Monday, 20 March 2017

How the sausage rolled from Norfolk to Barnes

Every January for the last few years I have been making a pilgrimage down to the quiet and leafy town of Barnes, West London with one goal in mind: to scarf as many sausage rolls as humanly possible down my greedy little throat. And before you ask, no, there is not a particularly exceptional outlet of Greggs down there. I go there to visit The Red Lion pub, an esteemed establishment where the annual Great Sausage Roll Off is held. It’s a culinary competition that pits chefs from around the country against each other to do battle over pastry and mince (in a kitchen the size of a cupboard) for a trophy assembled from burnished oak and adorned with gold-leafed papier mâché.

As nights out go, it is extremely good fun. Particularly for the competing chefs, who, let’s just say, like to let their hair down for the occasion. Nerves are soon washed away with beer, the sound of plates smashing is a regular occurrence and as the night progresses, compere Melissa Cole often has to start bellowing at the crowd to gain any semblance of order. I suspect that when proprietor and landlord Angus McKean first conceived the idea of a #rolloff, he never ever thought things would get so big or raucous. Nor would he ever have the likes of Pierre Koffmann, Dan Doherty, Neil Rankin or Mark Poynton come along, to offer their services as judges for the evening.

In terms of innovation and quality, the nineteen sausage rolls presented this year were all of the usual high standard (bar a fishy travesty and one or two soggy bottoms). The winner though, Charlie Hodson, a consultant chef from Norfolk and patron of Porkstock, obviously worked out something that his fellow competitors hadn’t. It wasn’t enough to just make a very good sausage roll. To gain an edge, there had to be a cohesive story behind it and for Charlie, he simply had to call upon his friends to help bring everything together. Namely the farmers, butchers and producers that surround him in the eastern part of the UK that juts out into the North Sea. On the night, as he talked about each contributor to his sausage roll, after watching the judges go all dewy eyed and nodding with dreams of provenance, I knew he had it in the bag. And plus, the ‘Nelson’ was pretty damn tasty.

Waking up the next day, I suffered from the usual heartburn, disorientation and notions of regret that often comes from attending a ‘roll off’ and then came the panic of trying to find my phone. Luckily, I secreted it in my shoe and, after a quick scan, I saw there was a text message from Charlie that said: ‘Really great that you want to come up, Dan. Can’t wait for you to meet some of the girls and boys.’
‘I am meeting the girls and boys?’ I thought. ‘What girls and boys?’ And then it came flooding back. An enamoured embrace, complete with handshakes covered in sticky barbecue sauce and a promise to visit as soon as I could. Which indeed happened just recently, when I took in a whistle-stop tour to visit all the people that helped to roll the ‘Nelson’ all the way down from Norfolk to Barnes.

Our first stop was at Morley Farm, situated in South Creake near the north coast, to meet Tim Allen and his brother, Phil, who are both fourth generation pig farmers and have a wicked sense of humour. ‘Oi, where’s our bloody sausage rolls?’ was the first utterance to come out of Tim’s mouth on our arrival, and at first, it seemed like we weren’t going anywhere until some were presented. Thankfully, Charlie had some stowed in his car and after an impromptu tasting and assessment (‘decent sussie roll that’) we were on our way.

The breed of pigs that the brothers supply are predominantly Landrace, although some come with markings that suggest a cheeky Gloucester Old Spot has made a rude introduction somewhere along the way. And all are outdoor reared and bedded on straw. Some 7,000 pigs come through the farm each year, amounting to a workload that would make the majority of us weep. Yet for Tim, maintaining a high standard of welfare is top priority. ‘I am out here everyday because there is always something to be done. I don’t get holidays. But the most important thing is to make sure that these pigs are well looked after and have a good life, as that will reflect in the quality of their meat.’

Forging relationships with local butchers, chefs and schools to highlight this ethos with visits to the farm is also paramount for Tim. Without this approach, he said his story wouldn’t get out there. ‘When Charlie won, it was not only a feather in his cap, but it was one in ours too,’ he beamed. Thus highlighting the unknown link that the public often has, with regards to farm to fork.

Hopping back to the car, Charlie announced that our next destination was only eighteen miles down the road and it was a necessary stop. Having witnessed the beginning of the supply chain, it was only fitting to see where the pigs met their end; at Blakes of Costessey, the last remaining slaughterhouse in Norfolk. Business, as we should call it, had been finished for the day but it was still good and proper to have a tour, under the guidance of managing director Andrew Clarke. This was not my first visit to an abattoir and the one thing that always stands out is the sense of care and duty that this industry strives for, and Blakes was very much the same.

We then hit the road down to the Salle Park Estate, in Reepham, to meet the rest of the producers who all contributed to that sausage roll, along with some other press covering the story. Not everyone could make it down. Letheringsett Mill, who are the only watermill in East Anglia still grinding flour, preferred to keep their dusty noses and hands out of the picture and Emily Norton, of Norton’s Dairy in Frettingham, was unfortunately at a farming conference. Otherwise, I am told she would have loved to have waxed lyrical about the benefits of her butter, made only from double cream and no preservatives, which went into making the puff pastry.

On standby though was Dr Sally Francis of Norfolk Saffron, a botanist on a mission to bring saffron back to its rightful home. Intrigued and wanting to uphold Essex’s own historical connection, I asked her where she got that idea from and in a flash, she pulled out a book she had researched and written on the subject of saffron, complete with old maps and tables. Over 200 years ago, as a spice and flavouring, saffron used to be exceptionally popular (on a par with today’s ubiquitous vanilla). But the decline of the rural population and the impact of the industrial revolution soon put an end to that. Sally, given her background, wanted to bring it back to the area and to achieve a premium grade. Which she has – her saffron conforms to the highest category achievable. I visibly blinked at all this information, feeling slightly stunned as I stared down into the tiny jar. Probably because her saffron looked and smelt amazingly potent. But also due to the fact that I will always rue the day, that I once spent £20 on a big bag of dodgy stamens in a market in southern Spain.

Next, I spoke to Stephen Newham who runs Crush Foods, a business forged seven years ago out of making cold-pressed rapeseed oil and now moving into dressings, sauces and granola. The rapeseed is actually grown and processed at Salle and I was keen to hear what made his oil stand out from the rest. ‘Using a single variety of rapeseed is the key and for purity, we triple press. That way we can guarantee consistency of flavour, a high burn point and it’s high in Omega 3, which of course, is very good for you.’

‘Did the inclusion of the use of your oil in the Nelson make it any healthier?’ I asked him. ‘Possibly, but I wouldn’t eat more than one sausage roll a day.’ Which was not the answer I was really looking for. But there you go.

I then got into conversation with chef Candi Robertson, the driving force behind Candi’s Chutney and purveyor of the spiced carrot chutney that went into the mix. Having seen her award-winning collection that included beetroot, juniper, parsnip and chilli and a very curious sounding ‘Non Mango Mango’ chutney, I asked if she had some big sprawling unit where she executed all these unusual ideas. ‘Nope, I do this all in my kitchen at home, all using locally-grown produce. It was difficult at first but I have got it all down to pat now. I can easily churn out a few hundred jars a day.’ ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, I could probably peel and dice 30kg of onions in the time it takes for you do one.’ Now there’s a challenge for you. Or me rather. But should we ever get it set up, I’d rather do it at safe distance from Candi’s swishing blade. There was something steely about the glint in her eye.

Last of all came a chat with Matthew Brown, who produces Wildknight Vodka with his wife Stefanie, a single distilled vodka made from Norfolk barley. Admittedly, on the night of the competition, I thought that the inclusion of a wee nip served as a sweetener to cajole the judges along. But given the rich, spicy quality of the sausage roll, serving a smooth, long hit of alcohol to cleanse the palate does make sense. Did Matthew ever see his vodka work in that way?

‘Not at first. When we began the whole process of creating our vodka, at the forefront of our minds was to produce a spirit that could stand alone; to be sipped straight and not necessarily with a mixer. So we’re really pleased to see it evolve and go down other avenues like this. You do know that Charlie also splashes some into the pork mix, yes?’

No, I did not know this.

After the meeting there was one final stop to make – a visit to Archer's in Norwich, for a quick natter with Sarah de Chair, chairwoman of Norfolk Food and Drink. Archers is a third generation butchers that now makes, sells and distributes the Nelson across the county; arguably being the most important cog in this sausage roll making machine. Not only is Jamie Archer responsible for butchering the pigs, adding all the aforementioned ingredients (including black pudding from the Fruit Pig Company) and cooking the sausage roll on his premises; for every Nelson sold, a percentage of the profit gets donated to YANA or You Are Not Alone, a mental health charity that works with farmers and addresses the issue of isolation within the community. When I asked Charlie about it he simply presented a case for paying back into Norfolk and supporting the people that surround him.

‘A lot of the farmers in this area are under incredible pressure. They work punishing hours, often on their own and have to meet all sorts of expectations, such as rising bills for feed, heat and diesel. Some can’t cope. Some make terrible choices. If I can help and make a difference, to encourage farmers to share their problems and save some lives, by way of a sausage roll, as strange as that might sound, then so be it.’

Given that he calls his merry band his ‘heroes’, it seems apt in some ways that he should be included within that throng. When Charlie first tried to drop me off at Norwich station at the end of the day, having realised that I left my coat all the way, miles back at Salle farm; his insistence to go back and get it certainly singled him out as someone who likes to go beyond the pale.

A top chef for winning a frivolous and madcap competition down in Barnes, a champion for promoting local producers and food in Norfolk, or just a hero full stop?

Personally, I would say all three.

This post first appeared on Great British Chefs.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bird's Eye Fish Finger Sandwich Awards

Given the amount of high profile, celebrity deaths that sadly happened in 2016, you'd be forgiven to think that there were hardly any heroes left. However, I am pleased to report that there is one salty old dog, who is still very much going. If I were to say - 'They make some fish fingers look like a right motley crew.' Or - 'I only choose the best for the Captain's table!' Depending on your age, you may well immediately start smiling, crying and nodding your head with fond memories of the infamous Captain Bird's Eye; who used to appear on our telly boxes, before savagely being made redundant in 2014. You know, that bushy, white-bearded, scallywag of the high seas, who used to press gang and exploit children by making them work endless hours on his ship; all in exchange for strips of flaky, white cod in crispy batter. What a monster! But we loved him. Because he gave us fish fingers! Served sumptuously on platters. And yes folks, he is still alive! I know this because I met him in person! At the Bird's Eye Fish Finger Sandwich Awards! My God! If it wasn't enough to be asked to serve as a judge, I also got to meet the Captain! He is baaaaack! He is back on the TV! With more fish fingers than he can humanly chuck at you! Oh happy days! Oh happy, happy days!

OK, please forget the delirium of that introduction. I have been feeling quite emotional of late. Which may be down to having to digest a huge amount of bread and breaded fish and a recent life decision to quit the 'day' job. Plus I am still reeling from the contents of Gregg Wallace's phone. But more about that later. The dust has settled, my mind is clear and now is the time to actually talk about the inaugural awards, recently held at the Tramshed, in Shoreditch; that fabled land of bushy beards.

As competitions go, it really was good fun and the remit was fairly simple. Bird's Eye simply wanted to find the best, most innovative and tasty fish finger sandwich. Launched on November 3rd of last year and over the course of 6 weeks, both members of the public and professionals from the catering industry were invited to submit their own creations via social meeja. From hundreds of entries, three finalists from each category were selected and they were then invited to the Tramshed, to take part in a cook-off in front of a panel of judges. That panel being food writer Xanthe Clay; Delicious Magazine food editor Jennifer Bedloe; Bird's Eye head chef Peter Lack; the incomparable Gregg Wallace; and me. The prize was spectacular. Instant fame through having the winning recipe featured on each pack of frozen fingers; a fish finger themed, gold sprayed trophy, mounted on laminated teak and (wait for it) a year's supply of fish fingers. You have to admit, it really doesn't get any better than that.

On the night, each finalist had just 15 minutes to prep their entry and then 15 minutes to cook and present their fish finger sandwich. I know what you are thinking. '30 minutes is more than enough to rustle up a decent sanger.' But believe me, it was quite intense in that kitchen. Trying to cook in a bustling room with cameras being shoved in your face is no mean feat. Add Mr Wallace's insistence to tell extremely bad Dad jokes throughout, is more than enough to put you off your stride. So with that in mind, everyone did very well. By way of a quick breakdown, what follows is an appraisal of each competitor, with witty and adroit analysis of their creation.

First up was Jonathan Foan. Or 'JJ' to his friends. Jumping out of the blocks, JJ hit the road running with his fish fingers with Cajun 'slaw, mango and avocado salsa, all served within a toasted brioche bun. This did raise eyebrows. Mango and fish? What fresh hell was this? Peter's eyelid certainly twitched at the description. However, it wasn't as bad as we all first thought. The sweetness of the salsa had thankfully been tempered by the heat of his shredded cabbage and it did all marry well with the crunchy fish finger. Messy but with good textures and it definitely was not inedible. JJ also had to be commended for making his own pirate flag. Yaaaar, that was a nice touch.

Next came Gabrielle Sander, bringing her fish fingers with mayonnaise, wasabi, lime, rocket and smoky paprika to the table, all housed with a crusty bap. Displaying a calmness under cross-examination, Gabrielle did very well with her execution, cooking her fish fingers to perfection, whilst answering questions on whether she was single or not. The baps were shop bought, which was a slight disappointment and her rocket could have done with a bit of tart dressing. But in terms of achieving a balance between tradition and innovation, Gabrielle was bang on the money. And to be fair, when you start sprinkling smoky paps about the place, that really is a string to your bow.

Final public chef, Greg Shaw, was perhaps the most nervous contestant of the lot, but the shakes soon settled down as he got to plating up his fish fingers with homemade lemon and dill mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce and wholemeal bread. A cosy and comfortable approach in other words. Maybe too comfortable. It's tricky because when it comes to a favourite sandwich, such as this one, sometimes all you want is the basics. Alas, Gregg didn't quite get this right. His iceberg, which must have cost a fortune at the time, was far too flaccid and his mayo didn't have that punch we were looking for. Jennifer, in particular, looked crestfallen after tasting it. And was this a sandwich screaming out for ketchup? I think so.

With the public round over, it was time for the pros to enter the ring and in stepped Chris Lanyon of Chapel Cafe, which is in Port Issac, Cornwall. A long way to come. Being chefs, they were allowed to make their own fish fingers, rather than use Bird's Eye and you might think that was an unfair advantage. But a lot can go wrong in that deep-fryer. I know when Chris plonked his huge goujons of Cornish hake, coated in panko, into the seething cauldron; as my eye wavered over the clock, I thought 'He better take them out soon, otherwise they're going to be burnt to buggery'. Chris knew what he was doing though, as the fish came out supremely succulent, with a great crisp shell. Slathered with his own tartar sauce, his sandwich was very special indeed.

Being all pervasive, it was no surprise that a fish finger sandwich with a touch of street food nuance had made the grade and I had high hopes for Ewan Hutchinson's take. A Cajun haddock, in tempura batter, on brioche, with rocket, tartar sauce and pickled samphire; a sandwich that flies out of his Shrimp Wreck van. It was very good, especially his use of spiky sea vegetable. I really loved that. But the funny thing was this. Ewan had really served up a fish fillet sandwich, rather than a finger, and call us picky but that edged him out of proceedings I am afraid. When it comes down to winning, it is often down to the small margins. For me, serving up a huge whack of haddock pushed him just out of touch.

Last but no means least was Kevin Gratton, a man of pedigree, given that he is chef director of Hix restaurants and brains behind their festival and events outlet, Fish Dog. In terms of nailing a manageable bite, Kevin was bang on the brief. Serving up a finger of pollock, coated in panko, in a hot dog roll, on a bed of mushy peas, with a dollop of tartare on, it was delicate and pleasing and welcome relief in some ways. My belly had extended well beyond the buckle by this point. And hats off too, to Xanthe, who delivered the winning quote of the evening - 'This fish finger sandwich is the dog's pollocks.' One tiny issue though. The fish was just a touch on the cotton woolly side for my liking.

Once all the chefs had done their bit, to clamorous applause, it was then obviously time for the judges to retreat to the chamber, to compare notes and fight over who should be proclaimed champion. And reader, I would liked to have said that the deliberations took all night and delivered a scene littered with thick, bloody lips, torn shirts and smudged mascara. But to be honest, we were pretty much in agreement as to who the winners were from the off. I wish we had spent more time arguing. Because then we wouldn't have been treated to a half-hour montage of Gregg's life, via the thousands of photos on his phone. 'This is my flat in Docklands.' 'This is me with James Haskell.' 'This is what I looked like when I weighed 19 stone.' But you got to love him. He really is the best at what he does.

Rather string this out with a drum-roll affair (because hey, this news is well over month late now) I will come right out and say that the winners were Gabrielle Sanders and Chris Lanyon. The tension in the room prior to the announcement was palpable. Muted even. But I put that down to everyone being blinding by our compere's orange suit. So bright.

They were very much worthwhile champions though and no doubt their lives will change dramatically after this. Well, I like to think that it has meant an influx of customers to Chris' cafe, which is good for business. And I am sure that Gabrielle is getting accosted and badgered for autographs whenever she walks down the frozen food aisle in Londis. Actually, I hope not. God, what have we done?

Personally, I am just over the moon still that after all these years, I finally got to meet the Captain.

'I've bloody missed you, Captain Bird's Eye,' I shouted with joy, after grabbing a selfie with him. 'When are you going back out onto the open seas?'

'You what? I've never been to sea in my whole life. And the name is Bill by the way.'


'Yeah, Bill. I was over in the Wetherspoons, off Old Street, only a couple of hours ago. Couple of girls came in and asked if I wanted to earn some cash and stuck this poxy outfit on me. You wanna drink?'

'Yeah, I'll have a pint,' I replied, sagely. 'And let's grab a fish finger sandwich while we're at it.'

'Ooooh, I haven't had one of those in yaaaaaaars.'

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Iceland World Famous Range - Smoked Hoisin Duck Wings

Time has become a valuable commodity of late. Saying that, isn't time always valuable? But still, it has been in short supply lately, as I seem to be spending most of my time running about the place like a loon. Doing lots. But in essence, not getting much done.

Short cuts have been made to help me out. Each night, before I go to bed, I assemble my jeans by the side of it; stacking them so that the legs sit neatly atop a pair of shoes, with socks already inside. An upright, concertinaed pair of Levi's basically. My shirt or sweater hangs down from the ceiling, on a hanger attached to a string on a hook. A jacket is draped over the end of the bed and my wallet, phone, and keys will be there, ready and waiting on my bedside table.

Then really, it's just a case of leaping out when then the alarm goes off. A quick slip into my jeans, socks and shoes. On goes the shirt or sweater. On goes the jacket. Wallet, phone and keys get dispensed into various pockets. I then simply open my bedroom window, kiss my wife goodbye and jump out, landing on an old mattress that I keep in the front garden to break my fall. And then I start sprinting to the train station. Smelling faintly, because I haven't bothered showering. With awful morning breath, because I've neglected to brush my teeth. And without any pants on. Because I usually forget to put some pants out the night before. But no-one ever needs to know about the pants, OK? That's between me and you. This is a time saving exercise and time is money.

I have also been making some efficiency drives elsewhere in my life, to make the most of these fleeting minutes, hours, days, etc. One of which has been to employ some ready made ingredients about the kitchen, so that I can quickly assemble a hearty, tasty and delicious meal, in around 25 minutes.

You see, school finishes at 3:15. We get home usually at 3:45. Stuff like Brownies and Cubs starts at 5:30. And so there really is only about an hour and 15 minutes to spare. Which is more than enough time I hear you say, to make a meal from scratch. But no, it isn't.

Because you have to deal with 10 minutes of general chitter-chatter/whinging, 6 minutes on the phone to the bank, 4 minutes trying to find the remote, 2 minutes telling the boy not to flick blu tack at his sister, 7 minutes emptying the washing machine, 10 minutes ironing Brownie and Cub uniform in a desperate attempt to get it dry again. AND THEN! You need to allow about 15 minutes supervising math's homework. Which all comes to like, one hour and 26 minutes. Or something. I don't know. I am really rubbish at maths and I am always late for Brownies and Cubs.

So, when the likes of Iceland, popped up with a new range of products, such as their new slow-cooked 'World Famous' collection, it ticked a lot of boxes for me. The biggest sell being that it has a 'chilled life'. Rather than sticking straight into the freezer, you can put a box in the fridge (where there is invariably more room) and once defrosted, you have up to seven days in which to cook the contents inside. Very handy that. The range itself skips through the light fantastic from spicy Korean baby back ribs and tender rosemary and garlic lamb, through to rather generic pulled pork. Basically covering all the kind of stuff that takes up hours of cooking. The kind of stuff I tend to reserve for the weekend. When I like to braise a rolled shoulder of hogget for instance; on a bed of onions and thyme, at 110C overnight. Waking up hourly as a result of the scent, is a bit of an issue. As is having to change pillows soaked with dribble. However, there is no time for that sort of behaviour in the middle of the week.

As a family, we've tried a fair bit of the range now but the absolute favourite has to be the black tea and hickory smoked duck wings in hoisin sauce. Chicken wings often raise a chorus of approval in the house but these duck wings are, in the words of a fellow blogger, a 'game-changer'. Sticky and glorious, with notes of aniseed and chilli to bounce about the place, the dense, succulent meat is great for pairing up with cleaner, crisper flavours. Inspired by noodle expert Meemalee, I tried them out last night with stir-fried pak choi, spring onion, sesame seed and of course, ready to cook noodles.  It was all straightforward really but the combination hit the spot and best of all, it took hardly any time to make.

Which was very important because not only did I have to get my daughter to Brownies, and not only did I have to get my son to Cubs, I also had to attend my first public council meeting. A fist fight among the councillors, the police and the residents of sleepy Upminster, to discuss the scourge of fly-tipping in my area.

I found it quite relaxing actually. Whilst all was going off around me, for the first time in ages, I finally found an hour or so of respite. Sitting there, with my belly full, stated and safe in the knowledge, that no-one else in the room would never ever know, that I wasn't wearing any pants.

It felt great.

Smoked duck wings in hoisin sauce with noodles, pak choi, spring onion and sesame seed -serves 4


2 boxes of World Famous Smokehouse Smoked Peking Duck Wings in Hoisin Sauce, defrosted
3 pak choi, trimmed and sliced into even, thin wedges
4 spring onions, white and green part thinly sliced, and leaves roughly shredded
600gms or two packs of ready-to-cook medium noodles (empty into a bowl and gently pull them apart with your fingers first)
2 tbsps sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 tbsps groundnut oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
Splash of rice wine vinegar (optional)


Heat your oven to 180C and empty the duck wings and sauce into their trays and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning them over halfway through.

If you have a lot of sauce left after this time, take the wings out and keep warm and pour the sauce into pan and reduce further on the hob until thick and gooey.

Place a wok or large frying pan on the hob, over a high heat and warm through both the groundnut and sesame oil and the add the pak choi, stir frying briskly for 1-2 minutes, then add the sliced spring onion and half the sesame seeds. Stir fry for another minute.

Then add the ready-to-cook noodles, a splash of rice wine vinegar and continue to stir fry for another 1-2 minutes over a high heat.

Divide the noodles and pak choi into for bowls and arrange the duck wings on top.

Finish by drizzling the thickened sauce over the duck and sprinkle over the remaining sesame seeds and shredded spring onion leaf.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Spicy beef shin hotpot with roast squash wedges

The longevity of onions never ceases to amaze me, although I should know better. Having grown them in the past, when I used to have my allotment plot, the practise of digging up in autumn and laying them down singularly and flat, on top of wooden boxes or flattened cardboard, was a common sight. This would help to cure and protect the onions, as the outer skin hardened and dried, ready to be stored in meshed bags for winter. Making them impervious little blighters really. Wonderful things, onions. These hardened balls of energy, just waiting to be unleashed like that.

However, the surprise only occurs whenever I reach into the corner cupboard of doom, where all the ‘stuff’ gets shoved, to grab a carrier bag and suddenly see a red onion come flying out.

‘Where has that come from?’ I’ll think. And ‘how long has it been in there?’ Along with ‘Hmm, maybe I’ll use that tonight.’

I am of course making this admission in the vague hope that it will sound familiar. I am hoping that I am not the only one who gets haunted and taunted by forgotten vegetables, scattered in the dark recesses of their kitchen. I also hope that on discovering these poor lost souls, lots of you end up cooking them, rather than simply throwing away. Because they will still be good for eating.

If you are undecided on the matter, a great destination for old vegetables is the humble stew or hot pot. Braising in a casserole, along with a cheap cut of meat, some store cupboard ingredients and some time and some care, can result in a dish that is not only tasty and transformative but also less wasteful. And if you discover whole bags of missing treasure, such as slightly wrinkled peppers, lying forlornly at the back of the fridge, then batch cooking is the way forward. Fill that freezer for days when you really don’t feel like slaving away behind the stove. For days dedicated to getting through Gilmore Girls or Game of Thrones or whatever takes your fancy.

This stew, or hotpot as I have named it, uses all of the above: ie onions, peppers and frugal meat in the form of beef shin, which is excellent for this type of cooking. Hard worked muscles always taste best. The slight twists or quirks to this recipe are down to the spices used, which lend a Latin or Mexican sort of flavour and come in the shape of the paprika, cumin and ancho chilli. For the purposes of this particular dish, I suggest popping an ancho in whole. You can chop it up and let the seeds run riot if you like, to add an extra fiery element of heat. But I prefer to leave the pepper to steep in the stock and let some of the ancho’s fruity quality come through.

Either way, you will have to soak it in boiled water first. Three years in a cupboard is a long time for a desiccated chilli to wait. But don’t worry, it will still be up for the job.

This post first featured on Great British Chefs, as part of a collaboration with Love Food Hate Waste.

Beef shin hotpot

50ml of rapeseed oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 yellow pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1.5kg beef shin, boned, trimmed and cut into small cubes
300g of cooking chorizo, cut into slices
2 tbsp of plain flour
1 tbsp of sweet smoked paprika
1 tbsp of ground cumin
1 tbsp of black treacle
1 tbsp of tomato purée
1 dried ancho chilli, soaked in hot water
500ml of beef stock
400g of tinned chopped tomatoes, (1 tin)
400g of chickpeas, (1 tin)

Roast squash wedges

1 large squash, butternut or festival, seeded and cut into thin wedges with skin left on
50ml of rapeseed oil

To serve

100ml of sour cream
25g of pumpkin seeds
1 bunch of coriander, small, roughly chopped
Basmati rice, to serve

To begin, place a casserole dish or stockpot on the hob over a medium heat and add half of the rapeseed oil. Once the oil has warmed up, add the finely chopped onion, peppers and garlic and stir to coat. Bring the heat down.

Cook slowly for about 15–20 minutes until everything is soft and sweet, then remove from the heat and scrape into a bowl. Give the casserole a quick wipe with some kitchen towel to ensure no bits are left to catch.

Next, place the beef shin chunks in a bowl with the flour, salt and pepper and mix together, so that the meat gets a light and even coating. Return the casserole to the hob over a medium-high heat, add the remaining oil then brown the shin in batches, lifting them onto a plate once done.

The bottom of your casserole will probably be crusted with meaty bits and pieces, so deglaze with a good splash of water, using a metal spoon to scrape and lift everything up. Pour the thickened liquid over the beef.

Add the chorizo slices into the casserole, stirring as they begin to sizzle and release some of their own oil. After a couple of minutes, place the beef back into the pot, along with the softened vegetables, and mix together.

Add the paprika and cumin and stir to coat, then after another 2 minutes add the tomatoes, beef stock, black treacle and ancho chilli. Taste for seasoning.

Bring up to a simmer then cover with a lid, leaving it slightly ajar so that steam can escape and that the sauce can slowly thicken.

After an hour, empty the tin of chickpeas into the hotpot and cook for another 2 hours, or until the beef is very tender. Throughout cooking, return every now and then to stir

To cook the squash, preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.

Place the squash wedges on a baking tray and drizzle with the oil, mixing together to ensure they are evenly coated. Season with some salt and pepper and place into the oven for 40-45 minutes, turning them over halfway through.

To serve, divide the rice between plates then add a generous helping of the beef shin hotpot. Arrange some of the roast squash wedges on the side and top the meat with some sour cream, a scattering of pumpkin seeds and some chopped coriander.

This recipe caters for 2 helpings, for 4 people. So leave the remaining stew to cool then place into freezer bags to freeze for another day.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Jewelled Pumpkin Rice with Crispy Onions

I did it. After wittering on about eating less meat in this New Year's post, I finally did it and made something that did not include any animal parts or meaty flavourings. Which sounds awful because we don't continually gnaw on bones at home. Far from it. We do have a fairly balanced diet. But the big thing here, is that I made this jewelled pumpkin rice for Sunday dinner. Yes, no traditional roast beef/pork/lamb. No gravy, gloriously imbued by the juices of said roast. And no roast potatoes either, crisp and oh so slightly burnt. They will make a return, the roast spudlies. Don't you worry about that. I'll be damned if I am going to give them up, despite what the government says. In the words of actor, Stephen Mangan -  'I'll give you the burnt, crispy bits off my roast potatoes when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.'

This fragrant and warming dish, a recipe from the brilliant Moro East and one that I have been coveting for some time now, is a great alternative and a superb pick me up after going for a winter stroll, in the driving rain. A decision that was met with derision at first - 'Holly, it's pissing down!?' Although I am glad I was convinced. We all returned, totally soaked through and with drips cascading from our stuffy noses. But after living in the area for 14 years, we discovered some new territory; a parkland walk close to a swollen river and the children came back with that lovely rosey glow on their cheeks. All in all, it was good, healthy stuff.

With the typical East Mediterranean flair that you find in this cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark, noses were soon cleared as the scent of roasting squash came flooding into the kitchen, along with notes of cinnamon and rose water. The latter a deviation from saffron, because we didn't have any in the cupboard (don't you just blaaady hate it when you run out of saffron?) and as such, the recipe that follows is slightly different from the one in the book. I also used a variety of squash, such as carnival and sweet dumpling, bought from the INTERNATIONAL SUPERMARKET.

The best part though, had to be the smell of deep fried onions, a suggested recommendation that rounded off things nicely. When deep frying onions in a small-ish saucepan, filled with hot and volatile sunflower oil, it does pay to pay attention to the amount you throw in at any given time. It really is best to do small amounts, as my first fist-full nearly amounted to an overspill and subsequent fireball. Thankfully, damp tea towels were close to hand. Some of us clearly remember chip-pan disasters of the 70's.

So just remember to go easy when deep frying your onions. Because burning down your house is going to have a far more detrimental effect on your health, than actually eating them will.

Jewelled Pumpkin Rice with Crispy Onions, serves 4 - 6

Butternut squash 500g, peeled and deseeded (the flesh of a 750g squash), cut into 1 cm dice
Fine sea salt 1 tsp
Olive oil 2 tbsp
Rose water 3 tbsp
Unsalted butter 100g
Cinnamon stick 6cm piece
Allspice berries 4 crushed
Onions 1 large or 2 medium, thinly sliced across the grain
Dried barberries (or currants) 15g
Shelled unsalted pistachios 50g
Ground cardamom ½ tsp
basmati rice 300g, soaked in tepid, salted water for 1 hour
vegetable stock 450ml (or 450ml boiling water mixed with 2 tsp vegetable bouillon)
Small bunch of coriander, roughly chopped

For the crispy onions:
1 large Spanish onion, very evenly and thinly sliced
Vegetable or sunflower, oil for frying


First, make the crispy onions. Heat 8-10mm depth of vegetable oil in a wide saucepan over a high heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add a 1cm layer of the shaved onions and reduce the heat to medium. Fry, stirring often, until they are an even golden colour. Drain and spread out on kitchen paper to cool, then repeat the process (you may need to top up the oil) until you have used all the onion.

Preheat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Toss the diced butternut squash with half of the salt and the olive oil. Spread it in a single layer in a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes until tender. Melt 25gms of butter in a saucepan and add 3 tbsp of rose water, mix and set aside. Heat the remaining butter in a medium saucepan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams, then add the onion and ½ tsp of salt. Fry over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft and starting to colour. Add the barberries, pistachios and cardamom and cook for 10 minutes more.

Now drain the rice and add to the pan, stirring for a minute or two to coat, then pour in the stock. Taste for seasoning, then add the roast squash. Cover with a circle of greaseproof paper and a tight-fitting lid and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 5 minutes. Remove the lid and paper and drizzle with the rose water and melted butter. Replace the lid and leave to rest, off the heat, for 5–10 minutes.

Serve in warmed bowls, with a generous helping of crispy onions on top and a scattering of the coriander.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Frozen Fortune: Iceland's Food Waste Campaign

In an effort to cut down on food waste in our house, we have employed lots of different tricks, such as shopping regularly (little and often), ignoring sell-by dates (by using our noses) and by simply throwing whatever wrinkled, stale bits and pieces we have lurking about; into a pot, with stock, to make soups or stews. Making soup in particular, is wonderful, as I've developed it into a guessing game.

"What's in the soup today, kids?"

"Bananas? Yoghurt? That weird pâté you made?"

The kids obviously aren't very good at this guessing game because their palates have yet to develop properly. Either that, or my soup tastes very strange indeed. I am sure it doesn't. I love my soup. It keeps me warm.

The other, somewhat paradoxical, method of reducing waste I use of course, is to lump items into the freezer, into deep hibernation, to be used up at a later date. I mention the word 'paradoxical' because this way of doing things often results in a proliferation of solidified matter, usually unknown due to a distinct lack of labelling. Leading to bags and bags of mystery, left for prolonged periods of time. This is really not the right way to combat food waste. This is food hoarding and I am sure that I am not alone. I caught up with someone (who shall remain anonymous) at Thane Prince's Cookbook Club recently and we chatted about the last time we met, at a Catalan Pig Day. By all accounts, her portion of the sobrasada we made together was still in her freezer. We met up at this pig day over four years ago.

So, whilst it is a good idea store away any edible odds and sods that you might have, leaving them for some archaeological team to unearth in a thousand years time is not the way forward.

A better suggestion though, could be the practise of buying frozen ingredients in the first place, with a view to incorporating them into your everyday cooking. This could certainly help to make a dent in the estimated 7m tonnes of food wasted in the UK, an amount that costs each household £700 a year, according to the government agency Wrap. Which is where (dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dah!) the supermarket, Iceland, come into the picture. As part of their #PowerofFrozen campaign, Iceland have been making a massive effort to overturn public perception and opinion of frozen food. Not forgetting to mention the brand itself.

As part of this initiative, I was recently invited to go oop north, to visit their headquarters and rather flash development kitchen outside of Chester, for an exercise in myth-busting. Or buff-misting as I like to call it.

Club Iceland
The ship has sailed for me to go into all the detail behind the day and I am worried that already you are failing asleep but as press trips go, it was very informative and eye-brow raising, particularly when it comes to what other supermarkets or indeed restaurants can get away with calling 'fresh'. 'Previously frozen' is all around us and as such, you should really keep an eye on the labelling. If  your interest is piqued, Charlotte of Charlotte's Lively Kitchen gives a good in-depth account of the day. Although Chris Pople's succinct write up will give you more of a flavour.

Buff-misting food
What was really interesting for me personally, was the online response I got when it became evident that I was sticking my nose into Iceland mince pies and barbecued turkey. To my surprise, lots of people came out of the woodwork, in praise for their frozen goods. Especially with regards to their fish and seafood. And I have to say, it reignited an old flame for the shop and I have popped in there a fair few times since. Their frozen octopus is for instance, is excellent.

In fact, I have some cracking memories of visiting Bejams, Iceland's precursor, with my Mum when I was boy. Wearing my green Parka, hood up, with fur trim, I would often open one of the huge chests they had in there, hop over and nestle in amongst the broccoli and lamb chops; slamming the lid shut. Mum would then eventually turn up, in a blind panic, and rip the lid back open. Through her screams, she never heard me, nor did she ever appreciate the scene I was reenacting. Instead of hearing my dramatic cries of  "Ben? You want me to go the Dagobah system?" she'd simply clip me around the ear and hoist me back out by my ankle. Some Han Solo she turned out to be.

Coming back to reality for a second and getting on with the job in hand, the other thing that impressed me on that day was the way that Neil Nugent and his chefs were able to turn seemingly mundane frozen products into plates, or flights, of fancy. I mean we had Argentinian Rosso prawns, baked in hay, woof!

Neil Nugent - Head Development Chef
So, when Iceland approached me with a brief to come up with a recipe or meal using frozen ingredients only, suddenly things became really appealing. Could I come up with a dish that would not only help to combat the issues surrounding food waste but also encourage people to actually cook? Iceland is still synonymous with the 'slam bam thank you Maam' approach of ready meals and whether the pizzas, trays of lasagne and chicken bites will ever shrink or disappear, I doubt very much. They are still very popular. However, slowly but surely, their individual range of ingredients does seem to be increasing. Which in the immortal words of John Torode, is a 'good thing.'

The dish in question that I came up with, is Roast Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding, Pea Purée and Parsley Potato Cake, topped with Parsnip Shavings. A heady combination of tender and sweet meat, rich and spicy offal, fresh, clean vegetables and handsome, nay, fulsome carbohydrate. And lots of capitals. This is not cooking by scratch by any means and yes, perhaps this wouldn't look out of place on Masterchef, circa 2008. But it does go to show, I hope, that you really can make a special plate of food, using frozen ingredients only. Also, it doesn't take that long to prepare, thus saving on time too.

In terms of advice for approaching this recipe, I think there needs to be a couple of tips shared here and a caveat. To form the potato cakes, I dusted off my presentation rings, but a clean tinned can with both ends opened will do the trick. After simmering your peas, save some of the water to help loosen the puree but for gawd's sakes don't pour too much in, practically a teaspoon is needed (much testing was done to discover this). And you could add just a smidgen more butter at the end to help make the slightly burnt butter sauce, out of meat scrapings from the pan. But perhaps I went a little over the top here with my drizzling at the end.

The caveat? Well, if I were to be really honest, it does pain me to include frozen chopped onion. Onions never die. As I once described them elsewhere, they are, to quote - 'amazing balls of energy, kept safe forever within their skins.' But hey, for speed and ease, go for it. At least there won't be any tears spilt.

Which is more than can be said about the times when you sit down, to what you think is defrosted spag bol, and it turns out to be chili-con carne. Made using Quorn. Ugh.

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding, Pea Purée and Parsley Potato Cake, topped with Parsnip Shavings - serves 4


Straight Outta Da Freezer
2 Pork Tenderloins with Parmesan and roasted shallot butter (defrosted in fridge after 12 hours and brought to room temperature)
4 slices of frozen black pudding
400gms frozen mashed potato
50gms frozen diced onions
2 tsps frozen chopped parsley
150gms frozen honey glazed parsnips
250gms frozen petit pois
Oil, for frying
Extra butter (optional)

First there were peas, then there was puree

First heat your oven to 200C or 180C on a fan assisted oven.

Next, place the mash potato (it comes as tubes) into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and microwave for 4 minutes. If microwave horrifies you, place into a saucepan and onto the hob over a medium heat and stir frequently. You may need a splash of milk to help loosen if going down this route.

Whilst the mash is cooking, place a frying pan on the hob over a medium heat, add a splash of oil and then the onions. Brisking stir-fry to encourage the water to evaporate and to soften the onion. This takes about five minutes.

When ready, combine the onion with the mashed potato and one teaspoon of the frozen parsley and mix together. There is no need to season or add butter, the potato has plenty.

Place your presentation onto a baking tray and spoon a quarter of the mash potato inside, patting everything down so that the surface is nice and level. Then take a frozen parsnip and using a grater or microplane, grate a generous amount on top. Remove the presentation ring by whipping it upwards (like a magician whips off a tablecloth). Repeat to make four cakes in total and then place into the oven, on the middle shelf.

Three stages of potato cake
Next, place the frying pan back in the hob, over a medium heat and add another splash of oil and plop in the tenderloins and fry for 4 minutes each side. Then place onto a baking tray and put into the oven next to the potato cakes. for 10 to 12 minutes.

Now for the black pudding, using that same ol' frying pan, place back on the hob over low to medium heat and lay down your slices. Cook gently and flipping often, they should take about 8-10 minutes to cook from frozen.

Whilst the meat, black pudding and spuds are cooking, prepare your pea purée by boiling a kettle and pouring a generous amount of water into a saucepan and place on the hob, on a high heat. Throw in the peas, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 4 minutes and then drain, reserving that smidgen of water. Then, preferably using a hand blender, place the peas into the plastic chopper bowl and blitz until smooth. If it is too thick, add that teaspoon of pea water and spend at least 3 to 4 minutes blending. When ready, pour back into the pan and keep warm.

When the tenderloins are nearly done, place the Parmesan and roasted shallot patties on each one and roast off for another 2 minutes. Then take out of the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes. The potato cakes should be done by this point, with a crisp, sweet topping. And so should your black pudding.

Pork tenderloin, with melting Parmesan and roasted shallot butter
To plate, spoon a healthy dollop of pea puree on your plate, dragging across to create a cheffy swoosh and then place your potato cake next to it. Carve the tenderloins into 12 equal slices and cut each black pudding round in half and then place on top of the puree, alternating 3 slices of pork and 2 halves of pudding per portion.

To finish, pour whatever butter is left on the baking tray that was holding the pork into that hardworking frying pan, including any bits of meat left over. Add the last teaspoon of parsley and extra butter if you fancy (ah gowhan) and give it a quick blast on the hob until everything just begins to catch. Drizzle over the meat and in splodges and splashes for decorative effect.


Roast Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding, Pea Puree and Parsley Potato Cake, topped with Parsnip Shavings
It's very tasty
On Iceland's part, to highlight the whole issue of food waste and the amount of money we fritter a year (£700 remember) they've come up with this slightly bonkers project or video:

Do not adjust your eyes or monitor: yes, that is a fisherman, currently standing in a studio, trying to melt an ice sculpture, where that all important £700 has been frozen within. And Iceland are inviting people to guess how long it will take for him to do it, with the prize being the bundle of cash inside.

It's a competition in other words. An abstract one at that but if you 'like' and comment on the Viral Thread post and get the correct estimate in, you could win it.

He needs to get that hairdryer out a bit more often if you ask me. Or use the hammer.

Saturday, 14 January 2017


We’re not even halfway through January yet and if you are anything like me, you may already be experiencing a certain malaise, or discomfort, with regards to the boom of healthy eating and exercising that traditionally explodes during this barren month. Inboxes get filled with diet plans, celebrities in spandex suddenly appear everywhere and all those gym bunnies begin to whinge on social media, about the new influx of resolutioners clogging up the Stairmaster. It’s fairly awful really. I mean it only feels like yesterday, when I last legitimately hunkered down on a turkey, Twiglet and whole Camembert sandwich. I mean seriously, do we have to go through all this?

Gadgets that are supposed improve, slim down and tone our portly bodies are probably my biggest pet hate. Objects of pain and misery, such as the ‘Abdominator’, the ‘Buttotromaphon’ and the ‘Spiralizer’. Oh yes, I spent the best part of 2016 positively sneering at that last piece of kit and the suggestion that ribboned beetroot is a fine substitute for pasta. The accompanying vapid, beatified smiles, airbrushed skin and general nutritional mumbo jumbo also got to me too. However, that is an easy thing to do. Especially when you look in the mirror and see Phil Mitchell staring back at you; in his pants and dressing gown, holding a doner kebab, with extra chilli sauce.

Yes, I must do something about my breakfasting this year, at the very least.

Then, during the Christmas break, I bought a spiralizer on a whim. And reader, it changed my life. Well, it changed an afternoon really, as I sort of plummeted into a frenzy, spiralizing whatever I could get my hands on. Carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, salami, the lot. My wife walked into the kitchen after getting home from work and saw mounds and mounds of twizzles and noodles everywhere. She was carrying a Christmas pudding, a gift from her boss, and I spiralized that too. It didn’t work very well but I was thoroughly turned on by the limitless opportunities a spiralizer could bring.

As an aside, I do get the whole deal behind them. Spiralizers volumise, giving the impression on plates that you are eating a big portion, when really it’s quite small. A useful aid when you are trying to lose weight, although small is not the word I’d use to describe the bowl of julienned potato I had leftover. You could reach the ceiling with just four spuds and after realising that I was making a wasteful mess of everything, I finally got down to doing some cooking, frying the potato off with some curly wurly onion and garlic. I then thought about adding some eggs, to bind everything together, with a dash of herbs and suddenly, we were heading into ‘frittata’ territory; that Italian go-to for fixing up (and quite often using up) something quick.

Up until that point, it was all looking quite healthy actually. But then I went and spoilt it all by doing something stupid like adding pepperoni and mozzarella. And lo, the Spirafrizzata was born. An open omelette, with noodled vegetables inside and spicy meat and oozing cheese on top.

It has become quite a hit in our house and if you are looking for an antidote to lift you out of the January blues, I am sure it will go down well in yours too.

And if you are trying to be good but getting peeved by those gym bunnies, tutting impatiently behind you, as you struggle to dismount the ‘Glutifaxicator’, just remind them that they were more than happy to use your pub in December. Before smiling and walking off with your tupperware box; full of spiralized radishes, spiralized bean sprouts and spiralized Toblerone.

This post first appeared on Great British Chefs.

Spiralizer frittata

2 large potatoes, approximately 400g in weight, peeled
1 courgette
1 white onion, peeled
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8 free-range eggs
1 tsp dried oregano
5 slices of pepperoni
100g of mozzarella cheese, torn into pieces
3 tbsp of olive oil


First, you need to have a merry old time spiralizing your vegetables. So whizz your potatoes, courgette and onion through whatever spiralizing contraption you can get your hands on. You could always use a julienne blade on a mandoline, but you won’t have half as much fun.

After doing the potato ribbons, give them a quick soak in a bowl of cold water to remove excess starch. They will stick together when you come to cook them otherwise. Rinse, drain and dry in a colander or give the potatoes a spin in a salad spinner.

Next, place a non-stick frying pan on the hob over a medium heat, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and warm up before adding the onion. Gently stir for about 5 minutes, before adding the chopped garlic. Fry for another 2 minutes.

Scrape the onion and garlic out and place in a small bowl. Place the pan back on the hob, add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil then add the potato.

Turn the heat up a touch and briskly stir-fry the potato ribbons so they begin to soften and colour. Once they do, add the courgette and stir to combine. This can be tricky, so it helps to employ a fork to mix the two together.

After a couple of minutes, add the onion and garlic and again, stir through to combine, using a fork if necessary. Turn the heat down and leave to cook for another 2 minutes.

Crack your eggs into a bowl and whisk together. Add the oregano and season with some salt and pepper before giving the eggs another good mix.

Next preheat the grill in your oven to 200°C.

Pour the eggs all over the softened vegetables, giving the pan a gentle shake to make sure you get a nice even distribution. Leave to cook through from the bottom upwards – this takes about 10 minutes.

The top will still be a little bit runny after this time, so place the pan under to grill to firm up and finish cooking. Keep an eye on it though, as you don’t want it to brown too much.

To finish, place your pepperoni on top and dot the spaces in between with mozzarella. Give it one last blast under the grill, until the meat crisps and the cheese bubbles up.

When done, leave to cool in the pan until warm and then flip out onto a board. You may need to run a spatula around the edges. Serve with salad leaves and tomatoes. Or chips.