Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Dabblin' with me Dabba

Variety is the spice of life
By all accounts, my dear ol' parents are about to embark on a Spring cleaning crusade throughout the house, starting with clearing out their creaking loft. I know this because when I visited them at the weekend they announced that once all the tuut* was down, I had a week or so to reclaim any prized Prince vinyl or Kylie Minogue posters. After that, everything was destined for either the dump or for eBay and knowing how ambivalent they've been in the past, I better get back over there pronto. Because the last time they did this, Mum took all my shiny 1980's Star Wars toys, complete with boxes, and sold them for 20 quid at a car boot sale. Oh the horror.

Strangely, given that my parents are so unflinching and unscrupulous when it comes to these things, there are some items of precious that they will hold onto steadfastly, like condiments and spices. Again, pointing towards my mother, she loathes to let go of anything from her store cupboard. "Don't chuck that musty jar of dried thyme! There's life in it yet!" she'll often say. Apparently the other day Dad found some Coleman's English mustard powder where the use-by date of April 1988 was stuck on the bottom of the tin. As he tried to discreetly stow it away into the bin, Mum spotted what he was up to and leapt onto his back and started clawing and wailing like a banshee. He said it took him nearly half an hour to shift her before he could lock her in the bathroom and call the police. 

OK, maybe that didn't happen but Dad has made some repairs to their kitchen and repainted it recently, so that's why my suspicions are raised.

Coming back to the matter of hoarding spices and herbs and such, I do think we are all guilty to a certain extent of holding onto those little jars for too long. My spice cupboard for instance should be a treasure trove to dip into; an Aladdin's cave of fragrance and colour to inspire and create. Yet in reality, it is a narrow crowded prison where a certain pecking order dictates. New inmates at the front beam outwards for a while but slowly and surely they soon get pushed to the back, towards a dark tomb, full of half-empty duplicates and stale, forgotten souls. It's a sad state of affairs really.

However, I have just discovered a new way of storing spices which comes in the round shape of a Masala Dabba. Now you may well be rolling your eyes at this point, scoffing at the mere suggestion that using a circular tin to contain your turmeric, cumin and mustard seed etc all altogether, yet in separate pots is something ground breaking and new. Especially if you are Asian (though not necessarily). But I have arrived late to the party this time around and having been sent one from The Spice Kitchen to try, along with some very fresh and aromatic spices, the application of keeping a Dabba by your cooker has been revelatory.

I like to make curry but I don't do it that often, perhaps once a fortnight and there are times when I've submitted to the shameful twist of a lid and the dumping of some gloop onto slices of onion and pieces of chicken. Lazy, bad Food Urchin. And when I go all out for the authentic approach, the aforementioned narrow spice cupboard gets a cursory fumble and then bang, off I go, down to the shops to buy stuff that I probably already have. Lazy, bad, wasteful Food Urchin. Of course the beauty of using a Masala Dabba is that you generally keep all your constitutive ingredients in one place. Very handy that and as long as you can remember what is what, the possibilities for experimentation are endless. A teaspoon here, a teaspoon there, shades of this, shades of that, well it's almost like painting. Although in my opinion too much chilli will almost definitely spoil your canvass. Most importantly, you can keep an easy eye on stock levels and cut down on those furtive supermarket raids and accumulation of jars. So what a lovely and simple piece of ancient cooking kit this is indeed.

For a first run out with my new found friend, I used a basic curry marinade recipe as suggested by the good folks from The Spice Kitchen (who are based in Birmingham by the way) and as it was a corker, I am sure they won't mind me re-posting. I particularly liked the addition of tamarind as it lent lovely notes of sour and sweet to the mix, reminding me of rendang curries from the past. I do think the chosen meat of Blackface mutton from Turner and George also made a difference to the overall flavour. It was strong but after a nice long, slow braise was so so good and tender and complimented the spices perfectly.

If I did have one little whinge about using a Masala Dabba, it would be this, the lid on my Dabba takes the strength of ten thousand men to prise it off. Whether this will loosen in time or whether this is deliberate to keep the spices within air tight, thus extending their lifespan, is beyond me. But if these hands, these grubby gorilla hands always have to ache after using this ingenious little device, I could eventually get fed up with the pain and the Dabba may well get stuffed into the tiny cupboard with the rest of the jars. 

But in all honesty, I doubt it. It won't fit for a start.

Dabblin' with me Dabba and marinatin' me mutton
The Spice Kitchen Basic Curry Marinade

This versatile mixture works both as a curry paste and marinade ideal for making a tasty dish with the meat, fish or vegetables of your choosing. If you plan to marinate chicken, pork, lamb, or beef, let it soak overnight; with fish, 3 hours will more than suffice. The amount this recipe yields is ample for marinating 500 – 750g of meat, fish or veg.


1 large OR 2 small onions (choose red or white as you prefer)
1 red pepper OR 10g tomato puree
50ml plain yoghurt
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic
30g fresh ginger
1 tsp Spice Kitchen turmeric
Bunch fresh coriander (leaves & stems)
1 large fresh red chilli pepper, de-seeded OR 1 tbsp Spice Kitchen chilli powder (adjust amount to taste)
1 tsp Spice Kitchen garam masala
2 tbsp honey OR tamarind paste


Blitz all marinade ingredients together in a blender until smooth
(Alternatively, chop all whole ingredients as finely as possible and mix together with the remaining items, or pound in a pestle and mortar.)

Cover, chill and store until required, or immediately use the mixture to thoroughly coat your meat, fish or veg and leave to marinate as directed in the introduction.

When ready to cook, heat some flavourless oil (choose one with a high smoke point), infusing it with curry leaves, cinnamon and cardamom for added flavour, before adding your marinated meat, fish or veg and frying until cooked and tender.

Now you have two choices; you can eat this as it is as a ‘dry dish’ with naan and salad, or add water or coconut milk and allow it to cook into a cracking curry – perfect with mounds of fluffy rice!

Lovely, tasty, succulent, meaty, brown curry
*The spelling of tuut has been a big bone of contention whilst writing this post by the way

Friday, 17 January 2014

Bubble and Squeak

It's always a pain when you want to sum something up all neat and clever and succinctly like and then someone beats you to it. However, after flashing this glorious picture of bubble and squeak, complete with a split poached egg, up on t'internet yesterday, I have to say I agree with this statement with an absolute passion:

"If I ruled the world, Bubble would be a staple food like bread you could just buy everywhere and eat every day" - Sophie Law (or @Brucy1 on Twitter)

Because lets face it, bubble and squeak is fantastic, life-affirming stuff and should indeed be a staple of our diets.

To the uninitiated, B&S is the simple combination of leftover vegetables, normally from a traditional roast, mashed up all together and then fried in a pan and served the next day, or several days after, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever. The bubble comes from the oil or fat used to fry and the squeak comes from the vegetables as they cook. Very little effort is needed to make it, aside from a casual pressing with a fish slice every now and then, to encourage a crust, a rather British take on the socarrat that makes for a proper paella, before chopping and tossing to distribute the crispy edges and then pressing some more. Actually, a fish slice is a pretty important piece of kit when it comes to bubble. Ten minutes over a decent heat is all it takes. Or maybe sooner, if the plush aroma gets to you. On occasion, I have eaten it way before any burnt bits could materialise but in all honesty, try to wait for them to arrive. And flip, onto the plate it goes, to be enjoyed with, well, practically anything. Don't think for a second that bubble and squeak is to be paired only with cold meats and pickles for one solitary night of the year. It is universal.

Pinpointing exactly why or how it works and tastes so damn good is a difficult one though. After ruminating, covered in a fridge, perhaps some strange mystical magic happens. The taste bud fairies arrive in the dead of night and scatter their pixie dust all over the landscape, maybe. Or maybe, as the vegetables slowly deteriorate and crumble, they sweeten some more and the residue of fat that coats them transfigures and mutates into a sheen of umami. Salt permeates further, bitter brassicas breakdown and mellow and the whole bowl becomes self-seasoning. I don't really know. I do know that after tipping in some celery gratin, complete with slices of Saint Agur cheese, the mix I made up was supremely good. Topped with a poached egg, that quivered in anguish before I cleaved it with a knife, golden yolk trickling downwards, the bubble and squeak I had yesterday was off the muthafricken chain. As the kids say (or do they?)

I am not sure I can condone the practice of creating food waste simply to have food waste 'ready to go'. Imagine factories churning out trays of roast spuds, pots of boiled cabbage and vats of caramelised onion, to be mashed and mushed, just for the purposed of delivering bubble and squeak to the masses* But there is a spark of an idea there, something in what Sophie said. I know of a project now well afoot that feeds piggies on leftover vegetables, so why can't us human beans take up the mantle too in some way? 

I know I could be a piggy for bubble and squeak.

*Of course, this is where someone turns around and says "Asda are already doing that me ol' china!" 
And I will have to go and shop there tomorrow..... BOGOF!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Wine Urchin #2 - Trimbach Pinot Noir Reserve

Oh when the Saints, go marching in
In an effort to keep up with this idea of  regular wine blogging, alongside all food related matters, I have decided that I not only have to drink and review wine on a weekly basis (a crying shame) but I may have to delve into the past and try and recall smash hits of yesteryear. Which of course is a very difficult thing to do. Wine provides love, laughter and song but in my personal experience, it is not very good at keeping the memory glued together. One thing that amazes me about wine buffs is their capacity to recall notes, aromas and flavours, a bottle that was particularly fine, a good year, probably the best they've tasted so far. Could I ever do that? I don't think so. Ask me about a Château Margaux, if I were ever lucky enough to try one and a year, a month, a day or so after slurping I am sure my slightly slurred response would be: "Oh yes it was very nice...........very nice indeed.........."  *tumbleweed*

But I must do better and try to remember so here is one from the vaults, a Pinot Noir I tried when I was in Paris just before Christmas (on a company Chrimbo party jaunt, brag).

Being the culture vultures we are, the one night stay over consisted largely of drinking in various bars with all but a cursory nod to the beauty of the city itself. We stood under the Eiffel Tower for about twenty minutes marvelling at the magnitude and the engineering before our leader decided that perhaps we should get a drink. Because we hadn't had one for about, ooh twenty minutes. Then there was a rush back to the hotel to get changed. Which wasn't really a rush, more of a surreal diversion really as we sat still in a taxi, slap bang in the middle of Paris traffic for about an hour or so. It was horrendous and at one point I thought I was going to wet myself. Still, I managed to get into my room unscathed and was back out the door, washed and dressed in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

The name of the restaurant that we were booked into for the evening translated as Slate in English, or something like that, and it took ages for us to find it because curiously, all restaurants in Paris have French names. But we found it and sat down in the basement and got on with the enforced business of making merry. As we perused the menu bottles were plonked down in the warm and efficient manner that you come to expect in Paris, a white and a red, namely the Trimbach Pinot Noir. Which is where we get to the nitty gritty. 

I am familiar with wines from the Alsace, having tried a few Rieslings in the past, and Pinot Gris, and Gwurzletiminator.....Guzzleweinershizner....... Gewurztraminer (God, I hate ever having to ask for that) and have always been pleasantly overawed by their complexity. They can be sweet, dry, floral, alien, otherworldly, bizarre and sometimes defy category altogether. In other words, I usually find them unusual but nice. I have never tried a Pinot Noir from the region before and with this one I sort of fell in love from the first sip. Now of course I have to try and describe the damn wine and the one thing that stands out from memory was the alluring fruit, this gorgeous cherry that flowed all the way down. It was fresh too but also had a lovely depth of character, a long lingering on the tongue. It was luscious and went very well with the ox cheek special that I ordered. 

It probably went down too well because I practically danced all the way out of the restaurant that night and straight into an Irish bar, as some of us oafish Brits do when we are abroad. Why do we always travel all this way and then gravitate towards to the plastic bejasus and begorr? No matter, I danced some more and sang with the jazz band that was playing. "Oh when the Saints! Go marching in! La la la la la la la laahhhh!"

It turned out to be a great night in the end, which in no small part was down to being released from certain shackles and helped along by some fantastic Pinot Noir. I do need to try and find it again though, to sample in some more conservative manner maybe. Make some proper notes, build a spreadsheet. Does it really matter though, if wine is taken seriously or not?

As long as you associate some sort of happy memory with wine, that's the most important thing isn't it?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Smoked Ham Hock and Parsley Sauce


How much difference does a carrot make to stock? Seriously, do you know? I mean is it the cornerstone of good solid broth? Just how much does this orange root contribute to overall flavour? Is the slow release of carotene and vitamin A essential to the mix? Will I go blind without it? And what about my ham hock? What will happen to this lovely smoked lump of piggy if I don't subject it to a subtle bathing of sludgy carroty sweetness? What will act as a defence against the harsh, unrelenting nature of sulfurous onion? And why don't we have any carrots anyway? I mean c'mon, who ate all the frigging carrots?

I didn't have any carrots yesterday and these were just some of the unremitting questions that were running through my head when I was staring in the fridge. I had a nice piece of smoked ham hock, rather large yet quite affordable from Calcott Hall Farm and the plan was to boil it for a couple of hours before slicing it up and serving with lentils and a parsley sauce. I forged ahead anyway but it did make me ponder upon the importance of certain ingredients in recipes. The holy trinity of a lot of stocks is after all onion, celery and carrot. Would the world really collapse in itself if I left it out? Would Beelzebub himself appear from out of the stock pot and begin to laugh and mock me?

"MWAHAHAHAHAHA! You foolish soul. For millenia have I waited for some craven idiot to unwittingly unlock the portal from my world to yours. Did you not know the power of the carrot? Did you not know the protection it affords you weak, pitiful human beings?! MWAHAHAHAHAHA!"

Perhaps I think too much about these things and maybe in the future I shall save my carrot peelings (and other veg peelings) for the freezer, rather than feed the composter. I hear that it is good practice, as long as they are clean.

Carrot or not, last night's dinner still came out a treat though and in my opinion is the perfect antidote for a dull winter's day so I thought I would post the recipe.

(Incidentally, whilst the hock was bubbling on the hob, I nipped out and went and bought some carrots to accompany the lentils, roasted with thyme. Ha! It's funny how all these things pan out in the end, eh? Eh? No?.....OK)

All in the pot, sans carrot

Smoked Ham Hock and Parsley Sauce - serves 4

1 Smoked Ham Hock
1 large onion, quartered
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
2 carrots (if you have them), roughly chopped
Couple of sprigs of thyme
10 peppercorns
Parsley Sauce
400 ml of full fat milk
1 onion
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of parsley stalks
4 or 5 cloves
Pinch of mace
50 grams of butter
50 grams of plain flour
Large bunch of parsley, finely chopped

Milk infusing

First, prepare your hock the night before by soaking it in cold water, otherwise it will be rather salty. To cook, simply cover with cold water in a large stock pot and add the vegetables, thyme and peppercorn. Place on the hob and bring to the boil, then gently simmer for a couple of hours, spooning off any scum that rises to the surface. Once cooked, take out of the stock and leave to rest under some foil. SAVE THE STOCK THOUGH! For soups, soups and more soups.

To make the parsley sauce, put all the ingredients bar the butter and flour into a saucepan and place on the hob. Bring gently to the boil and then take off, leaving everything to infuse and cool for 30 minutes or so. Then strain the milk through a sieve into a jug. Take a clean saucepan and place over a medium heat. Make a roux by adding the butter and let it melt until it begins to foam, then add the flour. Stir in with a whisk for a minute or so, until it turns a nice biscuit colour. Slowly add the flavoured milk (which should still be warm), whisking all the way over the heat until it thickens to the consistency of runny custard. Take off the heat and keep warm.

Slice up your ham hock and serve on heated plates with your chosen accompaniments* Place your sauce back on the heat for one quick blast and then dump your chopped parsley in at the very last minute (overcooked parsley soon turns grey). Ladle a healthy amount over the ham and enjoy.

*A quick trick to liven earthy lentils up is to cook with finely chopped onion, celery and garlic and then right the end add a  healthy dash of cider vinegar and soy sauce and stir in. Just thought you might like to know that.

Ham and carrots, back together again

Monday, 6 January 2014

Wine Urchin #1 - Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura Sparkling Chardonnay

Chardonnay, Chardonnay, how I love you Chardonnay as I reach to hold you with my trembling hands

The festive season is now well and truly over and at present I have a plethora of bags, of different shapes and sizes sitting outside on our windswept patio, full to the brim with empty wine bottles. I spent some quiet time staring at them yesterday morning as the rain battered the window, counting the jutting necks and fading labels; all with a strange sense of pride and an even stronger sense of shame. To be fair, we started collecting way before Christmas. We are not total, total lushes. Not totally. However, I am faced with a predicament, insofar that the next visit to the bottle bank is again going to be an embarrassing one. Whenever I go, a little old lady always seems to sidle up beside me with her singular contribution. As she looks up at me and down at my load with protestant scorn, I do sometimes try to lighten the mood by quipping "Ooh, I do love the sound of breaking glass, don't you?" Whether it's the same old lady every time, I do not know. But she has got a terrible sense of humour I can tell you that.

More to the point though, when I do finally make this trip, like when the weather clears up in March, these bottles will soon be forgotten. Down they will tumble into the plastic dome, to be shattered into a million pieces and poof, the memory will be gone and that seems to me to be the real shame. So I've come up with an idea to try and record on a weekly basis, my opinion of a wine, wine wot I've drunk and enjoyed. Or not as the case maybe. Yes, ideas like this do come and go on here all the time but I have to say I've been inspired by this blog post (and the relaxed wine educmicational evenings that are proposed) and to paraphrase, I felt it was high time that I tried to drink smarter and learn a bit more about wine too. These reviews will be delivered in a similar irreverent FU style of course, sometimes short, sometimes long, perhaps not particularly learn'ed or accomplished and hey, they might not even be helpful but they will be my reviews nevertheless.

So without further ado, here is my rundown of a corker that we enjoyed with our mince pies and turkey last year, namely Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura Sparkling Chardonnay, which costs £6.99 at the people's supermarket Aldi.

From the Jura region in France, this is a very pleasing sparkling white wine. Pleasing because of the value and pleasing because it continues to bubble quite happily in your glass for some time. Cheap fizz can go flat rather quickly you see, especially Lambrini. Crisp and dry with wonderful acidity; the mouth waters ever so slightly after each glug, making it a great foil for a three Jacob cream crackers in under a minute challenge. Erm, should you ever wish to take that one on. Otherwise with food pairings, think creamy cheeses and indulgent pâté (notice that I am not giving a one fig for dieting this month). There is citrus but there is also apple. I even ventured a hint of butter on one occasion but that was slapped down in seconds, such is the discursive nature of discussing wine with my wife. In the run up to Christmas, apparently I also made the piss-poor decision to buy a load of rubbish Prosecco from Sainsburys with our nectar card points but that's a story for another time. Back to the Crémant though, if the road ahead in January looks too grey and dreary to suffer, a bottle of this stuff after a blast in the freezer (far quicker innit) will cure those winter blues in no time.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Happy New Year

Bacon in a frying pan
This year, I ushered in Big Ben's famous gongs by spitting a mouthful of port over my wife and some dearly beloved friends, which on face value doesn't sound like a very nice thing to do but everyone accepted my puce outburst with excellent humour. In fact we laughed and cried for about ten minutes. Until our ribs began to hurt, our faces began to ache and until one of us very nearly wet themselves. Moments of glorious, unbridled and somewhat painful joy don't come around that often but when they do happen, you can't help but feel happy to be alive. And to be grateful that you are surrounded by loved ones who don't care whether you've spat on them or not.

So rather than write a post that bleats on about resolutions, aspirations, ideas, projects, recipes and food adventures (which is what I had planned to do) I thought I would just simply wish people a Happy New Year. I hope that 2014 brings special moments of your own.

Danny aka Food Urchin.

PS The picture above of sizzling bacon is from last night and was eaten betwixt two slices of bread, slapped with butter and a splodge of brown sauce. I was supposed to kick off proceedings with some healthy eating but then I thought sod it, life is too short. The real New Year doesn't start until Monday anyway.