Sunday, 25 July 2010

Pilluelo and The Catalan Queen, They Speak!

It’s a Sunday morning. It is Mediterranean hot and I am standing in side a real life Boden catalogue trying to spot Boris Johnson having just spent the monthly wage of an illegal immigrant in California on 6 tomatoes. Having also bought a cucumber my partner in crime and I decide that if the Marylebone Farmer’s market reflects the average price of sustainable seasonal produce a lot of people will be going very hungry very soon.

The straw that broke the camels back was definitely the tomatoes. Yes they may well have come from the Island of Wight and ok were not farmed by illegal immigrants but four bloody quid for eight tomatoes?!?! I said to the vendor that "I could get across the Solent as a foot passenger for less and pick my own!!". But he didn't find this very funny. If I had been wearing pink chinos and a cashmere jumper across my shoulders, he might have tittered out of politeness. But I was wearing a grungy t-shirt and smelt faintly like a pub.

A couple of weeks previously I rashly offered on twitter to enter a cooking competition with Food Urchin as his previous two choices had bailed out on him and he desperately needed someone to cook with. Clearly if we shopped anymore at this market our budget would be blown.

Yes, not one but two of my fellow Essex compardres blew me out, can you believe it. Fank gawd for Rachel!

As Danny is still emitting a light fragrance of Eau-de-last-night’s-piss-up we decide to lie low until the supermarket opens and we can get the stuff we need and may actually be able to afford – it has to be the first time in my life I have considered Waitrose the affordable option. We go off in search of proper sustenance and coffee and find the only café in the area that doesn’t do blue mountain frapuccino and duck egg and pancetta on a bed of Norwegian sourdough, but coffee and bacon sandwiches with white bread.

Hey I only had a few pre-birthday ales the night before but ok enough to forget the SD card for my camera in the morning so all of these pictures were taken on my iPhone. Super high quality I think you'll agree.

Revived we consider the Tesco Express option for buying but discard it as affordable but unsustainable so we charge around Waitrose with our list along with every other contestant on Nom Nom Nom.

It was like Supermarket Sweep with everyone scrambling around with baskets and trolleys. I kept looking around to see if I could spot Dale Winton but then I remember reading somewhere that he shops in Lidl.

After our shop, we hot foot it back to the Cookery School and set about preparing our feast of Watermelon Gazpacho, Poussin Stuffed with Rose Petal Jelly, Rice and Sherry and Elderflower Panna Cotta with Gooseberry Compote. The menu was largely Rachel's idea. We had met up previously to go over a menu and I got rather carried away, expressing the desire to emulate 3 Michelin Star cuisine. She just slapped me across the face and said "this is supposed to be simple stuff that a family of four can cook". I am glad she did as 2 and half hours went by in a blur. Highlights for me during the cooking process were the blast cooler (every home should have one), Billy 'Cowfish' Abbott throwing half of his apricot stuffing up the wall and getting away with not cutting my fingers, for once I didn't have to wear the blue badge of dishonor. I was also very pleased that I had decided to make four panna cottas. When it came to plating up, I left the first two in a bath of warm water for too long and they came out of their bowls like runny Elderflower plops more than anything else. The third one though, held firm. Phew!

Cooking in a competitive environment in an unfamiliar kitchen has its drawbacks. For some reason the recipe that was easy peasy in your pals kitchen while you knocked back a glass of wine or three can become fraught with nerves and worry. The blender isn’t quite right, the oven doesn’t turn your meat the golden colour you want, everything seems to take a lot longer and the collective nervousness in the room adds to your own tension. But Danny is the epitome of calm and collected , long since having ditched the hangover and by the time we stop I am happy with what we’ve done. It’s not perfect, as ever it’s not quite as good as I imagined it would be but I am happy with what we send upstairs to be judged.

I'd like to say that I the epitome of coolness too, judging by the photo above (or you might just be thinking that is the epitome of a prick). I was pleased too with the end result and very pleased to finally sit down and sample the dishes that everyone else made, the standard was exceptionally high. But boy did the judges take their time. With heady conversation springing forth, empty plates before us and glasses continually being refilled, I did start worry that I would slip under the table back into an alcoholic fug. When suddenly the judges appeared and amidst the cacophony of many cheers and whoops, it was announced that we had won. I'll admit it all (again) seems like a blur but I do remember looking across at Rachel who was a picture of astonishment. Our prizes, a bottle of champoo each, a bulging goodie bag and a Kitchenaid Food Processor and Blender. As it was my birthday that day, Rachel graciously let me have the processor. Which was bloody heavy and by the time I lugged it from the cab into Liverpool Street station and onto the train, I was covered in a fine film of sweat. Nobody sat next to me on the journey to glorious Romford. But I didn't mind, inside I was a happy man.

Cheers again to all the rest of the people who took part, to Annie Mole for organizing, to The Cookery School for hosting and cleaning up after us and to the judges who shall remain nameless but don't worry, your cheques are in the post.

And one last thing, all this NomNomNoming hasn't just been about being a flash harry in the kitchen, there is a little bit of charidee involved. Sponsors of NomNomNom2010 have donated tip top prizes for a raffle and all proceeds will go to Action Against Hunger so please do enter.

Friday, 23 July 2010

A Good Wife Always Forgives Her Husband When She's Wrong.

When it comes to cooking a meal, you really can take inspiration from almost anywhere. And if you enjoy food, the inner tinkerings of your mind are forever engaged. What can I have a go at next? What should I try out this time? What haven't I done yet? These questions in turn are governed by a myriad of influences. The seasons, the weather, recipe books, articles, blog posts, trends, the contents of your fridge etc etc. As a culinary adventurer, a gourmand, an epicurean artiste who devotes his life to the pursuit of eating, the journey from field to plate is joyful and boundless. Truly, what a wonderful thing it is to cook.

Except for when you are trying to create a dish that you have seen on the TV.

Now I have done this sort of thing before but to fully appreciate the most recent 'journey' I had, this really is the best way to communicate my first experience with cooking breast of lamb. Or at least this is how I came across this brilliantly cheap and simple recipe by Tristan Welch. And how I very nearly got it wrong. So this was the conversation that I had with my good wife the other day, leading with my first line:

Oooh I saw this great looking dish on telly the other day.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, Tristan Welch did it. It was breast of lamb, it looked lovely.

Oh right, what did he do then?

Well, you get some breast of lamb, lay it out, rub chopped herbs and garlic into it....oh and some rapeseed oil, roll it back up, tie it and then you pan fry it....oh and then you slice it into rounds and then fry both sides. He served it up with crushed potatoes and mint sauce, it looked beautiful.

Hmm that does sound good, we've never tried breast of lamb before have we?

No, shall we get some for Sunday? wait, hang on a minute, he just did all that and rolled it up and fried it? He didn't cook it first.

What do you mean? No, he just put it in a pan with some butter....

But did he do anything else to it first, I think you have to slow cook breast of lamb don't you?

Well he just fried it.

No but Dan (slowly) did he do anything to it first?

No I'm bloody telling you he just fried it. I should know I watched the bloody programme.

What programme was he on? I can't remember.

Well shall we have a look online and check the recipe, what was it Saturday Kitchen?

I don't know but listen I watched the fucking programme right, he just pan fried it, believe me....

Hmm doesn't seem to be on BBC website.

No listen, you don't have to look on the poxy pc, it's very simple, you just take the lamb, season it and roll it up and then fry it (under breath) for fuck's sake

Dan! I am only checking, why do you have to get so precious about things?

Because I saw him fucking cooking it!!!!

Is this it? Rolled lamb breast with Jersey royals and mint sauce?

Yes! Probably! I don't know...

On Market Kitchen?

Yes! That's it! He did it on Market Kitchen, he fried it on fucking Market Kitchen!

Recipe says to poach lamb in chicken stock for 3 hours first.

Does it?


(deafening silence of shattered male pride)

And so after a period at the bottom of the garden, I decided that this was still worth trying out. We had this last Sunday and it tasted just as delicious as it looked on the telly. This cut cost just £3.60 and could have easily served 4 people, served up with allotment Charlottes dug up a few hours earlier and roasted and some frozen peas (boiled naturalment). The mint for the sauce came from our garden. It is probably even fattier a cut than pork belly and could have benefited from properly cooling as per the recipe for the joint to firm up properly. But time just didn't allow, when it came to the 'frying' part, it was still lukewarm (if only you really could cook as quick as they do on the square box eh). However, a superdooper meal to try at the end of the month when the pennies are running low. Just remember that you do indeed have to slow cook the joint first.

Breast of Lamb

Slather meat with chopped thyme, rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and rapeseed oil.

Poach in chicken stock with onion, celery and herb bouquet garni

Cool, wrap in foil to keep shape (my idea) and leave in fridge to cool completely. Seriously let it cool completely

Charlotte Potatoes

See, I told you Tristan f***ing fried it!

Breast of Lamb (cooked correctly)

Monday, 12 July 2010

Miele MasterChef Mashup

COOKING DOES NOT GET TOUGHER THAN THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There I've said it. Or shouted it rather. I just had to give it a try but then I didn't figure on having to pick myself up off the floor after bursting the temporal artery in my head due to excessive exclamation. I think one of my eyes nearly popped out too. It's fine for Gregg Wallace. He's been shifting fruit and veg for most of his life and in his game, yelling is a prerequisite, screaming at the top of his lungs to get housewives to fondle his bananas. When I met him last week along with John Torode, I was hoping he would give us a touch of the ol' barrowboy blasting, you know to up the tempo a bit. He didn't let me down. Boy that man is loud although I have to say that I was slightly disappointed that he didn't roll out that old classic. I was slightly disappointed in other areas too but more on that in a bit.

So what was I doing in the company of the MasterChef duo, had I finally plucked up the courage to apply? Was I going to be on tv? Am I going to open that restaurant at last? Well no but these were some of the questions fired my way after revealing to family and friends that I was going
to have a crack at the MasterChef challenge. People are always saying that I should go for it and the show pony in me would like to but essentially I harbour no great desire to open my own restaurant. It's all sounds like too much bloody hard work. And besides the invention test scares the pants off of me. If I had to do that then I'm sure I'd go down the proverbial route of rabbit staring into headlights. However, then the invite came popping through into my mailbox from Miele, teutonic knights of home appliances and sponsors of MasterChef Live, to take part at an event at their new showroom off Oxford Street. The challenge was to prepare and cook two dishes of your choice within an hour. A little bit of a tough one but still within my comfort zone so I jumped at the chance. I even managed a practise run in the kitchen at home one evening with my wife sticking her face into mine, bombarding me with questions à la Torode and Wallace. I generally told her to "eff off" most of the time and I should have brought some of that attitude to the showroom.

The great thing was that I wasn't going to be alone in this as I was to be joined by 4 other fantastic bloggers, both familiar faces and new in the form of Sarah from Maison Cupcake, Helly of Fuss Free Flavours, Ireena of Fastest Food Blog and MiMi of Meemalee's Kitchen. Walking into the Miele showroom was akin to stepping onto the set of a sci-fi film, it all looked very sleek. As I walked up to one of the ovens and began to eyeball it for any obvious knobs or buttons (there weren't any), I half expected a HAL-like voice to emit from a hidden speaker.

"Hello sir, I shall be your oven today and will take care of all your needs. Please do not touch that sir, that is a light switch and you will plunge the showroom into darkness. Thank you"

So I decided it would best to just step back, get stuck into the mountain of food that had already been prepared and partake in a glass of fizz. Soon enough it was time to be shown to our work stations (which I shared with MiMi), unload bags of ingredients and get everything in order. The whole place was a hive of activity with Miele home economists and assistants running around asking if we needed anything, showing where equipment and utensils were secreted away. My only concern was working out how to use the space age induction hob and aforementioned talking ovens (they don't talk really!) but I was reassured that help would be at hand. Phew. As the time for kick off drew close, the boys from MC came waltzing in and I have to say it was very cute to see Gregg eliciting giggles from a baby that a guest had brought along. "Aw, they seem like nice chaps" I thought. Then introductions were made, health and safety briefs were um, briefed and before I knew it, we were all underway.

I had decided to keep it simple with a menu of Grilled Mackerel with Spring Onions, Charlotte Potatoes and Calcot Sauce followed by Stewed Gooseberries topped with Meringue Peaks. And by keeping it simple, I was hoping to keep it together too and on that front, I didn't do too bad. Amy, our very able assistant caught me by the arm as I tore off to find a kettle explaining that the hob would get the water for the spuds boiling in under a minute and also showed me that I didn't have to keep opening the oven doors to check on the food. "Just touch here and the light in the oven will come on". Wow, superfast water boiling and ovens with lights, what will those Germans think of next? I would now like a Miele oven now, please. Of course everything went past in a blur what with the chaps coming up quizifying me about everything including the sauce. They had never heard of calcot sauce but this may be because I have been pronouncing it wrong all this time and have only just found out (sounds like cal'sot according to this woman). The fiddlest part was filleting the mackerel which I did purely for brownie points, I wish had got them done beforehand as that would have saved me some time. As it was getting near to plating up time I spied some egg yolks nestled in a ramekin. Egg yolks? What was I meant to do with those? GAH! They should have gone in the goosegog pud to emulsify and thicken it up!! But it was too late. Those MasterChef peeps are sticklers and so we all lined up our respective dishes ready for John and Gregg to get stuck into.

I have to say that everyone's efforts looked very impressive indeed given the time frame and for the record this is what was on the menu.

Fuss Free Flavours - Veal on a Mediterranean sauce of garlic, onion, raisins, capers & olives with a rocket and broad bean salad. Lime and Elderflower posset with berries marinated in homemade elderflower cordial and an Irish Lace biscuit.

Maison Cupcake - Hazelnut French macarons with mascarpone and Nutella filling. Hummingbird Bakery's Nutty Apple Loaf. (A cake in under an hour!)

Fastest Food Blog - Indian Spiced Salmon, Vegetable Pilau Rice, and Aubergine Raita. And Nectarine 'Crumble'

Meemalee's Kitchen - Burmese coconut chicken noodles (ohn-no khao swe), and a blueberry and orange zest shortcake, with whipped cream and a blueberry and orange coulis.

And so to the tasting. What did John and Gregg think? I was first up and I have to say it felt quite odd offering my food up for criticism and I pensively chewed on my fingernails as they each took a bite. I think overall the reaction was that it was good but like forever written on my report card, I could have done better. They were impressed with the fish saying it was cooked well but the sauce was too sweet, I needed something a bit more zesty to go with the oily mackerel. And the look Gregg gave me after spooning watery goosegog stew into his mouth, well you would have thought that I had told him that I'd just shot his dog. As a pud fiend I think he was really looking forward to it and I had let him down, damn egg yolks. Still John said that the meringue was good and to be honest their overall judgement was fair. "Just wait till I get on the show" I thought to myself, grinning and winking before remembering "oh shit, the invention test!"

Onwards they moved up the table, sampling and tasting, giving each blogger appraisles and quibbles over their dishes but judging by their reaction to Ireena's dessert (they both did that jaw-dislocating fork shovelling act which they've become famous for) I could tell she had it in the bag. After some hush hush conflab in the corner of the showroom, she was pronounced the winner and deservedly so. There wasn't much left of her crumble but Ireena's salmon was delicious and I would consider making a trek up to Cambridge if she fancies taking part in Where's My Pork Chop?

Cooked out but happy for taking part I milled around afterwards with a celebratory glass, chatting with everyone. It was especially good to meet Dhruv the recent winning finalist from the last series in person. Blimey he's built like a brick house but he seemed like a nice fella, just don't crush my hand so much next time alright? However, right at the very end something very odd happened. Throughout the afternoon John and Gregg were pretty much like their on-screen personas full of banter but essentially friendly and warm. Then their masks slipped and the banter that was being handed out turned slightly sinister, was tantamount to bullying and felt quite uncomfortable to watch really. It's crap speaking out of school and I don't plan to give exact details of what happened but I would gladly like to meet them again and go over the finer points of blogging and manners as the pair seem to be quite befuddled by it all. One cheeky chappy reckons that hardly anyone reads blogs anyway so why bother? At a PR event arranged for bloggers I should add. Whilst it sounds like the other cardi besmirched one spends evenings alone in front of the computer, weeping gently, full of vitriol because someone has dared to criticise his food. It was a downright shame for the afternoon to end like it did because up until that point it was fantastic fun. I let my feelings be known to the powers that be on the day and have even tried to contact via email for further feedback. You know just in case I took everything I heard out of context. You know just in case I've got it wrong. But funnily enough my phone hasn't rung.

Still top marks for the Miele team and their amazing ovens and for the exercise itself, it certainly made me appreciate what the contenders on MasterChef go through.

COOKING DOES NOT GET *hack cough splutter*..........oh sod 'em.

My space age cooking station

Where's the knobs? Where's the buttons? Aiieeeee it talks! (not really)

Preparing to taste everyone's grub

You cocked up the goosegogs!

Down the dark, dark tunnel!!!!

Two slapheads

Grilled Mackerel with Spring Onion, Charlotte Potatoes and Calcot Sauce

Stewed Gooseberries with Meringue