Sunday, 26 June 2011
Bleary-eyed, bewildered and ever so slightly battered, I finally awake. Thinking that the ceiling has possibly collapsed on my head, I peer through a gap and spot her at the base of the bed, arms crossed with one brow raised in an arch of grievance. Having glanced at the logos on the cardboard pressed against my face, my frazzled brain begins to put the pieces together and and it soon becomes clear that my recent purchases from Amazon have arrived. Purchases which fly in the face of recent protestations of clothes purchased a few days previous. I breathe in deeply and take my time, trying to think of the best way to respond to such an abrupt alarm call. Finally, I decide that this situation is best dealt with a degree of tact and humility so I rise up and take action.
"WHAT THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU SCARED THE LIFE OUT OF ME! AND THESE BOOKS, THESE BLOODY BOOKS ARE GOING TO SAVE US MONEY. YOU DAMN, BLOODY WOMAN!"
You know what? I wish I had seen the wooden hair brush in my wife's hand before I said that. Because of all the items that were thrown at my head that fateful morning, it was the brush that really, really...really smarted.
I am grateful to say that such scenes of domestic strife rarely happen in our household but before I carry on with this brief review of cookbooks wot I recently got, I would just like to announce to husbands and boyfriends of the world: If you decide to have a splurge chaps, always have stuff sent to the office.
So first is up is Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden. Now I know James fairly well having met him on numerous occasions and I've also nipped up to his flat in North London a couple of times to eat at the popular supper club he runs with his sister. He is friendly, funny, young, good looking, writes well and most importantly, James is a great cook. Which makes him a bit of a bastard in my book. And when I first thumbed through his authorial debut, I was slightly dismissive. Recipes using tinned goods from the cornershop? Vignettes of late night feasts after the pub closes? Definitions of harissa, sousing and trendy Hoxton drinks? What the hell could this whippersnapper ever have to say to me? A tired, balding, family man in his mid 30's? "Bastard!" I screamed again, flinging the book into a corner. But since that outburst, I have to say I've been having a proper ferret through and I really am starting to warm to his ideas and recipes. Particularly the notion that cooking should be stress free and enjoyable and that we should all feel free to twist or tweak dishes without constraint. A no brainer suggestion really and one that plants James firmly in the accessible 'cooks' camp of food writing over the sometimes overly technical 'chefs' camp. Which isn't to say that the recipes are ordinary. Far from it and I am very eager to try his Ox Cheek Chilli and Pork Wellington, fantastic alternatives to familiar dishes. I've already taken on board his Lemongrass and Basil Granita for my supper club. If I can let the jealousy subside for long enough then I might give credit where credit's due if it goes on the menu again but in the meantime, Small Adventures is an assured first outing and James is worthy to be considered a 'New Voice' in food. The bastard.
Next is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, another debut that has been much lauded by all and sundry, winning prize after prize. Before I kick off, you should know that the actual basis for buying this compendium of flavour pairings and combinations was due to the fact that I must have spent more on overdue library fines borrowing the book rather than owning the damn thing. I have been keeping this greedily to myself for the last 6 months or so without renewing so hurrahs all round then because this really is a great book, one that I am now proud to own. And now the people of Upminster might be able to take a peek at it too. So what's so good about it? Well by turns the book is informative, enlightening, intelligent, humorous and also makes for great reading in the toilet where it's all peaceful and quiet. Simply put, Segnit takes 99 ingredients and then groups them using themes, applying characteristics to each group such as 'Earthy' or 'Spicy'. And then she goes on to suggest pairings and recipes, some which are familiar such as lamb and mint. And some that are down right strange, such as bananas and bacon (think Devils on Horseback but with er bananas instead of prunes). At times it's bonkers stuff but everything is made all the more entertaining by Segnit's notes, personal stories and the historical references that she's unearthed for each suggestion. All in all she comes up with 980 different pairings offering an abundance of opportunity for the adventurous and not so adventurous cook. I particularly liked her take on that MasterChef classic, black pudding and scallop. As she vividly described in The Flavour Thesaurus, the scene of a delicate bivalve "trembling like an ingénue, on a filthy old black pudding's knee", for some reason I couldn't help but think of Greg's gurning, sweaty face. A brilliant book that I will keep dipping in and out of for a long time to come
The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett came out a couple of years ago and may well have passed me by hadn't it been for some debate on Twitter regarding Sainsbury's 'Feed a Family for £50' campaign. Mindful of our increasing food budget at home, I was chatting and sparring with other tweeters as to whether it offered a good deal or whether it just offered a boring, carb-loaded and somewhat un-ethical diet. Especially when it came to provenance and quality of ingredients. Fiona then entered the fray on line saying that she always believed that you were going to be better off buying every couple of days over a whole week's shop, thus reducing potential for waste. She also added that if you can be strict with your shopping list and plan ahead and resist temptation in supermarkets then there's no reason why your food shop should ever be overly expensive. With a final remark she casually threw in "I've got lots of other tips in my book you know, incidently the second edition has just come out" and then whoosh, she was out of the room. And so I headed straight for Amazon. Authors of the world, this is Twitter at it's best, engage with your audience and they will buy your book. At least I will anyway. I must admit I've yet to explore Fiona Beckett's book properly and pick out some recipes to try although I have taken on board some of the golden rules to cut your food bills. Such as shopping only when you really need to and to avoid impulse buying. Though it is interesting, standing there in the aisle, wrestling the inner demons within my soul whenever I start to reach for two bumper bags of Twiglets on special offer. Must. Buy. Twiglets. No Luke! Use The Force Luke! Use The Force!
The last book in this merry bunch is Offal: The Fifth Quarter by Anissa Helou, a sensuous celebration of all the bits and bobs of the animal that we tend to ignore. The head, the tail, the feet and the 'oh-my-God I can't look' innards. I didn't say that but I have heard a squeamish couple squeal the very same in the butchers before, gibbering madly at a tray of kidneys. And I get the feeling that this is the kind of response that Anissa Helou is trying to rally against, not that she delivers the message in a preachy, holier than thou way. No, as she interweaves childhood memories and other stories into the recipes along with some lipsmacking photography, the whole approach is one of encouragement. And some of the recipes look very good indeed. I've already made her Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird's Eye Chillies which was surprisingly simple and fiery hot (probably a touch too hot as I went against her instruction and also added 2 scotch bonnets - ouch) but it aptly demonstrated just how delicious offal can be so please do try the recipe below. And there are tons of other recipes to have a crack at yet. I am actually thinking about putting on an offal-only dinner party for some of my more adventureous friends and family. Or what about an offal theme for a supper club? The shopping list is bound to produce quizzical looks from my butcher though. And from the people standing around me. Asking for cock's combs will probably elicit the biggest response and I will have to explain further that I am after the fleshy, red comb that adorns the top of a rooster's head. And not some toothed device to carry out some funky pubic topiary.
Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird's Eye Chillies
2-3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 bird's eye chilli
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped celery
2 mild chilli peppers
1 whole head garlic, cut in half
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
120ml tomato ketchup
120ml good red wine
Put the coconut oil in a large saute pan and place over a medium-high heat. Add the oxtail and the chilli and brown the oxtail, taking care not to let the chilli burst.
Add the onions, celery, peppers and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to tast and cookm stiring occasionally, until the onion has softened.
Stir in the ketchup and let it bubble for a few seconds. Then add the wine and let in bubble for a minute or so. Stir in 120ml water. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered for a couple of hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. Check on the sauce every now and then to see that it doesn't dry out. If it gets too dry, add a little water. Taste and adjust the seasoning at the end of cooking. Remove the bird's eye chilli and serve very hot, accompanied with plain rice.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get myself off to Primark. I've seen a copy of the dress that Mrs FU was after in there.
Thursday, 16 June 2011
“ You know the same thing happened to Barry last week don't you, I think the old man is starting to lose the plot. How are you dealing with the mushrooms he made you eat?
“Polly wants a cracker. Polly wants a cracker”
“Ah that's great", he mutters to himself, looking up to the sky. "That's just bloody great.....”
Now let's fast forward to a rugged outcrop near Penzance in modern day Cornwall and this is precisely the scenario that enters my head. I'm standing there in the pouring rain, clutching a single green leaf, poised to place it in my mouth. I'm not worried or anything. I have total faith in our guide, Caroline Davey of The Fat Hen. But then suddenly, I am dumbstruck by this strange sense of awe, this bizarre feeling of wonderment, this notion that when it comes to foraging wild food and garnering all that knowledge down throughout the ages, that simply hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people must have died along the way. If it wasn't for all those poor souls, those hunter gatherers who unintentionally carked it, well we wouldn't be here would we. None of us would. 'This is amazing', I think to myself and I am desperate to share this anthropological epiphany with Caroline and the rest of the group. But having turned up to the unearthed Foraging Masterclass in shorts, trainers and with no waterproofs whatsoever, I felt it would be best that I keep this little revelation to myself. You know, to save any further embarrassment.
Shaky evolutionary theories aside, I have to say that I had a very enjoyable albeit soggy time down in the south west last Friday with unearthed and The Fat Hen. Arriving early in Penzance via the overnight sleeper from Paddington (or 'sleepless' as it is also known as according to Ismay, she's right) our merry band were transported to Fat Hen headquarters for a breakfast of fresh bread, japanese knotweed jam and sloe gin before heading out into the wilderness. The main aim of morning as you might expect from a foraging masterclass was to learn all about wild food. A subject I thought that I knew a little bit about but after just a few minutes in the company of Caroline - botanist, ecologist and professional forager - it seems that I've been kidding myself. With an easy, warm manner she dispensed lots of information, expertly pointing out each plant to our group, it's latin name, properties and culinary uses. What astonished me most was the seeming abundance and availability of edible plants that can be found on such a short walk by the sea but saying that, Caroline was eager to encourage of sense of respect and responsibility. Take only the very common plants such as nettles, alexanders and sorrel, use scissors to cut leaves and leave more than half the plant to grow back were just some of the mottoes of the day. The best part though of course was plucking leaves to smell and taste. Towards to the end of the walk we wandered into a Tolkien inspired woodland and picked some wood sorrel which had a much subtler citrus note than the common variety, it's certainly an ingredient I'd like to discover closer to where I live.
Accompanying us on the walk was Simon Day, founder of unearthed and I sidled up to him at one point to ask "so what are you doing here anyway?" because at first I couldn't make the connection between an importer of continental artisan food stuffs and the really wild stuff. Simon explained that on his travels around Europe looking for different producers, he noticed that a lot of areas thrive on a wild food culture and foster a symbiotic connection between making food and foraging food. Plates of charcuterie, slabs of pate, bowls of olives served up on tables in quiet, dusty villages will often have been made or presented with foraged ingredients. So Simon thought it would be fun to see what The Fat Hen could come up with using some of the products in their range. This did beg the question as to why weren't we using artisanal foods from Cornwall then, a nice local cheese for instance but Simon just smiled wryly and said that he was looking into sourcing some British products for unearthed. I hope he does. We had a really good chat and a giggle on the walk, although I could have started off better. I actually kicked off with "so how long have you been with Unearthed?" "Er, I started the company Danny." "Ah......." Sometimes ignorance isn't bliss.
Having then spent the morning wandering around, gaily skipping around in the rain, snipping leaves and flowers to put in my basket, it was soon time to get back to Fat Hen farmhouse kitchen for the important part, lunch. For this part and as part of her Gourmet Wild Food Weekends, Caroline employs the considerable talents of local chef and tutor, Mark Devonshire. I met Mark many years ago at Rick Steins Cookery School and although I don't think he remembered me, he still remains the funny, cocksure chef with a penchant for olive oil and cling film from way back when. Caroline and Mark had evidently put a great deal of time and thought into combining the foraged ingredients with the range from unearthed and sitting around a table listening to Mark explain the menu whilst nibbling on canapes and drinking wine was very pleasant indeed. Well it would be wouldn't it.
Canapes came in the form of Pork rillets with pickled rock samphire on sourdough toasts, Chorizo, cornish scallops and wood sorrel and Saucisson Sec with crispy laver seaweed were all delicious. The saucisson and seaweed was amazing actually. Soft, garlicky slivers of pork salami wrapped around crunchy laver proved to be a devious incitement to filing my stomach up but I was able to walk some off before heading into the goat barn for the main event. To start we had Nettle rotolo with barrel aged feta cheese and wilted wild greens, accompanied with a fantastically punchy wild salsa verde. For main we had Monkfish wrapped in wild herbs (wild fennel, wild chervil) and Serrano ham, served with a marsh samphire rosti and a rock samphire fritter. And dessert came in the form of Panettone and elderflower bread and butter pudding with eldeflower ice cream and elderflower fritter.
The sign of a good meal is usually silence but as we all got stuck in, the air was often punctuated with "ooh that's different" and "now what does that remind me of?" which is testimony to the fact that whilst our palates and brains were recognising the flavours, the use of wild ingredients meant everything was just ever so slightly off kilter. And I say that in a good way. It was like discovering something new but which is not new. If you get my drift. But most importantly, there was a nice balance throughout. The aforementioned punchy salsa verde was offset by the creamy feta in the rotolo, the herbs complimented the monkfish and serrano ham and the elderflower ice cream? Well that's a kingly addition to any kind of pudding in my opinion, it seems to be made for sweets. It was, in short, an excellent lunch.
Brimming and tired, I have to admit I was happy to get back to the hotel for a late afternoon snooze but happier still for meeting up with Caroline and Mark at The Fat Hen and Simon from unearthed and trying their gorgeous food. But the sweat drenched nightmares later that evening? Of ghostly ancient ancestors, pawing at me with wide eyes and foaming mouths? Warning me - "Stay away Danny! Stay away from the cow parsley!"
Well I wasn't too happy about that.
Thanks to Unearthed and Wild Card for the invite down to Cornwall.
Tuesday, 14 June 2011
When it comes to running a supper club, the one thing I've been looking forward to is being able to utilise the garden and the allotment. And now that the growing season is fully underway, I am happy as Larry to say that the fruits of our labour are starting er, well fruit and I can now start to incorporate home grown produce into our menus.
"Aha!" I hear you say. "That's because you're going to improve your profit margin eh? Using all this stuff you've grown for free"
Well no because of course home grown produce doesn't come for free. If we forget the actual cost of seeds for a second and actually factor in the man-hours and physical work, the digging, the muck spreading, the sweat, the watering, the toil and the profanity (oh my god the profanity). No growing your own fruit and vegetables comes at a high price indeed. But when you prepare and transfer this food to the plate and take it to the table, you are offering something else over shop bought ingredients. And that is love, care and devotion*. And just a little bit of pride. For the Food Urchin, this is a rather sentimental statement to make but if you like the look of the menu and fancy coming along to FU Mansions in Hornchurch next Friday night, don't be surprised if I plonk your plate down and tearfully wail "I bloody grew those potatoes I did" before shuffling back into the kitchen an emotional mess.
Here is the menu.
Broad Beans and Black Pudding with Mint and Fennel on Sourdough Toast (see here for recipe)
Lamb Shoulder Braised in White Wine and Garlic with Roast New Potatoes and Sautéed Swiss Chard.
Summer Pudding with Elderflower Cream.
Plus homemade bread and palate cleanser. Vegetarian options and iced tap water available on request. BYO booze. All for suggested donation of £20.00.
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Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
Thursday, 9 June 2011
Not all vegetable preparation needs to be meditative or titilating though. Many a squash has been cleaved in half with the zeal of Jason Voorhees which of course helps to release tension, frustration and anger. Sometimes I find it very soothing to personify said vegetable, even going so far as to stick a photograph onto my butternut before sticking my cook's knife in and slashing it down the middle whilst screaming "DIE! DIE! DIE!". I have done this a lot lately which is probably not healthy but hey, it keeps me out of jail. However, some preparation of fruit and vegetables do sadly racket up the blood pressure due to their sheer finicky attitudes to life. I love gooseberries but I hate top and tailing the buggers. And why, I ask myself, do sulphourous brussels sprouts have to be crossed at Christmas time? And just what is the point of globe artichokes? Never has a vegetable have to give up so much for so little. Well that's my experience anyway, detractors have commented on the size of my artichokes in the past. The humble broad bean is similar in some ways in that you have to pod them from their fluffy overcoats and then further remove them out of their little jackets. To me this is the veritable padlock on a pair of knickers which is time consuming and fiddly to unlock. (The key of course is to blanch the beans for just a minute or so and then they will pop out with nick from your thumbnail and a gentle squeeze.)
Still the rewards are great because this sweet green little bean is very tasty indeed and I always look forward to this time of year when they are ready for harvesting from the allotment. We don't grow many and for that I am grateful but once I've got the fiddle and the faff out of the way, I always end up being rather grateful for them. If that makes any sense.
With this year's batch I made Habas y Morcilla or broad beans and black pudding to you and me. In fact, the black pudding came from Bury and not Spain so this dish does have a fervently British slant to it, he says triumpantly and I urge you to try this handsomely moreish recipe which I got from the first Moro cookbook. It really is worth the effort.
Habas y Morcilla - serves 4
3 tablespoons olive oil
200 g morcilla (or Bury black pudding) cut into 1cm slices
2 cloves garlic sliced
Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds
1.5 kg broad beans – to yield approximately 500gms of podded beans
100 ml chicken stock
A good handful of fresh mint roughly chopped
sea salt and black pepperMethod
Warm the oil in a fryin pan over a medium heat and then throw in the black pudding. Leave for a minute or two, making sure that the pudding crisps up but doesn't break down. Put to one side.
In the same pan fry the garlic and fennel for a minute until the garlic begins to colour and the throw in the broan beans, pour on the stock and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the beans become tender. Throw the black pudding back in the pan to warm through and right at the last minute toss in the mint. Serve up with griddled bread. Delicious.
Thursday, 2 June 2011
It sounds disgusting doesn't it.
No give me five minutes of prodding sausages around the grill with a fork until it's black on the outside and pink in the middle any day of the week. I might simultaneously singe the hairs on my eyebrows and knuckles as I bend down to scrutinise the one damn sausage that has lept into the fiery pit. I might decide to pour beer over the bbq in an effort to quell the inferno that the £1 Iceland burgers have invited. I might, after the event, decide to throw little bits of cardboard onto the charcoals in a vain effort to keep the hypnotic primordial flame alive. I might just go for a sleep under the tree because I've drunk too much cider and my head is pounding. But I don't care because this is the British way dammit. And this is why I am going to have a barbecue tomorrow, in the blazing hot sunshine because this week is our National Barbecue Week.
Except I don't actually own a barbecue. I still haven't got over Betty see so won't even consider buying a new one. But I thought it would be fun to show you just how we've been getting along with her.
First of all I select a spot.
Then using a cunning array of bricks and a metal grid that I somehow seem to have acquired from somewhere, I assemble a very simple but very effective barbecue.
I then place one of those ready-to-light bags of charcoal in the middle and er, set it alight. And you can bugger off all you snobs that complain about meat having a tinge of white spirit. It all adds to the flavour.
I then sit back and admire my handywork, with a beer in my hand and smoke in my eyes.
After a while, I get fed up of the smoke and decide to speed things up with some frantic flapping.
I then bring out the meat and other combustibles that will go on the barbecue. In this case lamb steaks that have been marinated in olive oil, lemon, garlic and thyme and a piece of pork belly that has been rubbed with crushed sea salt, fennel and coriander seed and already slow roasted for a couple of hours. Plus the ubiquitous squeaky halloumi which no barbecue should be without. And some pitta bread.
I then cook the meat, trying to keep the lamb a bit pink in the middle but hotspots in the coals dictate that it gets cooked all the way through (see how I blamed 'hotspots' there?) The skin on the pork belly crisp up wonderfully though.
I then throw on the cheese. Now there are different preferences to grilled halloumi in our household. Mrs FU likes it quite burnt, I like it just nicely browned and the kids couldn't care less.
After quickly toasting the pitta, we then sit down to a feast adding a delicious greek salad to the mix and Daddy gets to sup some Moroccan beer, courtesy of Badger and Bumble.
Barbecuing, there's nothing to it really.