Saturday, 22 April 2017

Wild Garlic, Egg and Bacon Filo Pie


Don't tell anyone this but I bought some gardening clogs the other day. Signalling a new direction in my life, going rapidly south. The kids are only 9 but they've already noticed this sea change and are no doubt thinking horrible thoughts, as they see me shuffle around in the flower beds; all bent and stooped. Maybe not so much about impending mortality but more about the fact that roles will be reversed at some point and that one day, they will have to wipe my bum. Perhaps I am over-analyzing here. Perhaps I am anxiously screwing. Over feeling so damn comfortable in my gardening clogs. It feels like a dirty secret. So please, keep this one safe.

But seeing as this is supposed to a quick post, I think I should get to the point and share a rather nifty recipe for wild garlic, egg and bacon filo pie. Or spanakopita, as the Greeks call it. I don't think I have to explain too much as to why I have used wild garlic as a principle ingredient. A lot of similar recipes call for spinach but if you are going to inject some green into proceedings, why not use something a bit more pungent. Especially if you have lots to hand. Egg and bacon is always a happy marriage but in this case, they serve really to bind everything together and to provide a bit of seasoning. Creating a softly scrambled and porcine base for a light, Spring-like lunch or dinner.

Be careful with the filo though. Regarding the use of wafer thin pastry, some naysayers will scoff at the suggestion of the word 'pie' for something so delicate. But after a brush with some melted butter and a quick brush in the oven, those scrunched pieces can turn into razor sharp shards. So eat with care.

In some cases, you may want to take your teeth out first.

Bacon, Parmesan, Wild Garlic Flower

Wild Garlic, Egg and Bacon Filo Pie - serves 4

Ingredients

4 sheets of ready made filo pastry
4 eggs, lightly beaten
100gms smoked bacon lardons
1 good handful of wild garlic, leaves washed and roughly chopped (and a couple a flowers can be thrown in too, if you like).
100gms feta cheese, crumbled
50gms Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Black pepper
Butter, for melting and brushing

Crispy, filling, crispy
Method

Heat your oven to 180C and place a frying pan on the hob, over a medium heat. Add the bacon lardons and quickly fry off, until they slightly browned and crispy. Leave to cool.

Once cool, mix the bacon with the eggs, feta and Parmesan and wild garlic together and then season generously with some black pepper. (Note, I haven't added salt on account of the bacon and the cheese).

Next, grab a pie dish and take the filo pastry out of the fridge and leave it out on the side for 20 minutes.

Melt some butter and brush the base and sides of the pie dish and then drape a sheet of the filo across, pushing it gently to the inside and there should be plenty to hang over. Repeat with two more sheets, criss-crossing them so that all the sides of the dish are covered.

Now pour the filling into the centre, pressing everything down a touch so that the base is covered. And then pull all the remaining hanging filo over, scrunching and twisting to fit.

You will probably have a gap in the middle left uncovered, so take the last sheet of filo and again scrunch and twist to fill in the gap.

Using some more melted butter, brush the filo all over the top and place into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the top turns crisp and light brown (keep an eye on this).

Leave to cool to room temperature and then slice up into quarters and serve with a mixed salad.

Sexy wild garlic clog time
Wild Garlic, Egg and Bacon Filo Pie and salad

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Iceland's Luxury Rack of Lamb with Yeasted Cauliflower, Spinach and Fried Caper Berries


Given that I have now the steered the ship of approximately 2381 barbecues, you'd think that I would be quite the veteran or expert by now, wouldn't you? Well, yes, I am. Let's make no bones about this. Having spent a large part of my formative years hunched over disposable trays, I have since dabbled in a vast array of techniques, tempering (or tampering rather) with heat and fire, in the great outdoors. Underground, overground, wombling free. Smoking, choking and inadvertently setting my neighbours fence alight. Rotisserie, patisserie and lest we forget, deep frying whole potatoes in a bubbling cauldron of beef dripping, over naked flame. An episode that still fills me with horror because seriously, if there had been just the slightest of nudges, from say, an itinerant foot; we would have been in big, big trouble. We filled that pot up with so much fat that day. Too much fat. I blame John.

You're probably getting the picture by now, that perhaps I am not quite the expert. I still have much to learn. Largely about safety. But I really do love to cook outside. It really is joyous and as such, I am always looking around and thinking of different ways to do things. Or for new adventures, as it were.

One project that has been on my mind for some time now, has been to cook an entire meal on charcoal. At this point, you may be thinking 'Oh, here we go, Danny is going to be selling himself as the next Niklas Ensktrak...Extra....Einstein...that beardy, chef bloke from Sweden.' I am not. I do love Niklas' book though and am in awe of the stuff he does but he is operating in another universe. By comparison, I'd have to start off from a very small leaping point. Well, relatively low.

So the other day, I cracked out both my ProQ and a galvanized tray (from an old portable piece of kit) and set to creating a meal, with an Easter vibe, some punchy flavour and all cooked over glowing white coals.

Lamb obviously had to be the star of the show and on this occasion, I returned to Iceland. Again, I know what you are thinking. 'Oh, here we go, Danny is back on the sell.' But my cynical heart really has been melted by some of the offerings in that store and as such, Iceland is now on my 'go to' list. Admittedly, that list is very large anyway. Growing in fact, as I am a bit of a food shopping, male strumpet. But I suppose what I like most about Iceland though, is the benefit of reaching into those laden freezers and pulling out some ingredient that is out of the ordinary. Octopus, red snapper, smoked duck wings, frutti de mare, rose veal saltimboca, even croquembouche kits. For when you want stuff your bouche with choux pastry, chocolate and caramel. Like you often do. (Yes, I know you do).

It's amazing to have access to stuff like that on the high street, to picked up conveniently and the quality is surprisingly good. Compliment that with an array of frozen vegetables and fruit, for nutritious sides and healthy breakfasts (the kids love a dollop of red berry compote in their otherwise mundane porridge) and suddenly, Iceland doesn't look too shabby.

More interesting for me though is the phenomenon of feigned surprise and subsequent embarrassment whenever I bump into someone in there. The sort of thing that was once reserved for shopping in those now very popular Germanic stores.

'Oh, hello. I don't normally come in here you know but the frozen fish is really quite...commendable!' they'll often say. Using words that don't quite fit their regular vocabulary, before scuttling off down the aisle, hoping that I haven't seen the stack of stuffed crust pizza at the bottom of their trolley.

Still, the tide definitely seems to be turning for Iceland.

Scenes from an outdoor kitchen
Coming back to the task in hand though and the element of cooking a whole meal over flame, I kept things simple for my first time out. The aforementioned lamb, sourced from British Red Tractor assured farms, was all pretty much taken care of, as it came with an even crust of parsley, breadcrumb and shallot. I just had to make sure that my ProQ was up to speed with the temperature for some indirect cooking. Of course, cooking the lamb this way also injected a lovely touch of smoke and if you fancy doing something similar, I would err on going for 30 minutes (rather than the 35 on the instructions) to keep a touch of pinkness.

Rose-tinted rack of lamb
The trickier part is perhaps pulling together the yeasted cauliflower, to provide a rough puree or bed of umami. However, this only requires a small degree of patience. It was quite relaxing actually, stirring the small florets into butter and watching them soften and break down, whilst contemplating the wild garlic nearby. That is slowly taking over my garden, house, life. I acquired this method for cooking cauliflower from Jackson Boxer of Brunswick House by the way. It really is gorgeous to eat, alone or otherwise, and definitely gives that cheesy cousin a run for its money.

The three stages of yeasted cauliflower
Wilting some fresh spinach and quickly frying off some caper berries on some hot coals is, OK, a bit of a no-brainer but once everything was on the go and coming neatly towards the end, I don't mind admitting to standing back and feeling proud about my first attempt at al fresco cuisine au total. A tear even dropped onto my cheek, dispelling any notions of proper caveman cooking. Real barbecuing men don't cry, they just sport ridiculous looking clothes. Yet when I shouted out to the kitchen inside, where the gang (including our nephew, Bo) were assembling one of those rather naughty croquembouches I mentioned earlier, to come and have a look at what I had done, not one person beckoned to my call. They were all too busy sucking up left over caramel, straight from a piping bag. Including Mrs FU. In essence, they couldn't give a monkeys about my exploits in the open air. This assembly of a fantastic meal, conjured magically upon wood and fire. Next to the wild, wild garlic.

It was only then that I really got upset.


Iceland's Luxury Rack of Lamb with Yeasted Cauliflower, Spinach and Fried Caper Berries -serves 4

Ingredients

2 packs of Iceland Luxury Rack of Lamb, defrosted
2 cauliflowers, leaves removed and florets picked into small pieces. For the remaining stalk, chop that up into small pieces too.
20gms dried yeast
150gms unsalted butter, cubed
150mls whole milk
500gms fresh spinach, washed
12 caper berries, rinsed
50ml rapeseed oil
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to season

Method

First, a quick addendum. Given that I have employed two methods here i.e. indirect cooking and open grilling, it is obviously going to be hard to do this all on one bbq, especially if you don't have ProQ or Weber or any sort of bbq with a lid. If so, slam that lamb into the oven but do carry on with the vegetables on the grill. Or if you do have a bbq with a lid, live a little and build a makeshift one just next to it. It's not that hard.

Now, to start, you need to fire up your bbq's and I am not going to tell you exactly how because that might be like telling your Grandma how to suck eggs. But essentially, you need your bbq for the indirect cooking to reach 180C and the coals on your open grill to be glowing white before cooking.

So, place your lamb, crust side up and place it into your bbq. (Remember, 35 minutes as per instruction, or 30 for medium).

Next, place a wide saucepan on the coals and add the butter. Once it starts foaming (and it will) add the cauliflower, yeast and a touch of salt. Briskly stir fry so that everything gets coated and then leave, giving another stir every now and then, to prevent it catching too much.

After about 20 minutes, the florets should be quite soft and begin to turn to mush. Encourage this by pressing down with the spoon and continue to brown things off for another 5 minutes or so.

Then add the milk and incorporate together and then using a masher, mash it all together to form a rough puree. Or mash! Ha! You could go the extra mile and blitz with hand blender but quite frankly, getting the extension lead out would be going too far. Even for this project. Taste for seasoning and keep warm.

Using another wide saucepan or wok, place that on the coals, along with a smaller saucepan. Add the washed spinach to the wok and oil and caper berries to the small pan.

By now, your lamb should be done, so take that out of the bbq and cover with foil and leave to rest.

Finish by wilting the spinach down and turn the caper berries over so that they crisp up a little, then add the lemon juice and parsley to the capers and stir through.

To serve up, spoon a generous amount of the cauliflower into the centre of a plate and top with some spinach, making sure you squeeze out any excess liquid first.

Carve and portion up the lamb cutlets and arrange of top of that and finish by dotting some caper berries around the plate and drizzle over some of that citrus and herb oil.

Lamb al fresco, with beer

Open cooking

Croquembouche excitement

Tender and sweet


Saturday, 8 April 2017

Whole Deep Fried Poussin with Tarragon Mayonnaise and Potato Wedges


The internet can get you into a whole load of trouble. It can put ideas in your head. Dangerous ideas. Like deep-frying a whole turkey. I first stumbled across this novel way of cooking a while ago, whilst scanning YouTube for outlandish food experiments. And it looked amazing. The theatre and spectacle of plunging a huge brined bird, into a bowl of seething gold, in someone’s backyard in small town US of A at Thanksgiving; well, that seemed hard to beat.

Then I stumbled across the warning videos. The ones that showed where this type of cooking can go horribly wrong. Showing what happens to turkeys that have not been duly drained of their salting liquor before making that descent. Boom! You get huge explosions. Water and boiling oil does not mix you see. The subsequent drop of the camcorder and high pitched scream of ‘Oh ma Gaad, Cletus! Are y'all OK?’ will haunt me forever still.

But like a moth to a flame, I’ve always fancied returning to the idea and when I saw that one of my peers, a rather good baker who resides in Holland, had been getting up to the same tricks with chicken, I felt that I still had to give this method a crack.

With safety in mind though, I decided to scale things down further and pitch my first attempt at ‘whole bird’ deep-frying by using poussin. Poussin that had been brined overnight in buttermilk. Given that this young bird provides a delicate and light meat anyway, you may be wondering why I went through the extra rigmarole. But brining does still add an extra dimension prior to cooking.

You see, by curious osmosis, the whole process is about manipulating proteins by fattening them up and breaking them down a touch before the real cooking gets under way. The reason why some meat, poultry in particular, often comes out dry, is down to that fast shock of initial heat, and this is because the water in the proteins comes flying out, leaving them dense and tight. Having just read that last sentence back to myself, I do realise that this is not a very science-sy way of explaining things but simply put, brining ensures that everything stays nice and juicy.

Anyhow, that was my reason for marinating the poussin in an acidic bath overnight and I am sticking by it. You could source ‘buttermilk’ by the way, but after strenuous research (i.e. asking Twitter) skimmed milk mixed with lemon juice or vinegar also does the trick.

The biggest leap of faith comes to the actual frying and if you own a proper deep-fryer, it is probably best to use that but it might not be big enough. I went down the route of using my beloved deep stock pot, called Barry White, and accomplished a very good result. The poussin was lovely and crisp on the outside but still supremely succulent inside. It left me very happy.

Yes, it’s awesome what you can achieve with a steady hand, nerves of steel and a taped off kitchen. Next time, I think I may even invite my wife in to film me.

This recipe post first appeared on Great British Chefs.


Ingredients

Poussin
2 poussin, corn-fed
3l sunflower oil, or vegetable oil

Buttermilk brine
1l skimmed milk
1 lemon, juiced
4 tsp flaky sea salt

Seasoned flour coating
2 eggs
5 tbsp of plain flour
1 tbsp of oregano, dried
1 tbsp of thyme, dried
2 tsp garlic salt
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp black pepper, cracked

Potato wedges
750g of Maris Piper potatoes, skin scrubbed then cut into neat equal quarters
3 tbsp of rapeseed oil

Tarragon mayonnaise
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1 tsp English mustard
200ml of rapeseed oil
1 bunch of tarragon leaves, (small) chopped
lemon juice, to taste
salt
pepper


Method

To begin, make the buttermilk brine by combining the skimmed milk with the lemon juice and salt into a bowl and whisk together for 5 minutes. The milk will curdle but that is fine – the main point here is to incorporate the salt.

Place your poussin in the bowl, cover with cling film and place in the fridge. The minimum time to marinate or brine your poussin would be 4 hours but it is good to leave overnight. Return every now and then to turn the poussin over.

When ready to start cooking, preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.

Place a large saucepan of water on the hob to bring to the boil. Once boiling, add the potato wedges and simmer for just 5 minutes, then pour into a colander in the sink and leave the potatoes to steam for another 5 minutes.

Take the poussin out of the buttermilk brine and stand them upright (cavity facing down) in a sieve or colander over a bowl and leave to drain.

Meanwhile, take a large roasting tray, add the rapeseed oil and pour in the wedges. Toss around to get a good even coating, add a touch of salt and pepper over the top and place in the oven. Check on them every 15 minutes or so to shake and move about. All in all, the wedges will take 45 minutes.

To make the tarragon mayonnaise, place a small bowl on top of a wet kitchen towel or tea towel (this is to stabilise the bowl) and add the yolk and mustard. Whisk together until everything becomes creamy then very slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking all the while. Keep going until everything starts to thicken and emulsify until all the oil is gone.

Add the chopped tarragon and a squeeze of lemon juice, folding everything in with a spoon. Season to taste, cover with cling film and leave in the fridge.

To coat the poussin for frying, combine all the dry ingredients in one bowl and crack the eggs in another bowl, beating lightly to combine. Roll the poussin around in the egg wash so that it gets a light coating and then dump them in the flour bowl, again, ensuring they get an even coating all round. Set aside on a plate so they are good to go.

If using a fryer, heat the oil to 180°C. If you are using a stock pot, like I do, pour in the sunflower oil and place over a high heat on the hob, using your biggest burner. Keep an eye on proceedings by using a temperature probe, waiting until it reaches 180°C.

When ready, carefully drop both poussin into the oil and deep-fry for 15–20 mins, turning the poussin around occasionally. To make sure that they are cooked through, use that temperature probe and take a reading from the thigh – it needs to have an internal temperature between 72°C–75°C – if it’s not quite there you may need to pop them back into the pot.



Before serving, place both the poussin and wedges on kitchen paper to remove excess oil, then slice each poussin straight down the middle with a sharp knife. Set each half on a plate with a generous scoop of wedges by the side and finish with an equally lavish blob of tarragon mayonnaise, straight from the fridge.


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Whole Braised Oxtail with Trotter Gear

Whole braised oxtail with shallots, carrots and rosemary (and Trotter Gear)
Buying a whole piece of oxtail takes a certain degree of bravery. Largely because it looks like a tail and if you share the same past experience as me, you will know that once you've got it home, you haven't got a chance in hell of cutting it up into smaller pieces. Yes, once upon a time, I foolishly declined an offer from a butcher to chop up some oxtail for me. Because I was so entranced by its undiminished state.

'Is that what oxtail looks like whole?' I asked.

'Yes but we can cut it to order. Do you want some pieces then?'

'Oh no, I will take that one whole, please. Yes, that one. The big one.'

'Are you sure?'

'Oh yes, I am sure. Very sure.'

Of course, I then got it home without any real clue of knowing what I was doing and so decided:

'You know what? I think I will cut this up for a stew.'

Given the small amount of kitchen equipment I had back then, the task proved impossible. My chef's knife was blunted in seconds. No amount of whittling and probing with a paring knife into the crevasses of the cartilage would do the trick. In a final, desperate attempt, I ran to the shed in the garden and grabbed a hacksaw and as I came bombing back into the kitchen, holding it manically aloft, Mrs FU suddenly grabbed me the wrist and said: 'No. You are not using that.'

Considering that the blade was encrusted with rust, it was probably a good idea that she intervened.

So, there was nothing for it but to stick the damn thing in the oven and roast it. And that didn't quite work either. We ended up picking off hard baked strips of beef from bone under candlelight. What a sullen evening that turned out to be.

But the good news is that you can cook oxtail whole, if you fancied it. With some thought, care and attention, this frugal piece, usually reserved for unctuous winter stews, can become something quite spectacular and worthy of a banquet. And if you can get your hands on some Trotter Gear, to throw into the mix, then you will enter another parallel dimension altogether.

I first spotted TG in Turner and George, again falling under the spell of spying something different and unusual. A packet of viscous...stuff on the shelf, that not only promised wonders for your stocks, braises and stews; but also promised to become your friend. I've used it since in a pig cheek and leek stew, which warmed the cockles on a particularly grey January day. Savoured it with duck, carrots and peas and far too much wine. And after hearing the suggestion from good authority, I have also tried it smothered on toast, after a giving it quick blast in the saucepan. It knocks bread and dripping out of the park.

Using it then in a liquor for slow braising oxtail comes as a no-brainer and to be honest, this sort of dish has St John written all over it. The inspiration comes from the original Tom Pemberton's recipe in Coco after all. Except in this instance, I braised for longer, popped a couple of star anise for good measure and of course, used Trotter Gear. Which wasn't invented back then.

The best part comes from picking the soft pieces of beef from the bone, full of that familiar rich flavour. Scoop some creamy mash into your bowl, bolster by adding some sweet carrots and shallots, drizzle over some of that glorious gravy, and I promise you, you will be in seventh heaven.

Sadly, I did get any decent photos of my final plate. And to be honest, the ones I took of the whole oxtail are a bit blurry.

But you've probably cottoned on by now, that I am the sort of bloke who has a tendency to rush into things. Especially towards the end.


Whole Braised Oxtail with Trotter Gear - serves 2

Ingredients

1 whole oxtail (Although you will see in the photos I've used one and a half, to also feed the kids)
10 banana shallots, peeled and left whole
20 large Chantenay carrots, scrubbed and cleaned
1 whole garlic, cut in half
1 bouquet garni, using rosemary, thyme and bay
2 star anise
1 bottle of red wine
1 litre of beef stock
1 packet of Trotter Gear
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and cracked black pepper
Oil, for frying


Method

First heat your oven to 160C and season the oxtail all over with a good dusting of salt and pepper.

Place a roasting tray on top of the hob over a medium to high heat and add a splash of oil. Then place the oxtail in and brown all over and then remove from the heat

Using a large frying pan or wide pan saucepan, add another splash of oil and place on the hob over a medium to high heat. Add the shallots and briskly fry, until browned all over and then add a generous splash of balsamic vinegar and reduce until sticky.

Then pour in the red wine, the stock and Trotter Gear and reduce by a third. Add the carrots, bouquet garni, garlic head and star anise and cook for another 5 minutes and then pour the braising liquor all over the oxtail. You will need to nudge and poke the vegetables into all the nooks and crannies.

Cover the roasting tray with a double layer of strong foil and seal all around. Place into the oven and cook for 4 to 5 hours, until meat is starting to peel off.

Take the tray out of the oven and remove the vegetables and resulting gravy and keep warm and just pop the oxtail back in to gently brown off for another 20 minutes.

Serve on a platter with the carrots, shallots and rich gravy, along with plenty of mashed potato.




Friday, 31 March 2017

Rhubarb Gin


This post was supposed to be about whole braised oxtail. After receiving consultation in my shell-like in a pub recently, about hammering out snappier, micro-recipe type posts, it was supposed to be my first. However, I got off on the wrong foot by wittering on about memories of eating oxtail soup as a poorly boy, with curly ginger hair and runny nose, and drifted on for about 500 words about my childhood. Which is fine, there is a place for that sort of stuff on blogs. But I wasn't really sticking to the task. As a result, I subsequently fell into a dark pool of self-doubt, with eyes bulging at the screen as I came back up to the surface. This was then followed, as always, by a prolonged bout of procrastination on Twitter. And then suddenly, I found myself outside in the garden, ripping up stalks of rhubarb that was just beginning to pink, having then decided that I was going to make rhubarb gin.

Writing is indeed a bugger sometimes.

But this is good. Because I can now show you how to knock up something exciting and imaginative in about, oooh, 5 minutes. Give or take. And that was the whole point in the first place.

So, rhubarb gin, what's that all abaaaht then? Well, there really isn't anything difficult about it. It's gin, flavoured by rhubarb and I happen to think that this triffid-like vegetable tastes great. When smothered with sugar, or doused in vinegar, or poached with wine, or curried that is. In its raw state, it's horrific. Your gums will recede so severely, that any teeth you have left with fall out immediately and you'll end up looking like Kenneth Williams for the rest of your life. Always, always cook it. Although I do use that term loosely.

For enhancing the gin, I start 'cooking' my rhubarb by adding a tablespoon of sugar, to get everything macerating away and so that the juices can start leeching out. Just one tablespoon mind. You can always add some more further down the line but if you add any more than necessary, you will end up with a hooch that is far too saccharin for sipping cold on hot summer days. Again, I am thinking about your teeth here.

Give it a month or so before you consider fishing the rhubarb back out and I would leave the pinkish gin* for at least another month or so. Before slurping on the patio and reclining on a sun lounger, legs and knees pressed together like a couple of saveloys for that all important Instagram shot.

Just remember though, it won't always be high days and holidays. You will need to get on with some proper work at some point. I know this more than most. Because today I finish the day job.


Rhubarb Gin

Ingredients

700gms rhubarb, leaves and ends removed, washed and chopped into cubes
700mls London Gin
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

Method

Take a large, sterilised Kilner jar (a 2 litre one will be a sound investment) and throw in your chopped rhubarb.

Add the sugar and shake to mix altogether.

Leave for an hour.

Shake again.

Leave for an hour.

Shake again (by this point a lot of the juices should be running out from the rhubarb).

Leave for...a couple of minutes and then add the gin.

Leave for a month, in a dark place before taking the rhubarb back out. DO NOT WASTE THAT RHUBARB! Make a boozy crumble with it or something, for a soporific Sunday afternoon.

Enjoy a month later, straight with ice, or in something fizzy. I am sorry. I am not a mixocologist.

*Do not be alarmed if your gin is a bit...green at first. After a few more shakes, the pink tinge will come through.

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.'

'Bill?'

'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.'