Monday, 31 December 2007

New Year's Eve Masochism

I love Peking Duck. Proper Peking Duck. I first experienced a typical 3 course duck menu in Hong Kong when I was about 12 and I still remember it well. It was in the Rainbow Room of the Lee Gardens Hotel and Dad had to order it a day in advance. This was no dry stringy duck affair. The flesh was moist and juicy. The skin was glistening and crisp. Since then I've had some great duck experiences. BBQ King in Sydney is great, although we just had the pancake course there. We went to a couple of restaurants in Beijing including Da Dong where they carve the duck at the table into about 40 pieces. It's a real spectacle. In London, China Tang at the Dorchester must offer one of the most authentic Peking Duck experiences and at over £50 a duck, so it should.

So when Heston did his perfect Peking Duck I watched with interest and shelved my plans for a simple New Year's Eve dinner of cold meats and cheese. 2008 is going to be a really challenging year, so hey, why not say goodbye to 2007 with something simple?

Because I'm a sucker for punishment, that's why.

So here it is. Heston's 3 course Peking Duck recipe. I've been doing a few searches on the www and I can't find any mere mortal who has attempted it yet. The BBC website for "Perfection" invites readers to send in photos of their attempts to recreate the featured recipes. Unsurprisingly there are not too many: a couple of Baked Alaskas and a DIY Tandoor.

In this recipe, Heston uses grams for both solid and liquid measurements for pinpoint accuracy. To weigh liquids, any suitable container can be placed on digital scales and the scales reset to zero.

For the ducks
2 whole ducks, preferably Silver Hill breed
For the consommé
750g/1lb 10½oz reserved chicken wings, chopped into small pieces
1.2kg/2lb 10¼oz pork spare ribs, cut into 2½cm/1in pieces
reserved duck carcasses, wing tips, necks, extra meat and trimmings, chopped into small pieces
40g/1½oz fresh ginger, thinly sliced
60g/2¼oz spring onions, sliced
90g/3¼oz Shaoxing rice wine or fino sherry
For the consommé infusion and ice filtration
1kg/2¼lb finished stock (reserve any extra for future use)
20g/¾oz fresh ginger, sliced
2½g/¼oz Sichuan peppercorns
2g¼oz Sichuan chillies, roasted
2g/¼oz cinnamon stick
4g/¼oz star anise
10g/½oz spring onions
For the duck confit
42g/1½oz star anise
24g/¾oz ground ginger
12g/½oz Sichuan peppercorns
12g/½oz cinnamon stick
6g/¼oz cardamom
150g/5¼oz sel gris or coarse sea salt
1 mandarin orange, zest only
4 reserved duck legs
rendered duck fat
For the pickled cucumber
50g/1¾oz water
75g/2½oz white wine vinegar
25g/1oz sugar
1 English cucumber
For the pancake garnish
reserved middle section of cucumber
1 bunch spring onions
For the duck crown
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
10 coriander seeds
5 black peppercorns
60g/2¼oz salt
1kg/2lb 3¼oz water
For the crispy skin
reserved sheets of duck skin
125g/4½oz malt extract (maltose, available from health food shops)
25g/1oz rice wine vinegar
75g/2½oz wood chips, ideally cherrywood
For finishing the duck and skin
reserved unfiltered stock from the muslin, plus sufficient water to make 2kg/4lb 6½oz liquid in total
1 reserved brined duck crown
2 sheets prepared duck skin
2kg/4lb 6½oz grapeseed oil or other vegetable oil
For serving the pancakes
reserved sliced duck breast
reserved crispy skin
reserved cucumber batons and spring onion ribbons
Peking duck or hoisin sauce, such as Lee Kum Kee's
18-20 pancakes (available from supermarkets and oriental grocers)
For the mushrooms and aromatics
140g/5oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced 2cm/1in thick
15g/½oz fresh ginger, finely julienned
50g/1¾oz spring onion, finely julienned
25g/1oz shallot, minced
5g/¼oz garlic, minced
2g/¼oz Sichuan chillies, de-seeded and sliced
2 Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
1 small fresh red chilli, thinly sliced
For the glaze
65g/2½oz white port
50g/1¾oz Shaoxing rice wine or fino sherry
500g/1lb 2oz reserved cooking broth (from the crown poaching liquid)
3½g/¼oz fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2g/¼oz star anise, crushed
sherry vinegar, to taste
For serving the duck confit
grapeseed oil or groundnut oil
reserved mushrooms and aromatics
reserved glaze
reserved shredded duck confit
soy sauce
sesame oil
1 head iceberg lettuce, separated into individual leaves
For the braised shiitake mushrooms
4 large shiitake mushrooms
25g/1oz grapeseed or groundnut oil
30g/1oz mirin
100g/3½oz reserved duck consommé
10g/½oz light soy sauce
For the dumplings
200g/7oz reserved duck meat (taken from one of the reserved breasts)
½ tsp salt
120g/4¼oz finely minced leek
120g/4¼oz finely minced savoy cabbage
25g/1oz unsalted butter
1½ tsp skimmed milk powder
60g/2¼oz duck fat
50g/1¾oz free-range egg
14g/½oz soy sauce
25g/1oz sesame oil
15g/½oz fresh ginger, finely chopped
50g/1¾oz spring onion, finely chopped
½ tsp freshly ground and sifted black pepper
12 thin, round wonton wrappers (available at Asian grocers)
For serving the consommé with dumplings
800g/1lb 12¼oz finished consommé
4 reserved braised shiitake mushrooms
12 reserved dumplings
12 slices of reserved pickled cucumber
12 reserved spring onion ribbons
8 drops jasmine essential oil

You will need the following specialist equipment: mandoline, pressure cooker, bamboo steamer, food processor, barding needle, butcher's string, kitchen shears, wire rack wrapped in muslin, oven thermometer, digital probe.

1. Remove the giblets from the ducks. Reserve everything except the livers for the consommé, then rinse the cavity of the birds.
2. Remove the head, neck and wing tips of both birds, cutting as close to the body as you can without damaging the skin on the breast. Reserve the head, neck and wing tips for the consommé.
3. To remove the skin from the birds, begin by using a paring knife to cut through the tendons at the bottom joint of the legs.
4. Working with one duck at a time, cut a slit through the skin on the back, running from the top to the bottom of the bird. Using a pair of kitchen shears, remove the parson's nose.
5. Use your knife to gently free the skin from the flesh. Begin by peeling back the skin on both sides of the long cut. When you reach the legs and wings turn the bird over on to its back and continue peeling the skin away from the wings and then from the legs. Do your best to keep the skin intact and in one piece. Repeat this process with the other duck.
6. Remove the legs from the ducks by popping each joint from its hip socket and then cutting it away from the body. Reserve the legs for the confit.
7. Remove the wings in a similar fashion - by popping them from their sockets and then cutting them away from the body.
8. Reserve the wings for the consommé. Chop the bones and reserve for the consommé.
9. Take one duck and use kitchen shears to cut through the ribs, separating the breast from the back. Cut close to the breast and then cut through to the neck. The idea is to have a clean separation between the breasts on the bone and the ribs, back and neck. Reserve this 'crown' of breast and the back for the first course.
10. Remove the wishbone from the crown by carefully cutting along it with your knife, then using your fingers to prise it loose.
11. Take the other duck and remove the breast meat with your knife. Reserve 200g/7oz of this meat for the dumplings and use the rest in the consommé.
12. Reserve the butchered carcasses of the ducks for the consommé.

1. Put half of all the meats and trimmings, half the aromatics and half the Shaoxing rice wine in a pressure cooker and add 1½kg/3lb 5oz of water.
2. Cook under full pressure for one hour, then remove from the heat and allow the pressure cooker to cool.
3. Strain the stock and repeat this process a second time with the remainder of the ingredients, but use the previously made stock instead of water.
4. Strain the finished stock and reserve.

1. Bring the finished stock back to a simmer.
2. Remove from the heat and add all the aromatics. Infuse for about ten minutes.
3. Pour the stock into the largest flat-bottomed container you have. Refrigerate until it gels, then transfer to the freezer until completely solid.
4. Once the stock is frozen, dip the container into a sink filled with warm water. As soon as the edges of the stock melt, tip the frozen block on to a muslin-lined perforated tray and sit this in a larger container. Place in the fridge and let the stock slowly melt over 24 hours (don't try to speed it up). During this time the ice and gelatin will naturally filter the stock and you will be left with a crystal clear consommé in the container underneath the perforated tray. In the muslin on top of the tray will be the remaining filtrate, still icy and filled with gelatin.
5. Pour off the consommé into a clean container and refrigerate or freeze until needed.
6. Reserve the contents of the muslin for poaching the duck meat for the duck with pancakes.

1. Place all the spices in a blender and grind to a coarse powder.
2. Mix the spices with the salt and the mandarin zest.
3. Put the duck legs in a container and surround them with the spice-salt mixture. Set aside for 12 hours. Remove them from the salt and wash very thoroughly.
4. Preheat the oven to 65C/150F/Gas ¼. Place the duck legs in a roasting pan, cover with duck fat and cook in the oven for 6-8 hours. If you don't have a convection oven, set your oven to the lowest it will go. You may need to jam the door open and use an oven thermometer to ensure you get the required temperature.
5. Cool the cooked duck legs to room temperature, then remove them from the fat. Using your hands, pull off the leg meat and shred it into fine strands. Reserve this for the stir-fry.

1. Place the water, vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat and cool the mixture to room temperature.
2. Use a mandoline to slice thin rounds from either end of the cucumber, where it has fewer seeds. Stop when you get to the thicker part where there are more seeds. Reserve the middle of the cucumber to serve with the crispy pancake portion of the meal.
3. Place the cucumber slices in a small container and fill with the pickling liquid. Cover the container and refrigerate for at least six hours. (This can be done several days in advance). Use when serving the dumpling dish.

1. Peel the cucumber and cut it in half lengthways. Use a small spoon to scoop out the seeds.
2. Cut the cucumber into batons roughly 5cm/2in long and ½cm/¼in square.
3. Trim both ends of the spring onions. Cut the remainder into lengths roughly 5cm/2in long, then cut these lengthways into thin ribbons. Set aside for the pancakes, but reserve 12 strands for the finished consommé.

1. Place the cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, coriander seeds and peppercorns in a saucepan with the salt and water and bring to the boil.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the spices to infuse for ten minutes.
3. Pour the mixture into a container large enough to hold the duck crown.
4. Submerge the duck crown in the brine and cover the container. Refrigerate for 12 hours.
5. Drain off the brine and fill the container with cold water. Soak the duck for two hours, changing the water every 15 minutes, to remove any excess salt from the meat.
6. Remove the crown from the water, blot it dry with kitchen paper and refrigerate until needed.

1. Take the two sheets of duck skin and spread them out on a cutting board with the external side facing up.
2. Using a sharp knife, trim both sheets into a rectangular shape.
3. Place each sheet of skin, external side up, on a metal cooling rack, and stretch out as far as possible without tearing. Use a barding needle and butcher's string to stitch the skin to the racks around the edges. The skin should be fully stretched out, but not pulled so taut that it will rip away from the string when it contracts during the cooking process.
4. Use a fine needle to prick tiny holes all over the surface of the skin, but be careful - don't push the needle through the skin. The lightly punctured surface will allow moisture and fat to escape.
5. Preheat a convection oven to 60C/140F/Gas ¼. Place the racks on foil-lined baking sheets and cook the skin for three hours.
6. In the meantime, warm the malt extract in a small pan until it is very liquid, then whisk in the vinegar.
7. Remove the skin sheets from the oven and use kitchen paper to blot away any moisture on the surface of the skin. Increase the oven temperature to 170C/320F/Gas 3.
8. Brush the skins with a thin, even coating of the warm malt mixture.
9. While the oven is heating, take the wood chips and wrap them in foil. Heat the package in a sauté pan until the chips begin to smoke, then place in the hot oven. Put the skins in the oven with the smoking chips for approximately 15 minutes.
10. Remove the skins and set aside. Discard the used wood chips.

1. Place the stock in a pan and heat until melted. Skim off any oil on the surface. Add the water and heat to 70C/160F, using a digital probe to check the temperature and keep it constant.
2. When the temperature stabilises, insert the probe into the thickest part of the duck crown. (Ideally, use two probes to monitor both the liquid temperature and the meat temperature during cooking.)
3. Submerge the duck in the hot broth and poach the meat until its internal temperature reaches 70C/160F.
4. Remove the crown from the liquid and leave to rest in a warm spot for ten minutes.
5. Reserve 500g/1lb 2oz of the poaching liquid for the stir-fry.
6. After resting, place the crown on a cutting board and remove each breast from the bone.
7. While the duck breasts are resting, place the racks of skin in a large roasting pan.
8. Heat the oil to 190C/375F and use a ladle to pour it over the skin. It's helpful to hold each rack at a steep angle and let the oil run down the skin and collect in the roasting tray. Continue until the skin becomes puffed and crispy and has taken on a rich colour. (You might need to return the oil to the saucepan and reheat it during this process.)
9. Transfer the racks to a work surface and snip off the butcher's string.
10. Place the crispy sheets of skin on a cutting board and cut into strips. Place on a platter and keep warm.
11. Slice the breasts thinly and fan them out on a serving platter.

1. Steam the pancakes (allow 4-5 per person) in a bamboo steamer. Serve these in the steamer basket along with the platters of duck skin and meat, the cucumber batons, spring onions and the Peking or hoisin sauce.

1. Prepare all the ingredients as listed and reserve.

1. Pour the port and wine into a saucepan and gently bring to a simmer. Carefully set the alcohol alight and let the flame burn out while simmering.
2. Add the broth and reduce the liquid to a consistency that coats the back of a spoon.
3. Remove from the heat and add the aromatics for a few minutes, then strain the stock through a fine sieve. Adjust the acidity with the sherry vinegar. Set aside to finish the dish.

1. Heat a wok or a large sauté pan until very hot.
2. Add a small amount of grapeseed oil, the peppercorns and chillies, and swirl to coat the pan lightly. Add the mushrooms, ginger, spring onion, shallot and garlic, and quickly stir-fry to keep them from burning.
3. When the mushrooms have started to wilt and the pan smells very fragrant, deglaze the pan with about ¾ of the glaze, then add the shredded confit.
4. Bring the pan to a simmer to warm the meat through. Add more glaze if necessary (it should just coat the meat and vegetables).
5. When everything is hot, remove the pan from the heat and add the soy sauce and sesame oil to taste. It's important not to add the sesame oil until the very last moment or the nutty aroma will be lost.
6. Serve with the iceberg lettuce. The stir-fry can be wrapped up in lettuce.

1. Remove the stems from the mushrooms, and cut straight across the caps to remove the gills and create a smooth surface. Discard the stems.
2. Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over a medium heat, then sear the flat side of the mushroom caps until lightly browned.
3. Use kitchen paper to blot up any excess oil in the pan, then deglaze with the mirin.
4. Reduce the mirin until it thickens and coats the mushrooms.
5. Add the consommé and simmer for about three minutes, until it thickens and glazes the mushrooms too.
6. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the mushrooms to a container to cool. Refrigerate until needed.

1. Refrigerate the duck meat and the bowl and blade of a food processor.
2. Blend 20g/¾oz of the meat to a paste and mix it with the salt (this will help to extract the protein from the meat, which is necessary for a good texture). Refrigerate for one hour.
3. In the meantime, sweat the leek and cabbage in butter until very soft. Reserve.
4. After one hour, blend the salted meat with 125g/4½oz of the fresh meat and the skimmed milk powder. Purée this in the cold food processor. Chop the remaining duck meat into very small pieces.
5. Add the fat, the egg, the soy sauce and the sesame oil. Process with the meat.
6. When the meat is a fine paste remove it from the food processor and fold in the sweated leeks and cabbage, the minced ginger, the spring onions, the black pepper and the chopped duck meat.
7. Place the wonton wrappers on a work surface. Roll 15g/¼oz of the meat into balls and place one in the middle of each wrapper. Wet the outer edge of the wrappers, then gather them around the meat and pinch closed at the top. Place on a tray covered with a damp paper towel and reserve in the refrigerator until needed.

1. Put the consommé in a pan and heat until hot.
2. Meanwhile, cut each mushroom into several thin slices and fan these out in the bottom of four warm serving bowls.
3. Poach the dumplings over the consommé for eight minutes, then sit three of them on the mushrooms in each bowl.
4. Drain the pickled cucumber and place the slices on a cutting board. Cut a slit from the middle to the edge of each round, cutting through the skin. Roll the rounds into a cone shape and place on dumplings. Garnish with the ribbons of spring onions.
5. Heat the bowls. Place two drops of jasmine essential oil on the rim of each hot bowl and use kitchen paper to wipe the oil around the rim.
6. Pour 200g/7oz of hot consommé into each bowl and serve immediately.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Christmas Cheer

Well I'm back in London after spending Christmas in Birmingham with the family. We had a great time as usual and had some wonderful food and drank what seemed like vats of Pomerol,Chambolle Musigny, and of course, Champagne.

This year Father Christmas didn't have too much trouble working out what I wanted for Christmas and there was definitely a theme running through my presents. It also became clear that blogging is a seriously useful tool for ensuring you end up with presents you want. This year we received a gift voucher to experience the Tasting Menu and stay overnight at Restaurant Sat Bains so someone may have been peeking at the "Restaurants I want eat at" column of my blog. Nice one. Emilie got me a voucher to use at Pages (yay!) and all the professional kit I need for my course which starts on the 7th of January.

I also received Heston Blumenthal's latest book and this will be put to good use immediately as I have decided to undertake the mammoth three course Peking Duck bonanza for dinner on New Year's Eve. It has over 80 steps to complete and I know that's completely insane when I could just order one from the Chinese takeaway in 15 minutes but I'm actually quite looking forward to the challenge. I'll be starting the process today in order to get everything ready for Monday evening. More on this to come, but firstly I need to find a couple of ducks...

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The water in Majorca don't taste like cloud juice

On this week's Dragon's Den, a pair of young inventors pitched a revolutionary product that could really save lives. The idea in development is a water transporter on wheels which acts not only as a vessel for getting the vital liquid from one place to another, but also filters the water via reverse osmosis powered by the revolution of the wheels. All five Dragons were so impressed that they each put £10k into the pot to support the project. During the polished presentation, an interesting question came up.

"How much does a unit cost to make?"

"About £20"

"Is that affordable in places like Bangladesh?"

"No, to the end user that price is prohibitively expensive, but we're aiming our product at support networks and charities like the Red Cross."

So, £20 makes a potentially life saving product prohibitively expensive in developing nations.

A few weeks ago I read an article in the Observer about the £25bn bottled water market and it nearly had me screaming my angry head off on a slow-moving, freezing cold train home from Worcester. In my eyes, bottled water is right up there with (but not quite surpassing) celebrity perfumes as triumphs of marketing over need. If celebrity perfume is Satan's sweat, then bottled water is his spit. Sadly nowadays, it's not just drinking mineral water that says something about you, it's the brand of mineral water that matters (apparently).

Proof that we're living in a ridiculously spoilt society comes in the form of a number of premium waters hitting the market, complete with ludicrous marketing spiel to justify the exorbitant price tag. King Island Cloud Juice (d'you see what they did there?) from Tasmania is "Rainwater bottled from 'the cleanest weather in the world" and a snip at £9 a bottle. Elsenham at £12 a bottle is "The perfect accompaniment to fried food and full-bodied wines, Elsenham's artesian spring water is rich in minerals and low in sodium. Around 20 years old and sourced from a deep chalk aquifer. Totally pure." Bling H20 is $40 a bottle but it does come with Swarovski crystals on the bottle. Oh that's ok then.

Bling H20: the water for arses

Who buys into this nonsense? What sad individual thinks that being seen with a bottle of Fiji water is cool? How can this market exist when so many countries don't even have regular access to any form of clean water? Why does the restaurant industry continue to shove bottled water down consumers' necks with the near obligatory opening gambit of " Would you prefer still or sparkling for the table?" I was happy to see that Wahaca donates all the profits from bottled water sales to clean water projects and that should be an example to everyone. A carafe of filtered tap water should be readily available on every restaurant table so that the diner has to ask specially for bottled water if they want it. They do it in Australia so why not here?

So what next in this celebrity obsessed, profit hungry world? Well for me the future is as clear as a glass of Perrier. Celebrity Water. Katie Price and Peter Andre will be out in the back garden with their divining rods before you know it. DVB will start blending the water from their estates in LA and Hertfordshire and produce a "For Him" and "For Her" range. Russian oligarchs will leave Kensington and Chelsea and start buying large swathes of Georgian Spa towns like Bath and Cheltenham. And Bling H20 will be taken over by P Diddy who will filter his own urine and market it as "Essence" by Sean John. Kate Moss will then follow suit but will skip the filtration stage and sell her water complete with performance enhancing minerals.

And then we will all wake up, go to that odd metal thing hanging over the kitchen sink and pour ourselves a glass of tap water, and realise that it's all been one big nightmare.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

A Heston Christmas

I just sat through an hour of Heston's Christmas Perfection with the biggest grin on my face. The man is a god. How I wish I was eating that food...

Loin of Pork & Pork Tonnato

Since Kim Libretto first supplied me with his gargantuan pork chops, I've been returning on a regular basis to sample different parts of the Essex-bred free range pigs that he sells. I wasn't surprised that the belly was so flavoursome given the layers of fat that sandwiched the meat, and I've since put in an order to take 3kg back to Birmingham with me next week. Last week I bought a loin joint for roasting and once again, it didn't disappoint. I bought twice the amount needed to make the roast worthwhile but also to use the cold leftovers for an Italian dish of Pork Tonnato.

As part of my foodie quiz at Albion I'd bought a Romanesco for the teams to identify, and not really knowing what to do with it, I decided to create a gratin with a nice mature cheddar cheese sauce. It looked very unusual, like the tips of fir trees peaking through freshly fallen snow high up in the Alps.

I found a recipe for Pork Tonnato in the River Cafe cookbook and it really is a simple and tasty way to use up cold cuts of pork. Simply slice the pork very thinly, cover with tinned tuna, make a mayonnaise flavoured with capers and anchovies, and Roberto is your avuncolo.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Another Pages Fan

I was interested to read that Alex James, formerly of Blur, has the same obsession as I do with the catering supplier Pages on Shaftsbury Avenue. In yesterday's OFM, his column accurately captures the sentiment I feel when I wander around the aisles of Pages on those regular occasions that I'm killing time in the West End. I discussed it in an earlier post on this blog and most recently popped in last week when I really should have been Christmas shopping for other people. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't find anyone on my list who was in need of an industrial sized Turkey baster and so I left empty handed for once, wishing that I could direct Santa there to pick up a few things for me to open on Christmas day.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

No going back

This week I sent off a rather large cheque to Leiths to pay for my course which starts on January 7th. I was sent order forms for my whites and knives and they have been schnaffled away by a very kind Santa who will be delivering them to the school ready for my first day of training. I think I've now covered most of the techniques that are taught during term one, my breadmaking is becoming more consistent, and I have knocked up a couple of cakes including my first Victoria sponge. Every night, my very own Jeremy Paxman tests me on the difference between chopping brunoise, julienne, paysanne and jardiniere and I hope that by early January I will be at a satisfactory level to hold my own alongside my fellow starters.

On Thursday I was invited by Albion, a lovely advertising agency where I did my final freelance stint, to come in and give a talk about my career change. It was lovely to see them all again because they are genuinely some of the nicest people I've worked with in the advertising industry and they have been really supportive of what I'm planning to do. Instead of a standard talk I decided to host a foodie quiz and we did some cheese tasting and had some fun games of trying to identify spices by their aroma. I brought along some strange fruits and vegetables that I picked up at Borough Market and they had to name cuts of beef from a diagram of a cow. I really enjoyed myself and it was lovely talking to a group about something I'm genuinely passionate about. In return I was presented with a new cookery book, Beyond Nose to Tail, which is the follow-up to Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating. I've only eaten once at St John and it was a bizarre experience. Some of the recipes in the book are off the wall. I'm not sure I'll be rushing to cook braised squirrel anytime soon!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Easy Fish

Not much to write about these two classics except that they're simple and pretty!

Wild Alaskan Salmon with Buttered Leeks and Watercress Sauce

Moules a la creme and homebaked bread

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Review: Chez Bruce

Like the Venture In in Ombersely, Chez Bruce is also housed in a building with history. Years ago, it was occupied by a savage despot who struck fear in those around him. Fist fights were common, neanderthal brawling almost the norm. The year was 1988 and Marco Pierre White was in the kitchen of Harveys.

These days the atmosphere in this Wandsworth restaurant is far more tranquil. Chez Bruce has occupied the site since 1995 and despite the lack of controversy and tabloid headlines, it has maintained a reputation for superior cuisine which its predecessor Harveys had initiated on the site. True, it hasn't reached the three Michelin star heights that Marco achieved, but its one star is testament to the quality of cooking in what is essentially a local, neighbourhood restaurant.

Last week we returned to Chez Bruce after a gap of over 6 years. The last time we went we'd probably had a few too many aperatifs before dinner so consequently didn't manage to appreciate the great food that was put before us. Such a shame. This time though, we were determined to savour every mouthful and we weren't disappointed. It was also inspiring to learn that the kitchen at Chez Bruce is now in the hands of a Leiths graduate, and who knows, when I finish my diploma perhaps I could aspire to such heights.

Despite trying to choose different starters, we were both drawn to a gratin of spatzle, chestnuts,and wild hare. Chief Taster was nostalgic for her childhood in Germany and so was desperate for the little noodle dumplings which I had never tried before. I was eager for something meaty before my fish main course and the gamey hare was the perfect option.

Our mains were terrific. Having regretted not ordering fish at the Venture In, I plumped for halibut with scallops, potato gnocchi and jerusalem artichoke puree. It was out of this world and surprisingly lifted by a fairly meaty sauce. Emilie followed her hare starter with more game. Her main of Anjou pigeon with red cabbage, sauce poivrade, honey, walnuts and foie gras was wintery perfection, the perfect plate of food to send you off into four months of hibernation with a grin on the face. I'm a big fan of the concept of hibernation and may start a campaign for human equality with hedgehogs. I hope one day to watch Blue Peter and see humans wrapped in straw and packed away in boxes for the winter. Basically I just want to sleep for a few months, avoid Christmas, and get up when its warm again.

I love Chez Bruce like I love Chapter One in Bromley. Both are worthy of their Michelin stars and both have that unpretentiousness that sets neighbourhood restaurants apart from their snooty west end brethren. Hopefully it will not be another 6 years before we are back in Wandsworth.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Braise be!

When people learn of my passion for cooking the inevitable question that follows is "do you have a signature dish?". I always say no, because cooking something new every day doesn't really allow me to do anything more than once. I do have a favorite method of cooking though, and that is slow braising.

Braising brings the best out of less fashionable cuts of meat, the slow cooking process rendering connective tissues to sticky gelatin and hard working muscle fibres to meltingly tender threads. The symbiotic relationship between meat and braising liquid is the key to the end result, with the meat imparting its juices to the liquid and the liquid sharing its flavour with the meat. Of course the most vital ingredient is time. After several hours, not only do you end up with tender meat you could cut with a spoon, but an unctuously reduced sauce to spoon over it. Minimal effort. Maximum flavour.

So many diners think of fillet steak, rack of lamb, or loin of pork as prime cuts and choose them out of habit whenever they are eating out. Of course when cooked rare these cuts can be exremely tender, but the leaness of the meat can leave them lacking flavour and the cooking time has to be very precise. I would urge people to go to the butchers and buy some shin of beef, pork belly, lamb shanks, oxtail, or even brisket. Your wallet will thank you for it too.

For non-cooks, braising is far less demanding than trying to cook something a la minute. It's the perfect dinner party dish requiring minimal preparation and stress with no compromise on flavour or impact. It could be a lamb tagine that you stick in the oven for a couple of hours and then serve at the table, or for something a little more fancy, try braising a rolled pork belly in white wine or cider and cut it into medallions before oven roasting and plating with some aubergine caviar and caramalised apple slices.

The biggest success of this week has been a shin of beef, braised for 3 hours in red wine. The only other ingredients were a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery, tomatoes, herbs and beef stock. It would be a crime to not cook it again so I'm officially naming it my signature dish and next time I will serve it with horseradish pommes puree and wilted greens.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Holidays are coming

Apparently Coca-Cola has revived its "holidays are coming" ad following scores of calls to its customer information centre from people who said it marked the beginning of Christmas. Next Cadburys will be saying that Creme Egg ads mark the beginning of Easter, or DFS ads mark the beginning of bank holidays. Last year McCains Chips had the bright and highly ethical idea of sponsoring Christmas pantos, so this year I'm half expecting to see school nativity plays produced "in partnership" with some insidious brand like Tesco. Three kings of the east come bearing gifts for the baby Jesus: a transformers helmet, a bratz doll, and two packets of self-raising flour (buy one get one free). Sressed-out mums are asked to sew Tesco logos onto the old curtains they're using to make the Kings' robes. Instead of Away in the Manger little children sing the new Spice Girls single as it's written into their multi-million pound contract. In return Tesco provides chipolatas and 100 extra clubcard points for the audience. Every little helps...(Voiceover: Angel Gabriel)

In reality the Coke ad doesn't mark the beginning of Christmas because Christmas clearly begins in mid-October when retailers dismantle their bbq displays and set up their fairy lights and artificial trees. The Coke ad actually heralds the beginning of crap advertising season, where advertisers with small budgets stick their hands in the pockets and roll out their five year old Christmas ad. As far as they are concerned it's the only time of the year to drink strange alcohol, eat chocolate lambs testicles, and smell nice. For the rest of the year you can smell like Reindeer poo for all they care.

Over the next few weeks I'll be taking a look at some of the turkeys gracing our screens but today we should really start with a few words about the ad that "marks the beginning of Christmas".

"Watch out, look around, something's coming, coming to town..."

Yes, and that something is a 5 mile tailback of light pollution. I mean the convoy is so bloody bright it's probably visible from outer space. But hang on, there's still not enough light so the convoy magically switches on more bulbs on trees, on bridges, on houses... A conscientious old duffer up a ladder nearly has a heart attack as he's only just unplugged his own lights out of environmental guilt and then shazam!, his house has the carbon footprint equal to the whole of Burundi.

Kevin Warren, Managing Director for Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd, said: “Measuring our direct CO2 emissions has been the first step in understanding our carbon footprint and we are excited about the opportunity to go even further through our partnership with the Carbon Trust. With corporate responsibility now integrated into our day to day business operations at every level, we are proud of the progress we have made in the past year and look forward to building on this in 2008.”

I may be stupid, Kevin, but I think there may just be one area where you could build on the successes of 2007 (hint: energy efficient light bulbs). Every little helps...(Voiceover: Father Christmas)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Review: The Venture In, Ombersley

If walls had ears then dining room walls, along with confession booths, would probably have the most diverse and interesting conversations to eavesdrop on.

From the breathless chatter of ladies that lunch to the uncomfortable pauses that punctuate an unsuccessful first date. The gravity of multi-million pound business deals to the inebriated debauchery of late night stag parties. The hiring, the firing, the celebrations, the commiserations. Words ricocheting off the plaster at high volume and tempo, or quietly hovering above plates, heavy with meaning.

All of life is here.

Dining rooms with history, those that have weathered the passage of time or played host to moments of infamy would have the most compelling stories to share. What the News of The World wouldn't pay for a kiss and tell by the walls of the The Ivy. How we would lap up a word-for-word account of the Ramsay v Gill handbag fight in 1998, or the Blair/Brown pact at Granita in 1994.

But walls don't have ears or mouths, and so discretion is assured. It is left to the diner to visualise the events that might have taken place throughout the lifetime of any given restaurant, to picture the bottoms that may have graced its chairs, or to imagine the conversations that may have risen above the chinking of glasses and cutlery.

I'm guessing that a dining room built in the 15th Century would probably have seen and heard more interesting things than Yo Sushi! in Brent Cross. The Venture In is situated in the Worcestershire village of Ombersley, a Medieval hamlet so perfectly English that it could be used as a blueprint for a Hollywood period set. Any minute you expect to see a film crew appear from behind one of its timber beamed buildings and some peasant wench throw a chamber pot of slop from an upstairs window as Brad Pitt (the goody) is chased through town by Alan Rickman (the baddy) on horseback. It's a picture postcard of perfectly preserved buildings and rather fortuitously, four of them happen to be pubs. Except the Venture In isn't really a pub, it's a very accomplished restaurant.

It's a telling sign when a village restaurant offering fine dining is full on a Saturday lunchtime. People will clearly travel to this place and with good reason. The food is simple but gutsy and perfectly executed with a lunchtime menu featuring nearly as many specials as standard dishes. A starter of lambs kidneys with caramalised onion tartlet was rich, sweet and warming on a cold autumn day. Elsewhere around the table, seared home-smoked salmon was cooed over and a roquefort souffle was equally praised. Of the mains, two specials stood out- hake larded with pancetta on a wild mushroom risotto with red wine sauce, and a pot roasted medallion of lamb. The medallion was more like a discus in size and was melt-in-the-mouth tender. The hake, which on paper sounded a tad girly, was anything but. If it was girly then it was Fatima Whitbread girly. It was given a massive slug of manliness by the truffled risotto and a powerful red wine sauce, and ended up doing an emasculating job on my main course, a ribeye of beef with wild mushrooms. I must confess to food envy and it serves me right for playing it safe. Desserts were sweet and crumbly and a fitting end to the meal. At £25 for three courses, it was excellent value for money too.

Looking around the low-ceilinged room it was interesting to think of the generations that might have eaten here over the past 500 years. What was on the menu during the English Civil War? Who huddled around the cosy fire while London burned in 1666? Were any Elizabethan food critics or actresses thrown out by an irate cook? Probably not. What is for sure is that if these walls had ears last weekend, they would have heard eight very satisfied diners full of compliments for a faultless lunch.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Venison Shanks. No Thanks!

Would you like to buy a new TV, Sir? It has a 50 inch flat screen, it's HD ready, and it probably won't fit in your tiny living room but it's so much better than that 2 year old box you've got at the moment. Look at the picture quality - you can literally see every one of Bruce Forsyth's nose hairs. What? Your current telly isn't broken? You don't care about Brucie's nose hairs?

How about a new mobile phone then? This one has an infra-red night vision camera and anti-jelly protection. If you happen to be at a children's party and drop it in some jelly it's completely protected. And it's been designed by Roberto Crivelli in association with Samsing. It's an exclusive, only 4 million units have been made. It says you're stylish. It says you're fashionable. It says you understand the danger of jelly. What's that sir, you just want to call and text? How quaint!

Upgrade! Upgrade! Get the latest model! Your life just isn't good enough until you do. People will laugh at you, call you names, and bully your children if you don't. Upgrade your home, upgrade your face, upgrade your groceries and taste the difference. Upgrade you shanks. Buy venison not lamb. Live like a country gent!

So I did.

And they were rubbish. Like chewing on a Barbour jacket with as much flavour as Harris tweed. No fat= no flavour. They may have been raised on a posh estate but they had no taste. Forget the social climbing and give me lamb shanks any day.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Greedy Piggy

I had plenty of leftover sage from the Gilthead bream dish so last week I went on a hunt for a quality piece of pig. It turned out to be a great opportunity to try out a new butcher, Kim Libretto, whose shop is actually closer to home that my usual butcher, William Rose in East Dulwich.

I don't think Kim knows or cares that much about visual merchandising. Unlike places like Moen & Sons in Clapham or Mckanna Meats on Theobalds Road, Libretto's windows do not set mouths watering or draw passing traffic into the shop with lavish displays of scarlet flesh. In fact you'd probably see more attractive rump on offer in the windows of Amsterdam's red light district. The shop itself has a slightly strange smell, like a larder full of dried herbs, spices, and condiments that haven't been refreshed for twenty years. Behind the counter sit a solitary chicken, a couple of pork tenderloins, a pigeon, and a rack of lamb. It doesn't seem like meat heaven to me.

A few years ago I would pass under the arches of Smithfield Market at 8.45am every morning on the way to the office in Clerkenwell. As I made my way through this theatre of meat, the scent of flesh hung heavily in the air as porters lugged giant carcasses from delivery vans, their white coats stained with blood. Forklift trucks in reverse beeped to announce their movements, with twin prongs wedged firmly under palettes of chickens imported from France and beyond. A pack of Essex boys, their mouths filled with cigarettes and language as colourful as their bloody coats, barked and whistled at the passing secretaries whose killer heels clip-clopped on the cobbles as they tried to maintain their balance and the head on their Starbucks capuccinos. I longed to divert my path and take a sharp right down the narrow aisles of traders, dance through the forests of hanging meat like Rocky Balboa, wield a cleaver and bring it crashing down on a butcher's block. But instead I would continue straight on, head in the clouds past St John restaurant, over Clerkenwell Road and to my cluttered desk for another day of unbridled brandalism.

Libretto's has no such atmosphere but appearances certainly can be deceptive. Slightly nervously I asked Kim for a couple of pork chops on the bone. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a full loin of free-range pork slung over his shoulder which he slammed onto his block. He turned to look at me and with a cheeky glint in the eye he posited a single-worded enquiry. "Greedy?". I answered with two words. "Of course". He proceeded to cut two T-bone chops from the loin the size of which I have never seen before. I wasn't sure I had plates big enough to serve them, or a table strong enough to bear their weight. They were over 400g each.

And the flavour... The pork had been hung for I'm not sure how long and the meat and fat had taken on a rich nuttiness I had never tasted before. Cooked pink, the centre remained juicy and tender. A simple accompaniment of caramalised onions and sage was enough to showcase its quality.

So Librettos will now become my butcher of choice. The reason there is so little meat on display is that he cuts it all to order. I can't wait to find out what other gems he has hidden in his meat store.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Gilthead bream, red wine risotto, butternut squash puree, and deep fried sage

It was my original plan to cook a different fish every week but the astronomical price of our pescatorial friends is making that increasingly difficult on my tight budget. So far I've managed:

Red Mullet
Sea Bass
Red Snapper
Lemon Sole

I've been trying to find John Dory for the past few weeks but my local fishmonger Moxons in East Dulwich is always out of stock when I pop in. Inevitably I end up leaving with something else and have to replan what I'm going to cook. Last week I left with squid which I really enjoyed cleaning and preparing. I marinated it with ginger, garlic, chilli and lime juice and stir- fried it with bok choi for a great oriental supper. Most recently I opted for Gilthead Bream which I have often seen on restaurant menus but never cooked myself.

Gilthead Bream is so called because of a golden bar across its forehead and is found in the Mediterranean and eastern coastal regions of the North Atlantic. It is also heavily farmed in Greece which supplies 50% of the EU's Sea Bream stocks. In France the fish is known as Dourade. It's probably most comparable to Sea Bass in texture and flavour, although in shape it produces a much rounder, chunkier fillet. Cost is around £9.50 per kilo.

I put together a dish using some left-over butternut squash and just store cupboard ingredients, working as usual to create interesting colours, textures, and flavours. The vibrant orange of the butternut squash, the deep red of the risotto, and the dark green of the fried sage all contrasted with the white flesh of the bream. The crunch of the deep fried squash and crispy sage added texture to the flaky fish. I'm most happy to say that the flavours worked well together and the starring role was left to the fish which wasn't overpowered by anything else on the plate.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

From comfort food to fine dining

The last weekend in October is always a depressing time of the year. I think this year, the clocks shouldn't have gone back. They should have stayed right where they were. After all, the changing clock announces the end of British Summer Time, and this year the British Summer never bothered to show up. It jilted us. No message, no apology. What a rude, ill-mannered season. It wouldn't have happened in the '50s, when seasons were well brought up and knew their place. But these are modern, anti-social times where manners hold little sway. I blame violent video games and rap music.

The cold, dark nights have coincided with a number of evening events for the Chief Taster, so for several nights over the past couple of weeks I've been cooking for one. Whilst I'm still sticking to my plan of cooking something new every night, I've reverted to comfort food to ease myself into autumn. Chicken, Leek and Tarragon Pie, Toad in the Hole, Lamb Tagine, Iranian Potato Cakes stuffed with Spiced Lamb, and Confit de Canard. Although all these dishes have all been delicious, I have to say that cooking for one is far less fun than cooking for others.

By Monday I was itching to spend some serious time in the kitchen and so I decided to ditch comfort food for a few days and go a bit gastro. I'm now beginning to experiment a bit more with the holy trinity of flavour, texture and colour which is something that every trip to Bacchus reinforces in my brain. I put together a challenging menu drawn from a variety of sources:

eared scallops with cauliflower puree, cumin veloute, and ras el hanout caramel

Pigeon with parsnip puree, roasted shallots, and chocolate sauce

Apple crumble

There were a number of techniques and flavour combinations within these dishes that I wanted to try for the first time. In the scallop dish it was making thin, spiced caramel shards and understanding the marriage of this with bitter raw cauliflower and sweet scallops. For the pigeon dish, I've always wanted to try the combination of meat and chocolate. Finally, because I'm not really a pudding person, I must confess that I've never made a humble crumble or a fresh custard before.

The recipe for the scallop dish comes from Le Champignon Sauvage, a two michelin starred restaurant in Cheltenham and it calls for an usual ingredient - Lecithin. I've never heard of Lecithin before but you can get it from health food stores and it acts as an emulsifier to bind aqueous and fat based solutions together. The result? A foam stays foamy for longer. Unfortunately I couldn't find any in time, so the bubbles on the cumin veloute didn't last for long. Next time I will definitely add a couple of grams of Lecithin to stabilise the foam. The ras el hanout caramel was a revelation and I made it 3 times to get the balance between sweetness and spice just right. It adds a fantastic textural dimension to the dish, providing a delicate crunch as the tender scallop meat yields with each bite. I stupidly forgot to add the garnish of apple matchsticks and this would have added a burst of colour to the plate, but nonetheless it tasted fantastic and will definitely feature on my menu again.

Tomorrow I'll post about the pigeon dish, and just why chocolate and meat is the ideal combination.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Kim, Aggie, Calves Liver

In days of yore, some bearded dude once said that cleanliness is next to Godliness. As a post-yore atheist, that's about as much incentive to lead a tidy life as the promise of a 2 weeks all inclusive holiday to Basra. In any case tidiness just doesn't come naturally to me so it's doubtful that I would ever make it within 50 miles of Godliness, let alone ride pillion with it to the pearly gates of heaven.

I am, by nature, a meticulous planner. Every eventuality must be accounted for, every permutation calculated. I think it comes from being a born worrier. It seems strange then that such a person could lead a life of chronic untidiness.

When I had a desk job, the desk itself was rarely visible to the naked eye. It was typically piled high with reams of paper, cds, pens, diaries, and magazines. Over time the pile would build up to mountainous proportions, swaying as the breeze of the air conditioning passed over its peak like an icy wind swirling through the Himalayas, the sheets of white A4 clinging precariously to each other, an avalanche waiting to happen. Extracting a document was like a game of Jenga, with a tentative pull here and a cautious push there. But the point is that I would always know where the document I needed was. Admittedly it was chaos, but it was organised chaos and I like that a lot.

Around my house it would not require a Native American tracker to tell where I've been. My path is easily identifiable by small piles of ephemera dotted around on sideboards, mantlepieces, and tables. Receipts, train tickets, golf tees, the odd stick of chewing gum, they all regularly congregate idly for short periods of time, like teenagers sitting on low walls in suburban shopping precincts. Occasionally they would be joined by higher status items like housekeys or a mobile phone, or more often than not, an Oyster card. But just like my desk at work, I would know which pile to go to for what I needed. They are like beacons, drawing me to them in times of hurried panic, as I run around shouting, "where are my keys, I need my keys!!!"

My kitchen is no less of a cluttered landscape and no matter how much I try to restore order to the unruly condiments, it always ends up looking like somebody has advertised a party on Facebook and crowds of local undesirables have turned up to trash the place. This is partly due to not having enough cupboard space for all the gadgetry I end up buying in Pages, but also down to a lack of discipline on my part.

A few weeks ago I came across a fantastic blog by a young chef called Aidan Brooks. He's currently working at Commerc 24 in Barcelona and writes some hugely insightful posts on all aspects of food and life in a professional kitchen. I can't quite believe he's only 19. Anyway, of the kitchen at Commerc 24 he writes ,

"The secret of this successful team is focus, precision and speed. There's literally no time to talk. The only time we speak is when we're giving or receiving instructions. The only other words you're likely to hear from Jordi are "rapido rapido rapido!". Every task is completed at breakneck speed, with astounding accuracy and preciseness. You finish one job, it's inspected to ensure perfection, and you're given another task instantly. Every single object - from the immaculately folded cloths to the container of black sesame seeds - sits perfect at its designated spot and at its designated angle of orientation on the section, without question."

Having read this I realised that my lesson for last week would not be learning new technique, it would be learning the art of tidiness. I bought little containers from Muji, usually used for make-up, and filled them with oils and vinegars. I bought a little acrylic shelf to put them on. I removed the majority of clutter from my worktops and reorganised my cupboards. I vowed to keep my work area clean while I prepped my mise, and keep stray bits from falling onto the floor as I chopped.

The first product of this new regime was a classic dish of calves liver, bacon and mash, deglazed with a splash of fig balsamic to cut through the richness of the liver. Hardly any prep involved so fairly easy to keep things tidy for this one. Still it was good to see the floor remain clean and I know the chief taster who also doubles as chief plongeur welcomes that. Unfortunately she may have to suffer the little piles of clutter around the house for a while longer. I need to retain an element of chaos somewhere.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Monkey Tennis?

Life is full of classic combinations. Gin and tonic, fish and chips,the Daily Express and Princess Di conspiracy theories. It's inconceivable to think of one without the other.

At the moment, it seems that if you combine reality/eviction shows with celebrities, you strike TV gold. Mmmm. What could those celebs do next I wonder, work in a kitchen? Seen it. Live in the jungle? Seen it. Learn to dance? Seen it. Learn to juggle? oh come on, some originality please! Ok, manually pleasure pigs then.

I mean these are the ideas that got approved. What about all the ideas that came out of the brainstorm but didn't get commissioned?

I would personally be glued to the box to watch Celebatoir where a team of WAGs are taught to slaughter livestock and make handbags out of animal hide. More compelling might be Celebrity Love Nunnery where D list lothario Calum Best takes a vow of silence and has to try and seduce the convent's Sisters using only those cheeky little eyes.

Best: an eye for the ladies

Nuns: in a word, naughty

It seems the splicing of interests has now entered the world of daytime food TV. Picture yourself back in the brainstorm...

"So celebrity chefs are massive, yeah, I'm sure we could combine them with some other big trend, you know, like women being too busy juggling childcare and their careers to cook a meal for the family every night..."

"How about Indulgent Invasion? Rick Stein bursts into an unsuspecting Mum's bathroom during her precious moment of
me-time and pampers her by rustling up a nice bit of turbot by the side of the bath?"

"I like it. But I don't think Rick would do it."

"Worrall Thompson?"



"Now you're talking, you know how Ainsley loves his soapy suds. If we can get a barbie in there it's a done deal."

Meanwhile down the corridor, a similarly dumb idea is being suggested. Food Poker. Celebrity chefs play Texas Hold'em but instead of making winning hands out of the playing cards they have to make a winning dish out of the ingredients featured on a specially created pack of "food cards". They take the 2 cards they are dealt which feature, let's say, pork belly and vanilla ice cream. They can then pick three ingredient cards from the shared 5 cards on the table and make up a fantastic dish for the judging panel. The panel then votes on the winner and er, that's it.

Tense music plays as Atul Kochnar stares worriedly at his hand. He's holding pig's ear and coca-cola. Opposite him Paul Rankin tries to maintain his Food Poker face as he looks at the salmon and dill cards he has in his grasp. Meanwhile annoyingly chipper presenter Matt Allwright tries to increase the non-existent tension with his inane probing. What will the final 5 cards throw up? And now Rankin doesn't look so smug. On the final five cards are a drinking straw, gin, vodka, tequila, and rum. What are the chances of that? Atul produces a stunning long island iced tea, the pig's ear hanging over the rim of the glass like a slice of lime. Rankin does salmon and dill brochettes flambeed in gin. The judges get drunk and vote for Atul. The end.

Shamefully this programme exists. I watched it yesterday. I will never watch it again.

Later that evening I played my own hand of Food Poker and dealt myself brill, leeks, red wine, shallots and potato cubes.

Monday, 29 October 2007

You say fo, I say fuh, let's call the whole thing off.

It seems you can get pretty much anything for lunch in London nowadays. A new wave of sleekly branded restaurants is popping up purveying everything from hummus to falafels to burritos to risotto. It's certainly a far cry from Spud-U-Like.

Faced with all this exciting choice, the humble sandwich seems a bit dull. When it turns up at the ACLS (Annual Congress of Lunchtime Solutions), Cheese Sandwich has an early night while Hummus, Falafel, and Well Dressed Salad go partying in Brighton.

"He ain't hanging with us, he ain't got no trendily designed logo, dope colour palette, or disarmingly conversational tone of voice."

"Yeah, and David Schwimmer don't like him either!"

For some reason, and don't ask me what it is, lunchtime comestibles have terrible grammar.

Rightly or wrongly, sandwiches just seem so outdated. I mean why put filling between two slices of Sunpride when you can wrap it in a tortilla? Sliced white is soooooo last century.

Why buy a tray of sushi when you can pick-and-mix what you want and select individual portions which have been wrapped in their own cellophane by a japanese robot? That's so, er, wasteful! But hey, it's done by a FRIGGIN' ROBOT and that's just cool AS...

When I was working at Naked on St John St, a new Vietnamese joint opened up down the road specialising in their national soup dish, Pho. Cunningly named Pho and with, yes, a sleek logo and trendy interior, it lured me in on a wintery lunchtime when my buddy Mat was visiting from Sydney. Since forever I have been a guzzler of won ton noodle soup but the steaming bowl of Pho I tasted that day made every won ton soup I had eaten taste like dishwater. The depth of flavour in the stock was unbelievable, and enhanced by the herbs I added along the way. It was rich, hearty, aromatic and meaty. It was the beginning of a love affair.

The love affair continued when I went to work in Shoreditch, a stone's throw away from Old Street and Kingsland Road's authentic Vietnamese restaurants. My colleagues Dermot and Paul were true aficionados of Vietnamese cuisine and took me to try out different restaurants in the area. They opened my eyes to Banh Xeo at Song Que, the most delicate crispy pancakes filled with chicken, beansprouts and shrimp. And at Cay Tre I found a Chicken Pho that matched the one I first sampled in Clerkenwell. For the next year it would be my weekly lunchtime treat.

Last week I decided on an experiment to see how many lunches I could make out of a medium sized chicken (answer=9). I naturally had to have a crack at making an authentic Pho from the stock and it turned out pretty fine. The mere addition of some ginger, star anise and cinnamon took a basic chicken stock to another level, and after adding mint,coriander, chilli, noodles, chicken and a splash of hoisin sauce to finish the dish, I could have been back in Shoreditch again. And if you're wondering about the title of this post, Pho is pronounced "fuh" not "fo".

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Broken leg v death by boiling. You choose...

Poor Gavin. One minute he's crossing the road on a Friday evening filled with promise. The next he's in A&E having a broken leg put in plaster, the promise turning out to be as reliable as an Elizabeth Taylor "I do". Since he is now housebound, bored and lacking primate friends to play Sega Rally with, I offered to head up to North London and cook him lunch. In these situations, where the wounded or ill are feeling sorry for themselves, it's always best to put their injury into context.

En route to Stoke Newington I stopped by the fantastic Chinese cash and carry, See Woo in Greenwich, to pick up a live crustacean from one of their tanks. Together, we continued our journey to N16 side by side, singing show tunes and regaling each other with witty anecdotes from our respective pasts. I told stories of crazy japes in advertising. He told stories of Chinese lobster trafficking and the promise of a better life in London. We had the chemistry of a classic double act from the past - Laurel and Hardy, Morecombe and Wise, The Chuckle Brothers. But ahead I could see the steely eyes of the driver in front, glancing at me suspiciously in her rear view mirror. She knew my intentions. She could see through the charade. There would be no better life in London for this stalk-eyed decapod.

We arrived at Gavin's home and indeed he was an invalid. As he hobbled around the flat there was nothing for it but to show him that life wasn't so bad after all. No, there would be no can-canning for a while, no he couldn't go out and play kiss chase with the girls, and no, Bargain Hunt is no longer presented by David Dickinson. But let's not be negative. These things are mere inconveniences when compared with death by boiling.

And then it was over. No last minute pardon from the King of Thailand. With a dive worthy of Didier Drogba, my pincered pal went headlong into the salty maelstrom.

Lobster with chips and sauce vierge.


Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Pumpkin Curry with Channa Dal

In truth I didn't make a complicated beef wellington after slicing my thumb, I actually made a fairly simple pumpkin and lentil curry, but that's not really that impressive is it? My last post was just full of lies, damned lies. I'm not really hard and thumbs are in fact quite useful, especially when playing Xbox or Playstation games. You only have to look at our animal friends to see the proof. In general, cats are rubbish at Sega Rally whereas Bornean Orangutans are pretty good. They have four thumbs, you see. Cats tend to get their own back at MC Groovz Dance Groovz, as they can breakdance and backflip and always end up with four feet back on the dance mat. No handheld joypad is required.

So as I was saying, editors have power and can manipulate your mind.

I'm not really much of a pumpkin fan. Never really experimented with them that much, either in the warding off of evil spirits or the warding off of hunger. Incidentally, if you are buying a pumpkin to ward off evil spirits, make sure it's organic. The extra nutritional goodness makes it particularly effective at scaring away the most vicious of spirits. Unfortunately it won't work on those boys from the local estate who are intent on egging and toilet papering your house. For them I recommend filling the pumpkin with petrol and using an onager to catapult it from a first floor bedroom window onto their hoodied little heads.

I do love a pumpkin risotto, with the flesh roasted, pureed and stirred through the rice at the end of cooking, but beyond that my repertoire is small. Pumpkin pie doesn't really fill me with much excitement so I thought I'd try a vegetarian curry with split yellow peas or Channa Dal. It was ok. As a meat lover, it wasn't really my kind of curry, but it was fantastically economical, and provided about 6 portions for £2.00 which can't be sniffed at when the purse strings are tight.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Editing Power

It's now commonly accepted that you can no longer trust what you see in the media. Whether it's Gordon Ramsay spearfishing in Cornwall, Culture Secretary James Purnell being photoshopped into a hospital photograph or the Mirror's hoaxed pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqis, decisions are being made by editors on whether duping the public is an acceptable thing to do. Much of it comes back to money again.

The Gordon Ramsay brand is about machismo, and spear fishing certainly helps to make him look like "fucking action man" as he so eloquently described himself at the time. Sensationalist photos on the front of the Mirror are there to sell more copies of the paper and nothing more. When Purnell himself was caught out, it exposed his own hypocrisy on the matter, as he had only recently told broadcasters to "put your house in order" over the recent string of fakery rows and phone-in quiz scandals. Yet it seems nothing really changes. Piers Morgan is still free to make millions from his books and TV deals, Ramsay carries on building his empire, compensating for his fishing failure by swearing even more. Purnell keeps his job in the cabinet. We accept it and maybe even begin to expect it. Don't even get me started on advertising imagery.

So if you can't beat them, join them.

With a bandaged thumb and limited movement at the joint, I was potentially out of kitchen action for a few days. However I'd already bought the ingredients for some beef wellingtons I'd been planning, and not wanting to waste the fillet steaks I decided to soldier on anyway. The Wellingtons were pretty tricky to assemble, with the steaks being wrapped in parma ham, a mushroom duxelle, a chive pancake, and then a final layer of puff pastry which has been rolled and kneaded for 10 minutes to break down the layers. As I couldn't get my thumb dirty or wet, this was a hugely tricky procedure.

I served them with fondant potato "chips", sauteed brussel sprouts with garlic and bacon, and a madeira reduction.

See that? That's tough cooking that is. Not for wimps. I can hang with you, Gordon. Next time you want to spear some fish, call me on 0800 TOUGH NUTS. Want to know how I managed to keep my bandage dry? I removed it. In fact I removed the rest of my thumb too because it was getting in the way. Because I'm hard. I'm action man. Thumbs are for chimps and hitchhikers, and I'm no hitchiking chimp.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

When I embarked upon this journey, I knew I would probably sustain a few more injuries than I had done in my advertising career. True, at times I suffered from chronic boredom, powerpoint induced migraines, and shattering ear pain from some of the utter crap spouted in meetings. Fortunately though, none of it drew blood.

Well, apart from the time i stabbed my leg with a biro under a meeting room table to keep myself awake while listening to the millionth marketing discussion about a modern woman's need for "pampering" and "me-time". It wasn't worth the pain or the trouser damage. I should have just caught some zzzzzzzzzzs.

Kitchens on the other hand are dangerous places. Heat=pain. Sharp things=pain. Hot sharp things = serious pain. Hot sharp things + salt + lemon juice + chilli powder = guantanamo interrogation.

On the many TV programmes where I have watched chefs using mandolins, they always warn you to keep your fingers away from the blade, and if possible use a guard. Now I see why. Yesterday evening I was invited by Steve Wallis to help him with a cookery demonstration he was doing for House and Garden and Poggenpohl and I willingly accepted. He had a great menu lined up and the first thing he asked me to do was mandolin some turnips to produce some wafer thin discs. No problem, but I was conscious there was no hand guard.

Do you ever suffer from that weird compulsion to do the exact opposite of what you're trying to do? Like when you're trying really hard not to blaspheme in front of your devoutly religious grandparents? The tourettes kicks in and by God does it become impossible to not take the Lord's name in vain. Or when you're wandering around the narrow aisles of a fine china shop and your elbows suddenly take on the proportions of a 747's wings. Or when faced with an impressive cleavage and a low-cut top, eye-to-eye contact becomes a struggle against gravity, no matter how loudly the voice in your head is telling you to NOT LOOK DOWN. Probably just a guy thing, that last one. I think there may be a concentration threshold above which things start going a bit out of control.

So as I sliced those turnips, and focused purely on keeping my fingers intact, there was only one possible outcome. This would be a short evening. Casualty was beckoning. The blipping theme tune was beginning to play in my head. Charlie Fairhead, nurses in uniform, possible cleavages, then arggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Jesus! Mary! Joseph! shocked grannies, and it was all over.

Thumb carpaccio. A coulis of blood. Thank you and good night.

I ended up spending more time in A&E than i did in the kitchen and was as much use to Steve as curdled hollandaise. On the plus side I had sustained my first kitchen injury, and the first of many I'm sure. In the right column of this blog I'm going to keep a record of injuries sustained in the course of duty - I think it's a little more interesting than cigarettes and calories, Bridget Jones.

Congrats to Steve on what apparently was a very successful night, and thanks to Meri for walking me to St Thomas Hospital!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Allez les Rosbifs!

Following England's defeat of the French on Saturday night, it seemed only appropriate that we cook a huge hulk of British Rosbif for lunch on Sunday. It was lovely to get out of London for the weekend and my parents took us to a fantastic butcher in the Staffordshire village of Alrewas to source the meat. As urbanites, we Londoners forget how local you can really get when you move outside the M25. The pork at the butchers was all sourced from Packington Moor farm, a few miles down the road in Lichfield and it was clearly in demand as a queue snaked out of the door on Saturday morning.

But for us it had to be beef and we left with a nice rib on the bone. It was a pretty weighty piece, although admittedly it was probably only they size of Sebastien Chabal's thumb.

One of the things that made most sense to me when I read Heston Blumenthal's Family Food was his thinking on optimum cooking temperatures for meat. To quote the book:-

- From 40 degrees, meat proteins begin to contract until by the time they have reached 60 degrees, they begin to force moisture out and by the time they reach 70 degrees most of the precious meat juices are gone, leaving a grey, dry piece of meat.

- At 100 degrees, the water contained in meat (up to 75%) evaporates. This must be avoided as the meat becomes totally inedible.

Now this makes absolutely logical sense to me, and I think there is nothing better than a piece of beef cooked evenly pink throughout, without a thick brown/grey ring around the edge.

I was torn between cooking the beef the conventional way and getting a cracking gravy or choosing the low temperature method to keep the juice in the meat itself. In the end, science won out and armed with a new thermometer I started the joint off at 75 degrees at 9.30 on Sunday morning aiming for a 1.30 lunch. Unfortunately this was pure guess work and I had no idea how long it would take the internal temperature to reach 60 degrees (medium rare). In the end, it took about 4 hours with much nervous prodding of the probe and changing of the oven temperature. Still, the result was the desired one with perfectly pink slices from edge to edge.

I think I will continue to cook beef in this way and maybe even try the 50 degrees for 24 hours approach if I ever have a good enough oven. The major issue is the lack of pan juices so it is vital that you have a gravy already made from a good reduced beef stock.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Pear Tart

There are good times to choose to go on a diet and there are bad times. I would class the day I'm making a pear tart as a pretty bad time, but no amount of persuasion can break the Chief Taster's resolve. Credit to the girl, she won't even have a sliver, even as I torture her by eating a fairly large slice in front of her eyes. Oh well, that's one big tart for me to get through over the next few days. Chief Taster suggests taking some of the remaining tart into her office to share with her colleagues. What a lovely idea, it really should go to a good home and I'm sure it will hold its own amongst the patisserie of W1. Besides, there'll be plenty left for me.

The next morning as usual, Chief Taster leaves for work while I am still semi-conscious in bed. She says something about the tart and I grunt in agreement. When I do get up and head to the kitchen, I open the fridge to find that actually, there isn't plenty left for me. Most of it has disappeared, gone, shazam! My lovely pear tart with the shortest of shortcrust pastry has been reduced to a solitary segment and my plan to eat a slice at 3 hour intervals throughout the day has been scuppered. She emails to say she didn't want me to get fat, and she's right of course. Because only I know how much butter went into that tart...

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

More reasons to love South East London

"Do i need any more?", I hear you cry,"You had me with the Rosendale. I've already spoken to Foxtons and they've told me to get out of Islington, and fast! They've even offered me one of their fashionable little Minis to whisk me round some terribly bijou neighbourhood, what's it called again? oh yes. Honor Oak Park, that's it. SE23 or something. Sounds just perrrrrrrrrrfect. I'm sure I can convince Tabitha, Blabitha, and Shabitha to move too. Sorry dahling, i've got to go and help Oscar with his colouring in. You'd think as a 40 year old corporate lawyer he'd have mastered Crayola by now..."

What's that got to do with the price of fish? Not much I admit. It's just a clumsy segueway between this and the last post. But as an exercise I thought I'd go and compare the price of fish at Borough Market with my local SE London Fishmonger, FC Soper of Nunhead. Everyone loves Borough Market. It's a foodie heaven after all, and just 10 minutes on the train from chez moi. You can't help but get a rush of endorphins just walking around the place, seeing fresh produce stacked high on tables, aged wing ribs of beef, and cascading displays of fish.

What's more, as an unemployed loafer, I'm now able to saunter around on the relatively calm days of Thursday and Friday and avoid the hell that is Saturday. Joy. Of course the downside of unemployment is a distinct lack of dollar to buy any of this stuff so I just have to lasciviously eye up the meat like a Ben Sherman-ed 19 year old on the pull in Kudos nightclub, Watford.

Food at Borough is beautiful, but it comes at a premium. I wonder just what that premium is?

Seeing as I was after some Red Mullet, I thought I'd compare fish prices between Borough and Sopers, my local fishmonger which is also recommended by none other than Jay Rayner. Armed with my digital camera I took some pictures so I could note all the prices quickly.

Some examples

Red Mullet

Borough - £18.50 per kilo
Sopers - £8.00 per kilo

Lemon Sole

Borough - £16.00 per kilo
Sopers - £11.60 per kilo


Borough - £29.00 per kilo
Sopers - £18.50 per Kilo


Borough - £6.90 per kilo
Sopers - £4.65 per kilo

Skate Wings

Borough - £15.00 per kilo
Sopers - £9.50 per kilo

That's a pretty big premium to pay, in some cases over 100%, for the privilege of getting your fish from Borough market. So what makes Borough fish so special? Is it transfered to port in a multimillion pound Sunseeker yacht, sipping vintage Krug in a saltwater jacuzzi? Does it arrive in London in a stretch limo with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton for company? Or is it just shrewdly priced by a fishmonger who understands the cashed up market he's selling to?

Food sold at Borough Market is as much about the packaging as the raw ingredients, and by packaging I don't mean plastic wrapping or paper bags. I mean that Borough Market itself is the packaging, a premium brand, and a place to be seen that bestows additional credibility on wannabe foodies. On the other hand, spend an hour buying veggies at the countless african stalls on Peckham High Street and you'll return home a lot richer but without the "status" that shopping at Borough bestows. Strangely I feel slightly guilty writing this, like I'm slagging off the Queen to monarchists, Shoreditch House to media whores, or Boujis to It Girls and Eurotrash.

It becomes clear I've been sucked in by the Borough Market brand too and I guess I'll continue to go there and pay over the odds in order to feel smug at being able to find yellow tomatoes and 2 foot wide puffball mushrooms. hurrah!

Cornish Red Mullet with a Yellow Tomato Sauce Vierge

The Rosendale - Time Out Gastropub of the Year and YES, IT'S IN SOUTH EAST LONDON!!!

Rejoice! Rejoice! None other than the London bible Time Out has deigned to put on its mining helmet and shine its torch on the dimly lit and forgotten coalface of London, the one that bears the postcode SE.

For this year in its Eating and Drinking Awards, it has awarded Gastropub Of The Year to The Rosendale in West Dulwich proving that civilisation does exist south of the river. So take note you 'northern' mugs from Barnsbury to Broadway Market, maybe you'd like to come down and visit us for a change! Contrary to popular belief, South East London isn't in Kent, you're unlikely to catch the pox, and Millwall fans are a surprisingly quiet bunch (unless you happen to be on the 2.15 from London Bridge to Bermondsey on a Saturday afternoon).

Anyway I shouldn't really have to extol the virtues of SE. Down here it's Simply Exquisite, Surprisingly Erudite, and Snozdangley Erbumbatious.

But I digress. The Rosendale is really a very good restaurant indeed. Hectic on a Sunday lunchtime, but smashing grub nonetheless. I had the best (home) smoked salmon ever with a light horseradish cream (5 Gold Stars), and then a plate stacked with Saddle of Lamb and crunchy veg. Delish. Go there, travel from far and wide, read the 20 odd page wine list. It's an absolute gem.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007


After all that cooking, it was definitely time for a couple of days off. It's always a pleasure to have the in-laws over - they come laden with gastronomic delights: foie gras, champagne, Swiss chocolate and this time, an interesting bottle of fig balsamic which I can't wait to try. It's great that they appreciate the good things in life! Every time they come to London we try to take them somewhere unusual and this time we chose Bacchus in Hoxton.

We're so spoilt for restaurants in London that it's rare that we go back to the same place twice, even if the meal has been great. Bacchus is the exception. The menu changes every month and the experience is so different each time that we have now been back on three occasions. I don't think there's another restaurant in London that is as inventive and on many dishes it really does challenge The Fat Duck and L'Enclume in Cartmel for inspired flavour and texture combinations. All three of these restaurants, and WD-50 in New York have proved to be hugely entertaining dining experiences, provoking interesting debate around the table.

On Saturday we had the 6 course taster menu with wine pairing, and at the end of the meal I think a few of us wished we'd gone for the 9 course. For me the stand out dish was Calamar a La Plancha with squid ink porridge, slow roasted coconut, lime leaf oil and powder and a foam of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, but all the other dishes sparkled with originality as well.

I have to say i can't imagine ever being able to produce food like that.

On the two previous occasions we had been to Bacchus the restaurant had been nearly empty but I'm happy to say on Saturday night they were fully booked. Despite its somewhat isolated and famously gritty location, it does appear that word is spreading and diners are making the journey over to Hackney. I don't think it will be long until it picks up its first Michelin star. In my eyes it certainly deserves it.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Rabbit Terrine (Vegetarians and Rabbit lovers DO NOT READ ON)

What is it about rabbits that makes some people feel guilty about eating them? Is it their big doleful eyes? Their bushy little tails? The way they lollop playfully around the countryside? In another post I discussed the defensive qualities of some plants that help them to survive. Animals are blessed with them too. Some have hard exoskeletons that act as protective shields, others have spikes and venomous bites. Men have guns.

A rabbit's best form of defence against human predators is to look cute.

Well sorry Bugs, it doesn't work on me. I'm no Glen Close but I'm quite happy to get stuck into a bit of bunny. Maybe it's because I've never read Watership Down or had a rabbit as a pet.

Whatever, a rabbit generally has a fairly active life involving lots of potholing, the odd bit of swinging, and rivers of illegal moonshine that they brew in their subterranean speakeasies. Well that's what I've heard anyway.

I think in comparison to battery hens and veal calves, rabbits have things pretty good.

There are two rabbit dishes I've been keen to to make. One is Mark Hix's Stargazy Pie from Great British Menu. The other a Rabbit Terrine with Celeriac Remoulade which I ate recently at Magdalen, my restaurant of the year so far. With a bit of time on my hands and 5 coming for dinner on Friday, I decided on the terrine as a starter.

I bought a whole wild rabbit from my local butcher and proceeded to remove all the flesh from the carcass - I think I may have inherited by father's surgical hands as it seemed a fairly painless and enjoyable process, although incredibly fiddly at the same time.

The rabbit leg meat was mixed with pork belly and chicken livers and marinated overnight in Armagnac, herbs, lemon juice and garlic. The following day I lined the terrine with bacon and filled it with the rabbit mixture, adding pistachio nuts and layering long pieces of rabbit saddle throughout the terrine to create a different texture. The terrine was cooked in a bain marie for 90 minutes and pressed overnight ready to be served on Friday evening accompanied by a mustardy celeriac remoulade.