Friday, 26 April 2013

Wild Garlic Treasure Hunt

As you are probably aware, in the UK, the wild garlic season is now fully upon us. And you should be aware, for in the immortal words of Harry Nilsson, everybody's talkin'. Bloggers, chefs, cooks, food writers, foragers, dogs, cats, my Nan and a whole cross-section of society that I can't be bothered to list right now. If you didn't know, then I would suggest that you have been living under a rock or have perhaps been hiding your cranium up your posterior. But no matter, word on the street is that the humble allium ursinum is out. Definitely out out and out and about. I know this because around this time of year, I do tend to get a lot of enquiries about the stuff and everyone starts talkin' at me, in oh so slightly desperate ways. 

"Hey man, like, I heard you've got a stash of green growing in your garden and well, you know, its been such a hard winter man and like, I just want a couple of leaves man, you know, to stick in some soup or something like that and jesus man, its just been so long, I just want to taste some of that pungent chive man, please, I know you got some, oh God, just give me some please, oh pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease....."

As such, in the past, a lot of dodgy meetings on street corners have been arranged where I have swapped some wild garlic for a token slice of cake or some of last night's dinner. Which is absolutely fine by me. I am only too happy to give wild garlic away, as it does indeed grow rampantly around our cherry tree at home and I am always at odds as to what to do with it. I even stuck some on toast and grilled it with manchego the other day, just by way of trying to make a dent. Then I had an idea.
Given the level of interest at the moment in ramsons, would people be up for a little bit of a challenge, a bit of fun in order to get their hands on their very own wild garlic to plant at home? Would people be up for a wild garlic treasure hunt around London taaaan? I put this notion across on Twitter yesterday and quite a few seemed up for the task, so after mulling the idea over some more, I have decided to go for it.

So the premise is this. Next Thursday, on May 2nd, I am going to head up to London with five lush and full wild garlic plants; leaves, flowers, bulbs, soil and all. I will head to my first location at 10AM and then tweet a clue as to where I am, using the hashtag #wildgarlictreasurehunt. I will then wait for 30 minutes or until someone finds me and then I will move onto the next location and then tweet a new clue. The area I propose to move around in will be central in town, with the occasional hop over the river. And the thinking is to go on and on until hopefully, I have been found five times and all five garlic plants are given away and everyone is all smiles and laughter.

There is of course, an inherent danger that my tweets will be totally ignored and I will spend the whole day traipsing the streets, going from one place to another, carrying a bag of heady stink and the whole endeavour will be pointless. If that does happen, I will simply head to a pub, cry into several pints of beer before going home at midnight on the vomit comet back to Essex and throw clumps of wild garlic at everyone on my carriage. I will probably get arrested but I still believe this little project is worth a go.

You might be asking yourself "Why?" at this point in proceedings and my answer would be "Why not?" I haven't indulged in anything nonsensical lately with regards to the blog and I do like to embark on some social meeja experimentation from time to time. Using Twitter will be interesting, as lately it has become a rather self-serving platform, a fog horn to promote one's profile and of course, I am as guilty as any with regards to that. Christ, this whole idea is one big fist of 'look at me!' But once upon a time, there was a strong sense of humour and community on there, of people getting together for the simple love of food and larks. And I just wonder with this little project if we could scrape some of that back.

So what say ye fud people of Twitter, are you with me? Do you want some bloody wild garlic or wot?

Oh and please do spread the word......

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Marcello Tully's Rice Krispie Fish Fingers

 Snap, Crackle, Pop

When it comes to the matter of breakfast cereal, I do find that my opinions become quite divided on the subject. Let's face it, a bowlful of light ineffectual processed grain, laced with 'vitamins', laden with sugar and sploshed with milk isn't really the best start to the day is it. And the fact that the creator or originator of cereal, now a multi-squillion pound industry, was a flatulant Seventh-day Aventist who enjoyed a yoghurt enema every now and then, also makes me very wary.

But when cereal is used in a different context, say as an ingredient within a dish, as a component for texture, I do sort of become more relaxed with the whole idea of cereal. Take chocolate cornflake nest cakes for instance. OK, not much healthier than the morning bowlful. In fact, quite frankly, they are the culinary equivalent of crack. But still, whoever drummed up the concept of pouring melted cocoa over orange flattened corn scabs and leave to set again is a genius. It was probably a kid. An evil genius wunderkind, set on world domination via mind control. I know this because whenever I make them or buy them, after taking the first bite, I soon fall into this frenzied, beleaguered state and lose all self-respect and control. The amount of times I have woken up naked, in some distant woodland copse with mouth and chin smeared in brown, fingernails caked and bits of cornflake stuck on my matted hairy chest is beyond me. Ah, such is the lycanthropic power of chocolate clusters.

However, when cereal is used as a witty take, to liven up a traditional recipe and to give a things a twist, well then I am up for that too. Like rice krispie fish fingers for instance. Recently I took part in an online cookalong with Marcello Tully, as part of Great British Chefs' recent campaign to get kids into the kitchen and cod, coated with puffed rice was on the menu. As cookalongs go, this was one was good fun, even though I had trouble keeping up with Marcello and burnt the first batch of fingers. The twins were involved you see and whilst I applaud the good intentions of this project, which is in association with Tesco Real Food, I long for the day when their nimble fingers can be put to finer use. Rather than have to deal with the very same fingers when they are coagulated with egg, flour and rice krispies.

A question I had for Marcello was went along the lines of "WHEN DO KIDS FINALLY GET TO GRIPS WITH COOKING??" and it was nice to see a wry smile appear on his face. The man, a father of two himself, obviously felt my pain. The cookalong was recorded and can be viewed here by the way, where you can see me and the kids scrambling along at bottom. Thank gawd, I muted the microphone on the laptop is all I can say.

As for the fish fingers themselves, when I made them a second time for lunch, they came out very well. Surprisingly so. Rice krispies are an excellent conduit for keeping fish nice and moist so it seems and the addition of the paprika to the flour added a lovely warm depth to the crunch of the coating. The mayonnaise I made was a bit on the flabby side, trying to keep up with a daughter pouring half a gallon of sunflower oil into a bowl was very tricky. I am amazed it didn't split.

In terms of endorsement for the recipe though, the final word has to go to my boy, Fin, who initially thought I was "Mad" to use rice krispies for fish fingers. After ploughing through 4 fat goujons at the dinner table, he wiped his mouth, put his hand on my shoulder and with a smile said that maybe I wasn't so mad after all.

No, Daddy only goes mad when he eats chocolate cornflakes son.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Sous-vide Pig Cheeks (After A Fashion)


So, I spent some time tinkering in the kitchen the other day. Or maybe tinkling is the operative world; considering that a lot of that time was spent pouring minuscule amounts of cold water into a crock pot, in a vain effort to keep conditions at an optimum 80 degrees centigrade. Actually, it was a whole day of tinkling. And beeping. And tinkling. And beeping and tickling and beeping and tinkling. A sort of nightmarish groundhog day, governed with severity by a screeching temperature probe and coupled with an agitated, pressing concern to keep visiting the toilet. It wasn't nice at all really.

But what was I up to anyway? Well, I keep hearing about the magic of a cooking technique called 'sous-vide', a prissy system that looks simple.... no wait, perhaps I've got that the wrong way round.... whatever, I have heard exponents of cooking 'under vacuum' say that this is wonderful, wonderful method and have been eager to give the process a go.

To give a brief overview of sous-vide, it is a method of cooking food that has been vacuum packed and sealed in a plastic bag, which is then poached in a water bath, that is kept at a constant, exact temperature, for an infinite, inordinate amount of time, to ensure even cooking throughout, thus guaranteeing a certain degree of juiciness, especially with meat. This is because at lower temperatures, proteins within food cannot cellurisify and burst through their permeable membrane nucleus; in fact, after 48 hours gelatins begin to hydrolate at various physical states, both within the biosphere and at quantum levels and as the collagen breaks down and depolymerizatizeses, sealed lumps of meat actually become self-basting and enriched with moisture from their very own gloop. This is the science*.

However, I was just interested in trying to stop my pig cheeks from shrinking. I love tender pig cheeks but I hate the way they seem to shrink into small porky nuggets after braising for a few hours. I want to keep them as fat and plump as possible. So to my enquiring, perceptive mind, sous-vide seemed like a way to go. Keep 'em trapped in stasis, with just a few aromatics, well where are those juices going to go, eh? Nowhere, that's where. Except I don't have a professional sous-vide machine. No PR company has been trusting enough to send me one (wouldn't mind, it's not like they fetch much on eBay anyway). I do however have a crock pot, the aforementioned temperature probe and a vac pac machine, which seals, after a fashion. So I set up a little experiment, just to see how it worked out.

Roughly taking the lead from this recipe from the British Larder, I neatly trimmed up four cheeks, bought from Waitrose for just one English pound and stuffed them in a pouch with a bay leaf, some garlic, some rosemary, some olive oil and, get this, a teaspoon of marmalade. The pouch was then duly sealed, sort of, and I waited for the water in the crock pot to reach 80 degrees and then plopped the bag in for its maiden flight. Because there was some air in the pouch, the bag floated back up to the top so I had to weigh it down with a ramekin but no matter, it still felt like I was doing something revolutionary. And then I spent the day going about my business around the house, completing chores, playing with the kids etc etc. Only having to return to the crock pot, say every 10 to 20 minutes, whenever the alarm when off at 81 degrees, to top up with cold water, to stop it getting too hot.

I did this for 8 hours.

And after those 8 long, torturous, continence testing hours, I fished the cheeks back out, cut the bag and plucked the oval-shaped beauties out. There had been some shrinkage with some 'matter' left floating around in the bag, which I can only presume was liquefied fibroblast (which of course is derived from mesenchyme) but I was quite happy with the end result. The cheeks were extremely soft and held together well, even after a quick flash in the pan for a bit o' Maillard reaction. They were screaming out for some mash as an accompaniment but I went in for some seasonal ponce instead, making a salad of watercress, radish and hazelnuts with a lemon vinaigrette. The sweetness of the flaked meat stood out beautifully against the hot leaves and pink roots, like swine amongst peppery pearls. Although the sauce was a touch too tart for this dish, so I would have to rethink that. But overall, not a bad effort (he says, patting all self-congratulatory like on the back).

Would I go down the whole rigmarole of tinkling into my crock pot again like a veritable Manneken Pis though? Probably not but I did like having a tinker with the whole process so I would certainly consider hacking my crock pot and using different meats and flavour combinations in future. If I do, you'll be sure that I will write another informative blog post on the doing science aspect of it all.

So watch out Harold McGee, there's a new playa in town and he sort of knows his stuff. After a fashion.

*Perhaps as a footnote, I should add that I gleaned a lot of this scientific information about the chemical processes of sous-vide after browsing through Modernist Cuisine in Waterstones. Given my propensity for absorbing information quickly, I read, well scanned, the whole tome in under five minutes. So sure, some of the intellectual jargon may be a bit off but there is definitely a good section which covers the whole method. I am sure of that.

Cheeks in bag
Weighed down cheeks
Cooked cheeks
Poncy cheeks

Monday, 8 April 2013

Burger Rain

A current favourite on Sunday morning in the FU household is a children's televisual programme called 'The Aquabats! Super Show!' Based upon the adventures of a team of superheroes who drive around in a supervan battling supervillians, everything is fantastically superbonkers and we enjoy watching it immensely. Sitting all together on the sofa, in our pyjamas, whilst drinking tea and eating crumpets. The Aquabats are also accomplished musicians in their own right and are in fact a rock/punk/ska band proper (apparently) and throughout each episode, have been coming up with wondrous musical ditties such as 'Wingin' It' and 'Doing Science'.

The best so far however, has to be 'Burger Rain'. And when I heard it yesterday morning, I was not only tickled by its simple brilliance but it also soon became apparent that this song; this beautiful, majestic, soaring song should become an anthem for slavish devotees of beef patties, pickles and buns everywhere across the land. Of which there are many.

If they don't start playing it on Burger Mondays, someone is missing a trick.

Friday, 5 April 2013


Like a lot of blokes, if there is one attribute that I can claim wholeheartedly, it is the guiding principle that whatever decisions I make, they will be made with unswerving confidence. Do I need a map? No, I know exactly where I am going. Is an angle grinder really the right tool for the job? Of course it is and besides, I don't know what I've done with the pliers. Should I really be putting white spirit on the charcoal like that? Yes, I bloody well should, how else am I going to get this thing started? No, the burgers won't be tainted with the smell, now will you just go away and leave me to get on with this? Please?

Yes, you can be safe in the knowledge that whatever I do do, I guarantee you that I really do know what I am doing. Because I am a do-er. And do-ers gets things done.

Take choosing wine for instance. Spot me in the booze aisle of a supermarket and you will have the pleasure of witnessing a man masterfully in charge of his own destiny. Watch him as he peruses through the different sections and picks up various bottles to hold up to the light. Just look at his inquisitive face as he scrutinises, ponders and considers with tenacity and thought. Marvel as he wistfully travels the globe and meanders through the vineyards and terroirs of his mind, recalling grape varieties from worlds both old and new. Smile with him when he finds a particular vintage which obviously sparks a particular memory within. Of hands held, fingertips trailing through long grass and cool, straw coloured nectar, drunk in view of a crumbling Cathar stronghold on a baking hot day in a breathless valley, set somewhere in Languedoc.

Then wrinkle your nose and drop your jaw in horror as you see him make his way to the promotions stand and bundle up half a dozen bottles in his arms, which have miraculously been reduced from a RRP of £10 a bottle to 3 for £10. Finally, shake your head sadly, as he skips off triumphant into the distance, full of the joys of spring; knowing full well that in the morning, a thumping head and grimacing, purple stained teeth awaits.

I said I was confident yes, but do I really know what I am doing half the time? Well, in all honesty, no, I don't. So why I was invited to the launch of WineTrust100 is beyond me. I do like wine, I love it in fact but what do I actually know about wine? If you were to hand me the wine list in a restaurant or put me charge of purchasing the social juice* for a party or something like that, I would feel entirely daunted and all at sea by the prospect. Drowning, not waving.

But after listening to the people at WineTrust100 and hearing about their mission to supply the best 100 "quality to price ratio" wines in the world, I suspect that I fall squarely into a category of wine consumer that WineTrust100 wish to court. That is folk who enjoy wine yet remain conservative with their purchases, particularly when it comes to brands and cost. And who, in all frankness, could do with a bit of help when it comes to branching out and experimenting.

Having belonged to various wine clubs in the past, taking delivery of anonymous cardboard boxes every quarter and gone through the long drawn out process of umming and ahhing in the aforementioned supermarket aisle far too many times before, the premise of WineTrust100 does sound appealing. Three Masters of Wine ("These are not the wines you are looking for") select 100 wines a month, the best for their price, from around the world, from small independent producers and categorise them according to style and cost. So far, so very simple. And the website replicates this clean, unfussy approach very well. It sort of sounds daft to highlight but by simply grouping wines by their tasting type - i.e. 'crisp, dry whites', 'full-bodied, rich reds' - the whole decision process is made a lot easier. Think back to the scatter gun approach of how wines are stocked in supermarkets, where eyes have to flit all over the place, up and down and across shelves loaded with random numbers and tidbits of information. Well, that's what makes my brain ache. Plus the pricing structure is pretty straightforward too.

Getting a handle on this quality to price ratio business however, or QPR for short, was a little bit more difficult. One of the Masters of Wine (or MW's for short) Nick Adams is obviously also keen on crunching the scoring numbers for the wines they select, which are based on the individual wine’s vibrancy, balance and character. Yet when he reeled out the various ratios, I did blink vacantly into space somewhat and zone out for a bit. To the uninitiated, the classic scoring system of wine rating, upon which the ratios are based, can seem quite alien and not that many people know what it means to get all excited about a 93 or a 97 or whatever. So perhaps some more clarity could be put in place surrounding this 'QPR'. But overall, coupled with Sarah Abbot's enthusiasm for big gobby reds and John Hoskins friendly, boyish charm, the three MW's projected a warm, engaging and humorous authority on the subject of wine which made it very easy to ‘trust’ them. Again, another principle, that I am sure this new venture is keen to promote.

With regards to the wines they selected for the evening, well they were wonderful and I wish I could extrapolate further…, OK I can, the rich, heavy and very juicy Primitivo di Manduria was by far my favourite; although the fragrant, strawberry flavoured Pink Moscato came a close second. Which is quite a good stab. Still, when it comes to wine, I can’t help but become coy on the subject. I literally feel the confidence drain from my feet when it comes to speaking up and trying to describe wine.

Interestingly, when I expressed this lack of vocabulary or commitment to wine writer Fiona Beckett, over a very noisy table, she gently scoffed and said:

"I don't know what it is about you food bloggers and writers; you could whittle on about the quality of cheese or beef for hours if you had to, talking about how it tastes and whatnot, why do you get all clammed up about wine?"

And she had a point, but by then, my cerebral cortex had been sufficiently soaked with alcohol; far too much to warrant to sensible response. So I just sniffed and nodded back in the direction of John Hoskins, who curiously reminds me of a certain Hollywood actor and replied with:

“Ah, what does it matter what I think about wine anyway, as long it tastes good and doesn’t cost the earth. And besides, I’ve got Kevin Bacon buying my wine for me now. Cheers.”

Visit winetrust100 at to find out more.

Photographs by Michael Pilkington

*social juice pinched from Thirst for Wine's Robert McIntosh