BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
The kitchen, the kitchen, the kitchen’s on fire at Eli Jameson’s place
The holidays bring visitors from around the world, and for the past few weeks I have been playing host to my old friend insomnia who has apparently decided he needed a break from the harsh northern winter and the Seasonal Affective Disorder that is its constant companion. I’m not sure which aphorism is more appropriate here: that houseguests, like fish, stink after three days, or that when even your neuroses have neuroses, well, you really do have problems.
In any case, three a.m. found me sitting up watching the sort of stuff one watches late at night on pay TV. No not that sort of stuff – get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about lifestyle programming, specifically cooking shows. Now regular readers of this column will know that I’m horrified by the current state of cooking programming and its programming-executive driven shift away from what is maligned as “dump and stir” TV and towards the clever gimmick. (Anyone who is interested in reading more about this transformation should check out – it’s very generously online – Bill Buford’s article in the New Yorker of 2 October 2006 on the rise of food television.) But then again, I’m a purist.
Anyway, the gimmick behind the show I was watching was that a New York chef, himself the very model of a Modern Masculine Metrosexual, would travel around America’s flyover country, the unfashionable bits in between the coasts, and sort out home cooks’ inability to bake a ham or boil water. In the episode I was watching, a very nice lady had written in because she was depressed that she couldn’t flambé some dessert or other — crepes su-zette, I think it was.
I was immediately struck by two emotions: envy and amazement. Envy, that in every damn lifestyle and reality show I see set in the US, Americans seem able to afford vast homes with barn-like lounge rooms and kitchens that could have been equipped by Gordon Ramsay himself. And amazement that anyone would have trouble setting fire to something in a kitchen. I couldn’t work out whether such a skill – or lack thereof – was, as the song says, a blessing or a curse.
Me, I’ve been setting a lot of stuff on fire lately. It all started a couple of months ago at my annual turkey fry. Yes, turkey fry. Now for those of you not familiar with this custom, it originated in the southern United States, specifically Louisiana, and involves the deep-frying of an entire turkey in a vat of oil heated to around 180 degrees Celsius. Accomplish-ing this is not an easy task, and requires some specialist equipment. If you want to do this, head down to your local Chinatown and get an outdoor wok burner that hooks up to your barbecue’s LPG tank. I cannot be much more helpful than to tell you that mine has no English characters written either on the equipment or in the documentation (which is all in Mandarin) other than the word RAMBO, and when you fire it up it produces a roaring blue flame that looks and feels like someone just hit the afterburner switch on an F-111. On top of this you will need to get a really large pot. This accomplished, frying the turkey could not be simpler, and what you get is — trust me on this — one of the tastiest birds you will ever eat.
All one does is get a good free-range turkey, around five or six kilos and a lot of frying oil. Peanut is best but expensive; anything with a high smoking temperature will do. Start by plonking the bird into the empty pot and filling with water until it is just covered.
Remove the bird and use a screwdriver or some other implement to mark the resultant water line as this is how high you will want to pour the oil. One wants enough oil to cover the bird but not so much that the stuff boils over. I think you see where this is going. When ready to fry, heat the oil — I can get 3 gallons up to temperature in about 15 minutes with my rig — and carefully lower the bird (which you have dried well and seasoned with salt, pepper and some cajun seasoning) into the oil. The pot will bubble up spectacularly, settle back down and in about 45 minutes pull it out. The skin will be golden and crispy, the meat moist and tender.
Where I went wrong this year was to add an extra two-litre bottle, “for good measure”. Aiding me in the actual lowering of the bird was my friend the Major, a veteran of several foreign theatres of war including most recently Iraq. This is relevant, because as it turned out it was good to have someone on hand who is cool under fire. With fifteen other guests surrounding the vat and the gas burner powering away, we put the turkey in. And as predicted the oil bubbled up. And up. And then, unfortunately, up and over the sides. Two jets of fire shot up the side before settling down into a scorching conflagration of flaming hot turkey grease and oil that could only be tamped down with a heavy application of – wait for it – kitty litter.
The turkey, as it turned out, was delicious. The backyard pavement on which this occurred may never be the same, though: for weeks it drew every cat in the neighborhood.
RECIPE: Bananas Foster
So it was Mrs Jameson’s birthday the other night, and I decided to finish our home-cooked feast with this great recipe (which, oddly enough, is also a New Orleans creation). It’s a great capper for a romantic dinner because it is easy, delicious and impressive (especially if your kitchen is in view of the table, or you decide to do it tableside. To recreate this you’ll need:
1 cup brown sugar
75-100g good butter
100ml good dark rum, such as Havana Club, Mount Gay or Myer’s
1 hefty pinch cinnamon
2 scoops quality vanilla ice cream, ideally but not necessarily home made.
1. Open your bananas and split lengthwise. Heat a pan over high heat and melt the brown sugar and butter together. When the mixture has turned into a nice caramel, slide in the bananas and fry on both sides, coating with the sugar.
2. Now here’s the tricky part. And by all means, don’t pour directly from the bottle lest you conjure the ghost of General Molotov. First, turn out the lights for maximum effect. Then, pour in the rum carefully and then tip the pan forward to catch a bit of flame from the stove, or use a match if cooking on an electric. Flames should dramatically shoot up, and when they settle down add the cinnamon. Arrange the bananas with a scoop of the ice cream on two plates and pour over the remaining rum-caramel.
The key here is to make sure you don’t be too generous, as I was, with the rum. Otherwise you might find yourself, as I did, finishing your special evening sans eyebrows.