Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hispanic Hipstamatic

Karma is a bitch sometimes and has a nasty habit of biting you on the arse. Especially when you have been bragging to all and sundry that you're off to Spain for a Christmas jolly, all paid for by your employer. I should know better by now. Still after spending 6 hours stuck in a tiny seat on a crowded stuffy plane because of a 10 minute blizzard, when the captain announces that you are finally about to take off, you would expect to feel exhilarated wouldn't you? Well I didn't. Because our Captain also announced that further expected weather conditions would probably close the airport, Gatwick in our case, for a couple of days. He was only trying to cheer the passengers up by saying how lucky we were to be getting out of there. But believe me when I heard him say that, that proud boast palled in my stomach like an acrid turd of sadness, worry and regret. All I could think was 'how am I going to get back home, to Mrs FU and the kids?'

Subsequently, I went through the weekend in a bit of a daze, trying to get into the spirit of things but my heart wasn't really in it. We went to some nice places to eat, Taller de Tapas and Los Caracoles. The former served up some fine tapas, as you would hope to expect with their tortilla, braised octopus (pulpo a la gallega) and salt cod (esqueixat de bacalao) being the stand out dishes for me. The latter sold itself as an instution in Barcelona and yes the food was good, I loved their monkfish with prawns (rape con gambas y salsa de alemdras). Also the open 19th century kitchen, complete with coal fired stoves, that you walk through to get to your table was definitely a spectacle but alas this restaurant was too much of a tourist trap for me spoiled by sullen, arrogant service.

I didn't take any photos of the food in either place though. Due, I think to the aforementioned lack of enthusiasm but I did get plenty on my iPhone when I got the opportunity to wander around La Boqueria by myself for an hour or so. I could have stayed all day. La Boqueria is the biggest and most famous food market in Barcelona, although there are other smaller ones, situated off the main drag that is Las Ramblas. A heaving, crammed, intense, noisy cauldron of bodies but so so far removed from food markets like Borough back home, which really is a tourist trap these days. Interestingly, the trusty guide book I had in my pocket alluded that La Boqueria was just as much a mercenary holiday rat-run but I didn't get that at all. Instead I got a palpable sense of commerce, life and community fusing together, watching the shoppers and market workers interact, going about their business. Conversation at stalls, largely between women could have been about everything and anything. It was often long and drawn out as I soon discovered, waiting for my turn to point at some jamón. Unfortunately, I don't speak Spanish (or should that be Catalan?) so what they were actually saying to each other is anyone's guess. But I suspect that their male counterparts who propped up the tapas bars towards the back of market, cradling a vino tinto figured somewhere in their rapid, machine-gun chatter. And it wouldn't have been anything good I'm sure. And after visually feasting on the marvellous, vibrant displays of produce all around, trying and buying (along with some confused poking at foreign objects) I have to say that La Boqueria really cheered me up.

Well maybe not as much as touching down at Gatwick, late on Sunday night but here's to a fantastic market anyway. And here's to all the people stranded, hoping to make their way home, hoping to see loved ones at Christmas time. I hope you make it.

(Obviously I didn't use the Hipstamatic app for the last photo but they look happy piggies don't they! I wonder why?)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)

Ah the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowds! Just standing there in that wide open space brought it all back to me. The many, many...... many, many, many characters I played. Gosforth in Confusions, Charles Condomine in Blithe Spirit, Harrison Bracewell in Murder in Play, Sir Richard Ratcliffe in Richard the Turd and not forgetting, Frances, the aging queen forever on the hunt for "young chicks" in Elegies. Happy days. But alas no more. You see there comes a time in a young mans life, when he quite reasonably says to himself, "I shall never play The Dane!" It is at that moment that all ambition ceases to exist. Uncle Monty was right, it is devastating to realise that you are not cut out for an actor's life.

Well, OK that wasn't exactly the case. I had to give up treading the boards and the heady heights of amateur dramatics because once two little urchins arrived on the scene, I simply didn't have the time. And to be honest, I don't really think I have the calling. The kitchen is my stage now darling. But then my alma mater got in touch recently asking for help. I cried "What do you need? What part is it? Do I have time to immerse? Where's my lines?" But all the folk at the Brentwood Theatre wanted were volunteers to help feed the troupes during panto season. This year it's all singing, dancing, slugs, maggots and ladybirds in The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner. So I replied "OK........but just this once" before retiring to my boudoir.

Actually there were lots of reasons why I was happy to get involved. The Brentwood Theatre is a small community theatre and a fantastic outpost for the arts in our area, run on a shoestring but with plenty of passion. Also there have been lots of changes since I was last there, building work and such so I was keen to inspect the new dressing room facilities. Particularly as I have many painful memories of standing in a hut, shivering in just my y-fronts. And plus Mark Reed, the theatre's general manager, tickled me with his email appeal to feed starving starlets. "An actor, unlike a dog, is only for Christmas." Aw. So with a budget of £3 a head, last week Mrs FU and I set about providing a heartwarming lunch. Luckily the dietary requirements weren't too fussy, well for actors anyway. No egg white omelettes or requests for organic WHO certified raw Peruvian guava guava pulp so we settled upon a lunch of Lemon Butternut Squash Lasagne (recipe taken from The Kitchen Revolution and at the end of this post) and Chickpea and Chorizo Stew (recipe taken from this dodgy former Essex residing beard). Served up with a green salad and coriander rice. And Mrs FU got the chance to show off her baking skills knocking up some Triple Choc Muffins and a fine Marmalade and Poppy Seed cake.

The most important remit was to arrive at noon sharp after the actors had run their first performance of the day. So it was straight out of the oven, into the car, foot to the gas, out of the car and up to the theatre's gleamy new studio which served as a makeshift canteen. As the cast trotted in I must say it was pretty surreal to serve up food to grown-ups in make up and tight leggings. What does this mean? Am I now really so far removed from the theatrical world these days? I shouldn't be because I still dress up like that at home. Maybe it was the inner child in me that got confused. "Wait a minute, you....you.....you're not really a slug???"

Lunch went down very well with many going back for seconds, some thirds, such is the life of an impoverished thesp. Well you just don't know where your next job/meal is coming from? So best to fill up while you can. And besides, money is far better spent on things like red wine. And white wine. Don't forget the white wine. I must admit whilst sitting there, watching everyone tuck in, the romanticism of it all started to draw me in again. What better life could there be than to jump, dance, sing and prance on the stage, pretending to be someone else. It must have been etched on my dopey grinning face because Mrs FU gave me a sharp slap and told me to give her a hand carting the pots and plates back down to the car. The room was empty. But maybe I will tread the boards again one of these days, there's a Hamlet in me yet. Or a Porter at the very least.

The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner at The Brentwood Theatre runs until the end of December.

The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner (who are in fact human beings would you believe)

Going, going....

Nearly gone


Mrs FU's Marmalade and Poppy Seed cake

The set

Lemon Butternut Lasagne


2 medium butternut squash (approx 1.2kg)

8 leeks (approx 1.2kg)

1 lemon

2 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs fresh sage

300g mozzarella

170g Parmesan

75g pine nuts

2tbsp olive oil

20g butter

500g ricotta

250g mascarpone

a little splash of milk

pinch of nutmeg

10 sheets of lasagne

salt and pepper


First, cook the squash and leek mixture. Peel, deseed and cut the squash into 1cm thick slices. Cook in boiling salted water for 3 minutes. Meanwhile wash and slice the leeks.

After 3 minutes add the leeks to the squash and cook together for another 6-8 minutes until the leeks are soft and the squash is collapsing.

Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/gas mark 6

Cook the sheets of lasagne in boiling water according to packet instructions.

While the leeks are cooking, zest and juice half the lemon. Strip the thyme and sage leaves from their stalks and roughly chop the sage. Coarsely grate the mozzarella and finely grate the Parmesan. Toast the pine nuts in the oven as it warms up. Watch them like a hawk so that they don't burn.

When the leeks and squash are ready, drain them very well. Once drained, toss both the leeks and the squash with the oil, butter and herbs. Add the lemon juice and zest and season well with salt and pepper. Now add the mozzarella and one-third of the Parmesan.

Next, make the ricotta mixture. Mix together the ricotta and mascarpone and loosen them with some milk so that you have a dropping texture. Stir in another third of the Parmesan and season with the nutmeg and salt and pepper.

Now the lasagne can be assembled. Take one large dish (a rectangular lasagne dish would be good) and place half of the squash mixture in the bottom, spreading it around evenly. Sprinkle over half the pine nuts and then cover with a layer of lasagne sheets. The sheets can overlap a little and be cut to fit the shape of all corners. Add a layer of half the ricotta mixture over the lasagne. Repeat the process once more, finishing with the ricotta mixture on top. Finally, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.

Place in the oven for 30 minutes until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the middle meet no resistance. Serve with green vegetables or salad.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Food Urchin Meets The Manchester Egg

It was a cold, cold night in London town. Too cold for some. Commuters scatter the icy streets, muffled, swathed and haunched over like brass monkeys with a lot to lose. But not the Food Urchin. No. He simply stands there, outside Moorgate tube station, resolute. The elements cannot waver him for his heart beats strong, keeping him warm. And plus he is wearing a trinca hat from BHS, that keeps him warm too. They look ridiculous on some people. But not the Food Urchin. He looks cool. Too cool for school.

The Food Urchin is waiting for his crew, as usual they are late. He looks at his watch, shakes his head and sighs. When you head out with the Food Urchin, it doesn't pay to be late. People are slacking, losing respect, heads will roll. The Babe from Burma finally turns up, says "Hi" but she's engrossed in her Blackberry, work stuff apparently. The Food Urchin simply tuts, see no respect. They wait for another 5 minutes or so and eventually the new kid on the block arrives, The Macaron Kid. This is the first time the Food Urchin has met him. He sniffs at the offer of a handshake and fixes the Macaron Kid with a steely glare before saying "I hear you're pretty handy with a whisk". The Macaron Kid raises an eyebrow and responds with "you better believe it". The Food Urchin smiles and thinks to himself 'cocky, arrogant, a little too self-assured maybe but yeah this fella has got spunk, I like that in a man.'

It's time to move, off the busy lit thoroughfare of Moorgate and into the dark, seedy back streets heading towards Shoreditch. As he strides down the eerie alleyways, cloaked in shadow, the Food Urchin senses nerves, trepidation behind him. He turns and reassures his crew that he knows exactly where they are going. The Food Urchin is a Londoner born and bred and knows these mean streets like the back of his hand. The shivering pair nod and begin to apologise for their lack of faith. The Food Urchin holds his hand up for he is also a humble man, turns and carries on walking. Keeping the iPhone he has cradled in his hand out of view. Before long, the Food Urchin realises they've taken a wrong turn, facking GPS. But the others need not know.

After some negotiation and back tracking, the Food Urchin gang find their destination, the Griffin, a den of iniquity, full of ragtag Nathan Barleys and other new meeja types. As the gang enters through Victorian glazed doors, the bar suddenly falls silent and all eyes focus towards them. The Food Urchin steps forward and takes off his trinca revealing that signature, shiny dome and fiercely eyeballs everyone back. Be it recognition or folklore, the room palpably quivers with fear. "Yeah, you guessed it, I'm the facking Food Urchin, anyone got a problem with that?" The silence continues but then slowly and surely the hubbub resumes. The Hoxton crowd are used to nutters walking in off the street. The Food Urchin leads the gang through the melee of drinkers and so-called thinkers and spots them, sat around a table in the corner of the room. The people they are here to meet. The other crew, The Boys from The North.

Alliances has been uneasy in the past so to break the ice, the Food Urchin walks right up to the table, extends his hand and shouts "ey oop chuck, how do? it's sweating cobbs in here, yeah sound". The Boys from The North, who are a marginally better looking version of the Happy Mondays, stare back with pained frowns. Ben Cahoona, leader of The Boys, in particular doesn't look happy. Slowly he stands up from his stool and walks over. Ben glowers as he approaches and when finally nose to nose, he spits "What are you going on about you prat?" But the Food Urchin doesn't falter. He knows to show weakness at this stage of proceedings would be catastrophic so he stands his ground and is grateful for deciding to wear black underwear that day. You could cut the tension in the air with a plastic spoon. Ben then cracks a shit eating grin and embraces the Food Urchin like a long lost brother. It's a beautiful moment and collectively the Griffin breathes a huge sigh of relief.

Drinks are ordered and both crews settle down to high jinks, bonhomie and conversation about Satan's Shit. Over several shots of tequila, the Food Urchin regales the first time he met Ben Cahoona and the boys back in the summer. The various houses of the food mafia had convened at the Ramada Piccadilly in Manchester to try and iron out some differences, heal old wounds and discuss the future and the Food Urchin was there to reprazent the Brotherhood of Bloggers. "Ha, that social media workshop you led Ben was well bitching man, we well had that Matthew Fort against the ropes innit" bellows the Food Urchin, clicking his fingers, rocking back and forth, laughing like a crazed hyena. Ben just sniffs, looks into his glass and mutters something about the after show party. Something about the embarrassment of watching Lloyd Grossman rock out like your Dad at a wedding reception.

The Food Urchin then decides that it's time to get down to business and asks to see the merchandise. It's time to see the Manchester Egg. Fervent glances are made around the room and a crumpled brown paper bag is produced from a coat pocket and placed on the table. At first there is concern amongst the Boys that the goods have been damaged in transit, coming down on the train. The Babe from Burma and the Macaron Kid look equally concerned that they're about to eat something that has just been produced from someones pocket. In a brown paper bag. The Food Urchin isn't worried however, he eats from other people's pockets all the time. Luckily four eggs are deemed to be in good condition and Ben proceeds to give a sales pitch so smooth and slick that you almost believe that he's sold this shit thousands of times before. The Food Urchin begins to tug uncomfortably on his collar but thankfully the presentation is short. The plans for this alternative scotch egg are quite lofty, to make it a familiar feature in pubs and bars across the land. To make the Manchester Egg a pub snack unrivalled. The Food Urchin thinks for a minute and then asks, "so how are you going to spread the word?" Ben simply replies, "I'm going to open source the recipe, what do you think?" The Food Urchin nods sagely for a moment, stroking his chin before offering a piece of his wisdom. "I tell you what, why don't you just give the recipe away?" Silence descends again and tumbleweed rolls across the pub floor.

Uncomfortable coughs are made before someone pipes up and suggests the Food Urchin and his crew try the egg. The Food Urchin claps his hands. "Now we're talking!" But then another stumbling block becomes apparent. The Boys from The North have forgotten to bring a knife to the party. Which is fair enough. One of the decrees made at the Summit in the summer was that at meets, gangs should leave all utensils at home. Even spatulas with heat resistant silicone. Ben goes to the bar to ask for the lemon knife but the barman refuses and who could blame him but then the Food Urchin remembers that he's carrying. After fishing around in his rucksack, he is able to produce a small paring knife with a flourish. Except the others, including his own crew, watch agog and shake their heads in disapproval. "What? I used this when I went mushroom picking a couple of months ago. S'ok I don't carry all the time, tsk." Some people.

Finally the Manchester Eggs are sliced up for photographising and consumption and the Food Urchin digs in first, the others know to wait their turn. Hierarchy is important. Always eat after the top dog has taken his share. The egg takes the Food Urchin by surprise. This is the dude who once ate 10 scotch eggs in one sitting so he knows his stuff but the Food Urchin has never encountered this particular kind before. Crispy, crunchy textures. Rich, pulsating blood sausage. And the somewhat alien tang of the egg. What is that? Just what is that tang? Then sweat starts to seep through his crown. For the Food Urchin this is the sure fire signal that he's eaten something vinegary. Like Smiths Square Crisps. Or pickled onions. Or pickled eggs even. The penny drops."Hey you've used pickled eggs! Wow! That's really different! Wow, cor, hey, hey you guys, he's made these with pickled eggs!" The Babe from Burma and the Macaron Kid roll their eyes at the Food Urchin's vigourous pointing as if this was something they didn't already know. Still they nod in agreement confirming that this is an unexpectedly good snack.

Regaining his composure, the Food Urchin straightens up and wipes his hands and takes a slug of beer. "How many can you ship?" he barks, taking command of the situation. When it comes down to business, the Food Urchin knows how to lay it on and impose his authority. "Er well, like I said, you can make these at home, I'll pass the recipe on", Ben counters. Without skipping a beat the Food Urchin snarls,"Listen sunshine I'm not in the habit of getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I leave that to the missus, you know what I mean? Now can you get me 2000 by next week?" Ben seems confused. "What you want to sell them? Well yeah that's fine because I want to promote the Manchester Egg, you know put it on the map as a regional delicacy. And like I said the recipe will be open to all and sundry. I just need to make sure you're making them right so what I like to do is come down and taste them, you know give 'em a stamp of approval."

At this point the Food Urchin goes totally Bob Hoskins.

"Listen you facking muppet, I ain't facking interested in what the recipe is or ain't or facking what. You just get me my facking eggs, down 'ere and on facking time. Is that alright treacle? Am I facking crystal? Right you two herberts, we gotta get moving. Some speccy fridge freezer in Islington is going to sell us some E's. Or summink like that. Ladies, it's been a privilage but you can all fack off now"

And with that the Food Urchin storms out of the pub. Despite the mumurs of dissent and subsequent apologies from inside, the Food Urchin stands outside in the freezing cold air, grinning to himself. This is how the shit goes down in the world of food and this is how the Food Urchin keeps it real. Real on the mean streets of London town.

The Manchester Egg

Don't fack with the Food Urchin

(photo's courtesy of Meemalee's Kitchen)

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Little Sparrows and Piggy Cheeks

Once upon a time our kitchen was very small. That wasn't such a bad thing though and in some ways it was rather efficient due to it's size. Everything was immediate to hand, surfaces were kept intentionally sparse to preserve valuable space and with minimal effort and energy I could crank out a decent meal or two. Then two little blips appeared on the horizon. Well on an ultra scan monitor actually. Due to their unusual shapes we called them 'hedgehog' and 'bean' and we decided there and then that more room to swing the proverbial cat would be needed. So we extended the kitchen and it became huge. I spent an inordinate and frustrating amount of time using IKEA's very own 3D home planner software to fit the new space out with new cupboards, shelves, drawers and cubby holes and to be honest I am not sure that I did a good job of it. For one I ignored that most basic design principle, be aware of the kitchen's holy Trinity. Which if you didn't know is the oven, the fridge and the sink. When planning what goes where, just make sure that these three divine shrines of domesticity are relatively close to each other. Equidistant if you're really anal. My failure comes down to the fact that I put the fridge and oven within easy distance to each other but left the sink sprawling over at the other end of the room. The result? Well whenever I am in the kitchen cooking, a mini marathon ensues as I dart from the fridge to the sink to the oven to the sink to the oven to the fridge to the sink. Leaving a hazardous and slippy trail of water, peelings, flour, butter and other detritus in my wake. In fact what am I talking about? I blame the IKEA software, it should have alerted me that I was steering away from the holy Trinity. Yeah, there should have been some kind of alarm or yodelling pop-up assistant saying "bork bork bork! don't forgets ze Trinity yah! bork bork bork!" But. There. Was. Nothing.

However, when I designed the kitchen, the one thing though that I can't blame on our Scandinavian cousins was the overzealous impulse to install as much cupboard space as possible. That was definitely my fault and we have tons. And when the kitchen was finished, it felt rather good. Well it does doesn't it? Throw what you like at me world but hey I will always have a corner in my house where I store away my beloved KitchenAid Blender, all neat and tidy like. The problem is that over time, if you're like me you tend to accumulate all kinds of useless cooking paraphernalia, largely from places like IKEA* and before you know it you have cupboards and cupboards full of crap. So if I get the chance again, I will design my kitchen with less cupboard space and drag the sink closer to the oven and the fridge.

But what is done is done (for now) so the other day I set about the task of clearing out one cupboard that was mysteriously full of Tupperware boxes and plastic takeaway trays and chanced upon a Pyrex pizza tray with holes, still in it's packaging. I scratched my head for a minute or two, trying to figure out why I had bought this rather gimmicky item but suddenly remembered I got it out of a pound shop thinking that it may serve me well should I ever want to make some spätzle. I first encountered 'German pasta' at the sadly defunct Konstam where it was served up with roast Uxbridge chicken. The spätzle had been decadently pan-fried in beurre noisette and mixed with herbs and I thought it was delicious. After that evening I was determined to make some of these fluffy, doughy.... er squiggly dumplings at home. That was probably about 4 years ago now and I had forgotten all about spätzle until I fished the pizza tray out just the other day which gives you an appreciation of my sense of purpose. But still I made some the other night and was fairly happy with the result, the spätzle wasn't quite as big and fluffy as I remember but they were still very good. There are various recipes out there and I did do some research first, getting a lot of advice from Sara of Sasasunakku on Twitter. Essentially the basics are the same, flour, eggs, salt and a smidgen of water. So here is a very simple step by step guide should you ever feel inclined to make some spätzle at home. Ha, I do like the professional tone of that last sentence, like I'm the frigging spätzle King, this was the first time I ever tried it!

First take a pizza tray with holes. Or a colander. Or even a proper spätzle plate or press. You will also need something to push the dough through. A dough scraper is deemed to the best utensil but apparently you can use the back of a ladle. I used a B&Q grout spreader that I found in the shed and I promise you Mrs FU, it had never ever been used and I gave it a scrupulous clean under the tap.

So make up your spätzle dough by mixing 250gms of plain flour (or tippo '00') with 5 large free range eggs, a teaspoon of salt and a dash of water. The dough has to be quite loose, almost like a batter for you to be able to push it through your chosen receptacle.

Heat a large of pot of water on the hob until it's boiling fast and strong. Place your chosen receptacle over the pot and pour in the middle a ladle of dough/batter.

Spread the batter across your chosen receptacle with your chosen utensil, pushing every last bit through as quickly as you can. The spätzle is ready when it pops up to the surface (mine took less than a minute) so keep an eye on it. With a slotted spoon take the spätzle out and place in a bowl of iced water to stop it cooking further.

Repeat the process until everything is used up and like I said go quickly otherwise you will find that the dough/begins to set on your chosen receptacle and everything starts to get very sticky and messy.

Once drained and dried with kitchen towel, the spätzle should look like this (again should it? I am not the spätzle King). All ready to be warmed through with a nice cheese sauce poured over as an accompaniment to some nice fat bratwurst.

Or you could serve the spätzle up, pan fried in beurre noisette and mixed with parsley and chives (which I did in homage to Oliver Rowe) to accompany some pig cheeks braised in red wine with spicy red cabbage. Next week I am going to clean out some more cupboards and see what will inspire me to cook next. This could be the start of an interesting journey, I may not be the Spätzle King but I am certainly the King of Kitchen Crap.

As a footnote, the piggy cheeks were purchased from Barbecoa Butchery which is attached to Mr Jamie Oliver's new venture at One New Change, St Pauls. The guys there are a great laugh, especially the toothless wonder, pay them a visit.

(*and actually yes I am blaming you again............. fucking Swedes)

Friday, 26 November 2010

Variety is the spice of life

I had pie and mash twice this week for lunch. Greedy yes but I haven't had this beloved dish of mine for a while and besides it's bloody freezing out there. When it gets this parky, there's nothing like walking into a pie and mash shop and being enveloped by a hot, steaming fug that whiffs faintly of vinegar and eel juice. It's like being cuddled by your Nan. Not that my Nan smells of vinegar and eels of course. No, she smells of Special Brew*.

For the first excursion I went to Clark's in Exmouth Market and yesterday I popped into our local cafe Roy's Pie and Mash in Hornchurch and as you can see from their splendid Facebook page, Roy cuts a fine dash. This pie and mash shop comes with all the usual, comfortable trappings. The black and white tiles, the formica tabletops upon which salt, white pepper and huge bottles of 'Vinneys' vinegar sit, the aforementioned steam and the slow and steady stream of pensioners who seem to eat nothing but pie and mash all day. For extra authenticity, the walls of Roy's are adorned with tributes to the mighty, mighty Hammers, pictures of Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking in their heyday, clutching the FA Cup way back in 1980, the last time the mighty, mighty Hammers ever won anything. And in the corner is your obligatory Krays tribute, a massive placard of those boys who looked after their own and kicked in the teeth of others. Even though I wasn't actually born, I was in The Blind Beggar the night Jack the Hat got it you know. Along with everyone else from the East End**.

Anyway it's all very cosy, nostalgic and cockney and I love it. What I love even more is the menu in Roy's. You'd be hard pressed to make your mind up, I can tell you that. It goes something like this.

Pie & Liquor - 2.20p

Pie & Mash - 3.00p

Pie & 2 Mash - 3.80p

2 Pie & Mash - 4.70p

2 Pie & 2 Mash - 5.50p

2 Pie & Liquor - 3.90p

2 Mash & Liquor - 2.10p

Eels & Mash -3.70p

Eels, Pie & Mash -5.40p

Mash & Liquor - 1.30p

Eels & Liquor - 2.90p

Jellied Eels - 2.50p

2 Pie, Mash, Liquor & Eels - 7.00p

See, the possibilities are endless and it never fails to make me smile as I stand there at the counter, desperately struggling to make my mind up.

*PS My Nan doesn't really smell of Special Brew..............oooooh fack, she's gonna ring my gregory when she sees this.
** And it wasn't Jack the Hat, it was George Cornell, just checked on google.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Mighty Mo

Girls, as you go about your business this month you might just notice that something odd is happening to some of us chaps out there. It will be hard to pin down at first and at times you are bound to be thoroughly perplexed by this aura of weirdness. Sitting there on the bus or queueing up at the cash machine or even walking through the reception of your office, your eyebrows will crumple into a pained frown as you observe your male counterparts. Yes we have always been curious creatures but now things are going to get curiouser and curiouser. The problem is that you won't quite be able to put your finger on the matter.

But fear not, the penny will drop. Soon and very suddenly as your eyes swoop in on the monstrosity that lingers under our collective noses, it will hit you with an audible DUN DUN DAAH. The men! The men are growing moustaches! Run! Run for the hills, run for your lives! Yes ladies, it's Movember, the boys are growing moustaches for charity and you love it.

5 days in and I am still tussling whether to commit fully to the cause. I was very beardy until this morning when I had a shave and began to fashion with dexterity and skill a very sexy horseshoe tache. I wiped my face free of specks of foam and stood back to admire my work in the mirror. It was like I had skinned a ginger hamster, cut it's fur into strips and stuck them haphazardly to my face. Not a good look (I took it off completely). So yeah I am still wondering whether the abject humiliation of laughter, pointing and staring is worth it. Terrible really because it is a worthwhile cause.

One thing that might just change my mind is the Mighty Mo, the special burger that Byron has dreamed up for their involvement with the charity. I popped into their sparkily new branch at One New Change yesterday and was persuaded to give it a go. My waiter who may have been Spanish said that for every Mighty Mo sold, 50p is donated so that men can be encouraged "to be aware of the prostate cancers, to feel their balls and be more carefuls with their healths". And I'm all up for that. Especially the feeling of my balls. Consisting of 6oz hamburger, beetroot, mature cheddar, dry cure bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayo, this really was a man's burger. Incredibly filling in fact but I was very impressed with the burger at the heart of this concoction. Juicy and succulent, medium rare with a great char grill smokey flavour, gorgeous it was. I wasn't too sure though about the introduction of beetroot on the ingredient list but maybe Byron are reinforcing the message of "boys, please keep an eye on your prostate". If anything will do that, pink wee wee certainly will*.

So coming back to that moustache and whether I can summon up the kahunas to grow one, well Byron has another trick up their sleeve. If you register and donate at least £25.00 to Movember, between the hours of 3PM and 7PM you will be entitled to one free hamburger per day. For that I might just be willing to give the mo another crack.

Girls can also join in you know, just donate £25.00 (and give the Immac a rest for a month)

Mighty Mo
*The guys at Byron have reliably informed me that the beetroot has been added because it is a cancer busting vegetable which of course now makes perfect sense.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Competitive Dad

I hate it when someone tries to steal my thunder. I hate it.

So when I came home the other night from the office to find the above carved pumpkin on the table, I hit the roof.

"I was supposed to carve that pumpkin, not you!" I hissed (cos the kids were asleep and I didn't want to wake them).

Mrs FU just smirked and said something like "blah blah blah I am much better at carving pumpkins that you blah blah blah besides do you want to win that bottle of champagne? blah blah blah"

Or some utter tosh like that.

So in the morning I decided that I would carve the other side of the pumpkin and show her exactly what I could do. And I wouldn't need these gimmicky little saws, plastic scoops or drill bits. I would use a manly knife dammit!

A couple of incisions later*, I decided it wasn't for me. I mean come on, really this is just kids stuff, a complete waste of my time and I've got better things to do but if you fancy having a crack at carving, you'd do well to nip down to your local Waitrose where they are selling pumpkin carving kits for £6.99 (and they may well be reduced in price tomorrow). Now if you'll excuse me I have to make a vampire cape out of dustbin liners.

*OK the general course of action consisted of a slice here, gouge there, stand back, examine, stab, hollow, pierce, a yelling of "balls", cut, cut, cut, scratch head, slice, slice, slice, exasperated whine, hack, hack, hack, stare, frenzied hack, hack, hack, slam knife down and walk to the bottom of the garden.

Pumpkin carving is rubbish

And this is scarier than any pumpkin carving

But not as scary as my son

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Alford's Deli

Smithfield, London, 2020 and it's a brave new world. At 1pm sirens sound and office workers spill out onto the street, moving about in different directions, eyes forward with the occasional furtive glace at a watch. Options for lunch are plentiful with food outlets filling every street corner, nook and cranny. However, despite the difference in branding, layout, colour schemes, use of engagement metrics, essentially they are all the same. On invisible conveyor belts, the office workers file one by one into these emporiums and survey the banks of sandwich cartons sitting uniformly in chiller cabinets, sandwiches that have been made off-site in kitchen warehouses miles away from the city. The selection is generic with the occasional nod towards seasonality, not that the seasons are particularly important anymore. Choices are made quickly and the office worker moves up to one of the automatons on duty to pay. Sometimes the robot will be wearing a cap jauntily perched to one side with a huge badge pinned to the side, simply labelled 'Trainee'. As they offer their forearm so that their chip can be scanned, he or she might smile at this marketing ploy dreamt up to appeal to the office worker's sense of nostalgia. But it will be a smile tinged with sadness. The whole transaction is completed in under ten minutes and the office worker is back behind their desk, dutifully eating their Classic Super Club, tapping away at their keyboard.

Meanwhile, on the top floor of a towering glass building in the centre of the city, a group of Alpha males are chewing on cigars, chatting and eagerly surveying a 3D presentation. Interface free, London is replicated in fine architectural detail as the display shows an intricate map of all the city's buildings, streets and byways. Against the buildings and along the roads are blue markers in the shape of a circle. Suddenly the image is flipped on it's side and the shape of the city becomes clearly defined. Even more striking is the morass of dots everywhere, the map is almost completely blue. Apart from one red dot somewhere on the outskirts. The room becomes hushed and the group of sweating suits huddle, lean forward and focus on the red dot. A digital clock appears, hovering over the far right corner of the map and it is counting down from 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. The red dot changes to blue and the Alpha males erupt and start slapping each others backs, braying all the while. Over the melee, corks pop, crystal flutes are charged and champagne is downed in one. Glasses are then smashed on the floor, a phone call is made and the whole group go marching out, laughing all the way. The blue map remains in the room, all is now eerily quiet. But what has happened here? It's obvious isn't it, the last independent sandwich shop in the city has finally gone out of business.

Apologies for the bleak, dystopian opening to this post but I have recently found out that Fantoni's has shut and it's likely to be for good. I've worked in Smithfield for over thirteen years now and Fantoni's sandwich bar on Long Lane just around the corner from my office has been a permanent fixture. Well until last week and having discovered that it's gone, I found myself filled with a mixture of sadness, anger and guilt. Now businesses fail all the time for various reasons but when you know the faces behind the counter, enough to know the names of their daughters, enough to hear and talk about their ups and downs, it's impossible not to make a connection. And as a result I can't help feeling hypocritical about all the times I've visited the Prets, EATs and Marks and Sparks that have sprung up in the area around this small family run sandwich bar. OK my custom alone wouldn't have made any difference but in future I would do well to consider the independent businesses in my area more often. Especially over the big boys that are bashing the lifeblood out of it.

One place that has been bashed about recently is Alford's of Farringdon. I've briefly alluded to their story before here but in a nutshell, this small deli and sandwich shop was facing certain closure at the start of the year due to the Crossrail development that is taking over Smithfield. Luckily, the owner found new premises just down the way on Farringdon Road, next to Vivat Bacchus which was bigger than their old unit so they had scope to seat customers and run a cafe style lunch menu. Its been open for a couple of months now and goes by the name of Alford's Deli so I went down there the other day to grab a bite to eat and see how they were coping with the transition and I am happy to report back that it's pretty much business as unusual. One of the defining factors that tells you that a sandwich shop or cafe is good is when you see a long line of people snaking out of the door and when I arrived at Alford's there it was, the familiar queue. The new unit certainly felt a lot more airy and brighter than the original shop with it's large expanse of glass at the front but I think at the moment they are struggling with filling the actual space they've got. I say this because as you enter, to your left hand side an area has been set aside for a tiny rain forest and other topiary frippery that you can actually purchase. Which is kind of bizarre for a deli and sandwich shop. But saying that, it could well be a lifesaver should I ever find myself queuing up and a light bulb goes off in my head that says 'er isn't it our anniversary today?'

Also I'd say that the deli side of operations is looking slightly lost in the new shop with shelves of conserves and pickles stacked almost discreetly to the side. In the chiller cabinets, just a few choice truckles of cheese and oblong packs of charcuterie were on display so perhaps they are focusing more on catering for the hungry breakfast and lunchtime masses rather than the food shopper who hankers after unusual artisan produce. Or maybe they just sorted out the delicatessen aspect to the new surroundings just yet.

What Alfords hasn't changed is their approach to making great food and offering excellent polite service. Taking a fancy to their lunch specials board, I decided to eat in rather than scarper back to my desk with their regular sandwich of the week which is what I normally go for. After perusing a list that contained Steak and Ale Pie and Seafood Mornay, I plumped for the Mixed Cheese and Red Onion Tart with Butternut Squash Salad and Quince Compote and a Diet Coke, mindful of my continually expanding waistline. After nabbing a table by the window, my order only took 5 minutes to arrive and it was pretty delicious to look at as well as to eat. The caramelised onions in the tart contrasted nicely against the salty cheese in the tart. Vivid roast butternut in the salad was smokey, sweet and tender and the quince compote gave a lovely aromatic bite to each forkful of food. Plainly boiled new potatoes with a pesto drizzle were a pleasant surprise and all for the price of five English pounds. And fifty pence (with Diet Coke it did in fact come to £6.20). Bargain. The biggest brownie point though came when I began to make my way out. Waving goodbye to the cheerful proprietor (I will find out his name one of these days) I spotted a familiar face behind the counter who was busily wiping it down. Alas it wasn't a face from Fantoni's but from Farringdon Fruiterers, a green grocers that has recently been closed down due to the Crossrail development. And this was really heartwarming to see. That despite it all, for all the 'progress' going on in the area, at least there's one person who hasn't lost their livelihood. I know it's all down to personal connections, points of view and I should be equally concerned to hear of job losses at Pret A Manger, if that were ever to happen. But I have to say that when I spotted her, a tacit reminder was served that our small independent shops and businesses need all the support they can get. Especially a place as good as Alford's Deli. I shall be going back more often I can tell you that.

Mixed Cheese and Red Onion Tart with Butternut Squash Salad and Quince Compote

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Birds!

I've never been fond of magpies. In fact I think I hate them. Which is a terrible thing to admit and irrational to boot. They are harmless birds after all. Yes, just harmless birds that like to perch on my garden fence. One, two, oh look three, four, look just sitting there, staring. I can see them across the patio. Staring with black beady eyes. Watching me through the window. Staring, flapping their wings, five, six. Clattering, the machine gun clattering caw. Pecking my fence, staring, black eyes beady, dark like their souls, cawing, staring, seven, eight. What are they doing here? Why are they staring? Black piercing eyes, malevolent, piercing. Crapping. They are now crapping on my fence. Nine, ten, cawing, laughing, shrieking, flapping, staring, black eyes, their terrible, terrible black eyes, oh the incessant clatter that penetrates my heart. My God! There's meat hanging from their cruel, gnarled beaks! Flesh! Staring, black, seething, evil eyes! And they're shitting! They are shitting all over my patio! My God! Paper bag! Must. Get. Paper. Bag.

Like I said I hate magpies. Mainly because of the noise they make and for the mess they create all over my patio and garden fence. And yes because to my mind, they have evil, evil eyes. But rather than letting them reduce me to a blubbering mess, I often find myself grimacing at the kitchen window, plotting their demise yet puzzling over the practical (and not to mention legal) implications. All whilst washing up. And of course as I am always thinking with my stomach, I have often wondered that once they were dispatched, what would they actually taste like? So I decided to embark on a thorough investigation, to look into the matter deeply, to find out what it truly means to live off the land and to carefully consider from a dietary point of view, the impact that sociocultural evolution has had on our lifestyles in this country. Yes I went on Twitter and asked "Can you shoot and eat magpies?"

Out of all the replies that came back my way, it was Lara Newman's response that caught my eye. That is Lara of Sheen Suppers who tweeted "I'll ask my mate Timmy, he goes shooting all the time" and it caught my eye mainly because Timmy is far too sweet a name to associate with anyone who blasts birds out of the sky. But as it happened (and this was after some fervent email correspondence) I discovered that Timmy who was originally Suffolk born and bred, knew what he was talking about when it came to these matters. By definition, It is perfectly legal to shoot magpies under general license on private land and with proper permission but as Timmy pointed out, magpies are scavengers and fond of carrion and therefore would not make for delectable eating. This news disheartened me somewhat. "Bollocks", I think was the term that rang through my head but Lara then sent me a message that Timmy would be more that happy to get some other birds to try out that would be unusual but okay to eat. From there, things kind of snowballed. Next thing I knew, Lara and I were planning a day's cookathon at my house where Timmy would supply rooks, jackdaws, pigeons and a tiny little jay along with rabbit and hare. Funny how these kind of things can spring up out of innocuous enquiries on the Internet but for evermore, 2nd October 2010 shall be known as 'Dodgy Meat Day' in our household, mainly because the lines between feral and game had been blurred. And also because of the fluffy, cutesy, 'Bambi' nature of these animals, the whole enterprise did have a slightly dodgy feel to it.

Lara turned up nice and early that day with the rabbit, hare and jay already in tow, Timmy was coming along later that afternoon with the rest of The Birds! We had a good idea of what we wanted to do with Hazel and Bigwig, I decided on hare stew, Lara had a rabbit terrine recipe she wanted to try out and luckily Timmy had already taken care of skinning and gutting the animals. But there was still a hesitant air about the kitchen to get cracking as we chatted over a cup of tea. The kids had already been dispatched (and by that I mean they were off with their grandparents for the afternoon), Mrs FU was busy making a chocolate mousse for dessert and I sensed that Lara really didn't want to have a go at jointing them so I decided to have a go. Despite this being my first time, it was fairly easy really, just like jointing a chicken although the hare was tough going in places. Once that was done we were off. The stew was fairly generic, I fried the hare pieces quickly in a big pot with some onions and then added flour, vegetables, red wine, chicken stock, thyme, bay, some juniper berries and left it simmering on the hob. Lara's terrine quickly took shape and was soon scooped into Grandpa Brezina's tin, placed into a bain marie and popped into the oven. Suddenly the kitchen was filled with heavenly smells and it was time to crack open the cider and ponder what to do with the jay*.

Before we knew it there was a knock on the door and I opened it to find Timmy standing there beaming and carrying a massive tray covered in newspaper with girlfriend Kimmy (yes Kimmy) peeping over his broad shoulders. We marched back into the kitchen and the tray was promptly plonked onto the side. I took a peek underneath the paper to find 4 rooks, 4 jackdaws and 2 pigeons, all neatly plucked, prepared and ready to go. OK Tim explained which was which, I didn't ascertain this all by myself. No, I was far too busy gorping at them with a stupid smile on my face. I looked up to see Timmy looking at me. "So what are we going to do with these then?" and with the same shit-eating grin, I replied "I have no idea". Timmy professed that pigeon was his favourite and would eat them simply roasted all the time so that took care of that, we'd roast the pigeon. Lara stepped into the breach saying she would have a go at making rook pie, that dainty dish to put before the King. Which left me prodding away at the jackdaw. They were quite small, similar in size to quails and they got me thinking about a Moro recipe I've tried out before, cumin marinated quails breasts in flat breads. Would breast of jackdaw have the same delicate flavour? There was only one way to find out.

Luckily Timmy was more than happy to cut the birds up for us and I was fairly impressed by his butchery skills. Making a deft slice here and there, he quickly teased the breasts out of the jackdaw with his fingers (oo-er missus) and before I knew it I had six burgundy patties to play around with (again, oo-er). Timmy then also did the same with the rook, also de-boning their legs in the same confident, casual manner and Lara set to work on her pie. Timmy then asked what did we want to do with the muntjac? The muntjac? What kind of bird is a muntjac? Slowly and carefully, Timmy explained that muntjac was a breed of deer from Asia that had been introduced to this isle in the 1920's. Small in stature but with a propensity to breed like the bunny rabbit that was cooking away in the oven, the muntjac population exploded and by and large it is the most common species of deer to be found in this country. Seeing as we were going 'wild' for the day, Timmy brought along a saddle of muntjac, albeit shop bought for us to try out. The meat factor to this feast was starting to tip the scales and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have that much in the way of vegetables to serve up.

Again Timmy gave us a bit of a masterclass in carving up the saddle, preparing various cuts so that we ended up steaks, chops, medallions and a rather classy looking french trimmed rack. We decided not to mess around too much with the muntjac, just to simple season the meat, pan fry the steaks and roast the rack. Like I said, there was a fair amount of food to get through but having drunk a couple of ciders, my appetite was gearing up so I wasn't too worried. Then there was another knock on the door.

So I went to the door and found Iain, Lara's other half, walking up the path in his plus fours, looking like this:

Striding triumphantly, Iain (or Maino as he is also known) was clutching in one hand a brace of duck and in the other a huge Canada Goose. His arrival wasn't unexpected but things were starting to get faintly ridiculous. Having been on a shoot somewhere in Surrey, Maino decided that he should share some of the spoils of the day. I took the goose from him and wandered back into the kitchen scratching the back of my head. Normally clutching the elongated neck of a dead bird would have perturbed me somewhat but all I that had running through my mind was 'bloody hell, I think all we've got in the fridge is some spring greens'. After some discussion, we all agreed that Maino's contribution was a step too far and that we wouldn't cook his birds that day which I hope didn't disappoint him too much. And I don't think it did as he soon relaxed into a glass of wine whilst Timmy ferociously went about the business of plucking the goose in the corner of the room. I should dispel images of blurred arms and feathers flying around the place here, he did keep the goose in a black plastic bag whilst doing so but I couldn't help but marvel at how regular Timmy made this all seem. Throughout the day, going about the business of preparing all of these animals did highlight to me how easy it is to remove yourself from this aspect of the food chain. I know I make light of most things when I blog but getting up close and personal to it all, I did garner a strong respect for these wild creatures, it did make me feel more grateful. Possibly a rather pious note to bring up there but I would recommend cooking totally from field to plate. Certainly makes you think the next time you traipse along the meat aisle eyeing up row upon row of plastic containers.

And now I am pontificating. So how did it come out? What did it taste like? Should you all rush out to buy rook? Well thankfully there were some more mouths to feed as the grandparents returned with the dustbin lids by 7 o'clock and were up for staying around to try our experiments. The twins by the way took one sniff at the ducks lying on the floor by the back door and declared with big yawns, they were ready for beddy byes. Once we put everything out on the table there didn't seem to be quite as much as I expected but everyone tucked in with relish, giving the spring greens that I had steamed a wide berth. The highlight for me was the muntjac, especially the medallions which I pan fried quite quickly, keeping them medium-rare. The meat was so tender and succulent, a real treat. The hare stew went down well too as it had been on the hob for a good couple of hours the flesh just fell from the bone. With the aromatic blend of juniper and bay, the hare meat had quite a delicate flavour which was surprising as I have read that it can be very gamey. Lara's pie, complete with homemade pastry was fantastic. The dark meat was similar to pigeon although slightly more dense in texture. And her terrine was very good too, rich and nutty but probably could have done with pressing overnight in the fridge to get solid clean slices. But still a very good recipe which you find at the bottom. The pigeon that was roasted with bacon rashers over the top was nice but I think they had been left in the oven just a tad too long so had toughened up, a reminder that game really doesn't need that much cooking. And my jackdaw cumin breast baked in flat breads? Well to honest, in my opinion they tasted a bit crap really suffering again from too long in the oven and podgy dough that had over proved. I was after tender, spicy morsels meat in a crisp bread casing. I got the opposite. Tough and sponge. But never mind, it was all in the name of experimentation. All in all though it really was a fun day of cooking in kitchen, rounded off by far too much wine in my instance.

Thanks to Lara, Maino, Timmy and Kimmy for coming over and Timmy especially for getting us the dodgy meat. We should do it again but I am not sure about hedgehog Timmy, I really, really couldn't.

Rabbit and nut terrine

Serves 10

50g sultanas

50ml Armagnac

1 tbs duck fat

3 shallots, chopped

300g boneless rabbit, cubed

300g boneless pork shoulder, coarsely minced

200g chicken livers, trimmed and coarsely minced

pinch of ground cinnamon

pinch of chilli flakes

100ml double cream

50ml white port (or gooseberry vodka in our case)

50g almonds

50g pistachio nuts

50g hazelnuts

salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Put the sultanas in a bowl, pour in the Armagnac, top up with warm water and leave to soak. Melt the duck fat in a frying pan. Add the shallots and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the rabbit and cook, stirring frequently for 5-10 minutes until light golden brown. Remove pan from the heat.

Mix the rabbit and shallots with the pork and chicken livers in a bowl and stir in the cinnamon, chilli, cream and port. Season with salt and pepper. Drain the sultanas and stir them into the mixture with the nuts. Spoon the mixture into a terrine and cover. Put the terrine into a roasting tin, pour in boiling water to come up about halfway up the side and bake for 2 hours. Serve Cold.

*The jay was very much the subject of debate being the size of a budgerigar and Timmy had concerns about its diet out in the wild. Like the magpie, it is also a bit of a grubby scavenger but he took it's tiny breasts out anyway and we used them for the flat breads. Of course when baking them I forgot which was which so there was a Russian roulette element when it came to serving them. Maino and Kimmy lucked out but as far as I know they still live.