Atkins and kilts

Despite having sworn never to do Atkins ever again after last year’s experience, I find myself on a low carb diet once more.

It’s not just that I’m overweight (although I am back up at 77kg again)–it’s that I’ve got my cousin Cameron’s wedding to go to in just under a fortnight’s time, and I discovered on Monday evening that I don’t fit into my kilt any more. It may be a recipe for misery, but I don’t know of any other way to lose 5kg in two weeks.

I started the diet on Monday, and the bread cravings haven’t kicked in yet. I had a pretty strong urge for bananas this afternoon, though. Maybe I’m more mentally prepared for the torture of bread-free living this time round…but don’t count on it.

So anyway, if I seem a bit grumpier than usual over the next couple of weeks…now you know why.

Weapons grade hot sauce

So anyway, we ran out of hot sauce last week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I like jazzing up my food with a splash of the ol’ pepper spray. In the absence of the amazing Dan-T’s White Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce (still not available in the UK), I’ve been sticking to the tried and tested Encona Cajun hot pepper sauce (cayenne peppers). Occasionally, though, I do browse around for alternative flavours and new experiences.

Who Dares BurnsWhile snuffling through the sauces aisle at out local Safeway, I noticed a bottle I didn’t recognise. It looked hot, though, so I picked it up and checked out the label. It was “Who Dares Burns” from the Hot-Headz. In my travels across the web I had come across the Hot-Headz web site before, and they looked like pepper enthusiasts. I dropped the bottle into our shopping trolly with a satisfied grin.

Tried it tonight for the first time.

Oh. My. God.

And me an atheist, too.

This stuff isn’t hot sauce–it’s a Pepper Genie trapped in a bottle. And the only three wishes you get when you release it are “Make it stop hurting, make it stop hurting, make it stop hurting!

The flavour isn’t as good as Dan-T’s, but it’s hotter by an order of magnitude. I made the mistake of dipping my pinkie into the sauce and trying it neat before dosing my food with it, and it damn near took my head off. My throat constricted in a characteristic pepper burn reflex, and the ensuing cough brought tears to my eyes. I normally pour a generous teaspoonful of Encona hot sauce over a plate of gnocchi with bolognese sauce, but even a few meagre drops of “Who Dares Burns” was too much for comfort. After chugging a glass of cola and a glass of water, I had to resort to heavy duty flame retardant: milk.

I don’t know how long this sauce will last on the shelves of Safeway (how long before the first lawsuits?), but I’m glad to have had the experience.

(How glad I’ll be tomorrow when the experience progresses further through my digestive system, I don’t know.)

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The importance of resting meat

Have you ever cooked a steak at home and wondered why it never ends up quite as succulent and tender as it does in a restaurant? A lot of this is down to the technique of resting the meat.

When you cook a piece of meat, the muscle fibres that are in closest contact with the heat contract. (There is a chemical process underlying this, involving the coagulation of proteins, but don’t worry about that.) As the fibres contract, all the juices that nestled between them get squeezed away from the source of the heat. It’s just like squeezing a sponge. When you cook the meat on both sides, all the juices flee from the edges of the meat into the centre. If you cut the meat wide open, the edges will look brown and cooked, but the centre will appear bloody and raw.

If you serve a steak (or a loin of pork, or a nice cut of lamb) straight from the pan like this, by the time the plate reaches the table, the meat will usually be lying in a small puddle of its own juices. If you’re hosting a dinner party, or trying to impress someone special, this can ruin the finely prepared effect you’re looking for.

Instead, take the meat out of the pan, place it on a warm (but not hot) plate, and leave it to stand for a while. Between 10 and 20 minutes is usually about right. As the meat slowly cools down (don’t stick it in the fridge for rapid cooling), the muscle fibres that were so tense before start to relax. It’s the reverse of the sponge effect. As the fibres relax, they reabsorb the juices from the centre of the meat, and draw it back towards the edges.

The result is that if you cut open the steak now, the whole of the inside will appear evenly pink. The residual heat from the edges will have cooked some more of the centre, and the edges will have reabsorbed some of the juices, thus altering their “well done” brown colour. Relaxed meat is more tender and succulent than tense meat, because the juices–and their flavour–have been reabsorbed rather than wasted.

Note that because the meat will have cooled down, it is worth giving it a little bit of heat before serving it: put it under a grill (broiler), or gently re-heat it in a warm (but not hot) pan for a minute or so. This will bring it back up to comfortable eating temperature without cooking it further.

No matter what the quality is of the meat you’re working with, letting it rest properly before serving makes a big difference to the experience of eating it. Even poor cuts are vastly improved by not overcooking them, and letting them relax for a while. Another advantage for the cook is that it takes some of the time pressure off cooking the meat. In the time that it is resting, you can be working on something else, like preparing a salad, cleaning up some of the mess you’ve just made in your kitchen, or (more realistically) enjoying a nice glass of wine.


In the Netherlands, the whole New Year thing is called “Oud en Nieuw”, which means “Old and New”. One of the traditional things to eat around this time is Oliebollen, which translated literally means “Oil balls”. Essentially, they’re deep-fried balls of dough, dusted liberally with powdered sugar. Mmm, donuts.

But don’t picture American style cake-like donuts, or British style sweet dense bread-like donuts. Oliebollen aren’t for dunkin’. They really are oil balls. They’re fried to an greasy golden crisp on the outside, and are hot, thick and sweet on the inside. You can buy them in bakeries and in oliebollen stands on street corners. Buy them from a street vendor, and they’ll come in a white paper bag that will be saturated to the point of see-through by the time you get them home. If they last that long. They’re delicious on their own, or with a beer, or with some champagne at Oud en Nieuw.

We bought my parents a deep-fat fryer for Christmas. Guess what we were munching on Boxing Day?

Here’s the recipe we used, cribbed (and translated) from the web site of Bakkerij Steevens:

Ingredients (makes about 40 oliebollen)

  • 1kg flour
  • 1l water
  • 25g salt
  • 50g sugar
  • 80g yeast (yes, really 80g)
  • 10g cinnamon powder
  • 200g raisins
  • 100g chopped apples
  • A splash of lemon juice

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Mix the cinnamon, salt and sugar into the flour, and then add the yeasty water. Stir this for a short while (or use a blender on slow) until you’ve got goo. Fold in the raisins, apples and lemon juice. Then cover the mix with a damp tea towel (to stop it drying out) and leave it to stand and rise in a warm place for at least 45 minutes. Make sure you put it in a big container, because it’s going to at least double in size.

Heat your oil to 180° C (350° F). Use an ice cream scoop or a large spoon to drop lumps of the dough into the oil, and let them sit and bubble for about 5 minutes, turning them over half-way through so they are golden on both sides. Then take them out and let them rest on some kitchen roll.

Don’t eat them immediately, because they’re burning hot. You can let them rest for a while until they’re merely warm, or you can keep them for longer and then gently re-heat them in an oven. Don’t re-heat them in a microwave, because they’ll go all soggy and horrible. (You can eat them cold, too, but they’re really meant to be eaten warm, on a frosty night.)

To serve the oliebollen, place a whole bundle of them on a big plate, and smother them in powdered sugar. Then make sure that everyone has enough napkins to wipe their fingers with….

Hearty French Onion Soup*

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 6 onions
  • 2 litres / 4 pints of beef or vegetable stock
  • 125g / 5oz butter
  • 1 glass of sherry
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 thick slices of fresh white bread
  • 50-100g Pargigiano Reggiano, or Gruyère cheese, or a mixture


Peel the onions, cut them in half, and then slice them into thin semi-circle rings. DO NOT CHOP. Put the sliced onions with the butter in a large, thick-bottomed soup pan. Gently sautée the onions over a low heat for about 30-40 minutes, until they have turned nicely brown and partly caramelised. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 1.5 hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Before serving, splash the sherry into the soup, and bring it back to a gentle boil until the alcohol has cooked off. Cut the slices of bread to a size that will fit inside your soup bowls, and toast them until dark brown on both sides. Chop or grate the cheese, and sprinkle a generous handful over each slice of toasted bread. Then put the slices under a grill/broiler (or use a kitchen blowtorch) until the cheese is all bubbling and melty. Pour the soup into bowls, place a slice of the cheese-covered toasted bread on top of each bowl, and serve immediately.

* Authentic Dutch recipe