Have you seen the new Waitrose/Delia advert? The one for Braised meatballs in goulasch sauce? We-ell, I don’t mean to be picky and I do try to avoid a bandwagon when I see one rumbling along, but – I have some issues… Because I am by nature a thorough and inquisitive being on your behalf, I made this recipe the other night – just from watching the ad on the TV (and, I have to admit, using a smattering of common sense), then I compared it to the written recipe online.
The balance between television and reality is a tricky one. You have to make the recipe sound and look easy, accessible, quick, yet still shove in all the salient factors such as prime ingredients, cooking time and so on. Obviously in the written recipe – available of course online – you can go into much more detail – y’know, those tricky details that enable you to get the dish right. It’s the disparity between the two that does my head in.
Point number 1: Delia rolls the ready-made meatballs in a tbsp seasoned flour, partly, I would suggest for a good crust on them during the browning process and partly because the flour stuck to the meatballs will also help thicken the sauce later on. All sound kitchen science so far. So why, then, does the advert and recipe then have her brushing in (what looks like considerably more than) the remaining tbsp seasoned flour into the pot for the sauce? The end result would be actual glue – particularly as the only other liquid added is from the 400g can of tomatoes. Which brings me to Point number 2:
Point number 2: (You see – consistency and logic right there – why am I not on Waitrose ads? I do exactly what I say…) No stock, no water – that’s it. Just a can of chopped tomatoes fighting for its liquid life against a tbsp (or more) of flour and an hour and a half’s cooking time…
When I made this, I chucked in my tomatoes after browning the meatballs and it isn’t very much liquid at all, particularly after you’ve braised the meatballs until completely cooked through. You would end up, not forgetting the thickening effects of the flour, with a very dry dish. Like meatballs with some tomato paste smeared around them. Because smeary tomato paste isn’t my thing, I added 250ml or so beef stock and then simmered the lot on the hob with a lid semi-covering the pan for around 35 mins.
Let’s think about this: the meatballs, whether you cook them very slowly on the hob with a lid semi-covering the pot like I did, or in a 140C oven like Delia, are going to cook very slowly and the sauce will reduce and thicken, such is the magical alchemy of cookery. That’s what you’re trying to achieve through the low temperature – so what’s the bloody flour doing in there as a thickener?? And how can there be enough liquid for 3-4 people from one 400g can? I used one can and the stock for just two of us and after a shorter simmering time I had a perfectly reduced but only just adequate amount of sauce to coat the meatballs and the pasta to accompany. Whatever way I look at this, the combination of unnecessary flour and not enough liquid is making my head hurt, so let’s move on.
Point number 3: The peppers. Again, I suspect this is more to do with the televisual aspect of it all, but if I’m watching the recipe on the TV and it shows Delia chucking in sodding great quartered lumps of green peppers, I’m going to be inclined to think that’s what’s got to be done. Never mind that there isn’t enough liquid (I know, I know – I can’t leave it alone) to cook such enormous pieces to succulent tenderness properly, why – aesthetically speaking – would you want them so large and not, say, chopped much smaller? Check the online recipe and they’re to be cut into 2.5cm dice: not quite the same, I think you’ll agree. Um – and I’d be surprised if they’d cook to tenderness in just half an hour in a 140C oven, but I’m prepared to be proved wrong.
Just for the record, I actually threw in some chopped field mushrooms in with the onions at the beginning of the recipe for depth of flavour. Really good addition. And I also didn’t have any green peppers to hand, but you’ll have to trust me on this one.
Point number 4: The half-fat crème fraiche addition at the end really annoys me. First, if it’s a goulasch sauce why wouldn’t you just advocate sour cream which is more traditional? Second, why the half-fat? It’s a healthy recipe – why the fuss over the calories in a mere swirl of dairy at the end? All that implies is that the main body of the recipe is unhealthily full of fat and there needs to be calorie-cutting to counteract it? It doesn’t make sense.
Point number 5: This is an eternal bugbear of mine, this anointing the cooked pasta with olive oil after it’s cooked. Please please don’t do this unless you have to hold the pasta for more than a minute before serving. All the addition of oil achieves is separating the pasta ribbons and prevents them sticking to each other, which is absolutely desirable if you’ve got to keep them hanging around. But if you’re saucing straight onto the pasta because – let’s face it - you’re reasonably intelligent and the meatballs are done and just begging to be spooned over the pasta, oiling them beforehand just means the sauce slides off the pasta instead of coating it. So the end result is oily Teflon pasta and a sauce that will have nothing to do with it, no matter how hard you twirl your fork of pasta in the bottom of the bowl. You may argue it’s to stick the poppy seeds to the pasta, but then I would argue back that you could just as easily sprinkle the poppy seeds over the top of the dish and avoid unpleasantly gritty pasta. Your call.
I notice that the online recipe is ‘adapted’ from Delia’s Winter Collection. I know Delia claims every single one of her recipes is tested by single-cell amoeba to ensure that even the dullest amongst us could not get it wrong but, personally speaking as someone who worked for a long time on professional recipe writing, I think this is lazy recipe writing of the worst kind: no logic, no common sense and no examination of the whys and wherefores. Just an assumption that, because it’s Delia, it has to be right. And just sometimes, it’s not.
PS: Just while we're on the topic of lazy, rubbish recipe writing on t'telly I managed to catch the edition of Jamie's Kitchen where he makes the ketchup. Well - there's no mention of 350ml water and he just chucks everything in at the beginning and then reduces like buggery until the consistency is right. My question is: what do you do? Do you faithfully follow the book or do you go with the flow off the TV programme. Readers, in the spirit of self-sacrifice I shall cook a green tomato ketchup with the latter instructions and let you know. It's enough to try the patience, etc etc...