Monday 4 February 2008

The Monday Rant: Dishing Delia...

I think I'd better declare from the outset: I've never got Delia Smith. As a phenomenon, the point of Delia has always escaped me. When she first appeared in the firmament, or at least within my consciousness, sometime in the early eighties, I was merely slightly baffled by the whole 'Delia' thing. On occasion, at a dinner party, when some unremarkable dish would be served (hey....not everybody's been taught's allowed!) accompanied by the modestly proud acknowledgment that "'s one of Delia's", I'd keep schtum, amongst the flurry of enthusiastic praise from my fellow diners. Oh, I'd find something else to praise instead, like the wine, or the flowers - I'm not entirely socially inept - but I could never bring myself to gush about the nondescript offering on the plate before me. It was always perfectly edible - I think - but in general had the wow factor of a three-day-old lettuce leaf. No character; no edge; no... moxy. Two and two made four - but it was always a penny-plain four, and never the sort of four-plus or even five which is the real point of a good recipe.

It was summed up for me by a critical review in Private Eye sometime around 1984, which drew a grunt of approval from this quarter. It said something along the lines that: ...the thing people say about Delia's recipes is that 'they always work'. And why wouldn't they? After all, they're just the same old tried-and-trusteds that have been in every bog-standard cookery book right back to that thing which came free with your Mum's first electric cooker in 1957 and which has been in the back of the cupboard ever since. And there you have it: Delia Smith was a sort of starter-kit for people who didn't know anything about cooking, a culinary version of those training wheels on the back of kids' bikes - the overall result is neither dashing nor elegant, but at least you won't fall over and embarrass yourself in public!

And that was really all there was to it - Delia inhabiting her world, and not impinging on mine. I was vaguely conscious of a furore several years ago about Delia writing a book or having a TV series or something, the gist of which was teaching people how to boil an Egg - which seemed about par for the course. But apart from that, she has bothered me little over the past twenty-five years. She's been in her Delia-world corner of the universe, doing whatever it is she does to the enthusiastic acclaim of her fan club - the bland leading the blind, one could say - and I've felt little inspired to give her any thought.

Until now, that is.

On the plane, several weeks ago - when I was devouring the newspaper in its entirety - I was wryly amused to read that Delia is about to launch a new tome, the underlying theme of which is short-cuts in cooking. Fair enough; why not? What had me wriggling uncomfortably in my seat though was the language she was using. Apparently, she claims to have 'discovered' all sorts of 'new ingredients' that will allow cooks to whip up delicious meals in no time at all, thereby putting the 'fun' back into cooking!

These 'discoveries' appear to be based on the idea that you can use pre-prepared elements within your recipe - like a can of mushroom soup at the appropriate moment, rather than having to work from mushrooms, stock and cream in whatever it is that you're making. mean, like Katherine Whitehorn was already telling us, back in the sixties? Or the ranks of pre-prepared pastes and creams and fillings that are delivered for use on a daily basis to professional kitchens the length and breadth of the country? Well, Hallelujah!

Frankly, as discoveries go, Cortez on a peak in Darien this ain't!

But there's more. It seems that the marketing noise associated with this latest venture will also involve the appearance of labels on various tins and packets of things on supermarket shelves proclaiming them to be an acknowledged 'Delia Cheat'. These aren't new products, of course, but the identical things that have been there all along - except now licensed, at a fee, naturally, as part of this crass manoeuvre on the part of the Delia machine. The words 'morally' and 'bereft' spring to mind.....along with 'shameless', and 'money-grubbing'.

But don't let's stop there! Last week, the Technical Department was amusing himself by reading out to me various snippets from Delia's website, largely in order to watch my increasingly irritated reaction. Some of the most choice items were:
  • Delia's advice not to bother with piping bags, on the basis that 'life's too short'. Interesting to consider how you make meringues, or work with choux pastry in her bagless world, let alone fill ginger snaps or pipe biscuit mix.....
  • The suggestion to throw away the potato ricer 'because the potatoes get cold, and anyway an electric hand whisk mashes potatoes more effectively'.Well, firstly, it doesn't; secondly, she ignores the fact that you don't need to peel potatoes when you're subsequently going to use a potato ricer on them, and thirdly, what on earth is she doing with them that they 'go cold'? The proper way to deal with potato post-mashing is to re-heat gently with butter, a little milk and a beaten egg.....
  • The idea that you use an electric whisk to make mayonnaise 'which is the easiest option, but if you have oodles of energy, you can make mayonnaise with a balloon whisk'. Huh?? Does she not know that the process of making mayonnaise is about making an emulsion, and not about beating air into it. The correct utensil to use is a fork, and the most arduous thing you have to do is to keep on stirring gently.....which hardly requires 'oodles of energy'...No whisk of any kind whatsoever should be used in the process (unless you're making for an army, that is)
Presumably the 'Delia Cheat' answer to all of these points would be that you don't need to bother with any of this kit, anyway, since she's now given you permission to go and buy packets of meringues, biscuits and instant mash, along with jars of commercially-produced mayonnaise!

The best bit of all, though - as far as the TD was concerned - was where she advised readers that they could throw away their baking weights, since she had 'pioneered' a method to pre-bake a crisp pastry case without them. I read on with interest - if true, this could be of great relevance, since I use baking weights practically every day. I could even overlook the vainglorious 'pioneering' if her method actually worked.

And what did it turn out to be? Merely that you should prick the base of the case with the tines of a fork before you bake it.


This is an idea that is older than God - and I don't think even He claims to have 'pioneered' it! Has she never read Julia Child or Marcella Hazan, Anne Willan or Robert Carrier, Gaston Le Nôtre or Michel Roux? (Actually, scrub that.....clearly, she hasn't!). And, not only is it an idea that's been around for ever, but also it won't generally work - ok, sometimes it will, but only if you make the holes so large that you end up with a pastry case that will subsequently leak. Anybody with any sense always pricks the base and uses baking weights!

'Pioneered'!!! Words fail me! Whatever next?......a PR announcement that Delia has invented the Egg?

But, enough of this! I could go on.....but I won't.
Instead, I have to go and indulge in a process I've recently 'pioneered', which involves the exchange of hard cash for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. I'm not yet completely decided, but I'm thinking of calling it 'shopping'. I wonder if there's a patent available?

Tonight's Dinner:

Chicken Liver Terrine.

Rabbit in Garlic; Fennel sautéed in Butter with Radicchio.

Vin Santo Rice Pudding, with Sultanas.


Joanna said...

Yes ... there's a lot of truth in all this - and you didn't say that the programmes were so boring/wooden/unwatchable.

But I do have one Delia recipe that I use, which, funnily enough, earlier today I said I'd post later in the week ... and that's a very good apricot chutney, good on a plate and diluted with wine as a sauce for pork.


PS it used to really irritate me that those delicious roasted peppers with tomato, herbs and anchovy, native to Italy & introduced to England by E David, were, for some years, referred to as "Delia's peppers" .. but they've all moved on now, and don't make them any more

Pomiane said...

Well, I suppose we should thank our lucky stars that 'they' aren't now referring to 'Delia's Boiled Eggs', instead!
Apart from having seen her for five minutes by mistake on somebody else's TV circa 1986 - and I'll admit to it having had a kind of awful fascination to it - I never actually watched the programmes. And having now been without TV for many years, I'm spared the threat of repeats, as well....