Monday, 16 May 2011

My Vege-Gel Hell and Supper Club Stories So Far......


To be confident and have confidence running through your veins is an admirable trait. When the heavy burden of fear and doubt starts weighing heavily on your shoulders, sometimes all you need a quick burst of self-belief, a little whisper in your ear of "you can do it" and yeeehaaa you're off, over the posts, waving your cowboy hat in the air. I'd say that when it comes to running a supper club, confidence is a necessity because the prospect of feeding numbers in excess of 20 people can be quite daunting. So yes, I have approached this whole adventure so far with a certain joie de vie because it helps to get you through the task in hand. However, complacency can often be mistaken for confidence and can bugger things right up. To quote Ed from Shaun of the Dead, "I'll do it on the night" is a mantra that I will never ever adopt again. Because for Food Urchin Supper Clubs in future, I never want to have that feeling of bowel wrenching, sweat dripping panic as people come traipsing into the room. It's not a nice feeling at all. Welcome to my Vege-Gel hell.

We had returned to the Brentwood Theatre on April 29th to commemorate the Royal Wedding and to run a pre-theatre supper club for people attending a production by Eastern Angles. 8 out of the 24 covers booked were vegetarians so I came up with two different menus. The fact that I originally put fish on the vegetarian menu sums up what I know about vegetarian cooking but at least after a conversation on the phone ("You don't eat fish? Really?" - who knew?) I was put firmly on track. And as I was making Red Wine and Rhubarb jelly as part of the dessert, I soon realised that an alternative to gelatine would be needed so when I did the food shop I bought packets and packets of Vege-Gel, which is made by the curious Dr Oetker, Willy Wonka of bakery products throughout the land. Oh and as I was making a Chicken and Leek terrine starter for the meat eaters, I thought 'what the hell, might as well stick to using the veggie stuff for that too, I know I haven't used it before but how different can it be?' Quite a lot different as it turned out. Making the jelly the night before was quite traumatic simply because Vege-Gel works very fast on cooling and as I was trying to achieve as clear a jelly as possible I poured the liquid through a fine sieve. Which set as soon as it made contact with the mesh. Now you know when you see a small child in a supermarket throw themselves on the floor when Mummy does let them have their own way? Well that was pretty much my reaction in the kitchen, late on a Friday night. But I gathered my wits and with some gentle reheating, fast work and a supportive hand from Mrs FU, I was able to produce 24 individual jellies (in muffin tins by the way) and felt quite pleased that we overcame that challenge with confidence, yes confidence and vigour. The jellies set quickly and although they had a strange, almost slightly salty tang, they still looked and tasted good. And so we went to bed.

The next day came and it was the usual case of loading the car up with as much stuff as possible including portable hot plates and slow cookers as the theatre doesn't have a kitchen as such. More a cupboard with sink and microwave really. With Mrs FU on board and plus help from my Mum and Dad, we transformed the studio into a presentable little pop-up restaurant, complete with bunting, flags and pictures of Will and Kate, sorry Catherine and soon the space was filled with smells of pot roast lamb, red wine sauce and er broccoli soup. Which does smell nice, I promise. We had a short break at 4pm and then returned half an hour later to get ready for the impending arrival of our diner guests. At 5pm I took my pressed prosciutto wrapped terrine and placed it in a freezer to firm up some more. A terrine that I had lovingly assembled the day before with layers of chicken meat, leeks, mushrooms and herbs. A terrine which had received lashings of warm, rich chicken stock, heavily dosed with Vege-Gel and ladled in between each layer to help the terrine to set. A terrine that looked bloody amazing once it was taken out of the freezer 20 minutes later and eased out of a loaf tin onto a chopping board. A terrine that started the crumble and collapse with each painful slice as people started filing into the room. As the horror unfolded before my eyes the best I could do was to stuff my fist in mouth to prevent anyone hearing the torrent of profanity that was gushing from my mouth. A clip around the ear from my mother also helped. But that was that, the terrine that I had such high hopes for looked at best like malformed meat and veg slices of squished Soreen and we had no other choice but to serve it up because we certainly didn't make enough broccoli soup. Of course, a true craftsman never blames the tools he works with but I fucking well blame Vege-Gel for that travesty.

I am possibly being too hard on myself here and after that 10 minutes of sheer hell, the one saving grace was that nobody seemed to notice, the plates came back empty with full compliments to the cook. Still the lesson learned here is that nothing should be left to chance and in future I am going to properly test recipes before releasing dates for more supper clubs. Especially if I am trying out something new or using an ingredient that I have never used before. I still say confidence is a good thing to have on board when cooking though, therefore and with great aplomb, I would like to announce the new menu for the next Food Urchin Supper Club.

Dun dun daaah!

Celery and Leek Soup with Truffle Oil

Pan-roasted Chicken with Lentils, Roasted Tomatoes, Aïoli and Basil Oil

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool (OK I still haven't quite tested this out but it will be fantastic, no it really will)

This will be held at a secret salubrious location in Brentwood on Saturday 28th May and at present there are 4 places left so if you are interested then please contact me via email at The menu includes homemade bread and a palate cleanser, suggested donation is £20.00

On one last note, a general comment that people make when you tell them that you run a supper club is "what you let strangers into your home?" and I often respond to this with a nonchalant smile and a shrug as if there was nothing to fear. It's that confidence thing again. But the Royal Wedding supper club certainly bowled us a curve ball, in terms of how to deal with some members of the general public at large. And there are some strange ones out there. In this case, we had a gentleman who was vegetarian and who was actually expecting fish for his main course (see they do exist). I was first alerted to this by Mrs FU who discreetly whispered in my ear "there's a guy on table 4 who really wanted fish and he looks really, really pissed off". Using all my charm and guile, I wandered over and explained that we had decided to take fish off the menu because er it actually wasn't vegetarian. "Ha! Stupid me" I said "but I am sure you are just going to love the Sharpham Park Spelt Risotto with Asparagus, Wild Garlic and Lemon I've made for you."

He just looked up as if he wanted to kill me but silently nodded that all was fine. And then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening looking over at us, looking as if he wanted to kill us. Towards the end of the night, Mrs FU was up for giving him a complimentary bottle of Reina María Cristina Cava to compensate for his woes. This was by means of shoving it up his jacksy by the way, a typically feisty gesture from my beloved wife no less but the whole experience was quite unnerving I have to say.

But still this is all an adventure, this supper club business and one must remain confident at all times.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

It's wine Jim but not as we know it

I took one sniff, then another and then squinted with one eye shut at the diminutive pixie-like woman standing in front of me, beaming, willing me on. And then I took another sniff. I then raised the glass up in the air, swirled it around, trying to peer through the cloudy ether and then frowned. "Are you absolutely sure this isn't scrumpy?" I asked. The pixie with a twinkle in her eye gently shook her head and motioned for me to drink. This didn't seem right and taking a glass from someone who proudly pronounces that they are certifiable certainly didn't feel right but everyone else in the room was doing it. So not wanting to be left out of the club, I took one last sniff before finally plucking up the courage to tip the glass towards my mouth, letting the gold liquid flow in and flood over my taste buds. Eschewing the method of pursing your lips and sucking in air, which personally always results in coughing and hacking, I simply swished the strange elixir around before swallowing. Yes swallowing, not spitting. And well, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite smelling of brackish West Country loopy juice, the kind of stuff that has left me lying prone on festival fields in the distant past, this wine, this murky, pungent wine actually tasted very good. This was my welcome to the world of natural wines where appearances (and smells) can be deceiving.

I was invited to a tasting a couple of weeks hosted by Isabelle Legeron, that Crazy French Woman to try out some natural wines and so went along with no preconception of what natural wine is. I mean isn't all wine natural? After all, it all comes from grapes dunnit? Seemingly not so and after a thoroughly pleasant evening of sampling natural wines, both reds and whites from the Languedoc region, I stumbled home an enlightened man. First and foremost, natural wine does exactly what it says on the tin in that it's produced without artifice. The grapes, the vineyards, the harvesting and the process of making wine simply do not get tampered with. There is no use of fertilisers, pesticides, no added yeasts, sugars, additives or heavy machinery. Instead natural wine producers take a holistic approach to their wine making that in some cases borders on lunacy and I don't wish to insult when saying that, I am just making a crap pun on biodynamic farming. So it's all a very hippy dippy, circle of life, the moon is in Uranus kind of way of doing things but that sort of eccentric approach appeals to me. As Isabelle said on the night with natural wine there is a story behind every bottle and knowing that the grapes were picked by a farmer wearing a cow skull at 3 o'clock in the morning seems so much better than picturing a cavernous warehouse with hundreds of steel vats. Furthermore some of the wines we tasted were, like I said, very good. By and large they all had an earthy, farmyard quality that on first taste might be perceived as quite rough but once you got your teeth into them, the subtleties came through. My favourite of the night was L'Inattendu Minervois Blanc from Clos du Gravillas, a dry white that was quite intense at first before fading with mineral notes, really good. Coupled with some fine charcuterie and cheese (and some very dirty, cheesy feet from some quarters) it was all in all, a very educational night.

If there was one snag behind the promotion of natural wines, I would have to say that it would be the cost as the retail price generally hovers around £20. Obviously this reflects the time, care and effort that goes into producing natural wine and as Isabelle was also keen to point out, why not splash out on a bottle of something different and special for the dinner table rather than going for cheap deals. He types, clutching three bottles for a tenner under his arm. But seriously, natural wines are really worth investigating and if this has tickled your fancy then you would do well to go to The Natural Wine Fair at Borough Market on Sunday (open to trade only Monday and Tuesday) where Isabelle and five other importers are showcasing 500 different natural wines. Admission is £18, you get a catalogue and tasting glass to take away. And I think you're allowed to swallow.

PS The featured cartoon was drawn by a talented bearded oaf who is going to marry my sister, please check out his blog too.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

This was supposed to be a restaurant review.....

In my neck of the woods, that being Hornchurch and home of the Mighty Urchins (no relation), I have to say that we're pretty much spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out. For starters there is the local Prezzo which offers an exquisite range of pizza, pasta and grills. Continuing much in the same vein is a vibrant little place called Zizzi which offers a not too dissimilar line of Italian fare such as pizza, pasta and grills. Then there is the spectacularly cladded Wildwood and I can tell you that a wild night of pizza, pasta and grills always ensues whenever we go there. And of course, lest we forget the fantastic Ask, a restaurant that proffers a slightly more subtle approach, still supplying pizza and pasta but with a greater emphasis on insalatas rather than grills. Not all roads lead to Rome in Hornchurch mind. Oh no, for an utterly authentic Mexican experience then one can do no better than to go to Chimichanga, where one can wear a sombrero whilst chowing down on a big, fat, bulbous burrito. But best of all we have a Nandos, that symposium of bottomless soft, sugary drinks and endless varieties of PERi-PERi chicken. You can feel your head positively spin every time you pick up the menu and glance at the plethora of buzz words on the page. Hot, breast, cool, wings, medium, wrap, chicken, breast, hot, chips, coke, burp, chicken, diabetes etc etc etc. Authenticity and variety comes at a price though and there are times when the choice just gets too much. It's not unusual to find myself in the hubub of a Saturday night simply standing there in the middle of a zebra crossing, not knowing where to go and with tears in my eyes. Willing, just willing for a car to mow me down and put me out of my misery. Yes, it's that tough a call to make.

Of course I am being incredibly sar-car-stic here and perhaps a bit of a food snob but whenever I reflect upon what is available on my local high street, my heart does sink a tad at the creeping diaspora of corporate beige that is starting to envelop Hornchurch. Whilst I don't expect the suburban town I live in to be a mecca of fine dining, I can't help but get narked at the fact that the main eateries in the area are the same ubiquitous chains that run up and down the land. Having peeked under the bonnet today, I am particularly narked to discover that there are just a handful of people who run the show but who don't make it plainly obvious on their company websites. You see, all of the aforementioned restaurants are linked* in some way or another via affiliations or partnerships or under the umbrella of private equity. To be honest I feel quite daft and naive at this realisation because in essence they are all the same type of restaurant, peddling the same generic menus and using the same ingredients, they are just operating behind a different frontage or brand. But what is the deal behind this vague approach I wonder? What are these companies trying to hide? Furthermore I wonder how many of us know that we've been monopolised or do we even care as we're herded into these places clutching coupons and voucher codes? The argument or discussion I've got running through my head is half baked but the more I think about it, the more I think that it's a crying shame, this proliferation of plastic restaurants in the neighbourhood. Especially when there are smaller, local, family run establishments that offer so much more in terms of food, atmosphere and service. Places like the Turkish Mangal in Hornchurch which is a simple, sparce yet friendly and warm restaurant that serves up wonderful and reasonably priced Turkish food from a impressive looking barbecue grill. Great stuff. I went there on Saturday night and tried their iskender for the first time. Tender pieces of lamb covered with a spicy tomato sauce and served on a bed of torn bread mixed with yoghurt, it was delicious. I was also stuffed, full up to the brim but sadly the same could not be said of the restaurant. However, all around Prezzo, Zizzi, Ask, Wildwood and especially Nandos, well they were packed.

And now I am confused.

This was supposed to be a restaurant review.....

(*I should add that Josh from Cooking The Books pointed this out to me)