Although I like Valentine Warner’s approach to food and cooking, I have mixed feelings about his telly programmes, mostly stemming from his incessant winking and innuendos (which are no doubt charming in person but don’t translate via TV).
I actually had to switch off when he referred to mini lavender meringues as “fairy tits”, though friends would say it’s just the kind of mildly naughty nickname I tend to give things myself.
But his book, The Good Table, is another thing entirely, and I found it charming from the get-go.
As Warner tells us in the introduction, the table of the title refers to the sturdy, worn and much loved kitchen table that is at the heart of the home – the table at which we prepare food, sit and eat. He goes on to talk about how sharing food and drink is not simply a matter of practicality but a deep display of affection and love. This may sound a little trite, but it comes across as genuine and heartfelt.
Unlike a number of cookery books I’ve encountered in recent months, The Good Table has lots of recipes that appeal to me; an unusually high number, actually, judging by the sheer volume of ripped-up scrap-paper bookmarks I’ve inserted.
There are a number of international dishes, mostly ones we know already know well here in the UK such as moussaka, paella, gnocchi and breaded veal. And there are plenty of British recipes such as Cumberland sauce, Pickled onion, steak & ale pudding, Chicken stew & dumplings, Eggs in aspic and Rhubarb & stem ginger fool.
What this feels like is a large personal collection of what Warner likes to cook at home, recipes he’s collected, tweaked and perfected over time. I am tempted by Pot partridges with savoy cabbage & cider, Pickled herrings, Sweetcorn soup, Gourd with cheese, Ceps & apples in puff pastry, Autumn macaroni with button mushrooms, onions, pancetta, hazelnuts & Fontina cheese and Floating islands with espresso caramel sauce to name just a few.
Those expecting a range of innovative ideas may be disappointed but if you fancy a bit of comfort cooking and eating, you will likely find plenty to your taste.
The recipe introductions are warm and personal (but, thankfully, winkless) and many of them made me smile.
We were looking for a recipe which would suit some boneless shin of beef we were sent by Donald Russell and include one or more of the range of dried chillis we were sent by Capsicana. This carne con chile recipe fit the bill perfectly, and I like the twist on the traditional name of chilli con carne.
I’ve rewritten the method, below, as Warner is rather verbose and I wanted to add some comments in of my own, too.
Valentine Warner's Carne Con Chile
- 5 ancho chiles
- 200 ml hot water
- 4 tbsp cider vinegar or lime juice
- 4 chipotle chiles (smoked jalapenos)
- 40 g lard
- 2 medium red onions , finely chopped
- 1 fistful corriander stalks , roughly chopped
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 4 cloves garlic , finely sliced
- 500 g beef tomatoes (about 2 or 3)
- 2 tsp soft light brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp flaked sea salt
- 1 kg chuck steak , cut into very large squared chunks
- 1 tsp cocoa powder
- 150 ml sour cream (to serve)
Note: We halved the amounts of everything, to match our half kilo of boneless beef shin, which we substituted for the chuck steak.
Note: We used a mix of different varieties of tomatoes, home grown, fresh from the garden but none being beef tomatoes.
Warner’s first instruction is to dry fry chopped ancho chiles over a medium-low heat. He advises being attentive to avoid burning and suggests about 5 minutes to change the colour from red to tobacco. Our ancho poblano chiles were already dried and a rich dark brown, almost black colour. They already had a lovely smell as we chopped them; the heady aroma they released with less than a minute’s toasting in the pan, was delightful.
After dry-frying the ancho chiles, remove pan from the heat and pour over the water and vinegar or lime juice. Also add the crumbled or finely chopped chipotle chiles. Leave to soak for half an hour.
Preheat oven to 150 C.
Melt the lard in a heavy casserole dish and fry the onions, coriander stalks, spices and oregano over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden and soft. Add the garlic for the last minute or two. Remove from the heat.
Warner suggests peeling the tomatoes (using the scoring skin and boiling water method) but since the sauce mix is sieved later, this step seems unnecessary. We left our skins on and seeds in.
Put chopped tomatoes plus the chiles and soaking liquid into a blender and blitz until smooth.
Sieve the blended liquid through a clean sieve and return to the blender, adding the cooked onion, garlic, spices and coriander mix. Blitz.
Put the beef into the empty casserole dish and pour over the chile sauce and stir well.
Cook in the oven for 2 hours until very soft and tender.
Transfer the dish to the hob over a low heat and stir in the cocoa powder. Cook gently for a couple of minutes. Stir in the sour cream and serve.
We were accidentally a little too generous with the coriander stalks, which meant the finished dish veered a touch towards an Indian curry but the flavours were superb and the gentle smokey heat of the chiles came through beautifully. Next time, we’ll probably not stir any of the sour cream in, but serve only on the side.
This is good, hearty cooking and I look forward to enjoying other recipes from the book soon.
With thanks to the publisher for my review copy.
Valentine Warner’s The Good Table, published by Mitchell Beazley, is currently available from Amazon.co.uk for £14.85 (hardback). RRP is £25.