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!