Friday, 10 June 2016

Marley Spoon and Olia Hercules

If you take the time to have a quick look at the short video above, you will hopefully notice two things. 

First of all, you will see that I have conjured up a rather gorgeous looking plate of food there. The lamb is pink, the cucumbers and radishes are vibrant and crisp; and the potatoes, they look like they have been griddled and dressed in some sort of green...salsa? Yes? Wow, they look very good don't they.  

You will also appreciate that it's a bit all over the shop, a tad too shaky and unstable, coming in and out of focus. Perhaps you'll soon realise that I didn't mean to shoot a video of my food at all. Listen carefully and towards the end, you will hear a sudden gormless realisation of 'shit, I've got this on the wrong setting' mumble. Thus revealing a certain ineptitude when it comes to food photography. I pride myself on taking a good snap but what you don't know, is that it takes roughly a hundred snaps, before I get the right snap. And that's before I suddenly realise that I am videoing my food and not actually taking photos altogether. Oh dear.

One day, I will treat myself to a course at the local sixth form college and get down with da kids. Or maybe a one-to-one with a professional photographer, who can show me what I can do with all the fanciful knobs and buttons on my very expensive SLR, complete with a 50ml lens. I am not ashamed to admit this by the way. I have seen way too many bloggers of the same ilk, turning up to restaurants and events, with massive camera, telescopic doodah, tripod and snazzy bag to carry all the gumpf. You'd think they'd know what they were doing wouldn't you? And yet time and time again, I've seen people stand up with plates and walk over to a window, all for that magical 'daylight' and all because they don't know how to adjust the ISO snarplex cylinder. Or something. No, simply understanding what I can do with my camera would be a boon. To save time, if anything else. 

Segueing nicely then, and I do like a good ol' segueing, when it comes to time saving, having recently tried out a recipe box from Marley Spoon, they definitely do make things swift and efficient in the cooking department. The concept of Marley Spoon, if you wasn't aware, is that they come up with subscribed weekly recipes and pre-measured bundles of fresh ingredients; wrapped in environmentally friendly yet slight smelly insulating sheep's wool; boxed and delivered; for busy, upwardly mobile, sexy young go-getters; who can't be arsed to shop and who don't like to get creative in the kitchen; or chop onions.

Which, I am sure you will agree is a slightly negative and cynical point of view and this was roughly my opinion prior to agreeing to try one. The saving grace for Ms Marley and Dr Spoon is that actually, after going for it, I have to say that I was mightily impressed. I made up Ms Marley and Dr Spoon by the way. It's a curious name isn't it. I wonder how they came up with it?

Anyway, the recipe box sent to me was part of a month long collaboration with Olia Hercules, Observer's Rising Star of 2015 and author of celebrated cookbook, Mamushka and having heard lots about her Georgian influences, I was intrigued to see how it would all pan out.

Like I said, the recipes were amazing. I mean really good and I am not jumping on the bandwagon here. I tried Olia's meat offering first. Simple yet different, her lamb with mint ajika grilled potato went down very well. Ajika is really just like any piquant green sauce you might find, but the addition of a green chilli was a new one on me, to add just a touch of heat. The garlic kick I got from it was also surprising, especially as only one clove was used (and I very nearly added another). As was the suggestion, I am ashamed to admit, that wrapping the lamb in foil would guarantee soft, tender perfection. Taking only 20 minutes to prepare and cook, this was a lovely and understated introduction to Olia's brand of cuisine.

The second recipe, a salad from the Marley Spoon collection was no less impressive. Combining earthy, nutty, al dente grains (including quinoa, oh my God, why have I been slagging that stuff off so much?) with the rich, oily flesh of mackerel and cutting through with a sharp, citrus dressing was a revelatory combination. Plus adding the roasted fennel, which now has to be my all-time favourite vegetable; well, my eyebrows sat squarely atop my shiny bald head after finishing the plate. And it was oh so pretty too. Brilliant.

As such, if I thought I could get away with it, I would now continually shop with them, rustling up the dishes with the ingredients and recipe cards they send and pass them off as my own for the blog. It would make life a lot easier. But eventually pride and possibly a lawsuit for plagiarism would soon get in the way. I am sure that some eagle eyed readers would soon be commenting that my style has morphed somewhat and has become very similar to Olia's. Yelping that I've just spent a weekend in Tbilsi wouldn't be enough. She definitely has a new fan though.

High praise indeed then for Sparley Moon but in the interests of impartiality and not to make this review too floral and sucky, I would like give them some feedback. First of all, laminate your recipe cards so that customers can keep them for posterity. Not everyone is as fastidious or clean when cooking (ahem). And secondly, I would argue that I could shop personally for slightly less than the subscription fee; even when applying principles of provenance, quality, husbandry, organic, blah, blah, blah. But I think I would happily sign up, especially if the offerings are as good as this and may well do.

Coming back to the physical pleasure of shopping though, I have to say that I do prefer to do these things myself. Aside from ordering meat and beer online that is. However, if I happened upon their recipe boxes in a supermarket (which I am sure would have to be designed and marketed in a more flashier way, unfortunately) I am sure I would snap one up with glee. If pinched for time, Marley Spoon is a far better proposition than a ready meal or one those £10 deals, with the moody bottle of wine thrown in. Not just because the end result is so tasty, it actually gets you to cook. Imagine that eh? Actually cooking.

And whilst I was in the supermarket I would probably pick up a copy of Digital Photo Mastery for Dickheads, if such a publication exists. Then I really would start saving those precious minutes.

Marley Spoon and their collaboration with Olia Hercules continues until June 24th.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Sagres and The Vomit Comet

Having spent 40 years on this planet, you would have thought that I am now old and wise enough to learn from past mistakes. But no, like the proverbial man-boy that I am, I still get caught out. I still make decisions that go awry. I still get drunk and fall asleep on trains and wake up in the darkest regions of Essex.

It started with a phone call. An old mate is working in the neighbourhood, did I fancy a quick pint after work? Of course I did. One quick pint never hurt anybody and the quick pint in question was Sagres, an inoffensive and fairly bland lager from Portugual. Quaffable, especially during conversation. Easy going, pale, slightly hoppy and slips down your neck with no issue, aside from the occasional burping and inconvenience of having to go to the loo every 10 minutes. Because you are old and you have broken the seal.

One more? Oh go on then, this is fun and spontaneous. This is living! HA! Hahahahahaha.

I am not sure how many we got through last night but having found myself on the last train out of Fenchurch Street, otherwise known as The Vomit Comet, I gave myself a little fist bump on the forehead.

'Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep.'

So I fell asleep and woke up in Laindon, near Bas Vagas. Not a disaster. I've woken up in Southend before (and swung a missed kick at a cyclist who jumped off the train, laughing at my obvious distress). But it meant getting one of those cabs that hoovers up sozzled commuters after midnight. Their grins widen and amplify once addresses are given and miles are calculated and I hate that.

However, sometimes, it's worth it. Paying that bit extra at the end of the evening. Because you should always treasure these moments, when they occur off the cuff. They are always the best.

So go out tonight and have fun and if you see it on tap, drink some of this cervejas, it's not that bad really.

A good tip is to stand on the train home though.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Braised fennel and cucumber with sourdough crumbs, smoked pancetta and baked cod loin

There seems to be a strange transition going in my life at the moment. In that I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy certain fruit and vegetables that I would ordinarily eat raw on my plate cooked. Celery springs to mind straight away. I love cooked celery and perhaps straight away, you are already thinking ‘Well, that’s not unusual. Celery goes into lots of things like stews and soups and undergoes a transformative effect due to heat.’ And yes, you would be right in pondering that but have you eaten celery, unadorned, bar just the simplest of braising in vegetable stock? It’s gorgeous.

The same goes for lettuce, little gems in particular, which are fantastic after a burst on the grill or a quick bath in butter. Or radishes, wrapped in foil with a bit of salt and baked in the oven for ten minutes. Transformative. And tomatoes! Have you tried to cook tomatoes before? They are amazing and go with just about anything.

OK, I am being extremely facetious with that last comment, and you will probably recognise that most of the ingredients mentioned thus far often feature in cold British salads. The real confession then is that I have been cooking my salad ingredients lately and the recent addition to this list has been the fairly innocuous cucumber. Much as I like them raw, with their herbal (think parsley) and fresh, juicy flavour, cucumbers to me do have a tendency to fade into the background on a plate. They only really seem to shine when raw, slathered with plum sauce and dolloped with Peking duck in a pancake, to provide that all important crunch.

When pickled, that’s when cucumbers really do come into their own, to sit proudly in buns atop burgers or wedged into slices of barbecued pork belly. To act as a brackish conduit, to help cut through fat. But then again that is a pity because the cucumber still loses its original identity and again turns it into just another condiment.

Cooking cucumbers however, is different. By taking them to the edge, in a pan of oil, lemon and garlic, along with some lovely caramelised fennel, they retain a certain character. That sensuous bite and touch of grassiness, which pairs up perfectly with white fish like cod. Coming back to the fennel for a second here, according to Niki Segnit’s ‘Flavour Thesaurus,’ a combination of cucumber and aniseed is one of the most arousing scent known to mankind (according to a study in 1998 by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago). Which is good to know. But most importantly, they’ll deliver a great surprise when guests tuck in.

‘Oooh, I’ve never thought of braising cucumbers before,’ they’ll say. And you’ll look very clever indeed.

So try cooking cucumbers, instead of eating them raw, or pickled. It’s the future.

This post first appeared on Great British Chefs in association with The Cucumber Growers Association

Braised fennel and cucumber with sourdough crumbs, smoked pancetta and baked cod loin - serves 4

4 cod loins, each weighing 180g
4 fennel bulbs, small trimmed (keep the fronds) and sliced into 2cm wedges
2 cucumbers, deseeded and sliced into half rounds
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
75ml of water
1 lemon, zested and finely sliced
1 tbsp of mint, chopped
150g of smoked pancetta, sliced
150g of sourdough bread, stale
5 tbsp of rapeseed oil, plus extra to serve


Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4

First make the sourdough crumbs by tearing the bread into pieces and blitzing in a food processor. It’s good to have a mixture of sizes, so don’t go too fine. Place the crumbs on a baking tray, pour over a liberal coating of oil and mix altogether

Place in the oven for 5–7 minutes, until the crumbs have become crisp and golden. Put to one side.

Next, place a wide saucepan over a medium- high heat on the hob and add the rapeseed oil. When it is hot, add the fennel wedges and briskly fry for about 10 minutes, turning them frequently as they colour. Then turn the heat down and continue to cook for another 10–15 minutes, until golden and caramelised.

Now add the cucumber, half of the smoked pancetta and the garlic and cook off for another 5 minutes before adding the lemon zest and water. Cover and braise for 10 minutes.

Whilst the vegetables are softening down, prepare your cod loin by cutting out four squares of foil. Place a couple of slices of lemon on each one and then place the cod on top. Drizzle some rapeseed oil over the cod and scatter the fennel fronds on top.

Wrap the foil up so that you have space for steam to flow (create a foil bag in other words) and bake in the oven for 8–10 minutes.

When ready to plate up, take a frying pan and quickly fry off the remaining pancetta over a high heat, so that it crisps up nicely.

For presentation (and to get a nice circle) I often like to remove the bottom from a flan tin and place the ring in the centre of the plate, but you could also just spoon straight on.

Take the braised fennel and cucumber and spread it evenly onto your plate. Sprinkle over a liberal amount of sourdough crumb and place the cod loin on top. Finish by dotting some pancetta around over the crumb and drizzle any leftover oily pan juices all over.