Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Assembly Line Delia

Delia’s Monday night cooking programme on BBC2 was, excuse the pun, food for thought. Not the Delia we’re used too. Not Christmas, Summer, Winter or How to Cook Delia. Instead this was Assembly Line Delia. Open a packet of this, a tin of that, add some frozen mashed potato and here you are, delicious food.

We were treated to, perhaps quite unnecessarily, visits to the footballing side of Delia and, poignantly, we visited the ‘Shed of Delia Past’. A museum of previous cooking series, with serried ranks of bowls, plates, spoons and serving platters lined up on shelves. I have to admit I looked at those and foresaw the auction in years to come as Delia fans fight over the sainted one’s wooden spoons the same as fans eagerly bid for Elizabeth David’s culinary history.

But Delia isn’t usually wrong. This is the woman who knew we would all want to scoff cranberries by the truckload. Supermarkets have talked of the ‘Delia effect’ where avid cooks rushed to buy the latest must have ingredient, like white eggs from the How to Cook series, chosen not because they taste better than the brown-shelled variety, but more by design as they looked stylish on the cover of the book.

Now Delia has turned her eye on ready-prepared ingredients where all the ‘boring stuff’ has been done by someone else in an industrial kitchen. To a purist who likes to know the exact provenance of his or her ingredients, it must have looked like madness. I cringed when she opened the tin of mince, for example. But, perhaps, I would have cringed less if the label on the tin had promised that it was British beef. I worry about such things. I also live in an isolated rural area. The nearest supermarket is 16 miles away and I don’t work. I can fry up a batch of mince and onions and I often do. I also cook in bulk, freeze it in family sized portions and assemble it at the last minute, exactly as Delia was doing on Monday. I also remember as a kid with a working mum, that mum did exactly that. Including the mashed potato. Mum used to make a big batch of mash, pipe it into rosettes on grease proof-paper lined trays, freeze it and use it exactly as Delia was doing on Monday.

And isn’t that better? That little bit of preparation, that extra bit of care, than just buying an off-the-peg ready meal shepherds pie and pinging it into the microwave?

Delia made a lovely looking fish pie with hot smoked salmon and quails eggs with a pot of ready made cheese sauce and the ubiquitous frozen mash. My sister’s a dentist with two kids and a non-cooking husband. I can see her making that pie. She can afford the ingredients, but not the time, and I could see her making that on a weekday. She can cook brilliantly, but who would want to after a day in which they had done 65 NHS dental check-ups? I’d make it too, but I’d probably cook the components myself because I have the time, but not the money.

I think that is where the genius of Delia lies. These recipes are cook-able by the non-cook and the strapped-for-time-cook as well as they competent time-rich cook. Buy all of the ready-prepared ingredients, or pre-prepare your own. It’s your choice, your kitchen and you are in charge.

Last night I made chicken and rice. In fact it was a Delia recipe, a variation on her famous Chicken Basque. I did a quick cook version using the Swiss Marigold stock she was seen to use on Monday. I used white basmati rice not brown, I did cook the chicken thighs from raw, but I have been known to make it with leftover chicken, and I used dried herbs. Had Delia been cooking it on Monday she would perhaps have bought ready-cooked supermarket chicken thighs. What is the difference? Perhaps what she was really doing was the equivalent of gourmet food from leftovers? Something that seems to have been forgotten these days when food is tossed away because some have forgotten about thrift and the art of using up what is left.

I’m a Delia fan and I’ll probably watch the whole series and buy the accompanying book. But I won’t slavishly follow her directions. I might use her ideas, but I can’t see me buying a pot of ready made cheese sauce. Oh, and I’ll freeze my own mash too.

Frozen Mashed Potato

Also known as Duchesse potatoes from the Good Housekeeping Home Freezer Cook Book 1972

6lb old potatoes peeled and boiled
2 oz butter
1 egg
1 level tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
¼ level tsp grated nutmeg

serves 10

Mash the potatoes and add the remaining ingredients (no milk) and beat well. Line a baking tray with non-stick paper. Using a forcing bag fitted with a large star nozzle, pipe onto the tray about 20 raised pyramids of potato with a base of about 2 inches.

Freeze uncovered until firm. Remove from the freezer and pack onto a foil plate or container. Cover, seal and label.

TO USE: Use in Delia’s recipes or put on a greased baking sheet and brush lightly with egg. Put into a cold over and cook at 400 degrees F (Gas mark 6) until heated through and lightly browned.