Dinner, from A to Z
Remember Alphabetti Spaghetti, those cheap pasta letters floating in a thin tomato sauce? It wasn’t really spaghetti, though, was it? Spaghetti describes a specific shape and that shape is not “letters of the alphabet”. These days, “Alphabetti“, as Heinz now calls it, comes accompanied by “Numberetti”, which isn’t even a pun. Apparently this represents a glorious return for the pasta ABC, which is now back by popular demand after first being discontinued in 1990. Of course in the absence of Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti there’s been no lack of other alphabetical tinned pasta from other brands, so it’s really like it never went away. Let’s face it, Spaghetti Loops are just O-specific single letter Alphabetti Spaghetti.
The point I’m trying to make, if that all seems a bit of just random comment, is that there’s something uninspiringly unspectacular about Alphabetti Spaghetti. An alphabetical dinner should offer variety, not slightly different shaped versions of the same thing. An interesting alphabetical dining experience should, I thought, contain an ingredient for every letter of the alphabet.
Expressing this opinion to Professor Plum, she was unconvinced. Twenty-six ingredients is too many for one dish, she said. Can you even think of any food that begins with X or Z? She said. And even if you can, how are those ingredients all going to work together? Maybe you could manage something if you did lots of courses or separate dishes, she suggested, but there’s no chance of a single dish that covers the whole alphabet.
That is a far greater level of skepticism than the Diner usually brings to my random culinary suggestions. Naturally, then, this made me determined to prove it could be done.
Inspired by the Alphabetti Spaghetti concept, I wanted to do something with pasta as a tribute. As I started thinking about the different starting letters of different pasta varieties, I was already trying to fill some of the more difficult letter spots. Surprisingly quite a lot of these were vowels. While letters like e, o and u might be some of the more common in the English language, there are, it turns out, surprisingly few foods that begin with them.
That’s when my thoughts turned to the local Asian supermarket for inspiration. Asian foods have a far greater tendency to begin with vowels than European ones, so I figured this would be a good start. Browsing the shelves for ingredients beginning with unusual letters, I came across some udon noodles. Udon are those really thick, chunky, round noodles. You see them used most often in noodle soups, but also in stir fries and salads. They would make a perfect “spaghetti” for my alphabetti dish.
Returning from the Asian shop with udon and edamame beans I had a dish that was beginning to take shape, some sort of broadly Asian style noodle salad would seem best to involve the large number of mixed ingredients I was going to need.
My latest purchases did get me thinking, however, that if “udon noodles” are representing U and not N, then I couldn’t really be using things like “vinegar” for V and “oil” for O as those too would be the generic terms rather than the specific varieties. In order for this challenge to function convincingly without trying to weasel my way around some of the letters it was going to need some rules. So, here goes:
– Every letter of the alphabet must be represented.
– These ingredients are the only ones that can be used during the process (including oil, water or whatever the other ingredients are being cooked in).- No letter can be represented more than once. That means twenty-six ingredients, no more, no less.
– The starting letter is counted as the beginning of the full name as it appears on labels (so vinegar is C for cider vinegar, R for red wine vinegar etc.).
– This last point, however, excludes qualifiers that represent things like size, quality, preparation (e.g. “free range”, “organic”, “fresh”, so “extra virgin olive oil” is O not E).
– No brand names.
– Foreign names are only applicable if they are on the label or used to represent specific varieties (so no use of “zucchini” instead of “courgette” to try and solve the problem of Z).
As I was using noodles, then, I was going to need to boil them in water (which I’d probably need to use for boiling the edamame and perhaps some of the other ingredients), which meant that I was going to have to use that for W. Similarly, I was going to have to pick a variety of cooking oil if I wanted to fry any ingredients. I went with vegetable oil so I could have V covered. In both cases, then, I was able to fill up some of the trickier spots at the end of the alphabet.
X and Z, though, still remained. Q, the other big Scrabble scorer, I had decided to use up with some hard boiled quail eggs, because that’s the kind of thing you can put in a salad. Having banned zucchini, though, there were somewhat fewer options for the alphabet closer.
Fortunately, if there’s one thing that writing this blog has given me then it’s an ability to think outside the regular beef/pork/lamb/chicken axis of typical meat products. A quick search for unusual meats suggested that zebra is both delicious and a healthy low fat option. Having thoroughly enjoyed horse as a leaner alternative to beef, I was completely happy to make zebra fillets the meat element of my alphabet.
As I struggled to come up with twenty-six ingredients that filled every letter and worked coherently together I began to wonder whether Professor Plum might have been right. Maybe making a dish with every letter in the alphabet actually was going to be a challenge too far. I seriously considered just doing something else with the zebra fillets and calling it a day on this whole alphabetti spaghetti scheme.
Sure I had managed to find a Z, but X is arguably an even tougher letter. Essentially, if a xylophone doesn’t apply then any alphabet list is going to struggle at this point. And I don’t think you can eat a xylophone.
I had to google it and, to be honest, most of the options are the usual X related cheats you get on alphabets (“X-tra strength” or something like it). One thing that did come up a few times, though, was xanthan gum.
Xanthan gum is a food additive that is used a lot in gluten free baking as a stabiliser. What it also does, though, is act as a thickening agent and is used for that purpose in salad dressings.
This meant, then, that I now had a zebra meat and udon noodle salad with quail eggs and edamame beans and some kind of dressing that needs thickening. Clearly my salad needed a greater variety of vegetables and there were plenty of letters yet to fill.
J and Y were still potentially tricky, so I decided to use them for some extra vegetable options. I had thought to use chillies to give my salad a bit of a kick of heat, but now I was trying to find a J food I went with jalapenos instead, leaving C free for coriander instead of chilli (although I guess a green chilli would really have been G, by the logic with which yellow pepper is Y).
The restriction of only one ingredient per letter actually presented some frustrations as much as trying to find ingredients for the more unusual letters. For example, I would have wanted to use both garlic and ginger in a recipe like this if I had a totally free reign, but now I had to make a choice about which I’d rather have.
When I first began trying to put together an alphabet dinner I had salt and pepper down as S and P, but now I started to rethink that. For a start, while we’re on colours, black pepper is a B not P. On top of that I decided to use the Asian influences for my salad and opt for fish sauce for my salt content. Given that Thai Nam Pla is a specific variety of fish sauce I had that down for N. All of which left S for soy sauce and a bit of umami flavour.
After iceberg lettuce, mangetout and red onion rounded out my salad’s vegetable content for I, M and R, I was left with A, B, D, F, H, K, L, O and P. Looking at that it did seem like quite a few letters that still needed filling, but fortunately they were some of the easier ones.
I decided to make a marinade for the zebra using the ginger, coriander, nam pla, soy sauce, and some lemongrass, oregano, ground allspice berries and fennel seeds, and tamarind paste.
All that was left, then, was the salad dressing and only B, D, P and H to add. Honey, peanut butter and balsamic vinegar are the making of a good Asian sauce, so those letters were easy to handle, leaving just D to go.
Twenty-five letters down, D proved surprisingly difficult to get right. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of options, but donuts, damsons and dates just didn’t seem right for this noodle salad. In the end, given I was now thinking in terms of dressing and garnish for my salad, what I really wanted was a herb or spice. The only one of those I could think of was dill.
It’s not a herb that I much care for, but it is one that is often used in Asian cuisine, where it is known as “Lao coriander”. I added a little chopped dill as a garnish with some more of the regular coriander, but it was probably the one ingredient that ended up making little impact on the eventual flavour.
Having made it down my ingredients list from A to Z, then, had I made a dish that made sense? Now my alphabetti spaghetti salad had all its ingredients did they all bring something to the dish? And, at the end of the day, did it actually work?
The short, and satisfying, answer is “yes”. It was a good tasty salad with a lot of interesting flavours. Zebra turned out to be a very nice meat, leaner and gamier than beef, perfect when not cooked very much at all. Whether all of the different ingredients had something to offer is a little more up for debate. Some of the herbs, the oregano and dill, were not obvious in the eventual tasting.
It’s a bit of a novelty, but a fun one and one that does still deliver on flavour.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Once udon noodles was struck upon the Asian theme seemed to come fairly naturally (nam pla and edamame beans were late-breaking revelations). Though in other circumstances you’d probably drop a few of the ingredients – the jalapenos were a bit strong, and the iceberg lettuce went slowly limp – it still felt like a coherent dish.