Cutting the Mustard

Two things I wish I had known when I was seventeen; one was simple, if you chase girls they tend to run away but that’s another story. The other is a bit more mundane but makes a lot of difference if you are intent on making cooking your career, and that is the culinary properties of mustard. A lot of people think that mustard is just hot stuff for going on pork pies and roast beef but it is so much more.

When I started working in restaurants there were two sorts of mustard, English and French. English was bright yellow and if taken with less than moderate care it was capable of making your eyes water and the back of your head sting as if someone had just whacked you with a spatula. The French stuff was a dubious brown colour and nobody ate it – not even the French.

Mustard is one spice or condiment that didn’t have to find its way here from the East. There are several varieties of mustard seeds but the ones used mainly in cooking are the black and the yellow. As it grows on nearly every continent in the world it can be found in many culinary cultures. The Romans were very fond of it. In India the whole seeds are often added to a hot pan at the beginning of cooking until they start to pop. English mustard is sold as a fine powder ground from the yellow variety with added black mustard seeds to increase the heat and is often sold as a paste. Dijon mustard is milder and made with added herbs and verjuice – a vinegary liquid made from green grapes.

The stalks of the mustard plant are extremely tough and in the days when it had to be cut manually with a scythe it took a lot of strength and energy to do the job hence the phrase ‘can he cut the mustard?’

Although English mustard is great as a condiment the mustard of choice for cooking is Dijon, the pale yellow ochre variety that has a well-balanced flavour and is mild compared to English. It adds flavour without overpowering. You can paint it on lamb racks and beef joints prior to roasting. You can use it in marinades, dressings and sauces. But its other great property is as a surfactant. I am no Einstein but a little knowledge of chemistry can help enormously in the kitchen. A surfactant is something that helps molecules of water and fat bind together. Washing up liquid is the best surfactant getting the grease off your pans and into the washing up water but you wouldn’t want to put it in your mayonnaise. Luckily that is where Dijon mustard comes in. Making mayonnaise is one of the trickier skills of cooking as it can curdle easily leaving you with a mess of oil with globules of egg and vinegar in it. A little Dijon mustard helps the sauce to emulsify without making it taste of mustard.

Heating mustard actually removes the spicy heat from it. I used to make a mustard sauce using three types of mustard – English, Dijon and grain and wondered why with all that mustard it wasn’t hot so I used to add a bit of Tabasco to make it zing.

Similarly a good salad dressing can be made to emulsify using Dijon mustard by whisking it together with white wine vinegar, salt and pepper and perhaps a little honey and adding the oil to it slowly. An electric stick blender comes in handy for this job. When it comes to sauces made with cream it is again king. Making a buerre blanc or similar type butter and cream sauce the mustard has a property that helps thicken the sauce without reducing the cream too much and again helping those pesky molecules to bind together. For years I struggled with mayonnaise, bearnaise, hollandaise and cream and egg sauces until I discovered this magic ingredient. If only the girl thing could have been that easy.

Writings

Ian writes regularly about food and cooking and is building a portfolio of photographs to compliment the recipes generated by his different activities.
He is therefore able to supply a complete package for any publishing project. Ian has written articles for ‘Caterer and Hotel Keeper’, ‘Eat Out’ and ‘The Restaurant Business’ magazines and for the Guardian. This is a small selection.

The Pheasants are Revolting

Is it just me or do all chef’s hearts sink on August 31st and you realize it’s “Pheasant Season” again. Usually we are reminded by our friendly, helpful meat supplier (or ‘Purveyor of High Class Meat and Poultry, licensed to sell Game’) who on the first day of the season rings to offer you the first birds.

…Keep reading

Saint Valentines Day Rant

‘……. and definitely no heart shaped puddings, croutons, chocolates, starters, potatoes or garnishes’, I conclude when the staff ask if we are doing anything special for Valentine’s night?’

…Keep reading

The Rules of Catering

There are two dates in the caterer’s calendar when all involved feel like giving up, selling up or throwing their hands up in despair. These times are at the end of August and the Christmas and New Year holiday. You feel worn down by the continuous grind of business pressure, never having five minutes respite and problems piling on top of other problems not yet resolved. At all other times of the year we are confident, happy, urbane, smiling and generally full of good cheer. All businesses have their crosses to bear, but in the catering industry with all its complexities we probably get more than …

…Keep reading

Service Charge

My head hurts, my feet ache, and I’m only half way through the afternoon. I still have the rest of the prep to do and a busy service that probably won’t finish till around midnight. I am a bit concerned whether I can cope with it. It must be something to do with it being a week of hectic nights and the over zealous sampling of the new half bottles last night that has put me in this state; but hell, I’ve coped with more, feeling worse and no doubt I’ll do it again.

…Keep reading

The Pemmican Brief

Working as a freelance chef I came into contact with many aspects of the catering industry. Some jobs can be difficult and stressful, some easy and delightful. There is also the bog standard, the interesting, and what might be deemed the glamorous. Sometimes I do what is called ‘food styling’ which is a rather pretentious term for presenting food for photography or film. This can be a very frustrating job; you work all day or maybe several producing food for a scene and eventually it is on the screen for a nanosecond or is cut altogether. After filming it is usually eaten by the crew who would eat a lump of coal if it had a sprig of parsley on it.

…Keep reading

Aromasextherapy

Food and sex are inextricably linked. Smell is the lure, consummation the reward. In the middle ages everybody and everything stank. Sewers were open pits or gullies, nobody bathed and there was no refrigeration. If your food didn’t reek because it was off it was probably smothered in some concoction of spices to make it taste of something else. Perfume wasn’t worn as a subtle hint of exotic unguents and flowers, it was plastered on in the hope that no one mistook you for a rank old goat that…

…Keep reading

Cutting the Mustard

Two things I wish I had known when I was seventeen; one was simple, if you chase girls they tend to run away but that’s another story. The other is a bit more mundane but makes a lot of difference if you are intent on making cooking your career, and that is the culinary properties of mustard. A lot of people think that mustard is just hot stuff for going on pork pies and roast beef but it is so much more.

…Keep reading

Peanuts Anonymous

I was asked to write an article about peanuts and I couldn’t resist writing this piece once the idea came to me. Of course it wasn’t suitable for the magazine so I wrote a ‘straight’ article as well for them. This one is more fun.

I looked around furtively at the other faces in the room. We were all sat in a circle and we all had a problem. The group leader looked directly at me as a new member.

‘Would you like to go first, Ian?’ he said.

…Keep reading