Waitrose (opted for the Gourmet variety, which already had black pepper and nutmeg in it), which I then mixed with other spices, including crushed fennel seeds, star anise (because I couldn’t find regular anise seeds), and chilli, as well as honey. What you do with this is take small amounts and flatten it into discs which you put on your pizza. So it’s not sliced sausage, but works just as well, if not better. It’s just a little messier and, if you’re squeamish about raw meat, might put you off. To test the flavour, I cooked a few samples in a frying pan: as soon as you taste it, you’re totally sold. The recipe in the Bible uses 900g of pork, but I halved the quantities, which still leaves you with more than enough sausage. I divided it into four balls and froze three of them.

My other toppings included chorizo and another kind of Italian sausage, which was probably overkill for the first weekend, but you can never have too much variety with pizza.

Pizza making is always a bit of a production line or military operation, and I’ve enough experience to be able to skip those parts of the Bible, but the author does take you through the steps: you get everything lined up and prepared in little bowls etc. in advance, like a television chef who has someone else to clean up after them.

Again, being lazy, I generally roll out my dough to flatten it, though I do sometimes hand stretch. Following the Bible religiously, I tried to hand-stretch this time, which does preserve more of the airiness of the 48-hour dough. This was not entirely successful, not because I’m bad at it, but because my dough balls were on a sheet of baking parchment that turned out not to be the non-stick kind, and so they lost a bit of integrity in the traumatic transfer to the work surface. So I part hand-stretched and part rolled out.

I did three different toppings: one with the home-made honey-spiced sausage and the home-made sauce; one with Calabrian salami; and one with chorizo. I also used a different type of mozzarella this time, the Galbani cooking mozzarella.

The results were interesting. The first pizza, the one with the home-made sausage, tasted so much better than the other two (with pre-packed slices or sausage) that I was actually a little disappointed in them and wished I’d made more with the home-made. I was also less keen on the Galbani mozzarella than I thought I’d be. I’ll probably go back to the Waitrose grated next time. Also, the recipe in the book used a lot more cheese than I usually do, so I’ll cut back next time. My wife wasn’t keen on the garlic oil (which was drizzled onto the pizza after cooking), but she never does like the taste of raw garlic (she’s French).

I’d give this first outing 7/10 (for the first) and 6/10 for the others. There’s room for improvement, but one thing I know: there’s no turning back from this sausage.

iGrill Mini – review

In the midst of planning the cooking for the December Holidays*, I started plotting to barbecue a big bird for Krampus Eve. Last year, although we hosted the December 24 meal, the capon haIMG_6100 2d to be transported up to us from the mother-in-law’s, because our little gas bottle oven isn’t big enough for a small chicken (or indeed a standard baking sheet), let alone a capon.

I’ve not had turkey for Holiday dinner since the early 90s. We generally have a capon – a cock which has been castrated. It’s my preferred option because it tastes like chicken (a good chicken). We’ve had goose two or three times, which was okay, but I don’t really like dark meat. At least one of those times I thought the goose was very lean beef because it has the appearance and texture of such. Anyway, my plan was to get a capon and barbecue it. In Britain, you have to order capon from specialist suppliers, whereas in France, land of food cruelty, you just find it in the supermarket.

So I looked up the brining technique that has become trendy recently, and decided on a dry (or wet) run. I got a 2.5 kg chicken, brined it overnight, and put it on the barbecue on Sunday morning. I was aided in this project by my new toy, the iGrill Mini.

The iGrill is a barbecue meat thermometer which consists of a base unit and a meat probe, connected with a heatproof lead. The base communicates via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which tracks the internal temperature of the meat and informs you when it has reached a pre-set level. The Mini is very small (above you can see it with the Apple logo on an old MacBook for comparison)

IMG_6093 2The first thing I wanted to do was convert from Fahrenheit which I don’t understand, to Celsius, which I do. I couldn’t see, in the app, how to achieve this, even though I think I followed all the steps required. I had to contact the technical support, who replied (quickly, considering it was the Thanksgiving weekend), and told me to do what I thought I’d already tried to do. In short, you have the probe connected, select your probe, then go into the More>>Settings bit of the app and switch the units. The reason I didn’t see this option the first time I looked, it turns out, is because the contents of the More tab change, depending on where you are in the app. Without selecting the probe first you see general settings (see left). Once you select the probe, you see probe-specific settings (see right). IMG_6094 2

You stick the meat probe into the thickest part of the breast or leg. In an oven, my 2.5 kilo chicken would have taken two and a half hours to cook, allowing 25 minutes per 500g plus 25 minutes. I didn’t want the barbecue too hot, so I set the burners to hold a steady 170° C, and put the chicken in one of those big foil roasting trays. I stuffed it with a couple of lemons, sprayed it with Lurpack and sprinkled on some seasoning, but the main seasoning was the brining process, which allows salt and water to penetrate the meat overnight.

My iGrill mini supports just the one probe. I’m not the sort to be barbecuing lots of different things at once, although of course if you were cooking four chicken breasts it would be nice to know when each was done. In practice, I’ll just stick the probe into the thickest and judge the rest from that. It’ll be great knowing when things are just done and not risk undercooking them or drying them out through overcooking. The other benefit is in keeping the lid of the barbecue down and not losing heat to the air every time you lift it to check on progress. Trust in the probe. For those who do want more probes, the bigger and badder iGrill 2 will support up to 4 colour-coded probes, which can be individually monitored through the app. So if you’re roasting a gammon, cooking a salmon steak and grilling chicken breast at the same time, you can monitor all of it

The Bluetooth connection was easy and reliable. It worked from within the house and seemed to be very accurate. My one complaint is that I have so many Bluetooth devices now that I’m crying out for a second Bluetooth radio so I can connect to two things at once.

IMG_6083The temperature of the meat slowly climbed from its base of about 60°F to the ‘cooked’ temperature of 165°F. I say ‘slowly’. I think the first forty degrees was slow, but after that, progress was rapid. The graph shows a dotted line between activations of the probe. You can just about see the beginning of my chicken cooking left (temperature still in °F at that point). I put the chicken on at about 8:40 am, thinking it might take around 3 hours. In the event, it took somewhat less than two hours. I was skeptical and sampled the temperature in different places and with another meat thermometer (just a basic one with a probe and an LCD display). Considering the barbecue wasn’t tremendously hot, and that it was a cold day, I was surprised – but of course the 25 minutes per 500g plus 25 minute rule is a kind of belt and braces food safety thing. With a thermometer, you know when the meat is actually cooked rather than having to play it safe, and in this case, it was well and truly done after less than two hours.

I covered it in foil and left it to rest. This would have been for a couple of hours on a normal day, but the rest of the family were out shopping, so the time stretched. The chicken was still warm when we finally got around to eating it 2-3 hours later. The flavour was good. This was a cheap Tesco chicken as opposed to the capon I’m hoping to cook on December 24, but the verdict is: this technique works, and will free up the oven to warm hors d’oeuvres, roast potatoes, and suchlike.

What difference does brining make? It means that the seasoning (salting) of a chicken is more than just skin deep. I think the flavour of all the meat was good, and it tasted especially good cold. It also theoretically keeps the meat more moist. That said, using the iGrill meant that the chicken spent no longer on the grill than it needed, so it didn’t get a chance to get too dry. I’m in two minds about what to cook for the holidays, though. I actually prefer the option of two medium-sized birds, which gives you four breasts, four legs etc. But I’ve only got the iGrill mini, so I can only monitor one bird at a time in real time.

I’m very pleased with the iGrill. It was easy to use, very little faffing, and now I’ve got it set to Celsius I’m perfectly content. Recommended!

*I have decided to call the winter festival season ‘the holidays’ in keeping with my policy to, wherever possible, use language which enrages Tories and the Ukips. Give ‘em twenty five millimetres and they take 1.6 kilometres. For similar reasons, metric weights and measures, unless I forget.

Kenwood FP959 Food Processor – review

Nuovi gadget casalinghi (I)

So I bought this to use in my kitchen in France. I wasn’t going to spend a fortune – it’s only for two months a year. I’ve aways used Magimix in the past. I don’t mind them. I appreciate the single-speed motor and the all-round simplicity of the design. I’ve always objected to the unnecessary gubbins you get with food processors (extra, smaller, bowls, storage compartments, attachments you never use), but there’s no avoiding them.

The Kenwood was £99, as opposed to a whole lot more for a Magimix. I just needed something to help me chop, grate blend, mix, etc. in a kitchen that has absolutely nothing in it (not even a worktop) bar the two sharp knives I bought in the summer.

It doesn’t feel very solid. It’s lightweight, but it does stick to the surface using suction cups. I’m placing it on an old formica table, and it doesn’t move around, which is good. Arrives in an oversized box and includes a blender, a small attachment for chopping nuts/herbs, and the usual bowl, along with four discs and two blades, one supposedly sharp, and one for dough.

So far I’ve used it to grate vegetables for coleslaw, grate a bit of cheese, make some dough, make some breadcrumbs, and chop some herbs, gerkins, and so on.

The most important bit for me was the dough mixing, as I hate kneading bread by hand. Here we have a problem. I was using unfamiliar (type 55) French flour purchased in E Leclerc, so I wasn’t sure how much water it would absorb. In the end, I made a somewhat wet dough on first attempt, and then had to spend a lot of time scraping out the bowl. The dough gets everywhere, including up the inside of the bowl centre. and all over the spindle (and inside it). The spindle is very different from a Magimix, and needs to be attached in advance of the bowl. The bowl and everything else will only go on in one way.

So the sough got everywhere. My second batch, I added less water, but still found it got everywhere, and didn’t mix well, either – I had to finish by kneading by hand, and I was blending a soft sticky bit with a solid lump. It really wasn’t very efficient at mixing (whereas my memories of doing the same thing in a Magimix are that it mixes quickly and cleanly).

For the coleslaw, I had to deal with a large number of ungrated lumps of cabbage, apple, pear, and onion. What it grated, it grated well, but it must have left 25% or so ungrated. Again, inefficient. Chopping herbs in the small herb chopper, or chopping gerkins in the same attachment: again, not very efficient. You’re dealing with some bits that are virtually liquidised, and others that are still more or less whole.

As for creating breadcrumbs, this should have been easy. I had a number of bits of 2-day-old bread, and I put them in the main bowl with the supposedly sharp blade. Well. Not very good. I think I could have stood there all day, and I’d have ended up with big lumps of bread mixed in with the breadcrumbs.

I expected to be disappointed, because I knew I was compromising, but it’s really not very good at all, not much of a labour-saving device, and not much of a time saver, either.

If you can afford it, get a Magimix. If you can’t afford a Magimix, invest in a really sharp knife and a decent cheese grater.