Sunday, 7 December 2008

Meat Snobbery

It is clear that the time has come for many people to reassess the way they spend their money and our household is no different in that respect. Where we differ from the majority is that our fall in income has been brought about by choice and not by some guy in America who couldn't keep up his subprime mortgage payments triggering the meltdown of the global financial system. Nevertheless, a 75% drop in salary coupled with statutory maternity pay of £118 a week necessitates some serious belt tightening. We are no longer considered DINKYs, the marketeers dream segment of high-earning, big-spending twentysomethings.

Much of the credit "crisis" we now jointly face has to be put down to a culture of continually wanting more, not less. By launching new 'generations' of Ipod, or digital cameras with a bit more pixel capacity, or handbags in this season's colour, companies manage and manipulate the desires of neophiles for whom owning the latest thing is a defining aspect of their personalities. With our food, we're urged by supermarkets to 'Taste The Difference' or buy the 'Finest' bag of potatoes, as if the previously normal but slightly misshapen spuds would scream out "pikey" to anyone who might casually glance over from a neighbouring checkout and see the word 'basics' written on the packaging. Keeping up with the Joneses can be expensive and all consuming, but when we become insecure about things as insignificant as the size and shape of our carrots, we may be taking things a little too far.

The master of food snobbery has to be Marks and Spencer. For years, its food porn advertising campaign has basically been one huge sneer, a show of oneupmanship, a look down its nose at the fridge contents of the hoi polloi. "This isn't just food, this is Marks and Spencer food", they say, a well copywritten line that seems to paraphrase their true thoughts of "I wouldn't eat what you eat if I was alone on a desert island with only a rotting fish and a coconut for sustanance."

"Connoisseur Christmas pudding packed with plump sultanas and steeped in Courvoisier cognac", she gushes. But it's still mass produced in a factory somewhere and what's aspirational about that?

The rise of the organic movement and interest in sustainable farming has created a new class of food snob where provenance of meat has become the new "terroir" or "vintage" to be bragged about over the dinner table. "If it's not rare breed, it's not going anywhere near my plate", they whinney, juices slowly dripping from their invisible chins. "I'll see your Gloucester Old Spot and raise you my Lincolnshire Curly Coat." "You're not seriously going to serve me that 21 day aged sirloin are you? It's 55 days or nothing for me." The question is, does a breed's rareity make it any better to eat, or is it like the most expensive of fine wine where your money is being spent on a feeling of exclusivity rather than a pound for sip improvement in quality?

Everyday I have to walk home past The Blackfoot Butchers, the new outpost of the Salt Yard and Dehesa crew. I peer through the windows at their sumptuous display of rare breed meat like a petrolhead passing a Ferrari dealership. The Cote de Boeuf, the rack of salt marsh lamb, the aged ribeye - it's all on show, stoking that strange, irrational desire that I rail against in other areas of consumer society. Fortunately the prices are enough to snap me out of my reverie - beef fillet at £50 a kilo, ribeye at £36. That's a full 33% more expensive than the Ginger Pig which I would class as some of the best meat on sale in London. It may not be as expensive as Japanese Wagyu, but then I doubt it has been treated to sake and a daily massage - maybe a bottle of alcopops and backrub without the happy endings. This is British Beef after all.

With buying expensive meat comes the pressure of cooking it perfectly. If you're going to spend £15 on a single steak then overcooking it must be one of the most disappointing feelings around. Who cares how rare the breed if it turns out as leathery as Judith Chalmers after a few too many minutes in the oven? Far better to buy something a little cheaper, a little more, how shall I put it, common, and cook it well. I can guarantee that the best way to 'Taste The Difference' in a potato is to cook it properly and season it well, and the 'Finest' Turkey you'll find this Christmas may just be the cheaper one that is cooked with a whole lot of love.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Review: Lantana

I've written quite a few restaurant reviews on this blog, some favorable, some not. I'm sure that whenever a new restaurant opens, the owners must wait nervously on tenterhooks for the first reviews by both recognised critics and public alike. They can make or break a business in those first crucial weeks after opening, and in these difficult financial times it's positive feedback that can boost a new restaurant and bring customers through the floor. At Lantana, we've been keeping a keen eye out for our first reviews and we're chuffed with the sheer amount of positive feedback we've received so far. We've witnessed the marketing power of blogging, not only from Shelagh's own blog, but from coverage on some extremely well respected food blogs such as The London Review of Breakfasts, and that of breakfast aficionado Russell Davies. Mowielicious describes Lantana as "The Best Australian Cafe in London", complete with pictures of my lovingly iced Hummingbird Cakes. Nice one Mowie!

The web now plays host to loads of customer feedback sites. Tipped, and Qype are two of them that feature some customer reviews about Lantana and again for the most part the customer experiences are favorable. Reading them gives us a great idea of what people want and allows us to iron out any teething problems that any business experiences during its first few months.

Then there are the reviews from established publications. We've been featured in Time Out as one of the top 5 cafes in London for cheap eats,

"The super salads (smoky aubergine or a crunchy sugar snap and red cabbage combo, for example) are Ottolenghi-esque, the cakes and sunny breakfast offerings already drawing in a band of regulars."

and in the Evening Standard the mighty Fay Maschler wrote of Lantana,

"Breakfast has a list of dishes to inspire your day and lunch offers fine, healthy, inventive salads and irresistible home baking."

Well, as much of my day is spent baking, I'm pretty happy with that feedback!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Darkness

It is early morning. Between the house and the train station the only sign of life is a lone fox prowling the front gardens of the terraced houses. It stops in its tracks, looks back over its shoulder, then continues down the road nosing through bin bags in search of scraps. Upstairs, curtains are drawn and for a few more hours at least, the residents will slumber on until alarms break the silence of their bedrooms and announce a new working day. Some will wake to the vibration and ringtone of their mobile phone. Others will be roused by the high energy voice of a radio dj. Many will hit the snooze button of their alarm clock, roll over, and catch another five minutes of sleep. Oh precious, precious sleep! Who can blame them? The first autumn frost has covered the cars parked outside and the duvet offers a far cosier place to shelter.

On the 5.29am train to Charing Cross, the first train of the day into central London, bleary-eyed passengers sit in silence peering into the darkness outside. At each stop, a handful more workers get on. They slump into empty seats and sleepily rest their cheeks against the chilly windows. They close their eyes wishing they were still in bed, dreaming in many languages from Portuguese to Polish. There is no jostling, no fighting for a seat or desperate shouts of "can you move down the train please?!" In three hours time the carriages will be crammed with commuters on their way to offices across the capital. Men in suits, freshly showered and with hair coiffed. Women vainly attempting to apply mascara as the train lurches from side to side. But here on the 5.29, no one has really made much effort over their appearance. There are construction workers in heavy boots with paint-splattered trousers and stubbled chins. There are cleaners, transport workers, hotel chambermaids, and kitchen hands all of whom will change out of their hastily chosen clothes and into the uniforms that await them at their workplaces. It feel strange to be amongst them, to see delivery vans hurtle down the empty London thoroughfares that will soon become congested with all manner of vehicle, to see the bare shelves of Pret and Starbucks being stacked with croissants and muffins. I am seeing London in a different light, although in reality at such an early hour, there is no real light to speak of.

It is the end of British Summertime, another summertime only in name. The clocks have changed and as I reach the cafe, the sun is beginning to rise. The faint dawn glow will be the only natural light I will see for the next week; that and the five minutes of twilight I might glimpse on my way home. With a kitchen in the basement, exposure to natural daylight is going to be minimal over the winter, something that is a scarier prospect than a trick or treat visit from the Ghetto Boyz of Brockley. By the time the end of March comes around I will probably have the skin tone of Marilyn Manson and the eyesight of a mole. Now if I can just get the fashion bibles to sell "Blind Goth" as the look for Spring/Summer '09, it will all be worthwhile.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The One Hundredth Post: Going Pro

Well fellow bloggers, what is the longest amount of time you've spent composing a post? For me this article, the hundredth post of This Edible Life, has taken about three weeks to write. I guess such a milestone certainly deserves a bit more care and attention but the fact is I haven't been scratching my head and wondering what to write, nor have I been writing, editing and re-editing to craft the perfect post. I've just been really, really busy.

Given that the very first post of this blog set out my ambition to become a professional chef, it seems fitting that my hundredth post should be about turning pro just over a year later. I now get paid to cook, and if I needed any further confirmation I only have to look at my daughter's birth certificate where it is there in black and white; Occupation of Father: Chef. On another official piece of paper, my marriage certificate, my occupation is listed as Advertising Executive and in a few hundred years time my descendants may come across both documents in the archives and wonder how and why this guy actually ended up as a cook. They'll probably learn about the great "credit crunch" of 2008 and surmise that he must have lost his job and been forced into service during hard times. Hopefully though, they'll find a record of this blog and learn what really happened.

Deciding what to do after training has been tricky. I know that if I was in my early twenties, I would have gone into a michelin-starred fine dining restaurant and worked my way up through the ranks, preferably indulging my interest in modernist "molecular" cookery along the way. Realistically though, at 35 and with a new baby, the punishing hours required to make it to the top in fine dining just aren't an option. I have to say goodbye to that dream.

So if fine dining wasn't an option then what else could I do. Well I came to the conclusion that at my age I needed to be more than a commis chef. I needed to work with people who wouldn't pigeonhole me as green college graduate but would see the benefit of my maturity and be prepared to give me more responsibility from day one. Fortunately I was introduced to a fantastic bunch of people who were in the process of opening an Antipodean cafe in central London, an idea I had once toyed with myself after returning from Sydney a few years ago. I loved their concept, I loved the idea of being part of another start-up, and I loved the fact that I could be involved in everything from menu design to pricing,and even ordering all the utensils needed for a fully functioning kitchen. Most importantly though, I wanted to be part of a small kitchen team working on everything from pastry and baking to grills and salads. With a view to running my own place in a few years time, I wanted to be in a position where I could learn the role of a head chef, deal with suppliers and ordering, and essentially learn everything there is to know about running an efficient kitchen. They offered me the role of Sous Chef at Lantana and I've been working there, six days a week for the past month. I am exhausted, but the learning experience has been fantastic.

It's hard to describe Australian cafe culture to people to haven't had the good fortune to experience it down under. The food is unpretentious but beautifully presented, the service is informal and friendly. Breakfast and brunch are celebrated and given the true status they deserve. In fact I don't think I'll bother trying to describe it any further, I'll let the menu speak for itself.

Breakfast 8-12 (All day Saturday)

Toasted muesli w banana, yoghurt and honey 4.5

Bircher muesli w apple and berries 4.5

Poached fruit w greek yoghurt + pistachios 4

Fresh fruit salad w mint and sweet ginger dressing 4.5

Toasted banana bread w date and pecan butter 4

Sourdough toast w vegemite or jam 2.5

Lantana baked beans w crumbled feta, sautéed spinach and sausages on sourdough toast 8.5

Field mushrooms sauteed w parsley and garlic served with
grated parmesan on sour dough toast 7.6

Pancakes w greek yoghurt and baked fruit 7

Poached eggs on toast 5

Scrambled eggs w smoked salmon on brioche w
fresh tomato salad 8

Corn fritters w crispy bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes and
lime aioli 8

Baked eggs w buttered baby spinach and mushrooms served w tomato and red pepper chutney toasted sourdough 8

Bacon 2.4
Lantana baked beans 2
Slow roast tomatoes 2
HG Walter’s sausages 3
Sautéed spinach 2
Mushrooms 2

Lunch from 12pm

Open sandwich w bacon, rocket, sliced tomato, & fried egg w aioli 6.5

Corn fritters w layers of crisp bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes, drizzled w roast garlic & lime aioli 8.5

Tart of the day served w choice of two salads from the counter 8

Salad plate of your choice of three from the counter 7.8

Steak sandwich w rocket, fresh tomato, caramelised onion relish and horseradish crème friache 8.5

Moroccan lamb skewers w flat bread and mint yoghurt served w bulgur, walnut, celery and pomegranate salad 8.7

Lemon & coriander infused chicken skewers served w served with salad from the salad bar and tomato and red pepper chutney 8.7

Sharing plate w bruschetta, olives, dips and prosciutto (for 2) 10

To Drink


Fresh orange juice
Virgin mary
Belu Still (750ml)
Belu Sparkling (750ml)
San Peligrino Limonato, Orangina
Bundaberg ginger beer

Bloody Mary
Di Valdo bbiadene Proseco

St Roch grenache blanc
Bird in Hand sauvignon blanc
Camplazens rose
St Roch merlot
Bird in Hand shiraz

Coopers pale ale
Coopers sparkling ale

Coffee (extra shot 30p, Soy milk 50p)
Long black
Hot Chocolate
Pot of Tea: English breakfast/Earl grey/Rooibos/Chai/Peppermint/Green

You can read more about our progress at Lantana on Shelagh's blog and if you're in the Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road area than please come by and pay us a visit. We're at 13 Charlotte Place which is a little pedestrian street between Goodge St and Rathbone Place.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Naked Lunch

It seems I strangely have something in common with loony US senator Sarah Palin - I have the utmost respect for fig trees. Whilst John McCain's running mate is more impressed by the fig tree's ability to provide cover for mankind's naughty bits, my love of the fig tree relates to its fruit rather than its leaves. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve should really have spent less time worrying about their modesty, and more time picnicking on fancy fig dishes before another game of naked frisbee.

If you ever need a dish that's low on hassle but high on glamour, try this one. It's a simple fig and fennel salad as served at The French Laundry and even a child could make it. That's a child with no Michelin stars. It's just sliced figs, roasted peppers, a fennel salad, and a balsamic and olive oil dressing. Its simplicity belies its flavour and texture. The crisp fennel counters the moist, giving fig which explodes, seeds and all, in the mouth. It looks pretty fancy too. Let's face it, if this was served up in the Garden of Eden, all eyes would be on the plate rather than Adam's dangly bits so there'd be no need for fig leaves anyway.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ricotta Hotcakes with Caramelised Pears and Greek Yoghurt

In a word, fluffy.

Fluffy as in the pillows you had your head on a few hours ago rather than fluffy, the contents of your bellybutton.

Whisked egg whites are incorporated into the ricotta pancake batter making the finished mix more like a soufflé. The result? Expanding air bubbles and hotcakes that puff up for a lovely light breakfast or brunch dish. Goodbye greasy fry-up. Hello hotcakes!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Review: Hawksmoor

The baking has got me a bit worried. I need to do something a bit manly or my life will be completely out of balance. My yin's up here, my yang's down there. Basically there's a whole yin yang yoyo thing going on and it's making me dizzy. Maybe I could grab a large axe and go chop some wood in a forest somewhere. Perhaps I could try wrestling a crocodile. If I had a shed I'd go sit in it for a while and maybe smoke a pipe. Unfortunately I possess neither an axe nor a shed to put it in, and crocodiles are few and far between around these parts. I'll have to make do with a bull terrier.

This all seems too much like hard work when I could simply take the shortcut to manliness and eat a large quantity of red meat. I say large but the word I'm really looking for is obscene (def: so offensive to chastity or modesty). I want an unchaste slice of animal. I need an immodest portion of protein. I don't care who I offend in the process.

So what would be an obscene amount of meat to consume in one sitting? Well I suppose that depends on where you are in the world and how large your stomach is. At Hawksmoor the options for ribeye are 400g or 600g but just as when the midwife handed me our 3.66kg baby a couple of weeks ago, metric in these cases means nothing to me. Babies come in pounds and ounces and in my experience steaks do too. Luckily my expensive Leiths education has equipped me with a mental imperial conversion calculator. 400g =14oz and 600g = 21oz or 1lb 5oz. That's scarily big. That's over five quarter-pounders big. That really is quite obscene. Just reading the menu gave me the meat sweats.

If I'd made one batch of muffins then a 400g, ahem, I mean 14oz steak would have redressed the balance. However over the course of a week I made several batches of muffins, brownies, friands and financiers. It was clear that only the 21 ouncer was going to do the job of restoring my manliness.

It was quite simply the most sublime piece of meat I have ever tasted. A slab of 28 day hung Longhorn ribeye cooked perfectly medium rare on a charcoal grill. Every single mouthful, and let me tell you there were many, was a mouthful of pure neanderthal joy. With every chew I could feel the testosterone surging through my veins. With every swallow, hairs were sprouting on my chest. I was either turning into Teen Wolf or the steak was doing the trick. I felt as manly as Sean Connery, though not quite as butch as Martina Navratilova. Still, the chances of me being cast in a Gillette commercial were much improved as the memories of muffins began to fade into a haze of meat and bearnaise sauce. I left the restaurant, my yin and yang back in perfect harmony and my voice two octaves lower. Hawksmoor will forever be the shed to which I retreat when times get a little too girly.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Omnivore Hundred

I saw this on Lizzie's blog so thought I'd do it myself.

The idea behind the Omnivore's Hundred is to copy and paste this list, highlight in bold which ones you've eaten and mark which ones you wouldn't even consider. The one's in italics I wouldn't even consider

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart (and I also have a 50p hot dog every time I go to Ikea!)
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans (mmm, is this meant to be rice 'n' peas because obviously I've had rice and beans before...)
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects (and i had a chocolate coated scorpion last week too)
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk (apart from in cheese form)
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more. (brandy yes, whisky no.)
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse (I'm sure I have without knowing it!)
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

So that's 60 completed and none I wouldn't try. I can't say I'd be clamouring for roadkill but you never know. I'm surprised human flesh didn't make it onto the list for all the Hannibal Lectors out there.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The baking frenzy continues. Fig and apricot muffins are followed by mini pesto dampers and then blueberry friands. Why I'm cooking all this stuff will become clear in a few weeks time, but suffice to say I'm excited at the prospect of cooking every day after a few weeks away from the stove and back in the world of advertising.

Of course with the baking comes the eating. To be honest I don't feel so bad about scoffing the fig and apricot muffins as they're made with All Bran and that's healthy, right? The friands are probably the most addictive thing I've made in a long time, so moreish that I've already cooked a second batch and eaten three in one sitting while watching the wonderfully bad Eating With The Enemy this afternoon. Two guilty pleasures at the same time.

I'm happy to report that all my baking turned out just fine, but I'm even happier to report that the other bun I've had in the oven for the past nine months turned out to be even sweeter. Our baby daughter was born on the 24th August and is an 8lb bundle of pure perfection. Unfortunately for her it'll be a while before she can get stuck into some friands, but on the plus side for me it will also be a while before my cooking has to face the toughest puree critic out there.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Triple choc brownies

Something strange seems to be happening to me. I think I may be turning into a woman. Not only that, I think I may be turning into an all-American housewife. I just baked some triple choc brownies and I'm about to start on a batch of blueberry muffins. This can't be right, can it? Surely I should be butchering a cow or making a pig's head terrine or something. But baking? Whatever next? Will next week see me driving the kids four metres down the road to baseball practice in an SUV or chairing the next meeting of the local PTA? It's unlikely given that four metres down the road there's a home for crazy people and as far as I know they don't have a baseball pitch. Plus I don't have any kids. Yet.

I think there's some weird hormonal stuff floating around the atmosphere and I'm pretty sure I know where it's coming from. They say that a woman begins to 'nest' before she gives birth and I think it might be catching. I even did a spot of cleaning yesterday and I actually quite enjoyed it. Then I watched something on the E Entertainment Channel for over 10 minutes without shouting at the TV. This has never, ever happened before.

Quite frankly, I'm scared that things may get worse. If anyone catches me reading Grazia then please just put me in a cab to Spearmint Rhino with a crisp twenty in my hand and allow me to get back in touch with my masculine side, pronto. If not who knows where it will end. Probably with me making a quiche.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Chocolate and Coriander Tart with Rum and Raisin Ice Cream

I'm not going to write much about the main course, except to say that I let standards slip and went for a dish from the two star Champignon Sauvage - Saddle of Rabbit with Rabbit Leg Bolognaise, Carrot Puree and Braised Baby Gem. It was nice but I think you'll probably be more interested in this beauty, also from the same restaurant. I can understand many people baulking at the thought of making a palette d'ail doux or a rabbit leg bolognaise, but this tart is actually within the reach of most competent home cooks. You'll find the surprising mix of flavours becomes a talking point around the table, and the chocolate and coriander really do work well together. The ground coriander adds a slightly savory edge to the bitter chocolate which for a chocolate abstainer like me makes it a dish worth trying.

I don't normally include recipes on this blog, but this is such a winner I think it deserves to be made by every cook in the country. Here it is, taken from the book Essence by David Everitt-Matthias.

Serves 10 -12

for the pastry

270g plain flour
150g cold unsalted butter
50g ground almonds
grated zest of 1 lemon
seeds from 1 vanilla pod
100g icing sugar
1 egg yolk

for the filling

375ml double cream
375ml milk
675g bitter chocolate, finely chopped
3 eggs lightly beaten
10g coriander seeds ground and sifted to make a powder

To make pastry, place all ingredients in a food processor except egg and egg yolk and pulse until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and egg yolk and pulse until mixture starts to form a ball. Turn out onto a floured surface and bring together into a puck. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 40 mins. Roll out and line a 22cm tart tin. Refrigerate for 1 hour and then bake blind at 180 degrees C.

Put cream and milk into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Place chocolate in a bowl and slowly pour on hot cream, stirring all the time. Mix in eggs, and strain through a sieve, stir in half the coriander powder and pour into the pastry case. Dust tart with remaining coriander and then put in oven. Cook for 5 minutes then turn oven off and leave tart in for 30-40 minutes until just set. Remove from oven and leave to cool.

As the book suggests, rum and raisin ice cream is the perfect accompaniment to the tart.

Monday, 28 July 2008

3 Star Starter - Fish and Chips

It's been a while since I cooked for the in-laws, in fact the last time was a few months before I started at Leiths. They've been so supportive of my decision to change career that I really wanted to cook something a little bit special, something that I will probably never get do again due to future commitments to the job and to the newborn. I decided to cook three dishes from restaurants that currently hold two or three Michelin stars. For the starter I chose to do fish and chips, or rather a certain chef's take on the dish which at his restaurant is otherwise known as Red Mullet with a Palette D'Ail Doux and Garlic Chips. Quite frankly I think it's one of the prettiest things you can put on a piece of crockery. The wonderful colours of a vibrant green parsley coulis, the crisp red skin of the mullet, and the pale gold of the garlic chips just leap off a plain white plate.

What is this Palette D'Ail Doux of which you speak? Well it's basically a mixture of hard boiled egg yolks, blanched garlic puree, and cream. Technically it's a bit laborious to prepare due to the various stages of blanching garlic in milk several times to give it a milder flavour, the making of the egg yolk paste, and then the freezing, crumbing and refreezing of the final palette. When cooked though, it acts as a lovely rich, crispy plinth for the two fillets of fish and garlic chips. Any guesses as to the chef who originally created the dish and the restaurant it has been served in?

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Things That Taste Like Chicken: Guinea Fowl

There are so many things that taste like chicken that it's well worth me doing a mini-series on the topic. In fact it seems that the only thing that doesn't taste like chicken is an intensively reared barn chicken which tastes of nothing but misery.

I never, ever order chicken in a fancy restaurant, principally because I'm a snob. Given the choice between chicken and rabbit I'll plump for the bunny every time. Quail? Yes please, waiter. Frogs legs? Mais bien sûr, Monsieur. It must be for show, or maybe an attempt at diet diversification. It can't really be for flavour because it's all just chicken to me. Not only do I go for these more "exotic" meats, but I pay over the odds for them too. God, I'm a sucker aren't I?

I first ate guinea fowl in France as a ten year old. On the dinner menu was a Suprême de Pintade which confused me because nowhere in my Tricolore textbook was there any mention of Pintades. "Mais qu'est-ce que c'est une pintade, Monsieur." I asked the waiter. "Guinea fowl", he replied. "Mais, qu'est-ce que c'est un guinea fowl", I asked again. He walked off, spluttering some nonsense about poulet.

Six years ago this very day I was eating another Suprême de Pintade in France. In case you're wondering I don't have this amazing memory where I can recall every meal I've eaten for the past ten years. I'm not the Rain Man of fine dining or anything. No, I remember it because it was the main course at my wedding and so it has a special place in my heart. Today It seems only appropriate that I should cook Suprême de Pintade aux Champignons for the love of my life and weirdly as we sit down to our romantic TV dinner in front of Celebrity Masterchef we see some guy from Brookside has done Guinea Fowl with Mushroom Sauce too. Unfortunately he's gone and put sun-dried tomatoes in there and John and Greg are not impressed. What a doofus.

Unsurprisingly our guinea fowl tastes of chicken, but thankfully we can also taste the Provencal sunshine, warm breezes, lavender, and the memories of a very happy day.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Pancake Day

We just don't eat enough pancakes in this country. For some reason, everyone goes mad for them on one day in February and then forgets about them for the rest of the year. I feel a bit sorry for "once a year" foods like turkeys, pumpkins, and hot cross buns. A few days in the spotlight, loads of attention, then nothing. Like a Big Brother evictee, that's it until they're rolled out again the following year.

A traditional pancake batter of eggs, milk and flour is fine, but for really great pancakes you need buttermilk. When the acid in the buttermilk reacts with baking soda, it produces enough bubbles to make a lovely fluffy pancake with a very slight tang. With bananas, honey and a dollop of greek yoghurt, I can't think of a better way to start a sunny summer morning.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


Probably the closest I'll ever get to following one.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Raving about ravioli

Ravioli? I blinking loves the stuff. I can't stop making it. If I go a day without rolling and filling I get the shakes. I then have to make cold turkey ravioli and the pain goes away. I even like Heinz ravioli that comes in tins of gloopy, orange tomato sauce. I love the brown, mushy filling that resembles no real meat that I have ever tasted, but then I've never tasted squirrel or badger so my meat knowledge is hardly exhaustive. I love the rubbery pasta and the perfectly uniform sides that look like they've been carefully cut by a granny with pinking shears. The double carb nonsense that is Heinz Ravioli on Toast is a true fill-a-hole classic.

When it comes to ravioli, I'm like Raef from The Apprentice. I get on with prince or pauper. I'll happily chow down on some lobster ravioli in a greasy spoon on the Old Kent Road, or nibble on some Heinz with the It Girls in Pimlico. I say that, but the last time I went to Ozzies Cafe on the Old Kent Road they were all out of lobster ravioli and my dining companion, the Marquess of Wiltchester, had to make do with a bacon butty.

At home, my ravioli has definitely done a bit of social climbing. I started with a rather humble spinach, ricotta and pine nut stuffing but graduated to a much posher wild boar number. Then, with all the elegance required to make the society pages of Ravioli! Magazine, my pasta was filled with a chicken and mushroom mousseline and served with a lovely morel sauce. It seemed to make the grade as I've been promised photos will be published in the August issue alongside Baroness Tabitha Von Bissenberg Schoenke Walderheim and her husband, Dave.

Wild Boar: Upper Middle Class

Chicken Mousseline: Upper Class

Lobster: Ravioli Royalty

Having seemingly reached the pinnacle with a Lobster Ravioli and Lobster Bisque, I'm now at a loss of what to do next. I could head to Berkley Square and wrap a Bentley in pasta but I think that by the time the centre is cooked, the pasta would be overdone. Perhaps it's time to move on to tortellini instead.

Monday, 7 July 2008

End of Act One

My edible life seems to be taking a slightly surreal turn. On the carpet before me, two elements of my immediate future have collided and the realisation of the challenges ahead are beginning to hit home. My fellow initiates, some more confident than others, have started to unwrap what they have before them. We groan as the first struggles with sticky treacle. We wince at the sight and smell of pesto. We envy the guy with nothing at all. Then it's my turn. Nervously, cluelessly, I fumble with the tabs and open up the nappy. It's flecked with brown and yellow and my mind wanders off to the 'name the ingredient' tray of our theory exam. "Dijon mustard", says the NCT teacher, and despite my desire to inform her that it's wholegrain not dijon, I keep schtum. I may have been able to cut the mustard in cooking theory, but when it comes to baby poo, I really do know jack.

These are moments you never forget. Seminal, life-changing moments that herald a new beginning. The sight of five grown men, armed with cotton wool, delicately wiping condiments off a plastic baby's bottom in front of their partners. The pride that comes with success. The confidence to take on the future, no matter how scared we really are.

The end of NCT classes has coincided with the end of the Leiths Diploma and I now feel comfortable that I will know what to do in the event of contractions starting and a hollandaise splitting. Hopefully they won't happen at the same time as in a state of panic I'll probably throw ice cold water at Emilie and rush the hollandaise to hospital. Unfortunately we never covered placenta cooking in class but I'm thinking pan-fried with a sauce robert could turn into a Leiths classic and a good choice for next year's advanced practical. This year, my practical actually went ok, far from perfect but no disasters either.

Re-reading the first post of this blog from the 7th September last year, I realise just how much my life has changed. Making the decision to walk away from a successful, well-paid career was not an easy thing to do and I entered culinary school not really knowing if I could cook, just sure of the fact that it was something I loved to do. I was scared that cooking every day might somehow take the sheen off a favorite hobby, but thankfully, after this first chapter, I can say that it has done the opposite. I am fired up and ready for the next stage in my new career and excited about what the future may bring. In true, blubbing, Gwyneth Paltrow style, I do need to thank a lot of people for their amazing support over the past year. To the tasters, teachers, investors, listeners, classmates, and to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on this blog. You know who you are. It came as a huge surprise to be voted Student of the Year 2008 by the teaching staff at Leiths but I know I would never have made it without your constant encouragement along the way. I hope you'll stay with me for part two of the story!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Flower Power

Ok, so I really should be revising. I should be memorising cuts of beef and imperial conversions and step by step methods for making genoise and puff pastry but my miniscule attention span is being affected by stuff happening in the garden. Mother Nature is putting on a show and that show needs to be eaten.

Last year, my vegetable patch was limited to three grow bags containing two varieties of tomatoes. This year, I added courgettes to my crop with the specific intention of stuffing the flowers. Courgette flowers are pretty hard to get hold of and they're bloody expensive too. You'd be looking at upwards of £1.50 per flower if you can find them. Given my current state of impoverishment, I should probably be flogging them at some farmer's market to eager cashed-up foodies but I can't bear to let them go. Their petals are just begging to be opened up, to have their stamens removed, and to be stuffed with a lovely soft goats cheese, fried in batter, and then drizzled with honey.

Fingers crossed, new buds will start appearing and we can indulge in another plate of ripeni ai fiori di zucca in a few weeks time.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The end is nigh

This is it. 6 months of a professional cooking diploma comes to an end in the next seven days. Work experience is completed and my portfolio, costing exercises and other coursework have been marked and returned. My hygiene certificate says I'm hygienic, and my health and safety certificate says I'm healthy and safe. At least I didn't fail on any of those.

On Friday I sit the theory exam and then on Monday, the dreaded six hour practical exam will put the past two terms of culinary education to the test. Tomorrow we find out what we will have to cook, but word has it that we'll be making puff pastry by hand, a task so gruesome that it sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Wish me luck. I'm going to need it...

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Hake with Parsley Risotto, Confit Chicken Wings and Chicken Jus

I'm not one to buy cookery books and then just leave them on a shelf to gather dust. There are so many dishes that I want to cook from Essence but many of the ingredients are hard to come by, not just things like ground elder and lovage, but also freshwater fish such as zander. The Champignon Sauvage dish of Zander with a Snail and Ground Elder Risotto, Confit Chicken Wings and Chicken Juices intrigued me so much that I just had to give it a go, albeit minus a few ingredients. I substituted hake for zander and parsley for ground elder and I made a lovely chicken jus which went surprisingly well with the fish. The snails would have been a wonderful addition, however despite having what seems like the entire world population of snails in my garden, I couldn't quite bring myself to prep and purge them for my dish.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Mind Control

Hey, I hate you! Stop getting inside my mind and suggesting things that you know I'll want to buy. Do you not realise I'm a non-earning student with zero disposable income? Who do you think you are, Derren Brown? All I wanted was Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page and there you go again, not-so-subliminally flashing your wares in front of my greedy eyes. "Recommended for you" you write above a nice picture of The French Laundry cookbook. Mmmm, yes I would quite like that actually. Next to The French Laundry there's Essence By David Everitt-Matthias of Le Champignon Sauvage and I want that too. Just stop it! Stop it right now! But you don't do you? You carry on with Molecular Gastronomy by Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire's Reinventing French Cuisine and before I know it I've racked up £55 in orders having used considerable mouse restraint to stop myself from purchasing the last two.

Hey, I don't hate you anymore. Let's kiss and make up. The books have arrived and I love them all. Culinary Artistry is a fantastically practical guide to pairing ingredients, both tried and tested combinations and some more unusual ones too. I have no doubt it will become an indispensable resource for sense-checking the dishes I put together. The French Laundry is a beautiful piece of publishing, more a coffee table enhancer that a practical book perhaps, given the heavy use of prime ingredients such as foie gras, Maine lobster, and truffles. That's not to say that the book doesn't contain some more realistic recipes to follow, in fact I tried the aubergine caviar method for a dish at school the other week and it worked a treat. Finally, there isn't a dish in Essence that I don't want to eat or try making myself. The plating of the dishes is everything I aspire to in terms of presentation and the use of foraged ingredients in the dishes is fascinating. It makes me wish I lived in the countryside rather than urban London where the only thing I have ever brought back from a foraging trip is dog poo on my shoes.

It's a wonderful feeling to open any cookery book, be it written by Ramsay or Keller, and not feel intimidated by any of the recipes in it. Compared to how I cooked a year ago, I can now understand all the techniques used, substitute the ingredients I don't have, and plate the dish how it is meant to be plated. The past 6 months of a professional cookery diploma have not just given me knowledge, they have given me confidence, and kitchen confidence is a truly liberating thing.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008


Cakes aside, I have never really thought of Vienna as a foodie destination. As a landlocked country Austria doesn’t have the best access to the freshest sea fish, and it isn’t really known for a particular breed of cattle or type of vegetable. Think Austria, think schnitzel, and to be honest most Wiener schnitzel is dry and very bland.

It was a really exciting surprise then to find the Naschmarkt in the heart of Vienna, a food market stretching over a kilometre in length. Now I’ve been to Borough, to the Boqueria in Barcelona and Paddy’s market in Sydney, but none of them got me as excited as the Naschmarkt. A walk down the narrow lane that runs between the stalls and you realise just how multi-cultural Vienna is. Its geographical position at the frontier of western and eastern Europe, and the influence of its muslim occupation during the years of the Ottoman empire are all still in evidence in the products on sale. Added to the Turkish and Slavic traders are stalls of Greek produce, oriental shops, Indian stalls – you really can buy anything here, from mangosteens to white asparagus, baklava, and pink salt.

Sweet things

Spicy things

Stuffed things

Asparagus things

Really weird things

The market is divided into two long lanes. Along the one side you have traders, along the other you have cafes and restaurants. Some are selling sushi, others bistro fare and everywhere in the Saturday sun people are sitting and chatting and soaking up the ambience. It’s buzzy but calm, the lanes are narrow but you don’t feel pulled along by a tide of people like you do at Borough. Traders call out to you to try a stuffed cherry tomato or a piece of pastry. I loved it and I wished it was on my doorstep. Ultravox clearly never visited the Naschmarkt. This means everything to me, oh Vienna!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Let them eat cake

It seems somehow fitting that two days after an all day session making petits fours, we find ourselves in the home of layered pastries and exquisite confectionery, Vienna. In the Austrian capital, the phrase 'you can't have your cake and eat it' clearly means nothing, a) because they speak German in Vienna, and b) because the whole city seems to be having quite a lot of cake and everyone is doing a fairly good job of eating it too. In fact at no point do we see anyone doing anything else with their cake, no one's juggling with their apfelstrudel, no one is kicking their sachertorte around a football pitch, and no one is rafting down the Danube on a large slice of banananschnitte. Everyone, tourists and locals alike, are shovelling it into their cakeholes.

Sitting in the magnificent neo-gothic interior on the Cafe Central, you are transported back to the halcyon days of the Habsburg empire where red jacketed Ober waltz from table to table taking orders for kuchen and kaffee. At Demel, beautiful displays of calorie packed torte with layers of cream and genoise sponge sit in glass cabinets awaiting their destiny. The Viennese branch of weight watchers must be oversubscribed.

In a few weeks time, Austria will be hosting the European football championships and Vienna will no doubt be overrun with football hooligans hurling slices of flan at police in riot gear. We decide to have our own cake mini-championship starting at the Konditorei Oberlaa where Bananenschnitte takes on Erdbeertorte.

It's an easy win for Bananenschitte and it's on to the next match at the Cafe Central where Nußtorte takes on Fruchttorte.

It's a much tighter match with two very different competitors, the walnut Nußtorte is light sponge but dense rich butter icing and the Fruchttorte is fresh but still indulgent. For me Nußtorte just wins. In the final back at the hotel, Nußtorte comes up against Erdbeerstrudel and the match goes into extra time. Thankfully it's an all you can eat buffet so a second slice of Erdbeerstrudel confirms it as European Champion of Cake 2008.

Next morning, Erdbeerstudel signs for Manchester United in a pretty boy swap deal with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Talking of pretty things, my petits fours didn't turn out too badly either. We made everything from nougat to marshmallows, pate de fruit and even Viennese chocolate schnitte with layers of meringue and ganache. I'm hoping next week will be salad week as my body just can't take any more sugar.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Pretty Vegetables

As a committed carnivore I don't often get excited by vegetarian food but hey, it's national vegetarian week so why not embrace the concept for once. Abby at eat the right stuff is hosting a blogging event to showcase favorite vegetarian recipes so here's mine, the perfect starter for a warm summer's day. Last year I don't think I had the chance to make it!

It's basically a deconstructed ratatouille, a simple stack of marinated roasted vegetables with a tomato emulsion and a virgin mary sorbet. Part of the recipe I stole from Gary Rhodes' Aubergine Charlotte dish, but I added a sorbet instead of a butter sauce for an interesting contrast in temperature and a touch of sweetness that melts beautifully into the stack of finely diced fennel, aubergine, courgette, and peppers. I can't wait for my own crop of tomatoes to be ready later this summer when I should get fantastic flavour for the sorbet.

For the vegetable stack

Use a mixture of courgette, onion, roasted peppers, aubergine, garlic, olive oil and thyme. Cook and leave overnight to allow the flavours to mix.

For the tomato dressing (blend ingredients to form a stable emulsion)

4 tbsp passata
1 dessert spoon tomato ketchup
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2-3 drops tabasc0
100ml olive oil

For the Virgin Mary sorbet

225g sugar
150ml water
bunch of basil leaves
425ml fresh tomato juice
juice 1/2 lemon
Worcestershire and tabasco sauce
salt and pepper.

Make a sugar syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water and then boiling until it creates a light "vaseline" syrup. Infuse the basil leaves in the sugar syrup and cool. When cool, mix syrup with tomato juice and lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper, Worcestershire and tabasco sauces, and freeze in an ice cream maker.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Fishy Business

The year we spent in Sydney is beginning to seem like a distant memory now. I often pine for its amazing views, friendly people and wonderful food culture. One of the places I miss the most is the fishmarket in Pyrmont which was just a short drive from our place in Paddington. I'd jump in the car on a Saturday morning, pop down the roof, and drive through the city with the wind in my hair and crustacea on my mind. I'd park up overlooking the boats in Blackwattle Bay and make my way around all the merchants stopping to buy oysters here, prawns there, and barramundi straight out of the water. The oysters would be freshly shucked, so I used to have to stop myself from getting through a dozen before I left the car park. Inevitably I'd fail, and have to go back for more.

I thought I'd seen the most amazing fishmarket ever until we went to Tokyo and visited the Tsukiji market which is the largest wholesale fishmarket in the world. Unlike the Sydney market, it's not exactly geared for tourists or non-trade buyers but once you find your way into the vast interior, you are free to lose yourself in this pescatorial metropolis, a city within a city.

Porters hare round its narrow alleyways on mini forklift trucks laden with polystyrene crates of exotic sea creatures. Giant tuna lie like corpses on mortuary slabs ready to be carved up and sold on. Weighing about 2500kg each, that's a hell of a lot of sashimi and a fair wedge of yen too. Boxes are stacked high, harshly lit by the penumbra of the bulbs strung across each trader's stall, the only light in the early morning gloom. Some contain identifiable objects like sea urchins and crabs. Others are filled with marine creatures we have never encountered before. In a scene reminiscent of a porn film casting, grotesquely swollen clams lie side by side in their tumescent glory. Oysters are the size of your hand. It seems everything in the world's biggest fishmarket is gigantic, apart form the Japanese workers themselves.

Is that a clam in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

It may be early morning, but we're here for what is probably the freshest sushi in the world. Around the edge of the market little restaurants huddle together away from all the action. "Irishai-masai!" shout the master sushi chefs from behind the counter as they welcome you into the restaurant. With over 10 years training, these guys have some seriously good knife skills. Making sense of the menu is pointless and the vast array of fish on offer is mindblowing. You just have to go for it and enjoy the surprise. YoSushi! this is not.

If you are ever in Tokyo, a trip to Tsukiji is an absolute must.

One of the best things about visiting the coastal towns of France, Spain and Italy is the availability of fresh fish in local markets. While my excitement reaches combustible levels, the locals don't bat an eyelid at the bounty on display and to them it's just part of their daily shopping. In Cadiz, it was amazing to see how many fishmongers were competing for business in the central market, but somehow they all survive side by side, selling the same range of fish.

It's taken me 12 years to make it to London's famous fishmarket at Billingsgate but last weekend I managed to get up early enough to go in search of some whiting for lunch. Driving through London in the early hours is an absolute pleasure and I made it to Canary Wharf in about 15 minutes. When I arrived at 7am, the carpark was absolutely heaving with activity and finding a parking space was tricky. Everywhere, people were lugging bin bags of fish back to their cars or vans. Billingsgate is clearly a big draw for the African and Chinese communities and for a moment I forgot I was in London. Inside, the trading room is surprisingly small but nonetheless a fascinating sight to see. It doesn't have the warmth of Sydney or the scale of Tokyo but it has character and energy and makes my heart beat faster with the adrenaline and excitement of a new discovery. Price wise I have no idea what to expect and a quick tour of the room tells me there are amazing bargains to be had. Boxes of sea bass for a tenner, wild turbot at £9 a kilo. Borough Market - shame on you! Unfortunately there's no whiting on the market so I find some hake instead. A trader offers me a box of eight for twenty pounds which I reckon would feed nearly 30 people! I'm only feeding six so in the end I just buy one large fish for £12 (£5.50 a kilo) and manage to get eight portions out of it. Roasted in the oven with a herb crust the hake is beautifully moist with a wonderful texture, more delicate than cod but meatier than a bass. It's a discovery in itself and certainly something I'll go for again.

And Billingsgate? Well I was surprised that the quality of fish available at 7am on a Saturday morning was still so good and it was definitely worth the early start to get there on time. I will be back.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


Learning languages at school can be a surreal experience. In the early stages, you rarely learn anything that might be of use for that first exchange visit with Francois from Poitiers or Hans from Munich. Though I've spent a good part of my life in France, I'm yet to come across a cat in a hat (le chat est dans le chapeau) despite the textbook Tricolore suggesting that they're to be found in every boulangerie, boucherie and charcuterie across the land. In German lessons too, I learnt a good number of phrases that have since proved absolutely no use to me at all, such as Ich sammele gern tropische Fische (I like collecting tropical fish) and Lumpi hat sein Bein gebrochen (Lumpi has a broken leg). For some reason, 20 years on, this nonsense remains firmly embedded in my brain and unless I happen to be on a German ski slope with a reckless dog called Lumpi, I doubt if I'll ever get to use it. This makes me sad.

Of all the useless German phrases I learnt at school my favorite, and the one I will never forget, is Ich wohne in der Nähe von einem Schokoladenfabrik (I live near a chocolate factory). Just as with my tropische fische collection, this was another barefaced lie, probably constructed to make myself sound a bit more interesting in class. Everyone else would bang on about stamp collecting (Ich sammele gern Briefmarken) or live near boring old hospitals or schools (Ich wohne in der Nähe von dem Krankenhaus), but a chocolate factory? Now we're talking. Of course this led to a spate of oneupmanship where classmates would "move" and no longer live next to the hospital. Suddenly someone's parents would have bought a house next to a theme park (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Themenpark), another would be close to a film studio (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Filmatelier). In the end though, in a class full of teenage boys no one could outdo the guy who overlooked the nudist beach (Ich wohne in der Nähe von des Nacktbadestrand). Suddenly my chocolate factory didn't seem so interesting anymore. Still, it's a line I hope to use one day in casual conversation, perhaps if I ever move to Kilchberg in Switzerland, a German speaking town that happens to be the headquarters of Lindt.

All this talk of Willy Wonka and Schokoladenfabriken probably suggests that I am obsessed with chocolate, that I dream of sticking my head in a river of Scrum-diddly-umptious like that trailblazer of childhood obesity, Augustus Gloop. This couldn't be further from the truth. I don't actually like chocolate. There, I've said it now. My name is Pete and I don't like chocolate.

Sitting in a chocolate demonstration last week, I was the only person in class to raise their hand when the teacher asked if anyone didn't like chocolate. I think I was also the only person who raised their hand when the teacher asked who liked kidneys in the offal demonstration. What kind of freak am I? A few months ago I used chocolate with pigeon and it worked quite well but it's the cloying sensation of a lump of sweet chocolate in my mouth that I just can't handle. Yuk. Still, I know how much pleasure chocolate brings to most people, so it's a vital part of any culinary education and something I'm happy to learn. Working with chocolate can be hugely frustrating, incredibly messy, and requires a lot of patience. Keeping the temperature of tempered chocolate between 27 and 29 degrees can be a tricky job if your thermometer isn't precise but the shine and sharp crack of the finished product makes it all worthwhile. Although I couldn't appreciate the tasting experience of my first batch of chocolate truffles, I'm happy that they went to a good home in Emilie's office where I believe they lasted about three minutes.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Pan-fried Chicken Livers with Ras-el-hanout, Ginger Pikelet, and Caramelised Fig

In The Sound of Music, a curtain-clad Julie Andrews surrounded by seven drapery-sporting children burst into song with the words, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." What most people don't know is that she was actually referring to the cooking of offal and that Rodgers and Hammerstein changed their original song for fear of offending any vegetarians. You see Maria von Trapp, being the wise governess that she was, knew that getting children to eat lung, brain, and tripe is not the easiest thing in the world and that you need to introduce them gently to the concept of consuming strange body parts for tea. Yes, some kids are fooled by the sweet in sweetbreads but they soon wise up, unless you roll them in chocolate first (the sweetbreads that is, not the children).

Through the medium of song, the real Maria then went on to educate the children about the nutritious quality of offal from a variety of different animals, starting with the doe, which is a deer, a female deer. In reality this wasn't such a good place to start. Kurt was quite into the idea, but Liesel, she was having none of it. But then 16 is a funny age and I suppose she had her mind on other things.

The best introduction to offal should be something a little less intimidating, something for beginners, after all you wouldn't learn to drive in a Ferrari and you wouldn't learn to ride on Desert Orchid. A more sensible introduction to offal would be chicken livers and from there the road to pressed tongue and pigs brawn would be a far easier one to navigate. Had Maria done this, she would have had worldwide success with the Von Trapp Family Offal Guzzlers, rather than the far more prosaic Von Trapp Family Singers.

One of the events happening in the blogosphere at the moment is an offal competition called Meat & Greet and so I'm submitting this chicken liver recipe as my entry. Chicken livers are highly underrated and only seem to turn up in parfaits and pates when they are far more versatile and easy to use. Here, I've spiced them up with the Moroccan blend Ras-el-hanout, and given them some zing with loads of ginger and some citrus popcorn for added texture.

For the livers

5g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sunflower oil
500g chicken livers, sinew and membrane removed and cut into 3cm pieces
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoon Ras-el-hanout spice mixture
2.5cm ginger, peeled and grated
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon chopped coriander
225g baby leaf spinach

For the ginger pikelets

½ egg beaten
60g self raising flour
75ml milk
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon caster sugar
a pinch of salt
5g butter

For the citrus popcorn

20-30 popcorn kernels
3g butter
5ml sunflower oil
1 ½ teaspoon caster sugar
¼ teaspoon orange zest, finely grated

To serve

2 figs, halved from top to bottom
icing sugar for dusting
4 small coriander leaves

1. To make the citrus popcorn, in a small saucepan heat the oil and butter together. Drop one kernel into the oil and if it starts to sizzle, the oil is ready. Pour in the remaining kernels, sprinkle with sugar and place a lid on the saucepan. Shake the pan vigorously to coat the kernels with oil and sugar. Wait for the popping sound to stop then pour popped corn into a bowl and sprinkle with orange zest. Mix well and reserve.

2. Next prepare the batter for the pikelets. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Mix the egg and the milk and pour into the centre of the well. Stir to combine and form a smooth batter beating out any lumps with a whisk or wooden spoon.

3. Heat a frying pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles in the pan. Add enough butter to just coat the bottom of the pan. Pour in enough batter to create a pancake around 10cm in diameter. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the pikelets are golden brown on the underside and you start to see bubbles appearing on the top surface of the pikelet. Turn the pikelet over and cook on the other side until brown. Remove the pikelet and depending on the size of your pan, repeat so that you have 4 cooked pikelets. Reserve the pikelets in a folded tea towel to keep warm.

4. Wilt the spinach. Place a knob of butter in a large saucepan on a medium heat. When the butter has melted, put all the spinach in the pan and place a lid on it. After 30 seconds, turn the spinach over with a wooden spoon so that the spinach wilts evenly. After 2 minutes when the spinach has wilted, take the pan off the heat, remove any excess liquid, season well and reserve in a warm oven.

5. While the spinach is wilting sprinkle the fig halves with icing sugar and place under the grill to caramelise for 1 minute.

6. Place a large knob of butter in a frying pan with a little oil over a medium heat. When the butter has melted and is starting to foam, add the ginger and Ras-el-hanout and cook for 30 seconds. Add the chicken livers and stir to coat with the ginger and spice mixture. Cook for 1 minute so they are lightly brown but still pink in the middle. Remove from the pan. Add half the tomatoes and return the livers to the pan and cook for a further 1 minute until the livers are firm but not hard to the touch. Take the pan off the heat, add the remaining tomatoes and the chopped coriander. Season with salt and pepper and leave in the pan while you assemble the dish

7. To assemble the dish, place a pikelet in the middle of each plate. Place a bed of spinach on the pikelet leaving a large well in the centre. Place the livers onto the pikelet in the centre of the well. Garnish with a few small coriander leaves, 3 pieces of citrus popcorn, and half a caramelised fig.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Experimental Kitchen

Via the Guardian books blog, I recently came across a site called which is trying to compile a definitive list of the world's favourite books based on the submission of its readers' top fives. I assume it is still in its infancy given that My Take by that literary giant Gary Barlow is currently at number 13 ahead of the likes of Jane Eyre (51), War and Peace (65), and The Chronicles of Narnia (390).

Sadly, I haven't read Gary Barlow's autobiography so I shouldn't really comment on its position in the list. It may be really good. He did write A Million Love Songs, after all. What I really want to know is where is my first choice, my favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

I may have spent four years at university studying high brow works of literature but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will always be my favorite book in the world. Willie Wonka is my hero, an eccentric, creative genius who believes that eating is not just about taste, it's about theatre and experience. Lickable wallpaper, fizzy-lifting drink, three-course meal gum: such wonderful, innovative concepts that had me salivating over my copy and that would have modern Health and Safety inspectors dribbling over their clipboards. As the great Gene Wilder sang in the original film version of the book:

There is no
Life I know
To compare with
Pure imagination
Living there
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be

Heston Blumenthal has often been called a real life Willy Wonka and it's not surprising that the next launch from The Fat Duck will be an online sweet shop. The look of wonder on the faces of Richard E Grant and Terry Wogan at Heston's Perfect Christmas Dinner reminded me of the wide-eyed children as they enter Wonka's factory and frolic around his edible landscape taking bites out of toadstools and plucking sugary flowers. Detractors call it gimmickery. I call it pure imagination.

Is this kind of inventiveness possible in the domestic kitchen? During my time at Bacchus I was shown a technique called spherification that allows you to turn liquid preparations into spherical "ravioli" or even create your own "caviar" in all sorts of flavours. I was sufficiently enthralled by the idea to request a Texturas mini starter kit for my birthday, and last week it arrived along with an ISI cream whipper for making espumas and delicate foams. I'm sure as the postman arrived I could hear some chanting in the air...

Oompa loompa doompatee doo
I've got a lovely present for you
Ooopa loompa doompatee dee
It's a reverse spherification kit from the guys at El Bulli!

or maybe I was just hearing things again. Either way, my kitchen is turning into a lab and I can see numerous weekends ahead mixing gels and powders in an effort to produce perfect spheres of fruit puree that explode in the mouth on biting. Well I might as well plan some activities for another rainy British summer!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Review: Tragabuches, Ronda

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! We're at Tragabuches, the modernist Andalusian restaurant named after a famous bull fighter, situated just a hundred metres from the bull ring in Ronda. Whisper whisper! Unlike how I imagine a bullfight, It's really quiet in here. No roaring crowds, no oles, no fanfare of trumpets. We've done the quintessential Brits abroad thing and booked a table for dinner at 8.30pm. Except we're in Spain, and no one really eats that early over here. Consequently we're alone, apart from the three waiters in attendance.

"I hope it fills up", she whispers.

"I'm sure it will. We're just early", I whisper.

"Why are we whispering?" she whispers.

"I have no idea. Ridiculous isn't it? Let's mutter instead", I mutter in reply.

So we turn to our menus and mutter some more. Tragabuches has two dining rooms and we're in the rear one, the room with the wall of plate glass that has a magnificent view onto some parked cars, a tree stump covered in graffiti and, in the distance, the beginnings of a nice, rosy sunset. All of the tables for two are angled to give the diners a view out of the window and we have a prime spot close to the glass. Unfortunately for the table behind us, their view will be of the back of my head rather than the graffitied tree stump. If I were them, I'd complain.

I'm actually pretty glad we reserved a table for 8.30pm because if we'd started the 12 course taster menu at 10.30pm it would have been getting light by the time we'd finished. What a lot of food there was, but how good it was too. Two amuses, four tapas, two starters, two mains, and two desserts. Each.

The food is modern Andalusian, but not really knowing much about classic Andalusian cuisine and not being able to translate the menu, I couldn't tell you the roots of the dishes. What I can tell you is that this food is not for the lactose intolerant. After the first five plates I was seriously impressed, even to the point of thinking that this could be the finest meal I'd ever eaten. An ajoblanco with mackerel and caviar was a light and milky garlic soup with tiny rafts of smoked fish. A rich, creamy potato puree hid some unidentifiable but tasty poultry parts in a rich stock. They were slightly flabby so I suggested that it might be chicken skin, at which point Emilie nearly gagged and put down her spoon. More soup came in the way of a spring vegetable bouillon with tiny pea pods and lime zest and then followed the obligatory egg cooked at low temperature which is fast becoming as much a staple of avant-garde restaurants as lamb shanks were in gastropubs a while back. Here it was served in another Andalusian soup accompanied by mini towers of Iberian pork belly and chick peas. So far, so sublime.

The menu stuttered as we moved on to the fish main course which was hake in another milky soup flavoured with seaweed. Perfectly cooked fish to be sure, but the seaweed milk just didn't seem to hit the heights of the previous dishes. The meat main course was a supremely tender shoulder of milk-fed lamb with a milk foam and milk skin and again, it was cooked to unctuous perfection but crying out for a rich, meaty sauce to bathe the meat. I think only the milky bar kid would disagree, and possibly the odd nappy-wearing, dummy-sucking gourmand.

The menu returned to form as we moved on to dessert. A milkshake (yes!) ice cream with pistachio crumbs was far more interesting than a pistachio ice cream could ever be, and a moist chocolate cake with chocolate sorbet and passionfruit was the perfect ending to a meal that had more twists and turns that the winding mountain roads that lead to the village of Ronda itself.

It was definitely a memorable meal, for its inventiveness as much as its milkiness, and amazingly out of 12 dishes there was only one that Mrs Withchild couldn't eat. I'm glad that the chef didn't follow the maitre d's suggestion and "cook the low temperature egg a bit more" but instead gave her an entirely different dish from the menu, a lovely green asparagus and baby octopus risotto. At 200 euros without wine though, it was pretty pricey given the poor exchange rate but for a birthday meal it was definitely worth the splurge.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Holiday Eating

They sit there silently looking out onto Leicester Square. He wears a plaid shirt tucked into beige chinos. She’s dressed in a black slogan-bearing T-shirt, her curly hair falling over her slumping shoulders. They both look miserable. In a neighbouring booth a mother and father from Corpus Christi, Texas, try and control their squirming kids as they stand on the red velvet banquettes and peer over towards the next table. It’s empty. Nothing to see here apart from cutlery, placemats and glasses filled with green paper napkins. Enter a moustachioed father clutching a guidebook, his digital camera swinging like a pendulum around his neck making the Big Ben on his T-shirt look like a large grandfather clock. Apparently “He Loves London”, but for how much longer is questionable. He beckons his family inside and they wait to be seated by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. In broken English he asks the Polish waitress for a table and in so doing ensures his family will leave London maintaining their belief that food in the UK is rubbish. This is the West End, home of glamour, movie premieres, and gigantic energy consuming Coca-Cola signage and sadly, like so many other visitors to this great city, they’ve gone and “done an Angus.”

To my mind, “doing an Angus” is a term that doesn’t just apply to an ill-informed trip to the dodgy Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain in London, it covers any badly researched restaurant hunt that ends up in a tourist trap, anywhere in the world. We’ve all “done an Angus” or “gone Garfunkling” at some point in our lives but thankfully in this age of virtual reviews and with websites like Tripadvisor, Egullet and, we are better equipped to avoid the paths that others have trodden and find authentic local food that hasn’t been portrayed with sunbleached photos at the entrance to the restaurant. No longer do we have to amble aimlessly around unfamiliar streets wondering who does the best paella or pad thai. We can continue on our path past hawkers calling us in for “best souvlaki for beautiful lady” safe in the knowledge that just around the corner is a lovely taverna, frequented by locals offering great food at non-rip off prices. Knowledge is power but ignorance can be upsetting, to our stomachs but also to the enjoyment of our trips abroad because to gastro-tourists, every meal is an opportunity to try something new, inspiring and hopefully memorable (for good reasons).

Sometimes it's impossible to research every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days is a lot of eating. I guess that's why we once ended up in a restaurant in Beijing that served "Terrified Fish Heads". I'm still not quite sure what terrified them but I was sufficiently frightened not to order them. What are your worst restaurant experiences abroad?

During the past week travelling through Andalucia, our hit rate was a fairly poor 50%. That’s 50% good meals to 50% bad. Thankfully the good was very good, ranging from the ethereal modernist cooking at the Michelin-starred Tragabuches in Ronda to the unpretentious local Freiduria café Flores in Cadiz which at lunchtime was crammed with local Gaditans snacking on fried seafood, pictured above. Tapas at El Gallo Azul in Jerez was also a cut above what you’d find in the UK. Our first taste of top notch Spanish cuisine was certainly inspiring enough for us to want to explore more, and a trip to the culinary mecca of San Sebastian is now close to the top of our "places to stuff ourselves" list.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Bacchanalian Work Experience

The relationship between pain and pleasure is a complex one. Freud defined the pleasure-pain principle as driving satisfaction of basic needs, that man instinctively seeks to avoid pain and discomfort in favour of pleasure and gratification. However it doesn't take an algolagnic to realise that a little bit of pain can also lead to a lot of pleasure.

For the past two days, I've been working 12 hour shifts at Hoxton's Bacchus Restaurant. That's 11 hours 50 minutes on my feet and a 10 minute sit down for a bit of sustenance before service. Physically it's been painful, but each night as I've wandered homewards past the Shoreditch bars filled with clubbers on artificial highs, all I've felt is a natural euphoria brought on by the adrenaline of plating up hundreds of dishes for the diners at the restaurant.

Bacchus is my favorite restaurant in London, the only place I go back to time and time again to sample a menu that changes monthly but always sparkles with originality and excitement. Since it opened a few years ago, the modernist cooking at Bacchus has impressed some of the most respected critics in the country including AA Gill, Jay Rayner, Tracey Macleod and Charles Campion and drawn comparisons with other beacons of "molecular gastronomy" such as The Fat Duck, L'Enclume, and Anthony's in Leeds. To be fair, it has also left the likes of Fay Maschler and Matthew Norman confused. The Chef Patron Nuno Mendes has worked for Ferran Adria at El Bulli and the legendary Jean Georges Vongerichten in New York so it's not surprising that I jumped at his offer to spend a few days in the kitchen when we chatted after I'd had dinner at his restaurant a few weeks ago.

Having been fairly involved in service at The Palmerston running desserts and side orders I wasn't sure how hands on I would be allowed to get at Bacchus given the complexity of the dishes on a menu which includes Red Mullet and Liquorice Toast with Courgette Flowers, Crab, Blood Orange and Saffron. Happily though, within minutes of arriving I was stuffing courgette flowers with crab, assembling the starter of Sashimi of Halibut, Foie Gras and Strawberry, and de-shelling langoustines and scallops all under the watchful eye of the fantastically energetic Melbournian chef Scott who explained everything to me in detail and corrected me with helpful tips throughout my time in the kitchen. I got to see some of the more unusual methods in use at Bacchus such as gastrovac and sous-vide cooking at low temperatures, and spherification using the Texturas products which Trig has written a lot about on his blog.

When it came to service on Friday night things went crazy. The kitchen flew into action to prepare the hundreds of dishes required to serve the five and seven course tasting menus and I was there in the midst of it all helping to plate the halibut sashimi, adding swooshes of puree and dots of red wine reduction. I brandished a gas gun to flash over parmesan toasts for the Onion and Oyster Old But New, and ran back to the prep kitchen to open fresh oysters when supplies ran low. The normally stubborn molluscs must have sensed the urgency as I managed to open four in under a minute, much faster than the earlier the same afternoon. The air was filled with shouts of "hot pan!", "more peas!" and "I need more plates!" as Nuno called the orders from the pass. It was tense, frenetic and exhilirating. Four hours later it was over. Like a sleepy mid-western town following a tornado, calm reigned again. After cleaning down the shift was over and as I raced to catch the last train out of London Bridge I realised that despite being on my feet for 10 hours, I wasn't tired. I was buzzing. I was also smiling.

We had a ton of prep to do for Saturday night so I went in earlier to get started. I spent a good couple of hours shelling individual peas which must rank as the most boring job in the world but also got to make the shallot crisp garnishes, roll and cut out puff pastry shapes, and make chocolate truffles for the petits fours. Then when service came, Spanish Sous Chef Jordi asked me to take sole responsibility for the dessert section, plating and serving to order Sesame and White Chocolate Mousse with Mango Puree, Passion Fruit Gel, Ginger Ice Cream, Pumpkin and Black Sesame Crumbs as well as the petits fours plates containing Crema Catalana Shots, Passionfruit Sponges, Olive Financiers, and Porcini Truffles.

Alone in the back kitchen I wait patiently like a nervous private in the trenches about to go over the top, shelling more peas and watching the front line fly into action as the first courses are called. Four halibut on table 15, another two on 16, three on 24. On they battle through the red mullet, the oysters and onion, the pork collar, the umami special, the sous-vide venison and then bam! incoming, the first order for chocolate hits and I'm pulled into the melee. More dessert orders fly in, punctuated with petits fours plates and the assembly line goes into overdrive. Into the fridge for the mousses, the freezer for the ice cream and the mise tray for a line of passionfruit gel, a squirt of mango puree and a spoonful of pumpkin crumbs. Then an order for 12 desserts and 4 petits fours hits simultaneously, things get a bit stressful and I'm wishing that I'm the multi-limbed Hindu God Shiva with hands full of chocolate, crumbs, and Crema Catalana. As the night continues I feel completely in control. Everything is going according to plan and whenever Jordi and Nuno pop in to see how I'm doing they see a guy enjoying his work. It's been a blast and though I'm nearly fainting with hunger I feel no tiredness at all. At 11.30pm the last orders for petits fours goes out and the battle is over and won.

My two days at Bacchus have been amazing. The chefs have really impressed me with their patient tutoring of a novice like myself and entrusting me with the pastry section on Saturday night. Nuno came up to me at various points throughout my stay to ask if I was ok, if I was enjoying it and learning new stuff and he genuinely seemed to care that the experience would be useful to me. At both The Palmerston and Bacchus the common perception of Head Chefs as ranting meglomaniacs was challenged and instead I saw controlled, efficient, patient dedication to getting the most out of each brigade. I absolutely loved the adrenaline rush of service but longed for the stamina of an 18 year old again. In a week's time I will be 35. In five months' time I will be a father. Do those 12 hour high energy marathons represent a realistic future for me? I guess only time will tell.

To see Nuno's take on a traditional Christmas dinner, click here