Wednesday, 30 January 2008

And thee, a turner!

Have you ever made a boat out of a courgette? What about a barrel out of a potato? A whole chess set out of carrots perhaps? No? Then you haven't lived. The art of turning vegetables is a craft as useful as macrame or writing names on grains of rice and it's refusing to go the way of the Dodo.

Turning has been practiced for centuries, possibly even millenia. In 1772, the first recorded visitor to Easter Island, Jacob Roggeveen, was astounded by rows of giant sculpted marrows facing the ocean, each one 'turned' to take on a human form. In 1927 the faces of four former US presidents were successfully carved into the side of a turnip and became the inspiration for the cliff face now known as Mount Rushmore.

As trainee chefs, the very survival of this art form is unfortunately in our rather clumsy hands. By the sound of it, a global recession is guaranteed if we don't master our seven-sided potato barrels.

Looking around the kitchen I see faces contorted in concentration, tongues wedged in cheeks, and failed courgette boats littering the workstations. It feels like an episode of The Generation Game where couples try and follow the example of a master craftsman with huge comedic potential. Sadly though, our whittled courgettes have no hilarious phallic qualities and there's no Brucie to whip up the audience. What do points make? Prizes. But there are no prizes today, just sad-looking, odd-shaped bits of vegetable and no one seems to care.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008


4 weeks in and I'm beginning to settle into my routine. Our days are split into two halves and we either spend the morning in the kitchen and the afternoon in the demonstration room or vice versa. What doesn't change each week is the fatigue and the relentless pace of learning. Every night we write detailed time plans for the following day's cooking and for the past two weeks I've had after-hours lectures to familiarise myself with health and safety and all the essential but nasty details of salmonella and e coli.

All this means that updating the blog hasn't been as easy as I'd hoped but bear with me please and hopefully I'll be able to catch up on a few things at the weekend. I'm even more in admiration of Trig who keeps up his writing while holding down a full time chef's job over in Barcelona. I suppose he still has the energy of youth though!

Sunday, 20 January 2008


For all the Wonders of the world, there are thousands of other architectural or geographical marvels that are forced to remain in their shadow. If it hadn't been for the Great Wall of China, Hadrian would probably be the Don of mural accomplishments and the pin-up boy for the Lego generation. Were it not for the Great Pyramid of Giza, Chitchen Itza might have found itself top of the pyramid of pyramids. And without the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Essex grandmother Vera Roberts would probably have received more acclaim for her Hanging Baskets of Basildon. But such is life. There can only be one winner, unless it's a draw of course.

Another overlooked marvel is Chiphenge, a henge of such magnificence that it deserves far more attention than it currently receives. Thought to have been conceived by early Greek settlers as a place of worship, many mysteries surround the construction of Chiphenge and in particular how the chips themselves were transported to the site. One theory holds that they may have been transported several miles in the back of a minicab from the Apollon Kebab House on Wakefield high street, although this is unconfirmed and cannot be verified by the owner, Dimitri Popadopolous.

Chiphenge is a miracle of hengineering and an exact copy of the more famous henge which can be found on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Stonehenge: less tasty with fish

Archeological experts have suggested that the original idea may well have been the construction of a Donerhenge, a concept that may have been abandoned at an early stage due to pitta balancing issues. Back in the late eighties, a large crimson stain was discovered on one of the horizontal-lying chips giving credence to the theory that it might once have acted as a sacrificial altar. A conflicting theory proposes that the red liquid could well have been tomato ketchup or chilli sauce. Tests have proved inconclusive.

On a recent visit to Chiphenge I snapped the photo above from the south east side and I've decided to submit the shot as my entry to this Food Blogging Event which calls for images of the humble potato. I don't think much of my chances though. I'm sure photos of Chiphenge are all too common.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Quiche Lorraine

I've never really fancied making Quiche Lorraine. The name just puts me off. It sounds so naff, so seventies, so Abigail's Party. I can just see it sitting there on the buffet table at a summer luncheon, right next to Salad Brian and Tart Janice. And yes, I know Lorraine is a region of France but the name just conjures up images of cockney actress Lorraine Chase or Scottish sofa hogger Lorraine Kelly, neither of whom seem remotely Gallic to me.

Being of an age when many of my peers are giving birth (well the female ones at least), the subject of names comes up fairly often. The resurgence of traditional names is evident and in a few years time teachers are sure to be battling to control classrooms of rowdy Oscars, Archies, and Jacks. I know many prospective parents who wander around graveyards looking for inspiration from Victorian headstones where Ethels, Ernests, and Elizas lie beneath layers of creeping ivy.

It's only a matter of time then before names fashionable in the 40's are cool again. Alan and Kenneth will once again have their day in the spotlight and in a few years MC Ronald may well be the hottest hip hop act on the planet. It's not inconceivable to think that a future girl band might consist of Maureen, Barbara, Deborah, Patricia, and Linda. Maureen will probably be the slutty one married to a footballer, Linda the ginger one that no one fancies.

All of which brings me back to Lorraine, and in particular the Quiche Lorraine that I made today at school. It was really a test of our shortcust pastry technique and I'm happy it passed with flying colours. I'm even happier to report it tasted nothing like Lorraine Kelly.

Monday, 7 January 2008

First Day At Leiths

For the next six months I'll be making my way across (the whole of) London to get to Leiths which has just relocated to Chiswick. It couldn't really be much further from South-East London but hopefully the daily three hour commute will be worth it.

On arrival at the school this morning we were issued with our chef's whites and all associated bits of uniform including a very fetching skull cap and neckerchief combo which I'm sure are all the rage in Milan right now. For the feet we have "kitchen trainers" although if you were to attempt the 100 metres in them, it would probably take you about half an hour. Take the thought of Nike Air Max out of your head and think standard issue orthopedic correction shoes. Cool.

The morning was spent in orientation, learning more about the course we were about to undertake and the way it will be assessed. Following its move from Kensington, the school has been fitted with brand new equipment and everything is gleaming and pristine, ready to be trashed by my wayward cooking.

This afternoon we dressed in our full kit and got to wield our knives for the first time. We did some simple knife skills revision and prepped a rack of lamb for cooking tomorrow. It was fun and as an added bonus, I managed not to chop any part of my body off. That was my main aim of the day accomplished then.

I think I will sleep well tonight!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Plucking Great

The past four months have flown by and I can't quite believe that I'll be starting my course at Leiths tomorrow. The nerves are beginning to set it and I've spent the last few nights tossing and turning in bed, with my dreams spent in kitchens full of sinking souffles and failed pastry.

Having skipped the first term, I'll be joining the course a third of the way in. I've spent the past months teaching myself all the techniques covered in the first term, everything from choux pastry to filleting flat fish, and hopefully I will be able to hold my own alongside the other students. I'm sure there will be others joining at this stage as well. Still, there is always the worry that I will not be up to standard and will be starting on the back foot rather than the front foot.

One of the stranger elements that appears in the first "basic" term is plucking and drawing a pheasant. I guess for those wishing to go into the service of the Duke and Duchess of Snootyshire, this is probably a vital skill to have, however for most of us ready plucked pheasants are widely available at this time of year. Nevertheless I wanted to cover this off before January so back home in Birmingham, my Dad had two birds hanging in the garage awaiting our attention over Christmas.

My Dad has been shooting pheasants for many years and when as a teenager I was still living with my parents I would idly walk into the garage and be scared witless by two dead birds hanging from a hook in the corner. After several days of hanging he would put on his surgical gloves and green plastic apron and begin the process of plucking and disembowling the birds ready for eating. I always remember the stench of entrails which would creep under the door and drive the cat bonkers with excitement.

Luckily then, I had a master to learn from and we went off into the garage, leant over a dustbin, and started to pull the feathers from the body while trying to not to tear the skin (not easy). I don't seem to be that squeamish about handling dead birds, in fact live birds freak me out more. Chopping off the head, wings and feet was a pretty painless task, and actually getting my hand into the bird and pulling out the digestive tract was also fairly simple, if a little smelly. The most time consuming task was removing all the tiny hairs and feathers that remain on the pheasant after the bigger feathers have been removed for which a steady hand, a pair of tweezers, and tons of patience is required.

Pheasant meat is notorious for drying out while cooking so I decided to pot roast my hen and make a creamy mushroom sauce with the juices.

Apart from the need to cover it off for the course, I'm really glad I learnt how to pluck and draw a pheasant. In the event of a war and food becoming scarce, I'll be able to hang out with Ray Mears and live off the land.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The Curious Incident of A Duck In The Day-time, Night-time, Day-time, and another Night-time


It's not a word to be used lightly. Ben Hur is an epic. The Iliad is an epic. Villa's 4-4 draw with Chelski on Boxing Day was an epic. Epics are filled with challenges to be faced, triumphs over adversity, and occasional lessons in car waxing by wise Japanese mentors.

Heston Blumenthal's Peking Duck recipe is epic. If these were ancient times, the Oracle of Delphi may well have given Hercules the choice of capturing Cerberus alive or making Peking Duck as his twelfth labour. Deal of no deal? No deal. Cerberus was a puppy in comparison.

It's Wednesday 2nd January 2008. I'm off the saline drip and out of the Bacofoil blanket. Light beads of sweat are still clustering around my temples but the worst of the palpitations are over. They say I may never be the same again, that the nightmares may persist into old age, that I may wake up in the middle of the night screaming about ice filtration. Please Mummy, let the pain stop. Bring back yeast and puff pastry. All is forgiven.

Here is my story. Let us never speak of it again.

Saturday 29th December and it's the first of several shopping trips. I visit See Woo to pick up some Chinese ingredients including maltose, mushrooms, won ton wrappers, and frozen pancakes. I pass the ducks, hanging all bronzed and ready to eat. How easy it would be to just buy one for £8, chop it up, and serve it to our guests. I continue walking, laughing at such a ridiculous thought. A wizened old Chinese lady looks at me strangely and i eyeball her right back. She cackles to herself, her demented rictus further wrinkling her wafery skin. She knows something that I don't.

I pick up two Taste the Difference ducks at Sainsburys for £10.53 each. This meal might bankrupt me as well as mentally and physically destroy me. Oh well. What need is there for money in an asylum. We head into London to spend my Pages voucher but they only have giant pressure cookers for sale. We watch a rubbish French film at the Curzon with no plotline or entertainment value and then we head home without a pressure cooker knowing the stock needs to be started early on Sunday morning and the first mild panic begins to set it.

On Sunday 30th I'm up at 7.30am. I need to be at Argos in Peckham at opening time to buy a pressure cooker and grab some pork ribs from the butcher so I have a couple of hours to skin and joint the ducks. The first real challenge begins: Skinning the ducks while keeping the skin in one single piece with no holes. I complete the first but struggle down the centre line of the breasts where the skin seems to be welded to the meat and a few little holes appear. Still, it's not bad for the first go. The second skin is slightly better, but still a couple of holes are in evidence. Thank God I'm not performing some vital skin graft.

I'm back home with a new pressure cooker and some pork ribs by 11.30am so the first stage in the stock making process is underway by midday. The recipe calls for the meat to be added in two stages so it should be done and cooling by two pm. I'm a couple of hours behind schedule already.

The stock contains aromatics including ginger, szechuan pepper, shaoxing wine, star anise, cinnamon, and spring onions.

There's enough meat in there to make a vegetarian weep.

When done, the stock smells great and the aromatics have certainly done their job. It's beginning to smell like a Chinese restaurant in here. Now to turn it into consomme with no egg white clarification involved. We're ice filtering which should leave a perfectly clear liquid. I figure on a couple of hours to cool and jellify and then 4 hours in the freezer to solidify so I can start the ice filtration process at around 8pm giving me the required 24 hours to filter.

Meanwhile I start to confit the legs. They need to be kept in a salt/spice mix for twelve hours before cooking for six hours at 65 degrees. Mandarin zest combined with cinnamon, cardamon and star anise gives the mixture a lovely chrismassy aroma.

Well at least that was fairly simple.

Time to check on the stock. It's 4pm and still no sign of jellification and in fact it's not jellified until 6pm. My legs are also beginning to turn to jelly. Straight into the freezer with the container. I'm in trouble if it doesn't freeze in four hours. Now to brine the duck crown for 12 hours. This should cause moisture to enter the flesh via osmosis making it succulent when cooked.

The legs are salting, the crown is brining, there are a load of chemical reactions set to happen in the fridge overnight. At 8pm the stock in the freezer is still jelly, but unfortunately not frozen jelly. At midnight it's the same story with just a few ice crystals beginning to form. I'm beginning to suspect that the book has lied to me or that Heston hasn't taken into account the freezing capabilities of a domestic freezer. I need to go to bed.

I wake up in the night. It's 1.30am so I head down to the kitchen to check on the stock. Still wobbly. I'm in deep doggy doo-doo. There's nothing for it but to get up early and hope for the best. Five hours later I'm downstairs again and it seems to have frozen but not particularly solid. Still, there's no more time to waste and the block goes onto muslin and over a bowl to collect the consomme. Please Lord, let it drip like an incontinent geriatric.

It's New Year's Eve. The last day of 2007. Will it turn out to be the day from hell? The morning is calm and I prep my mise and make my raspberry rice pudding for dessert. Oh, did I forget to mention that I was making a dessert? It's a raspberry rice pudding with home made coconut icecream. Or maybe I should have done that Baked Alaska...

The crown is rinsed of brining solution over a two hour period, with the water changed every 15 minutes. The duck legs are removed from their rub and rinsed as well. The recipe doesn't say how many times to do this and I don't want to remove the flavour of mandarin and spices too much. Bit of a gamble on this one as I fear it could end up too salty. At 1pm they are covered in duck fat and go into an oven for 6 hours.

Time to attempt the skin. I stretch one over a cake rack and using a combination of saftey pins and butcher's string manage to attach it fairly securely. It looks like something out of Silence of the Lambs. It goes in with the legs to cook for 3 hours.

A few more things to do. The consomme is slowly filtering through and by 4pm I have about enough to feed a small dieting midget. The mushrooms are braised to go with the consomme and I need some of the stock to reduce with some mirin which has deglazed the pan.

Now for the dumplings to go with the consomme. Leeks and savoy cabbage are sweated and then cooled and added to minced duck breast and various aromatics. This is the only part where I wander off recipe. I think the quantities may be wrong - there seems to be far too much leek, cabbage and spring onion in ratio to the duck meat. I use half the quantity suggested.

Time to give the wife a fun job. She does a great job of filling the wonton wrappers and the dumplings are ready to go. Again the pictures in the book show no sign of the vegetables in the mince mix - it just looks like meat to me.

It's 4.30pm and our two guests are due to arrive in three hours. I have now got enough stock to feed one non-dieting midget, but I think I need to start poaching the crown. Problem is the book says the crown meat needs to get to 70 degrees but I have no idea how long that will take. I reckon 3 hours in 70 degree water. I concede defeat with the consomme, there are no more ice crystals and so nothing else to drip through. I will not achieve perfect clarity but the taste should still be good. I warm the jelly back into a liquid and start to poach the crown using the strained aromatics, some of the consomme, and additional water.

At 6pm the confit is ready. I taste it and as I feared, it's too salty for my taste. Damn it.

Nevertheless I shred the meat and reserve for the stir fry. The skin is looking good and I add the maltose glaze and cook at a higher temperature. Sticking a meat thermometer into the crown I see it reads 50 degrees. Still some time to go yet.

It's 7.30pm and I'm ready. The kitchen looks like the aftermath of a midwestern tornado, but I'm where I want to be in terms of preparation. Everything is chopped and ready for the stir fry, the dessert is done, the crown is poaching and the consomme and dumplings just need to be heated and steamed. Testing the meat again, it's at 65 degrees. Nearly there, I test the other breast. The reading jumps to 96 degrees. What the..? It's overcooked. The guests aren't even here. Argggggggggggggggggggggggh! I need to take it out but it will dry out and lose its moisture, the brining will have been for nothing. NIGHTMARE!

Alex and Kirsten arrive. Given the state of the crown we're going to have to eat earlier than expected. The pancakes are steamed and the duck and skin are sliced.

Course One: Duck Pancakes

Ok, so the meat was overcooked but it was still tasty. The skin was a crispy success although I didn't manage to get the lacquered finish that Heston achieved. Was it the best duck pancake I'd ever eaten? I'm afraid not, but if I was to do it again I would get a new meat thermometer and put more maltose glaze on the skin. Verdict 6/10.

Course Two: Duck Confit and Shitake Mushroom Stir Fry with Iceberg Lettuce

This course seemed to go down the best around the table, although I felt the saltiness of the meat overpowered the dish. Having said that, there were a few salt fiends present. Wrapped in crisp iceberg lettuce leaves it was packed with flavour and had a nice chilli kick too. For me, simply removing more of the salt prior to confit would have made this a winner. Verdict: 7/10

Course Three: Duck Consomme with Dumplings and Pickled Cucumber

Visually this was a stunning dish and the consomme ended up pretty clear in the end. The real key to lifting the dish was the pickled cucumber which added a sweet and sour punch to the dumplings and broth. I'd say the consomme could have been reduced a bit more to give more flavour and if the ice filtration was properly done I'm sure it would have been closer to perfection. Given a second go then, I'd add more cucumber to the finished dish,and add a bit of crunch to the dumplings for textural variety, maybe with some diced water chestnuts. Verdict 7/10

Course Four: Raspberry Rice Pudding with Coconut Icecream and Bitter Chocolate Shard

I was really happy with this dessert. The flavours worked really well together and the ice cream was smooth and rich. The portions were slightly too big but that can be changed next time. Verdict 8/10

So in summary, was it the best Peking Duck meal ever? No. Was all the time and effort noticeable in the finished dishes? Not really. Did I learn anything from the experience? Yes. And that, dear friends, is the most important thing. The first time you do something, it will very rarely be perfect. You learn from your mistakes, make the necessary changes, and second time round things will be much closer to perfection. If I were to do it again it would be way better, but alas, that will never happen. Life really is too short to do that twice. Maybe Heston will come across this post and at least feel satisfied that somebody has actually followed the recipe from start to finish. And then maybe he'll ring me and offer me a job in his research kitchen. We should all have dreams for 2008.

Happy new year, everyone!