Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Eating Al Desko


Eating al desko* is most definitely a bad thing and no one should be so busy at work that they can't escape the drudgery for at least 20 minutes in one godforsaken day. In fact, it should be law that office toilers should be able to leave the building to go and stretch their legs, to get some fresh air and get something decent to eat. Spending an hour off-duty at the very least, every single day. 

What do you mean it is law? Why has nobody told me this?

Anyway, occasionally there really is no escaping the monitor and phone, especially if you are working under the hammer of deadlines and drowning under endless reams of photocopy paper. Sometimes, there you remain, all day long, from dawn till dusk, with eyes like dust and unflinching, unfeeling buttocks, numb and bloodless. And sometimes, that is just the way it goes.

However, that doesn't mean to say you can't inject a sense of adventure into your lunchtime proceedings at the desk. After announcing an exciting lunch of spag bol and honeydew melon on Twitter, word nibbler @CarolineTecks suggested that I hollow out the melon and use it as a bowl for the spaghetti. Which, in part, was a dare. But it also seemed like a cracking idea so I gave it go.

Honeydew melon, as melons go, is quite an unobstrusive sort of fruit and I have to say that juice left behind lent a pleasant sort of tang to the pasta, which countered the umami of the ragu. What sounded unusual was actually very good. And plus I saved some time. 

I like these happy sort of accidents, marriages thrown together at the last minute, nights out you didn't plan. So I am going to be more open minded about what I bring to the desk in future. On the menu tomorrow is sliced chicken escalope in rolls and strawberries and maybe some crisps. 

I wonder how that combination will work out?

*Eating al desko was first coined by Hollowlegs but lots of people it seems, also use the expression. Lots of people who sit at their desks eating their lunch, staring out the window; wondering what the hell they are doing eating inside, instead of outside. Even when it's raining.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Some wittering on eggs, poached or fried?

 

Fried eggs are currently off the menu for breakfast at home. Which is a damn shame because sweet Lord, I loves a fried egg. After all, what can beat the sensation of deftly cracking an oeuf on the side of the pan and extravagantly sliding it into hot, spitting fat and flinging the broken shells behind your back. Certainly beats any other snap, crackle and pop. And that's just for starters.

The instant transformation from glaze to white as the albumen spreads is quite a joy to watch; a mishaped puddle that begins to pulsate, bubble and jump about like flat scorched feet on boiling sand. Sometimes, scalding oil will splash up from the paddling pool and blister a thick thumb; the shock of which is quickly soothed by sucking baby-like, before covering with a tea towel.

A fish slice appears and gently nudges the edges, testing the teflon and whoosh, off it slides to the other side. Tipping back into the center, keen eyes pay attention on the deep yellow; the gooey bullseye, which must not, on any account, become solid. The second the last vestiges of transparent jelly disappear from around the yolk, it is then time to whip the fried egg out. For fear of any crusty, crispy, rebellious border. For that would be sacrileage and so must be policed with impunity.

Once done, it is simply a case of plopping onto some buttered toast, butter that has melted and seeped downwards into fine Chorleywood crumb. A liberal shake of Lea & Perrins with a healthy dose of salt and pepper and bang, you are done. Well, nearly. The whole thing needs to be smashed into oblivion with a fork before diving headfirst in.

But like I said, lovely fried eggs are off the menu in an effort to counter to an increasing, bulging tyre that is filling out my midrift, like Saturn's ring. Only more bulbous. So I have reverted to poaching eggs instead, which involves so it seems a entirely different alchemy altogether. When I asked Twitter what the best methods were, the reaction exploded all over my monitor, like a rotten egg hurled from a distance.

The biggest bone of contention was whether to vinegar the water or not. Some people were still in favour of the method, citing science and mother-knows best. But essentially, you only need to acidify H2O if your eggs are old. If you have fresh eggs, you don't have to worry. I find the whole fresh egg mantra quite funny actually. You see it everywhere in recipes, books and on the tellybox.

"Make sure you use the freshest eggs most humanly possible, known to mankind. As fresh as water sprung from a mountain spring. As fresh as the wind that roars the Great Steppes. Fresher than a pair new Y-fronts, straight out of a pack of three, from the shelf at M&S."

Fresh eggs. Well, we've been getting fresh eggs for ages haven't we. As in the words of one curmudgeon on Twitter who said (and I paraphrase here) - "You can bitch all you like about supermarkets but the one decent thing that they have done with the supply line is to make sure that the public get fresh eggs."

I think you can get fresher though. If say we were to keep chickens in the garden, a quick scoop up first thing in the morning and then a crack and plonk into a simmering pan. Now that would be fresh. You could go even further and try gently squeezing Henrietta over the same pan before she gets her morning egg-blutions out of the way.

However, that would be strange and most likely, most terrifying for the poor hen. Her nightmares that one day, she will be destined for the pot, would all come true in one singular, horrifying, existential moment. And I wouldn't want to wish that on any poor bird.

But after a few years, when she becomes straggly and tough and past her best?

Well OK then, maybe.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Clarks Is No More


I popped out for a breather this afternoon, having had rather a busy day in the office thus far; which wasn't supposed to be in the contract but there you go. I suppose it's good to be busy in this day and age and in the current climate. Anyway, like I said, I went off for a walk to get some fresh air, with my legs taking me a route around neighbouring Clerkenwell. And I was just wandering around aimlessly really, head in the clouds, occasionally perusing some menus in windows and whatnot. When I found myself shuffling down Exmouth Market. Given the time of day (I popped out around 4) some cafes were shutting up and some restaurants were simply lulling around in that post-lunchtime, pre-dinner daze; with the occasional punter or two inside, lingering mischievously together over half a wine glass. Nothing much was happening.

And then I looked over and saw that Clarks, my favourite pie and mash shop, was all shut up. Which didn't seem odd at first but then I noticed some hastily scribbled posters stuck up, advertising that you can still get pie and mash down the road in Kings Square, just off Goswell Road.

"Still get pie and mash," I thought to myself.

I went in closer, to peer through the slats in the corrugated shutters and spotted a sad, yet all too familiar bundle of dusty envelopes on the floor. Suddenly, a blast went off in my ears, followed by a gust of stale tobacco and alcohol. Turning around to find a pair of wide, dirty eyes staring and toothless mouth gabbling inches away, I was quickly informed, in scatter gun style, that Clarks had shut for good. And then he was off, jumping down the road like an animated scarecrow, chasing imaginary pigeons; leaving me to wipe my face clean.

And then another person walked past. An elderly lady with black hair and silver roots, who may well have thought the look on my face mirrored some sort of grief at the loss of a treasured establishment. Because she stopped and put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was alright, whilst sucking on a Magnum. Of course I was upset about what I had just heard. But I was grimacing mostly about the spittle. Once I recovered, I asked her how long it had been closed.

"For about 10 weeks naah," she rattled back, licking on her lolly. Which seemed strange because I was sure it was only just last week when I visited, to get my regular fix of double pie and mash. But thinking on it some more, perhaps it was back in February.

The reason for the forlorn shutters came about due to age apparently and not financial ruin, thankfully. The family that ran Clarks had simply run out of energy to keep going and got too long in the tooth. Funny, considering the ladies that served behind the wooden counter lost their teeth ages ago. But sad too, that there was no-one to take up the mantle and keep the business going; a business that according to my ice-cream loving friend had been passed down a couple of generations. I wasn't too sure about that but we stood for a little while longer and chatted about Clarks until she got down to the stick and left me with a smile that said everything will be alright.

I hope it will be because I am going to miss Clarks. I am going to miss queueing up and miss ordering an aforementioned double; two flabby mince pies and two woolly scoops, smothered in green flecked sauce, on a cracked plate. I am going to miss grabbing a fork and a spoon and I am going to miss dousing the lot in vinegar and I am going to miss wolfing the lot in five minutes flat. Most of all, I am going to miss the smell. Pie and mash shops have a curious aroma that is hard to describe but to me, the scent is always warm, friendly and inviting and never fails to get the saliva glands going. Pavlovian conditioning, that's what it is. And memories, lots of nice memories.

I will check out this other place but already, I've formed the opinion that it won't be any good. The gaudy, handwritten placards smack of opportunism, insensitivity and bad taste.  Besides, you can't move on straight away and find someone new just like that.

I'll give it a month or so at least.

In the meantime, tonight, I think I might just pop over the road to the pub and raise a glass in memory of the once fantastic Clarks and all those wot sailed in her.

A pint of beer only mind, no liquor or anything like that. I've got to work late tonight.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Hanging out with Chef Dominic Chapman



There is an old showbiz adage that advises "Never work with children or animals." And in the context of a live broadcast, this is undeniably true. The presenter, in whatever situation, can be doing a sterling job on camera but should a child ever wander into view with a finger up their nose or if a randy old dog should decide to mount another in the background of a shot, then any sense of gravitas will go flying out of the window. In such circumstances, all the best a presenter can do is to smile, carry on and maintain some sense of decorum and credibility whilst chaos reigns supreme around them.

And this is sort of how it felt when I participated in another Google + Hangout recently, this time with Dominic Chapman, as part of Great British Chefs Cooking with Kids campaign. Dominic, who is head chef at The Royal Oak in Maidenhead, was demonstrating his recipe for Spaghetti and Meatballs with mini garlic bites with the help of his son Daniel. And I was following proceedings and cooking along with help from my son Finlay at home. And somehow, quite miraculously, we both managed to pull off producing a decent plate of food. I am talking about Dominic and myself here by the way and the other parents who took part. I would say that the best our children probably achieved was making a whole mountain of mess. But it was reassuring that I am not alone and that even Michelin chefs struggle working with their mini sous chefs.

Watching the video above will give you more of a sense of how things went. Whilst it's hardly laugh-a-long 'You've Been Framed' material, I think it captures at times, the tricky balance of working with children in the kitchen and trying to teach them something. Mischief and boredom are only just around the corner, especially at 36 minutes into the video, when a cheeky boy decides to headbutts his father. But you will notice that I dealt with that with utmost professionalism.

As for the meatballs and spaghetti, well they were pretty spot on. Especially with the addition of crunchy garlic croutons and a rich tomato sauce laden with hidden, healthy vegetables, all gobbled down for lunch. But personally, what lent weight to the dish, was seeing Dominic cook in his own home environment. Watching him juggle with the prep, juggle with frying, chopping, boiling, cleaning as he went along and juggling with his kids at the same time, made his recipe all the more trustworthy.


This wasn't just a recipe created by a professional chef, this was a recipe created by a Dad.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Chopped Lambs Liver with Cumin, Garlic, Chilli, Parsley

 

I have been playing around a lot with liver lately. Although I don't mean 'play' in the conventional child-like sense of the word. I haven't been holding tea parties in the garden, passing around plastic cups and saucers to teddy bears, robots and glistening lumps of ruby red organs. No, I haven't been doing anything like that. That would be odd. Besides, I can never get Mr Liver to sit up straight in his chair; he's forever slumping forward onto his cucumber sandwiches and always seems to remain characterless, despite my best efforts with a pair of sunglasses and a pair of lips from Mr Potato Head.

I suppose what I mean is that I have been experimenting with cooking liver or rather, chopped liver. Now usually chopped liver gets a bad press. And I have to say that visually, as an ingredient and as per the famous idiom, it can often come off as a second rate proposal. When you glance down upon it in the butchers, sat quivering in silver trays, a morass of alien protein associated with purging and detoxifying, I'd say that it's quite normal to pause, sweat and fumble with your pearls before pointing at some plain old mince. But you would be missing a trick because it is cheap, healthy and when cooked the right way, damn tasty.

The inspiration for this latest episode of playing comes from our local ocakbasi and firm favourite, the Turkish Mangal in Hornchurch. As a hot starter, they serve up a cracking little plate of offal called arnavut cigeri or 'Albanian Liver' and I've always wanted to replicate it at home. Especially since the ingredients needed for this dish seem to be quite straight forward. I have never communicated directly with the chef and owner of the local mangal to find this out mind. The discourse between us consists of winks, grunts and handshakes as I am often too scared to talk to him. Although I suspect the slap on my back as I walk out the door could be interpreted as "You know what Danny, I do speak English you know." 

No matter. Using my highly sophisticated palate and vivid sense of recollection, I'd say all you need is a dash of cumin, some chilli, crushed garlic, sliced red onion and a generous sprinkling of chopped parsley to create this exquisite yet frugal treat. Which is exactly what I used when trying it out for the first time over the Bank Holiday weekend; cooking directly on coals on the bbq, to add some authenticity. But it wasn't quite right. It was good but it didn't quite hit the mark.

So I tried it out again yesterday, with some tinkering in the herb cupboard and this version came out a lot better having upped the ante with the spices, adding a little bit of plain flour and some lemon juice at the end. The important part, or at least in my opinion, is to fry the liver over a high heat, so that each cube of meat forms some crust over the surface. Of course, you really don't want to cook liver for too long either, unless you like the texture of that pink rubber at the end of a HB pencil. You know, like the ones you used to chew on in school, back in the olden days. So quick and hard is the motto here.

Served up in a bowl to share, along with some other meze before diving into some homemade kebabs as part of an Ottoman feast is probably the best option. However, I pimped things up by squeezing a fistful of liver into some pitta with extra onion and squeaky, muthafricken halloumi. It was gorgeous. So gorgeous in fact, that I have a good mind to pop up to the mangal tonight and tell my friend all about it.

"Shut up Danny, that's nothing like the recipe," he'll probably say. 

But I won't care, I'll just be grateful for the conversation.

Chopped Liver with Cumin, Garlic, Chilli, Parsley - serves 2/4 as a meze starter, depending on how greedy you are

500gms of lambs liver, chopped into cubes (you can do this yourself or get your butcher to do it, if feeling squeamish)

Half a red onion, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped and crushed to a paste with salt

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp of cumin seeds, toasted in a pan and ground

1 tsp of dried chilli

1 tsp of sumac

1 tsp of oregano

Salt and pepper

Drizzle of olive oil 

Large bunch of roughly chopped parsley

Squeeze of lemon

Method

Combine the liver, flour, cumin, chilli, sumac, oregano and oil by mixing in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Leave to marinate in the fridge for two hours. Take out and bring to room temperature. Heat a frying pan or wok over a high heat and then fry the bejesus out of the liver for about 2-3 minutes, stirring quickly but don't worry if it starts to catch slightly, you want some crusty, crispy bits. Take off heat, add the parsley and lemon, stri in and serve immediately.

Spices and herbs and things
Marinating
Bring all the components together
Frying the muthafricken bejesus out of everthing
Hmm, crusty.....
Hmm, parsley....
Hmm, halloumi..........excellente!

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Wild Garlic Treasure Hunt Postponed


As a famous Scotlandish poet once said "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men. Gang aft a-gley" and unfortunately my idea to distribute wild garlic across London today, like some pungent Pied Piper, has hit the skids. The reason being is that my daughter has been, and still is, rather unwell with a 'splodgy' tummy. Her words, not mine. No doubt this is all down to a rather nasty bug that has been doing the rounds at school; a place which not only serves to educate but also deigns to distribute germs and viruses without prejudice or inequity. Playgrounds aren't just playgrounds, they are cesspits of shared snot and microbes and plague. So I have to keep a watchful eye on her at home today.

However, not wanting to let go of a good thing, I am postponing the #wildgarlictreasurehunt with a view to galivanting around town this Bank Holiday Monday instead, as it was always our plan to take the twins around to see the sights for the day. Of course, we are subject to the whims of bacteria but if we get the green light then we shall definitely be taking some wild garlic with us. 

And if you were interested in this little project, this might even work out better because hey, you won't be at work that day. You might also get to meet the celebrated and mischievious FU twins! 
 
Although you might want to keep a safe distance as well.

So look for more information on Twitter on Monday.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Paella, In A Tin, From Grey's Fine Foods


Can anything good ever come from a can? Or rather, a tin? And I am talking about a full meal here. Can you rustle up something for the table that is adequate, satisfying and tasty; using foodstuffs which have been preserved, pasteurised and processed to within a inch of their lives and sealed within a cylindrical metal tomb? Food that could, if necessary, be left for years and years and years to gather dust on shelves before having to be frantically relied upon in the event of say, nuclear Armageddon or a zombie holocaust? Can it be done?

On face value, the answer would have to be no, particularly if you consider whole meals in cans. Offerings such as 'Crosse and Blackwells All Day Breakfast', 'Stagg Classic Chilli Con Carne' and 'Wrestlers Hamburgers in Onion Gravy' all smack of desperation and lack of thought, resigned to that green period when you first left home. When I was at uni, a friend of mine lived on nothing but Fray Bentos Pies and survived quite well on its enigmatic blend of unknown meat, rubber pastry and brown slop. Was it fulfilling and healthy though? Well no, it probably wasn't and I doubt that he got many vitamins from the endless slices of Battenberg cake he used to scoff either but hey, he was happy. Still, whenever I think of tinned food, I can't help think of it being a second-best option.

I shouldn't really because there are lots of tins that I reach for when shopping in the supermarket. Tomatoes, chickpeas, sweetcorn, lentils and beans of all shapes and sizes, all curry favour for a position in my cupboard. Tinned fish is also a good standby, especially anchovies to pep up certain dishes and pilchards to smash on toast with a fork, grill and then sprinkle liberally with malt vinegar. New potatoes are pretty good too and I adore rice pudding, eaten straight from the can. And fruit, all kinds of fruits, bathed in sweet syrup are fantastic. Actually, the size of a tinned fruit aisle in your average store fascinates me, why is it so big and with so much variety? I suppose, what with the spiralling ageing population in this country, that the pursuit of prunes and solace of comfort is big industry. Would make sense to stick up a rack of 'Preparation H' right at the end of the shelves too really. But maybe not next to the gooseberries.

As usual, I am digressing and need to get back to the point of putting across my own feelings about tinned foods. In a nutshell, as a method for storing singular ingredients (or rice pudding), I have no qualms. Yet try to serve me up a ready meal in a can and my face will blanch. So when I received a box of Spanish goodies from Grey's Fine Foods, a boutique importer and distributor of exclusive er Spanish goodies, my eyes initially lit up at the contents within. And then my fair eyebrows crossed downwards in vexation. Because amongst the jamon, chorizo and manchego was a cardboard tube that contained a tin of pre-cooked seafood paella and some bomba rice. 

Now, I am no expert but in opinion, paella should not come ready made. It may be a simple peasant dish but to my mind, a great deal of romanticism is attached to it. Taking time to carefully prepare ingredients, scratched and gathered from land or sea, all of which need to be cooked under the stars whilst imbued by a soft Iberian breeze, is to me the whole essence of paella. Whenever I make it at home, normally in the garden upon roaring wheelbarrow, I always make sure I have a bottle of ViƱa Sol to hand and Gypsy Kings playing at full blast in the background to capture this spirit. So no, paella should not come in tins. Even if it was produced by Querida Carmen, whoever they are. However, after some bleating on Twitter, someone in the know said that it was very good stuff. It was, in fact "High class convenience food."

So I tried it out last night and was impressed with the result. Very impressed. The first clue that it was going to be good become apparent after peeling back the lid (no cheap green tin opener required here). The aroma blossoming out of the tin was quite intense and heady, a scarlet shellfish stock that nipped at the nose with a fearsome yet handsome pair of claws.

 

The scent then continued to fill and envelope the kitchen as I poured it into a saucepan and began to heat it on the hob. All in accordance to instructions of bringing the stock up to a 'soft boilings' on the side of the tin.

After shaking the bomba rice into the pot from its little white sack, it was a case of waiting for 20 minutes whilst the whole thing gently plopped and plurked away, with an occasional 'stirrings' every now and then. The stirrings in the stomach however, soon became a problem so I ate all the Montanegra Iberico ham whilst waiting. Which then became a bigger problem. But that is a story for another time.


The final, effortless result was stunning. I initially thought that the portion size was a touch on the meagre side but given the deep, richness of the stock, there was more than enough paella to go around. Using a description of "Wow, this has a true taste of the sea" would be lazy and bland so perhaps I should try and embellish by saying "Wow, how many frigging crabs were sacrificed to make this muthafarking amazing stock?" Perhaps that would do it more justice. Because it really did taste like the sea. As for the other elements, well the rice still had some nice chalky bite and a touch of 'socarrat', the scratchy, slightly burnt bits from the bottom (you do have to burn the paella just a little bit you know). The tiny morsels of sausage and rib lent some light meaty touches but were so scant that they didn't overpower everything else. And the calamari was just beautifully tender. So just get that straight in your head for second. This is a paella, straight out of a tin, that tastes bloomin' gorgeous. Who would have thought eh?

Of course, at £12.50 a tin, I suppose you really should expect as much. But for something of this quality, I would say that the price is a small drop in the ocean. And doesn't even cost half as much as eating a load of nutty, succulent jamon before your wife gets home. 

Nowhere near.

Thanks go to Grey's Fine Foods for sending me some samples to sample.