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)