Friday, 28 September 2007

Beef Rendang

You know those dishes that are placed reverently in front of you in really great restaurants, the ones delicately constructed using a broad palette of harmonious colours, silky sauce lapping on juicy meat, and a fey garnish that crowns the tower like a Philip Treacy creation on Ladies Day at Ascot? Well Beef Rendang is not one of them.

When Beef Rendang was first created, it was well and truly beaten with the ugly stick. If it were a politician it would be Ann Widdecombe. If it were a sportsman it would be Wayne Rooney. A Z-lister? Step forward, Jade.

To be fair though, it does look slightly better than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

However, just like most of these ugly celebrities, Beef Rendang has hidden talents. Rooney is a very gifted footballer, Lloyd Webber can solve problems like Maria, and Ann Widdecombe..., well anyway, the unattractive sight of a bowl of Rendang says nothing about the wonder of its flavour.

Beef Rendang is slowly cooked over a number of hours which allows the spices and aromatics to really penetrate the meat. The coconut milk is reduced to a mere coating and thickened at the end with toasted coconut flesh, mashed to a pulp with a pestle and mortar. The citric tang of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and ginger comes through subtly in the end product. In authentic Rendang turmeric leaves are used, however I had to use powder instead. Apparently every Malay family has its own recipe for Rendang, just like every Italian family has its own recipe for tomato sauce.

And check out the picure. It's amazing what you can do with a few slices of julienned chilli. Hardly the make-up of make-up artists but it certainly makes a pile of brown slop look ready for a night out. Ann Widdecombe take note: make clever use of red chillies and eternal spinsterhood might not be such a certainty after all.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

It's getting cold

Being at home is all well and good when the sun is shining and warm air is breezing through the house. When the leaves start to fall and the temperature drops, it's a sign to get out and find a job because quite frankly, on my budget heating a large Victorian house throughout the day is not really an option. Yesterday I responded to ad on Gumtree for a trainee chef to work locally, although it didn't specify the establishment. I called and it turned out to be a local Gastropub, about 15 minutes walk from home so I registered my interest and 15 minutes later was being interviewed by the Chef in the pub itself. He's looking for someone "wet behind the ears" (I'm positively soaking), who is passionate about food, has high standards, and wants to learn. I seemed to tick the right boxes so he invited me in for a 3 hour trial on Saturday lunchtime when they have a function for 34 people to cater for. It will be my first experience of a working kitchen in service and I'm really quite excited about the prospect.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Money Pie

Mmmmmm, I love a large slice of money pie. With its rich and decadently glistening filling, the al dente clatter of silver against tooth enamel - nothing quite beats it. Abramovich is a fan I hear, washed down with a pint of Russian crude. And Bill Gates has been known to guzzle a few after his marathon sessions of online scrabble, the greedy monkey. Flavoured with exotic ingredients from around the world:- a few grams of Brazilian Reis here, a pinch of Thai Baht there, maybe a slug of US dollars to hold it all together. Yum.

Waiter! Bring me another slice of that pie and this time go easy on the custard will you!?

Of course you can't really eat money pie. That would be stupid. Imagine the indigestion that would follow and I won't even go into the toilet issues. Do you remember the fantastic French entertainer Monsieur Mangetout on Record Breakers with Roy Castle and Norris McWhirter? He's guzzled over 9 tons of metal in his lifetime, including a Cessna 150 aircraft. You just know Health and Safety watchdogs would prevent that from being broadcast to children nowadays.

Mum: What would you like for tea tonight Jonny?
Jonny: Can I have carburettor and chips, Mum?
Mum: Don't be so silly, Jonny. Chips are terribly bad for you.

Anyway, maybe when he's feeling a bit flush Monsieur Mangetout gets his local patissier to knock up a flan au fric rather than visit his local Michelin starred eatery. Quel imbecile!

Ok, I'll come clean. This post isn't about money pies or flan au fric at all! It's about blind baking the Blumenthal way. On his programme Perfection, Heston demonstrated his method for blind baking by filling the pastry case with coins instead of baking beans. The reason for this is that metal conducts heat more evenly, ensuring the bottom of the pastry cooks properly. There's probably some rule about only using coins made of the same metal but I just tipped in a load of foreign currency left over from my travels and it did the trick. It produced the perfect rich shortcrust case for my caramalised onion and gorgonzola quiche.

Books etc.

Whilst cooking everyday is definitely enlarging my repertoire and the repetition of certain techniques is beginning to lodge them in my brain, I'm supporting the practical work with loads of reading to learn the science behind it all. When I started to consider cooking more as a science than an art, it all began to make more sense. Everything from aromas to textures are simply a case of molecules and the chemical bonds that hold them together. Along with the chemistry of cooking, it's fascinating to read about the biology of plants to gain a greater understanding of herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits.

We rarely question why things taste the way they do, why onions have a sulfury flavour and make you cry, why most fruit sweetens when it ripens. In both cases they do so to ensure their species survives. The sulphur molecules in onions are defensive, to deter animals from eating them. The sweetness of ripe fruit and their change of colour from dull green to bright reds and oranges are the opposite, an invitation for animals to eat them and disperse their seeds once passed through the digestive system.

When you do read about their peculiarities, you realise how amazing plant life is and how each species reacts to its own environment.

My bible for all of this information is McGee on Food and Cooking, An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture. It's over 800 pages long but it's the most comprehensive book on the subject that deals with such scientific topics in an accessible way. I'm about half way through and have probably absorbed about 5% of what I've read. I can imagine this book will be constantly read and re-read everyday without ever being fully absorbed, just like the painting of the Forth Bridge which will go on forever.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Yeast is yeast

I've come to the conclusion that any form of dough is the bastard offspring of the Devil. It has a life of its own, rising when it feels like it, collapsing at inopportune moments, generally sticking its middle finger up at me and saying, "forget it mister, you'll never bake a better loaf than Hovis." And who am I to argue. Let's face it, there are times when prepackaged goods are difficult to walk away from. There's a reason why the Barilla family is one of the richest in the world. It's because breadmaking, and pasta making is a big, messy nightmare, and probably the origin of the french word "pain". Life really is too short.

This week I have had two loaves turn out like bricks, which would be handy if they were the same colour as the imperial soft reds I need replacing in the bay windows at the front of our house. Yesterday the dough I was making for pizzas decided to take a little longer than expected to rise. 8 hours longer to be precise. I gave up my plan for dinner and made a pea and pancetta risotto instead having lost all hope that the dough would ever puff up. Nevertheless I returned to the kitchen this morning to find a swollen yeasty mound that had sleeprisen overnight, the internal fungi laughing to themselves knowing that they had foiled my menu for James and Emilie last night. Well sod you! There's no way this dough isn't ending up as pizza.

I scoured what seemed like the whole of south east london for gorgonzola, prosciutto, and mozzarella before ending up in Sainsburys and finding everything I needed there. I hate it when that happens. Once home, I rolled out the dough and covered it in the plum tomato sauce I cooked up yesterday then sprinkled with mozzarella, gorgonzola, and popped it into a super hot oven. Once cooked, I layed on the proscuitto and drizzled with olive oil and sent out to the Taster for a verdict.

For 15 minutes, baking was no longer the Devil's work. It was God's work. Angels were singing and hallelujias filled the air. The voices of a gospel choir rose to the heavens, their mouths full of molten cheese and their purple gowns splattered with tomato sauce. Last night's dough movement was indeed mystic, but the pizza itself was heavenly.

For anyone interested I used the pizza dough recipe from the River Cafe Book Two p280, which itself is taken from the Chez Panisse restaurant in California.

Note: The writer of this piece is an atheist and does not believe in the existence of God, the Devil, or angels. He does worship a good pizza though.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Saturday Brunch

I've been itching to make sweetcorn fritters for brunch for the past few weekends but have had such horrendous hangovers that I haven't been able to find my way into the kitchen until, well, about tea-time. On this, the first Saturday morning I haven't had a sore head in a while, sod's law I happen to be out of sweetcorn cobs so instead of making an emergency trip for Nurofen, I pop to the local grocer on a hunt for some corn.

These sweetcorn fritters are what Australian brekkie is all about and I work from Bill Granger's recipe to whip up a batter to go with poached eggs, smoked streaky bacon, and a tomato salsa. I think I've really "cracked" poached eggs now, after several years of constant failure they now explode into a gushing river of yellow on gentle prodding. The dish is such a success that we have a second helping each.

A day with the Masterchefs

A few months ago I was put in contact with Steven Wallis who won the last series of Masterchef Goes Large and yesterday I met him for Dim Sum at the Royal China in Bayswater. We're both moving from the world of brands to the universe of food so it was great to hear how things have been going for him since winning the show. He's a really down-to-earth guy and is full of encouragement for what I'm trying to do and has even offered help if I need it along the way. It sounds like he's got loads of projects on the go and has just come back from a stint at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. Hopefully I'll see more of Steven in the future...

Pages on Shaftsbury Avenue is my favorite catering supply shop so I dropped in to pick up a few bits I'm in need of. I always go in there aiming to buy a couple of things but end up leaving with bags of kit, even though I have no more space in the kitchen to store them! Yesterday I went in for a flan ring but left with a silicone baking sheet, stopwatch, loaf tin, and some measuring spoons. Pages is to me what Top Shop is to Emilie - I get this weird rush when I'm in there, wanting to buy new crockery, moulis, mandolins, and of course knives. Inevitably I use the stuff I buy on rare occasions, usually because I buy flan rings big enough for feeding 8 people and it's rare that we have that many over for dinner.

Later I met friends for dinner at Wahaca, the new Mexican "Street Food" restaurant in Covent Garden. Wahaca was recently launched by Thomasina Miers who was another previous winner of Masterchef. We had tried to get into the 140 seater restaurant on the Thursday of opening week only to be met by a 2 hour queue for a table - and that was at 7pm! This time we were there at 6.30pm and managed to secure ourselves a large table without any hassle.

During our trip to the Yucatan earlier this year, we had some fantastic street food away from the tourist drag in Playa del Carmen. No noisy macarena bands blowing their horns in my guacamole or offering "romantic" songs to my senora. Instead we binged on lovely tacos and quesadillas full of Mayan fire. We would stuff ourselves for about £10 and then roll back to the Hotel Basico to collapse . Seeing this kind of food on the Wahaca menu brought back some great memories so I was looking forward to seeing if London could really deliver authentic Mexican street food.

The food at Wahaca is simple and tasty and at about £30 each including a fair few drinks, it's pretty good value too (although still 6 times the price of the same food in Mexico!). It's been getting mixed reviews but I'd recommend it as a great place to line the stomach before a big night out on the town.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Back to the blog

Ok so my discipline at writing this blog hasn't been great so far. D for effort. Must try harder. It's just the weather's been so good and...., ok no more excuses.

Chatted to Steven Wallis on the phone yesterday and it reinspired me to keep track of everything I'm doing, so I'll try and recap the last ten days or so.

Dishes cooked:-

  • Veal scaloppine with borlotti beans and pancetta
  • Braised duck with red curry
  • Green papaya salad
  • Red onion quiche (turned into red onion frittata after a pastry nightmare!)
  • Orecchietti with aged pecorino, pancetta and peas
  • Pan-fried skate wings with black butter
  • Ruff Puff with vine tomatoes and goats cheese (another pastry disaster!)
  • Pici with basil
  • Chicken with coriander pesto
  • Salmon poached in sake with noodles and citrus vinaigrette
  • Linguine with shredded rocket, lemon, and chilli oil
  • Roasted red pepper soup with yoghurt and mint
  • Shepherds pie (inspired by Hells Kitchen!)
  • Globe artichokes simmered in olive oil with gremolata
At the moment I'm cooking loads of recipes from my favorite restaurant in the world, Seans Panaroma in Sydney. I love Sean Moran's typically aussie style of cooking - laid back and full of sunshine, the ultimate flavour of Bondi Beach. His book, Let it Simmer, is a wonderful collection of dishes served in his simply decorated beach shack on North Bondi, where the menu hangs on little blackboards around the room and diners gaze upon the surfers at sunset while tucking into the best of modern australian cooking. Take me back there now!

Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Plan

Everyday I will try and cook a different dish, using a variety of food groups across the week. I will also aim to incorporate different cuisines from around the world. A typical week may look something like this

Monday - Meat
Tuesday - Pasta/Grains/Pulses
Wednesday - Fish
Thursday - Vegetarian
Friday - Asian
Saturday - Breakfast/Brunch
Sunday - Freestyle

Friday, 7 September 2007

Day One

Eight years ago I quit my first job in advertising. I told my boss that I was tired of crunching numbers, bored of filling excel spreadsheets with coloured blocks, uninspired by spending corporate millions on colour double page spreads in the Sunday Times.

I told my boss I wanted to be a chef.

She did the most responsible thing possible under the circumstances. She reminded me how hard life was in the kitchen, how I'd have to start at the bottom and what a waste that would be of a university education. In short she implied that I would be mad to do such a thing and sent me for counselling where a dear old man suggested I apply my creativity in another area of the advertising industry. So i did.

I can't say I regret it. If I hadn't stayed in advertising and worked my way up the ladder, I wouldn't be in the financial position to do what I am going to do now. I had fun, I met interesting people, and did some good work. And I also got to work in Sydney, an experience which ended up refuelling my desire to cook. On returning from Australia I gave myself two more years to get out of advertising and that is what I have done.

Today is day one of a new life. I start the Diploma in Food and Wine at Leiths in January, a full time course leading to a professional catering qualification. I'll be skipping the first term so over the next four months I will teach myself new techniques and revise what I already know. I'll also be giving serious thought to what I will do once the course is over. Who knows where it will lead?

There are exciting times ahead, but it isn't going to be easy.

Bring it on.