I am a terrible foodie.
No, let’s walk that back a little. I am a terrible omnivore. I have well-documented issues with eggs in particular, and the whole gelid, fatty range of food textures in general. I refer to this range of sensation as flob and wobble. Under-done rind on bacon, or any animal fat that’s not very well rendered. Hotel mushrooms. Raw oysters.
You get the picture.
This is not an allergy thing. The only intolerance I have to flob and wobble is that it won’t go past my soft palette without making a swift exit, occasionally through my nasal passages.
All of which, according to some food writers, makes me a poor version of a food aficionado. I am, in short, cutting myself away from a huge range of sensory experience, including a great swathe of regional and classical Chinese cuisine.
No less an expert on this food culture than Fuchsia Dunlop notes:
One of the great barriers to outsiders’ appreciation of Chinese food is the Chinese love of textures that others consider revolting, as I’ve written before: the slimy, slithery, bouncy and rubbery; the wet crispness of gristle; the brisk snappiness of goose intestines…
Yep, I can feel my throat closing as my gorge rises right there. Intellectually I understand there’s more going on in the wide world of cuisine than my body will allow me to experience. Physically I am incapable of indulging in said experience. Gristle and goose intestines simply won’t go down. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’d probably starve to death in rural China.
No, of course I wouldn’t. But would I be having a good time if flavourless flob and wobble was all there was on offer? That’s more open to debate. I’d probably just stick to rice, thanks.
Let’s walk back a little further. Once, when I was fresh of face and straight of spine, I spent my student years in Bournemouth. My college had no halls of residence. Instead, we young innocents were farmed out to local B&Bs and hotels, who needed money during the off seasons. Part of their contract was to feed and water us. The budget for doing so was, to put it mildly, limited. As was the menu. Our hosts did their best, but had about eight meals on their repertoire, which were strictly rotated.
On Sundays, we got pork belly. Always. And this was not slow-roasted, crisp-skinned pork belly. This was, I think, boiled. It landed on the plate as a sad, grey, gelatinous lump, with a tiny eye of meat peeking out from under a thick cloak of fat. It looked like a section of car tyre coated in lard. The collapsing potatoes (boiled in the same pan as the meat, I think) and army-fatigue-green cabbage served alongside were a feast by comparison. The memory of it haunts me still. I’m convinced that meal, the very epitome of flob and wobble, was a deciding factor in the ten years of vegetarianism I embraced in the nineties.
Yeah, I know, hardly Proustian, but it evokes a reaction. Mild nausea, mostly.
I’m less precious about this than I used to be. I can now sit in the same room as TLC while she eats scrambled egg, which used to be a complete no-no. But avoiding that deal-busting squidginess has become a culinary challenge for me. Fat, after all, equals flavour. If I can hang onto the taste while losing the texture, then mission bloody accomplished.
Which brings us to skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs. The cook’s favourite cut for everything from fakeaway-KFC to currys, braises and stir-fries. Cheaper and much more tasty than breast-meat. I’ve learned to bone them out with a small sharp knife (these go in a freezer bag for eventual stock creation). If I’m keeping the thighs whole for a quick dinner, skin-side down in a hot pan until the flob renders down golden and crispy is a good move. But we can do better.
Take the skins off, lay them flat in a solid baking tray and cook in a medium oven until the little blighters are the colour and texture of a prawn cracker. Maybe 180 degrees for 15 minutes? Keep an eye on them. Once the kitchen smells like roast chicken you’re most of the way there. Eat ‘em as a snack. Perch ‘em on top of a chickeny stew like a slice of melba toast.
Or go for the true boss move and make magic dust.
Dry some thinly-sliced mushrooms in a cool oven for the same amount of time as the skins—drop the temp to about 110, I’d say. Check ‘em after 20 minutes, they may need a little more time. Once you can snap one in half like a Quaver, blitz the shrooms and the skins together with a little salt and perhaps some dry thyme. The mixture will be like damp sand—that’s the fat in the skins. It will change and dry out a bit over time.
Magic dust is umami gunpowder. A pinch will do the job of an Oxo cube and two shakes of the Lee and Perrin bottle, while adding a distinct otherworldly funk and twang. Shake it over chips or popcorn. Rub it on a steak or some ribs. Stir into a burger mix. I make a lentil and nut patty that’s pure fire once the magic dust goes in. Yes, I know the dust isn’t veggie. Neither am I.
That’s how I like my fat, Readership. All the flavour. None of the texture.
My tolerance for flob and wobble remains limited. But that’s OK. I may be a terrible foodie. But I know what I like.