Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Adventures In Cheese Pt 1

Many folk don't have much time for Alex James, that lanky, good looking but scruffy bass player from Blur. I read his column from time to time and yes he can spout a load of rubbish from those perma-fag perched lips of his but I still like him. In the interests of research, I came across an old video interview on Word of Mouth recently where Alex was expounding the virtues of cheese making. Wittering on about the difference between music and food, he asserted that on the production scale creating music is "ephemeral, lighter than air, an intangible quantity" whereas making food is "so much more grounding and real". As I said he does talk a load of horlicks sometimes but I am not a musician who has snorted a mountain of Columbian marching powder in their lifetime so can't appreciate where he's coming from. But Mr James' comment on making food or cheese in his particular case, did resonate with me as I have been making little forays into the world of cheese making myself. Cooking at home and serving up a handsome plate that I've sweated over for hours is immensely satisfying but to create a foodstuff, from something raw and primary like milk through some process of strange coagulative alchemy definitely turns things up a notch or two. Yes, I really did feel like a proud father the day I made my very own cheese.

I shouldn't get too carried away with myself though as the procedure was quite simple which I would like to share with you. Inspired by one of my favourite books
The Gastronaut, Stefan Gates lays it out nice and easy. To make very basic cheese, soft cream cheese in this case, all you need is full fat milk and natural live yoghurt. Mr Gates does state that unpasteurised milk has the best effect but I just went for traditional unhomogenized whole milk from Waitrose. Pour 2 litres into a sterilised bowl and add 4 tablespoons of yoghurt, cover the bowl with muslin or a tea towel that has also been sterilised and leave for two days in a warm place after whence the mixture will become gloopy and start to separate and curdle.

Little Miss Muffet

Next you need to preheat your oven to 110 degrees Celsius, skim off some of the creamy stuff that is floating on the surface, leaving the remaining solids underneath intact and whack your bowl into the oven for half an hour. This encourages the curds and whey to separate further. Oh and you should think about using a heatproof bowl unless you don't mind the cats lapping up warm sour liquid as it trickles through your oven door and onto the floor.

Drip drip drip

Once the 30 minutes is up, pour the curds and whey into another bowl that has been lined with another sterilised muslin or tea towel. Collect the corners and gather up to form a small stork sack of cheesy joy (and it will be small as a lot of milk only goes a little way with this experiment). Tie the corners together with some string or as in my case, with some laces from a pair of redundant trainers and hang it over the bowl so that the whey be collected as it drip drips down. Place the bowl on your kitchen countertop and attached the bag to a pair of cupboard handles, if at all possible. And then go to bed.

It's a girl!

In the morning, as you skip down the stairs to go and check on your newborn, you will discover that it is not quite the attractive offspring you had wished for so it will take a further sandwiching between two plates with a heavy weight on top to smarten it up. As you often have to do with any ugly child. At this stage you may also wish a sprig of thyme or rosemary to add an extra depth of flavour. Leave for just a couple of hours and it will be ready to enjoy with a pinch of salt and some olive oil or some yummy honey.


Like I said the first time I attempted this I was very happy with myself. OK so the cheese wasn't earth shatteringly sublime or anything, it was fairly plain in fact but it did have a certain tang and a nice crumbly texture. Coupled with a fanciful drizzle of local honey, you would certainly find me looking rather smug if I ever served this up at a dinner party.

"Oh the cheese? Oh it's just something I made this week"

Of course they do say that pride goes before the fall and the next time I tried to make it, this cocksure patriarch somehow failed in his familial duty to raise a second daughter (I've decided that cheeses are girls in the food world, like sourdough starters). I really don't know what happened. I did everything the same as before but on taking the bowl from out of the oven, I just wound up with more yoghurt. I tasted it and it had definitely turned into yoghurt. It wasn't sour or acidic. It was yoghurt. Two litres of the stuff. And ever since I have been scratching my head. The only thing I can concede is that before I put it in the oven, I noticed that it hadn't separated that much so perhaps the ambient temperature in the kitchen this time around was cooler? Luckily Mrs FU was able to use some of the yoghurt to make Moro's Yoghurt Cake with Pistachio which eased the pain a little but she still catches me sometimes, looking out of the window forlornly, wondering what could have been for that little girl. Perhaps I should get in touch with Alex for his opinion, I just hope he doesn't give me a load of ol' whallop.

2 Litres of Yoghurt

Moro's Yoghurt Cake with Pistachio

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Full English Please

You've gotta love a t-shirt. Well I do anyway. I think my fetish started back my young indie pup days. Disorientated from pogoing for an hour, I would often come stumbling out the hall or club or bar, dripping in sweat and giddy on snakebite and black and I would always make a beeline for the t-shirt stall. I used to have quite a collection of band t-shirts but slowly but surely they've disappeared over the years and have been replaced by lairy, 'ironic', sloganized ones. You know, the kind that has a picture of Ollie Reed on the front with "Drunks Make The Best Lovers". Ho ho ho. How funny and yes 'ironic' because we all know that drunks almost certainly do not make the best lovers. How do I know this? Well it's been pointed out to me of course.

Putting all past indiscretions and "hello flopsy wopsy" comments aside for a moment, I have to say that I was pleased as punch when I got an email from We Admire, purveyors of witty, stylised t-shirts with the offer of a food inspired one. Naturally I said yes and received their Full English Please in the post. Breaking down the traditional English brekkie into precise, graphic components, I thought it was a pretty funky looking t-shirt, very Bauhaus. So, somewhat cheekily, I asked for another one with the idea of running a little competition. The first one in fact on Food Urchin and the competition is simples. Just post a comment, describing the worst breakfast you've ever had. It was going to be the best but after my little jaunt to The Hope the other day, I figured stories about your crappiest would be more entertaining. So whether you fancy the t-shirt for yourself or for a loved one please post your comments by May 6th, Election Day! The winning entry will be picked by random by using the very democratic method of writing names on little bits of paper, screwing them up and mixing them in a bowl of some kind.

Good Luck!

Win this t-shirt for yourself, partner, relative, pet, whatever!

Full English Please

T-shirt modelled by the Food Urchin (partially censored due to public outrage)

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Masterchef Burnt My Maryland Crab Cakes

OK, hands up. When cooking at home in my kitchen, I do get a bit grouchy, precious and have been known to swan about like a prima donna declaring that "this is MY kitchen, this is MY domain". I haven't gone as far as wearing a keffiyeh wrapped around my head yet but if I'm not careful, these delusions of grandeur could get the better of me. I think my worst habit is being an absolute stickler for keeping an eye on things. I can't just leave the pots and pans be, gently simmering away. No it's a rhythmic succession of lifting lids, checking, tasting, stirring, checking, chopping, shaking, checking, cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha. And please don't talk to me when I am going through this process. I might just be warming some up soup, I don't care, genius is at work here. At dinner parties, best you remain in the living room but if you do need topping up with wine or another cold beer then just tip toe past me, softly and quietly. And god help you if you make any offer of help. The megalomaniacal streak in me will soon have me barking and lashing out with a plastic spatula as I press my ancient and knackered Kenwood food processor close to my heart like a female baboon clutching her newborn. When plating up, I even do that thing of checking each plate, eyeing it up intently and wiping spots clear with the corner of a white tea towel before nodding at my wife. She normally just walks off sighing and punctuates the air with a loud tut. I don't know where this comes from as ordinarily I have the attention span of a gnat. I think it's a general fear of cocking things up, getting it wrong. There's nothing worse than that deflating feeling as you scrape the burnt remnants of a risotto in the bin with bottom lip protruding like the kid who dropped his ice cream. So my mantra when cooking is: Pay attention at all times.

And when cooking fish this mantra is particularly important. A couple of weeks ago, I took receivership of some fine samples from Fish For Thought, a small fish and shellfish supplier based in Cornwall who distribute the bounty of the sea throughout the land via the magic of the internets. Fish For Thought are committed to sourcing their produce through local Cornish fishermen, placing an emphasis on sustainability and have recently gained accreditation from the Marine Stewardship Council. So with this mind, I was very happy to take on board 4 fillets of wild black bream, 6 Cornish scallops, a pack of Cornish cocktail crab claws and a hefty pack of freshly handpicked Cornish white crab meat. Well you would be wouldn't you. Eyeing up the moist crab meat, I immediately thought about making some Maryland Crab Cakes served with a Tarragon Vinegar and Butter Sauce from a Rick Stein recipe that I've used before. It was mainly because I had all of the ingredients to hand. And also because I didn't have to face the time consuming prospect of boiling a crab up and break it into teeny weeny pieces to get access to very little meat. I love crab but it is a pain sometimes to extract the best of the flesh especially when you've been blessed with clumsy, sausage-like fingers. Most of it winds up on the floor whenever I grapple with that damned crustacean. So I set about the task diligently and not before long I had some very pretty looking patties which went in the fridge to chill. Of course, as all good Michelin chefs do, I did a little taste test beforehand to check flavour and seasoning and kept a close eye on the 'sample' cake, giving it just a couple of minutes gentle frying, leaving each side golden crisp. And it tasted great. Savoury, rich, yummy and er crabby. That night's supper was looking good.

Except that night, MasterChef was on.

Now I confess, I've only watched a few episodes from the latest series but I switched on that night to find the final three had been whittled down. Through a series of intensive heats and tasks I should add and not just by John and Gregg's excessive gurning and shouting. A few minutes in, with iPhone in hand, I spied a frenzy of tweets on Twitter with people hashtagging #masterchef and noticed that MasterChef finalists Dhruv, Alex and Tim had been getting involved too. I then had the brainwave of contacting them to see if they would be interested in getting involved with Where's My Pork Chop? "Let's get in there quick before they get chewed up by the media machine!" I screamed, leaping out of the sofa. But then my wife uttered the words "so when are you going to do this dinner then?" What followed next was a frantic juggling of pots and pans and lighting of stove flames along with dipping in and out of the living room to keep track of the programme. Into the mix was thrown a manic dicing of tomatoes, a savage chopping of tarragon and the desperate fingering of a slippery iPhone pad because it got covered in melted butter. Totally abandoning my cooking principles and imaginary keffiyeh, I soon found myself in the middle of my own personal service nightmare and things started to slip. All because of bloody Masterchef. I had been reducing the white wine vinegar for the sauce but let it go too far. When I stuck my head under the extractor hood and my nose over the pan, I nearly keeled over because the vapours were so intense and strong. In the heat and confusion of washing up as I went along, I discovered that I had chucked away the clarified butter I made earlier down the sink, so I set about making some more. Only to find that we hardly had any butter left. So I screamed. "Arrrgh!" And then came the pièce de résistance as I heated the frying pan and popped the crab cakes in and then I glanced down at the iPhone again:

"Hey! Dhruv's heard of Where's My Pork Chop?!" I shouted out.

Suddenly, without any word or warning, I looked up and found myself transported to a countryside scene captured in soft focus. Where I was sat at a sunlit table outside an unidentified ye olde worlde pub with all three MasterChef contestants. These guys, it seemed, were my bestest friends and the air was heady with laughter, back slapping and the consumption of ale in pewter tankards, all of us resplendent in breeches and hats with feathers jutting out at a jaunty angle. A selection of silver platters laden with meat, cheese, bread and fruit were brought to the table by some buxom wench and to my surprise, the saucy maid had also placed down on the bench a clay jar full of bread sticks. To up the hilarity, I decided to take two of the sticks and stuff them up my nose but before they reached my nostrils, some other fug entered my senses. "What was that smell?" I thought. It didn't take long to realise that it was the grim stench of burning crab and I soon came crashing out of that particular daydream to discover that yes, I was burning my Maryland Crab Cakes!

I even announced it on Twitter and.........................................................................................................

........................................................I don't really know where to go after that random, rambling stream of consciousness but let me tell you these home truths:

1 - Despite burning the said crab cakes that night, they were still very delicious and I will faithfully type out the recipe at the end of the post.

2 - Even more delicious were the wild black bream fillets we had after, which I brushed with melted butter (the little I had left) and grilled. They tasted fantastic and I can thoroughly recommend Fish For Thought for quality and freshness. The cocktail crab claws and scallops however still languish in the freezer so all suggestions would be gratefully received.

3 - Dhruv, I still intend to get you to cook for me one day (and Alex and Tim)

4 - Blog posts should not be finished whilst under the influence........but hey it was fun eh! ; )

Maryland Crab Cakes with Tarragon and Butter Sauce

Serves 4

450g fresh white crab meat

40g cream crackers

2 tbs chopped parsley

1 egg, beaten

2 tbs mayonnaise (homemade)

1 tbs English mustard powder

1 tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice

dash of Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper

4 tbs clarified butter

For Tarragon Vinegar and Butter Sauce

5oml white wine vinegar

4 tbs clarified butter

1 plum tomato, skinned, peeled and diced

1 tsp chopped tarragon


Put crackers into a plastic bag and crush with rolling pin into fine crumbs. Mix crab meat and chopped parsley in a bowl and add just enough cracker crumbs to absorb any moisture from crab (you might not need all of it).

Break the egg into another small bowl and whisk in mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and some seasoning. Fold this mixture into crab meat but try not to break up the lumps of crab too much.

Shape the mixture in eight 7.5cm patties, put them on a plate, cover with cling film and chill for at least 1 hour.

Heat the clarified butter in a large frying pan. Add the crab cakes (4 at a time if your pan is not large enough for all 8) and cook over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes on each side until crisp and richly golden.

For the sauce, bring the vinegar to the boil in a small pan and reduce it to about 2 tablespoons. Add the clarified butter, diced tomato, chopped tarragon and some salt and pepper to taste and gently warm through. Place 2 of the crab cakes onto a warmed plate, spoon some of the sauce over and serve.

Taste Test

Burnt daydream

Beautiful Wild Black Bream

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

El Pirata Detapas

There was once a very skinny, odd looking, bespectacled chap from Sheffield who sang a fantastic tune called 'Do you remember the first time?'. Whenever I hear that blast from the past, I can't help but feel the lovely whimsical glow of my yoof, remembering carefree summers of days gone by, dancing in fields and having long curly ginger hair. Sigh. However, nostalgia can be a fickle friend and also heap on liberal doses of guilt and embarrassment as you recall the darker and more unsavoury episodes of your life. As I was walking down towards Westborne Grove, many weeks ago now, I started thinking about the very first time I had tapas. Wandering nonchalantly down Chepstow Road, I am sure I had a big goofy smile on my face which then suddenly morphed into Munch's Scream as those horrible latter emotions came bubbling to the surface. Why? Well it's simply because this area of West London is synonymous with my first experiences of tapas, that wonderfully egalitarian style of serving food. And whenever I am around that part of town, I am reminded of a girlfriend who I treated rather shabbily many, many years ago.

She was a keen, lively girl who pretty much laughed at everything I said and pretty much paid for everything too. Our favourite haunt was the local tapas place down the road from her flat in Maida Vale which was a fairly standard innocuous type of restaurant but it gave me a good introduction to Spanish cuisine. Eating lots of small plates of food seemed very novel at the time and I recall marvelling at the fact that it was always very filling. Patatas bravas, croquetas de pollo, chorizo in red wine, calamares, tortilla and paella. Simple, tasty grub all washed down with a cheap Rioja. As I had the uncanny ability to blow my wages in the first few days after payday, the old flame nearly always picked up the bill. Given that I'd usually pay her back by arriving at the flat at 3AM in the morning, soaked to the gills and banging at the wrong door (she saved me from several beatings), the relationship didn't last. I didn't feel that bad at first when I dumped her but when she came back into the room with a bag of presents she had been saving for my birthday and dumped it back at my feet, well yeah I did feel quite evil. And after all these years, I still kick myself for being an absolute pig but hey these things happen for a reason. What was meant to be was meant to be and from what I've heard she's getting married soon to a guy who is far more chivalrous than I ever was in those early days. I hasten to add that I have changed for the better, if I hadn't I wouldn't be able to boast 8 years of marriage *ducks flying iron*.

Anyway, that is my tapas past so what of the tapas future? Well after shaking off the horrors of my past over a pint in a very gaudy and pretentious pub (which shall remain nameless because I fear the Russian mafia) I joined a group of bloggers for a meal at
El Pirata Detapas to celebrate the launch of ViewCard, a new membership scheme which offers discounts in restaurants and bars across the capital. A quick earlier squizz on their website suggested that El Pirata were aiming for a more modern, contemporary approach and this is evident as soon as you walk through the door. No clunky, heavy, dark wooden furniture or bright painted crockery on orange walls with Gipsy Kings blaring in the background for these guys. No they've gone for simple decor with clean lines and an uncluttered ambiance which was refreshing although when I walked down into the private basement room, I did have a Clarice Starling moment. Towards the back of the room, legs of jamon hung behind glass staring outwards and I wasn't sure whether the barrier was there to protect us or them. Just slightly unsettling but then again for a carnivore, I do have issues with meat.

Still the atmosphere was very convivial as we milled about, chatting with a glass of Cava in hand before sitting down to some very tasty olives, alioli and bread. What followed was an impressive selection of tapas which sought to showcase the talents of young chef, Omar Allibhoy who had trained under Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame. You know that place in Spain that everyone bangs on about. Actually I am being flippant there as the majority of the dishes were very, very good with only a couple of duds in the mix. The opening gambits of Octopus Carpaccio with Clementine Caviar, Capers and Paprika and Endives with Valdeón cheese foam were top notch. The octopus was wonderfully tender and I loved the little pops of citrus that accompanied it. The foam was described around the table as "cheesy air" which really doesn't do it credit. I used to have a pet dog who created "cheesy air" on a regular basis. However the whizzed up lightness of salty valdeón with the bitter crunch of endive was an inspired combination.

Octopus Carpaccio with Clementine Caviar, Capers and Paprika

Endives with Valdeón Cheese Foam

Next up were Seared Scallops with Artichoke hearts and Iberian Bacon, another winning dish simply because I adore scallops, artichokes and bacon, although as I have mentioned on FU before, artichokes do induce in me guffage that rivals my poor and sadly departed dog (I miss you Lucky). The scallop was perfectly cooked, crisp but also slightly underdone, beautiful.

Seared Scallops with Artichoke hearts and Iberian Bacon (photo from Meemalee's Kitchen)

The following dishes of Croquetas with Serrano ham and Pan fried Red Mullet, Confit Tomato and Piquillo Peppers didn't quite hit the spot I'm afraid as the croquetas wimped out on the ham promise and well the fish had just one too many bones. Don't get me wrong, I'm not ordinarily one of those diners who wails at the sight of a pin-sized bugger poking through the flesh of a juicy fillet. But as I said, there were just one too many. Things got back on track with the Pork Cheeks with Braised Shallots and Carrots as the piggy chops were fantastically tender and succulent, I could have easily gone back for more and felt ever so let down as I feverishly scanned the empty plates on the table.

Pork Cheeks with Braised Shallots and Carrots (photo from Meemalee's Kitchen)

The Broken Eggs, Potatoes, Chorizo and Garlic Prawns was an interesting concept. When it arrived at the table, the words 'Tortilla Tower' kept popping in my head which in turn brought on the dreaded 'Zinger Tower Burger'. I don't know why. Perhaps, it's my off skew imagination and crap business acumen that got me thinking about a chain of Spanish fast food outlets to rival KFC. Either way, I did enjoy this dish, although perhaps the chef over egged the pud with this one. Rectangular plates of Fried New potatoes with Mojo Picón Sauce, a new twist on patatas bravas, were also delivered to the table and they were far too easy to pop in the mouth when no-one was looking.

Broken Eggs, Potatoes, Chorizo and Garlic Prawns

Fried New potatoes with Mojo Picón Sauce

Finally as we headed towards the end of this tapas marathon, out came the desserts and not one but three. Chocolate Trufa, Chocolate Mousse and Saffron Toffee, 2 Textures Crema Catalana and Rice Pudding, Caramazel Crispes. Of course it was a totally overindulgent end to proceedings but what the hell, that's why you punch that extra notch in your belt, yes? No? Oh well sod it anyway, my favourite was the chocolate trufa, very luxuriant, very decadent and very calorific.

Chocolate Trufa, Chocolate Mousse and Saffron Toffee

Once we were done sitting there bulging and wheezing at the table like a bunch of Mr Creosotes, a very fresh faced Omar came out for a chat to talk about his approach to the dishes and to give us an insight into his background. Hearing that he started out at the age of 14, doubling up daytime studies with lessons at a cookery school in the evening did provoke pangs of grievance and envy. Don't you just hate these passionate, focused, striving types? I think I was pissing around on Romford market throwing rotten cabbages at other ne'er do wells at that age. But Omar was intensely amiable and approachable and I am sure he is destined for greater things and that his baby face will pop up more often. His tapas future is great and in fact I spied him on Masterchef last week, prompting me to scream at the box "I've met him!" and then think "ahh I haven't written that review yet".

Naturally El Piratas Detapas is one of the many restaurants that is participating in the Viewcard membership scheme. For £29.95 a year, you get access to various deals such such as 50% off and 2-4-1 at over 600 restaurants and bars in London. I've got one and I might just track down that old girlfriend of mine, see if she fancies going out for old times sake before she gets married. After all she needs to save all the money she can at the moment.

Thanks goes to Sauce for the invite and to MiMi for letting me pinch her photos.