Monday, 23 June 2014

The Travesty of Cold Toast

I shouldn't be getting into this. I have lots of other things to do. Other things to write about. Lots of things. I am very busy. Time is money, money is time and all that.

But I just can't let this lie. I discovered something today that is so appalling, I decided that I just had to do something about it. People need to know about this pervading sickness that is threatening to undermine society (or breakfast time at the very least).

So, what's it all about Alfie?

Well, it all started this morning as I mooched around in the kitchen in my underwear, going through the usual rigmarole of getting ready for the day. It's always tough getting going on a Monday, especially if you are trying to shake off the shackles of a mild hangover. I took receivership of a new fridge freezer at the weekend and celebrated by filling the thing with booze and I partied with it until quite late. I was bonding you see.

Anyway, some restorative coffee and toast was in order and I went through my usual process of slapping two slices of Mighty White under the grill; paying close attention with bleary eyes and a slightly aching bent back. It's quite meditative really, stooping and watching bread crisp and brown under the warm glow of a fork-shaped element. Besides, our grill is quite crap, you have to shift the bread around, otherwise you never get an even tan. I then whipped them out, piping hot and slathered some soft butter across with a swish that D'Artagnan would proud of. Using a knife of course, not a sword. I waited a moment or two, watching as the butter melted into the scratched landscape, islands of yellow fat that form cloudy reefs, before slowly sinking away. I then bit into the toast and all was right with the world.

Being the sort of guy who likes to share in his experiences, I then tweeted this -

- thinking that a) my opinion on this was totally right and irrefutable and b) that everyone would be in agreement with this fact, thus vainly stroking my ego and making me feel like a hundred million dollars.

However, it seems that not all people agree with this. It seems that some people prefer to wait for their toast to turn COLD before spreading butter across, citing that they prefer the crunchy texture of barren, stiffened bread. Some people even went so far as to say that they like to BURN their toast, leave it to cool and then they like to spread a blanket of butter and then jam (or Marmite) so that the whole topping coagulates into some marbleized, miasmic mess.

These people are clearly freaks and should not be allowed anywhere near a fork-shaped element (however inefficient). Or a toaster for that matter. That some of these people pertain to be some sort of experts in food (some have written books, some have even been on the TV) is even more galling. Since when has it ever been acceptable to let your toast go cold? Would you call a crouton toast? No. Would you return and eat a slice of charred bread, left and forgotten for 12 hours? No. Would you do the same with crumpets? No no no no no.

B&B's across the land have been getting away with it for years but to find out that people are doing this in the comfort of their own homes is disturbing. This suggestion of cold toast is madness and it needs to stop and it needs to stop NOW. 

So don't do it people......just don't.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook

Spatzle (not mushy peas)
By all accounts I've been pronouncing "spatzle" wrong. Rather than honing in with a guttural "Spats-SALL" like Debbie from Basildon, it should be said in a Sean Connery-esque manner with a  Germanic shush-shush-shush sound, ending in delicate and lilting "-leh". A bit like this in other words. I was told this by none other than Rachel Khoo, Paris based pixie and Queen of the plug-in double electric hob. Which is fine and dandy, I don't mind standing corrected but it can be a tough call when you return home and get accused of being fish paste.

"So, what did you make with Rachel then?"

"Oh, we made some sshhhpppatshzhllleh."

"You what?"


"Are you drunk?"


"What else did you do?"

"Ah, we also made some sccccchhhhmorgastartartatartaatta.....tatata..."

"You are drunk aren't you, you've been getting drunk with some pretty girl off the telly haven't you."

OK, I might have been a little bit tipsy. And Ms Khoo is attractive yes (although hats off to Rachel for her recent opinion on the cult of 'sexy' regarding food telly). But having attended a cook-a-long on Thursday night, to promote her new show 'Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook' on the Good Food Channel, it was refreshing to pick up some new tips, tricks and some um...proper pronunciation. It was also refreshing to discover that Rachel doesn't always get things right herself. Her demonstration was peppered with a couple of gaffs and ohbuggerIforgot's yet her warm, honest charisma carried her through and you could tell that she had a fierce love of food, tied by a strong heartfelt family connection.

The dishes that we made were of course using recipes from the forthcoming series and both worked well. To start Rachel showed us how to elevate the workhorse onion by making it the star of the aforementioned spatzle. I think I cooked my little sparrows a bit too much though. Instead of presenting a plate of herby, fluffy dumplings of joy, my attempt looked like a bowl of mushy peas. Delicious mushy peas mind.

And it was great to encounter smörgåstårta for the first time. Originating from Sweden and described as a 'sandwich-cake', a slightly bizarre idea in itself, this dish was a very pleasant surprise when it came to eating. I do love a sandwich but I wasn't sure where this concoction of layered bread, whipped cream, horseradish. lightly cured salmon, beetroot and cucumber balls was going to take us.

However, it tasted very good and was very light and very fresh. Not an entirely useful description I know. It was a cake that wasn't quite a cake, in a sort of cakey, bready kind of way. With crisp balls. Is that better? Well when we all sat at the table together afterwards, I could have eaten my effort in one fell swoop but mindful of still loaded plates, curiously pushed to the side, I left some of mine too. If I had guts'd it all down, everyone would have known there was a token man in the room.

The whole shebang was filmed throughout and during the meal, we were invited to ask Rachel some hard hitting questions, so do have a goosy-gander at the video below. I am sure you will agree that my line of interrogation has me singled out as a future Michael Parkinson. Or possibly another chatty man.

Not wanting to take anything away from Rachel, the one thing that particularly thrilled me when visiting Cactus Kitchens was discovering that this Tardis-like venue houses the set of Saturday Kitchen. You know, that telly show that goes on at the weekend with James "I'm from Yorkshire" Martin presenting, with mostly male chefs and bewildered guests plugging their book/album/new range of y-fronts. It was a hell of lot smaller than I expected it to be and I did wonder how they fitted all those poor home economists in. You know, the ones that do all the real work. On my way out, I took a moment to pause, look around and wonder in awe and then hastily scribbled a tender love note for James and stuck it under the counter with some chewing gum. I hope he found it yesterday

Anyway, back to the magnificent Rachel Khoo and her new show, which airs tomorrow on Monday on the Good Food Channel at 9PM. I shall be keeping my eyes peeled as she takes in some of her go-to foodie spots in London and explores some of her favourite European cities and towns. Although if Rachel hits Dalston and if I spot one beard, I may very well throw a brick at the screen. I had enough of those blokes on the recent Big Allotment Challenge.

Bloody beards on my telly.....*tuts*

Rachel Khoo shows the Food Urchin how to count using fingers
Apparently my 'prep' was very organised and very 'Swedish' according to Rachel  *punches air and shouts "BORK BORK BORK"*
Rachel explaining the brining ingredients for the cure. Salt, sugar and um some peppercorns......I think.
My smörgåstårta (Rene Redzepi would be proud)
Plonker holding his smörgåstårta
A plethora of smörgåstårta's for Rachel to choose from.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad

This post first appeared on the Great Britsh Chefs blog.

Over the last few days, in a small dark corner of my kitchen, a bucket has been sitting innocuously on the side; the contents of which have been pleasantly bubbling and fizzing away to themselves. And every time I have gone to check on it, by way a lifting an old tea towel and poking my nose over the rim, I’ve walked away veritably bubbling and fizzing myself. For this year I am making elderflower champagne for the first time and the whole process has been pretty exciting. Call me a lush but the prospect of making something even mildly alcoholic always puts me in a spin. Knowing that in just over a week’s time, I will be able to pop a cork and send torrents of effervescent, sparkling wine tumbling downwards into flutes, cups and mugs is even more thrilling.

I say pop a cork, I mean unscrew a cap. We’ve been saving up plastic lemonade bottles to decant the fizz into for fear of stories of exploding glass. By all accounts, elderflower shampoo is volatile stuff.

But yes, the Elder trees are bursting again once more with flowers which is always exciting in itself. Some people turn their noses up at the thought of elderflower as an ingredient, citing the Tom cat smell that can linger in the kitchen. However, I love cooking with it and I am always on the lookout for different ways to use elderflower, especially beyond the usual sweet approach with sorbets and ice creams and panna cottas.

One recipe I came across recently was by food writer and chef Rosie Sykes, which couples elderflower with chicken. Found in her book The Kitchen Revolution (co-authored with Polly Russell and Zoe Heron) she shows how to create a light, fragrant meal using heads of elderflower and jointed chicken to be served with rich potatoes and cabbage. So I took the basic idea of poaching fowl in a flowery broth and came up with a recipe of my own. The simple yet very delicious ‘Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad’.

Why ‘Cecil’? Well, I sort of like to think of this is as a spin on a chicken Caesar salad really, given that I have thrown some croutons and some romaine lettuce into the mix. But with the introduction of elderflower as a principle ingredient, I felt that a name like ‘Cecil’ was more suitably British. Not that that makes any sense, the Elder tree grows all over the globe. Oh whatever, it sounds better than a chicken ‘Colin’ salad.

I have tried this recipe out a few times now and have altered the quantities of elderflower each time and as a preference, I like to go for 4 heads of elderflower but you can always up or lower the amounts according to your own taste.

Elderflower Chicken ‘Cecil’ Salad – serves four

1 whole chicken, jointed
4 large heads of elderflower, shaken gently to remove any bugs (do not wash), plus one extra head for a scattering of flowers at the end
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 glass of white wine
500ml of chicken stock
Scant squeeze of some lemon juice
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Handful of croutons (shop bought or homemade)
Large selection of salad leaves, washed and sliced (romaine is obviously a good choice but I’ve got loads of different types of lettuce growing at home and have used them for this dish. Little Gem, plain green lettuce and lollo rosso are all good)


Take a large flat saucepan and place on a medium heat, add a splash of olive oil and then add the onion, celery and leek and sauté until soft. Then add the garlic and bay and stir through for another five minutes or so.

Whilst the vegetables are softening, season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and then fry off in another pan quickly to brown the skin and meat.

When the vegetables and herbs are soft and begin to caramelise, add the white wine and reduce right down. Then place the chicken pieces on top and nestle the elderflower in amongst them. Finally pour the chicken stock in and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cover and leave to gently poach and simmer for half an hour or until the chicken is cooked through.

Once cooked, remove the chicken pieces and set to one side to cool. Take the elderflower and bay leaf out of the cooking liquor and blitz the sauce in a food processor or blender. Take a clean saucepan and using a sieve to strain, pour the liquor in. Place the saucepan back onto the heat and reduce by two-thirds or until the sauce has the consistency of cream. Season to taste and stir in that scant squeeze of lemon juice. Don’t use too much otherwise it will overpower the flavour of the elderflower. Leave to cool.

When ready to eat, shred the chicken and place into a bowl, along with the croutons and salad leaves. Drizzle in a good share of the elderflower sauce, about three tablespoons and mix together thoroughly. Serve into four deep bowls and finish off with an extra drizzle of sauce in each one, followed a scattering of parsley and remaining elderflowers over the top.