It seemed to be an omen. The day I began to collect ingredients for my British dinner party, an oil refinery north of London exploded, shrouding the city in black smoke. Don't do it! England seemed to be shouting. For the love of God, prepare something else!
I considered the refinery fire a portent because -- and let's not hedge here -- British food is some of the world's most stigmatized, a big ol' gustatory joke both here and in Europe.
Things have changed some in recent years, as London has ushered in a thriving and genuinely world-class culinary scene. But the fact remains that no matter how many celebrity chefs are ring-molding and squirt-bottling architectural haute-cuisine, England suffers the specter of blandness, offal and just-plain-bad taste.
It was with a bit of trepidation, then, that I set about cooking up a big mess of the most cringeworthy recipes I could find.
My first course was tricky, an ad-libbed and likely inauthentic variation on fairly traditional sausage rolls. (I tweaked the recipe, hoping my guests would be deceived into thinking the rest of the meal would be as good.) I kneaded yellow curry and coriander into banger sausage meat, folded it into phyllo, threw it in the oven and served it. My guests enjoyed it, the suckers. After the sausage rolls, things got a bit more interesting.
Enter jellied eel, a foodstuff most common in the East End of London, where eels are pulled directly from the Thames and sold on the street or in chips shops. It's a standard late-night, post-pub snack, something tipsy Brits will pick up after a night of drinking. It's also the least appetizing thing I've ever cooked or eaten, begging the question of how inebriated folks manage to keep it down.
Jellied eel is just that: sliced eel, lightly dusted with herbs, boiled, set in a fish-stock gelatin and chilled. Some recipes call for the removal of both skin and bone while others discourage it, so I left the ribs, spine and skin intact. On the street, jellied eel often is served with a spicy chili vinegar. I offered my guests the option and bribed them with glasses of champagne to choke it down. None were impressed, and a few were outright nauseated by the cold and slimy, jiggling morsels.
Slightly better was the steak and kidney pie, a dish as old-school English as you can get and a great way to work with a tough bit of beef. The trouble is the kidney, which almost invariably tastes like urine. I soaked it in milk for a day, which leached out some of the redolence. Still, as the steak and kidney simmered in beef stock, the urine smell returned. Once encased in pie crust and baked, it thankfully mellowed.
Simply flavored with Worcestershire, salt, pepper and onion, the pie was hearty and wholly edible, if not a resounding hit. Its stock thickened to a nice beefy gravy, and the richness of the crust helped buffer the taste of the kidney.
Other bulwarks against the urine taste were healthy portions of mash and mushy peas. A traditional British mash should be a study in pure white starch, but I couldn't resist keeping the skins and adding a fistful of butter. Considering that they were merely dried marrowfat peas soaked and cooked with butter into a vivid green paste, the mushy peas were surprisingly well-received.
Spotted dick was, by far, the most popular dish of the night. This customary and suggestively titled dessert (so named because it looks like, well ...), essentially is a log of dough flavored with suet, sultanas -- raisins to us Yanks -- and lemon zest, steamed and served with a dollop of warm custard. The result was slightly sweet and refreshingly citrusy.
The evening was a success. My guests drank a lot, joked and sampled almost everything. Not to say they loved it all, or will be less suspicious of my dinner parties in the future, but at least they'll be able to say they've drunk from the well of the weird. And survived.
-- Aaron Retka