Half Scottish, Half Japanese. Tempura Mars bar?

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I began writing this blog in October 2010 as a new father documenting food in his family. Before I knew it, I was in the final of MasterChef 2012. Now cooking is no longer just a hobby.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Fridgevention risotto

We were stuck in traffic on the A4 into London at 7.30pm on a Saturday evening after a day of cookery demos at the CGA Festival of Food at Barbury Castle Horse Trials.

There were three priorities. First, it was past Hector’s bed time. Second the Murray v Bagdhatis match was about to start on Centre Court. Third, we were hungry. Sadly, there was little in the fridge and time was not on our side – I was sorely tempted to get a take-away and although I could have justified it as I can’t remember the last time we had one, I remembered why that was. It costs at least £20 with none of the leisure of eating out and you’re left feelingt unhealthy even though you’ve not been able to finish it all.

The bottom of my fridge was a sorry sight.

A few scraps of butternut squash
The last two stalks of a head of celery
Half a tray of button mushrooms
The core of a small fennel bulb
Half a dozen spring onions
A handful of chives
Some parmesan
A ball of mozzarella
Risotto rice

I classify this as a free meal as it was all left overs and it took only 3 minutes of my time because I let my new Thermomix do all the work, while I put Hector to bed and poured myself a shandy to watch the Murray match.

Butternut squash, mushroom and sage risotto with chives and mozzarella

  1. Chop fennel, celery and spring onions and sweat in a little oil.
  2. Add the sage and squash and fry gently.
  3. Quarter the mushrooms and pop them in.
  4. Add half a glass of white wine and reduce it down completely.
  5. Add the risotto rice (50g per person), twice the amount of water or stock and cook for 15 minutes stirring constantly.
  6. Check that the rice is cooked then season with parmesan (or salt if you are vegetarian).
  7. Folded in diced mozzarella so that it starts to melt in the residual heat.
  8. Serve in a shallow bowl, topped with chopped chives and basil.

From such dismal prospects in the fridge, it was a pleasing result, especially given how little time was needed for either preparation or cooking.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Soba noodles with grilled quail, broadbeans and radishes

On Saturday, I completed my first ever triathlon in the beautiful setting of Blenheim Palace. Although I chose the shortest distance (Super Sprint: 400m swim, 10k bike, 3k run), I was proud of the achievement because a month ago, I could hardly swim one length, let alone two, without stopping and gasping for breath. All it took was two very good lessons with a personal trainer who taught himself to swim by analysing others (ralph-hydes.com).

A few hours after completing the triathlon, I had the privilege of meeting and cooking with some of Great Britain's Olympic triathlon medal prospects, the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonathan and Helen Jenkins and her husband and trainer, Marc, who himself competed in the triathlon in the Olympic Games in Athens. Helen and Marc helped me cook a Japanese noodle dish that I had come up with, while the Brownlee brothers joined fellow Yorkshireman Tom Rennolds, who is my friend and fellow finalist from MasterChef.

I wanted my dish to be quick to prepare, light and fresh with a good balance of carbohydrates, vegetables and protein.

Ingredients (serves 2-3)
2 quail
1/2 red onion
1 stick celery
1 carrot
1 orange

1 spring onion
200g broad beans, shelled
50g spinach
50g watercress
1/4 red onion, finely sliced
1 spring onion, finely sliced
5-6 French breakfast radishes, finely sliced
Handful of celery leaves

1 tbsp Sesame oil
2 tbsp Soy sauce (reduced salt, preferably)
2 tbsp Mirin 200g soba (buckwheat) noodles

1. Remove any string from the quail. Slice off the breasts and reserve. You can also remove the legs if you wish, but I used them to make a quail broth. You can always grill them later, after they have been poached in the broth.
2. Place the quail carcasses into water and bring to the boil. As the water is boiling, roughly chop the red onion, carrot, spring onion and celery. Plave them in the water with the quail. I leave the skin on the onion as it helps give the broth a deep reddy-brown colour. Once the water is boiling, reduce to a low simmer - you want the flavours of the quail and vegetables to infuse into the water gently. If it boils too vigorously, the fatwand impurities will emulsify into the water, resulting in a cloudy stock. You want a fresh, light consomme.
3. Marinade the quail breasts in the sesame oil, soy sauce and mirin. It's best and easiest in a plastic freezer bag.
4. Boil the soba noodles according to the instructions on the packet. Err on the side of al dente, as you'll serve them in the hot quail broth later. Rinse and drain the noodles, then portion them into bowls. We'll reheat them later by pouring over the hot quail broth.
5. Prepare the vegetables. I like to serve them all raw, as it helps with the lightness of the dish while adding texture as some of the vegetables will wilt more than others in the broth. I prefer to shell the broadbeans - it is a little fiddly, but Marc and Heen both found it therapeutic! The beans inside have a much brighter green that looks better in the finished soup and the whitish shells are slightly bitter. Scatter the shelled broadbeans on top of the noodles, along with a handful of watercress, spinach, red onion, spring onion and radishes.
6. Once the quail broth has been brewing for 15-20 minutes, drain the stock into a new pan. You can remove the legs at this point if you wish - they will be poached and will just need to be tossed into the marinade and grilled. The stock should be a light golden colour, mainly from the carrot and red onion, but it will taste oand smell of quail. Season it with soy sauce instead of salt, to make it a richer, darker colour. Add a tablespoon of mirin for an extra bit of sweet acidity and perfume it by adding the zest of 1/2 an orange (use a peeler).
7. Remove the quail meat from the marinade and grill quickly over a high heat for 1-2 minutes on each side. Be careful not to overcook it as quail can become dry quickly.
8. Pour the quail broth over the noodles (without the orange peel), then place the grilled quail meat on top, with a large pinch of sesame seeds.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 5

Day 3 (pronounced in a Geordie accent) of Live Below The Line. We have left: 2 chicken drumsticks, two chicken wings, 300g of split peas, 500g of pearl barley, one tin of chopped tomatoes and lots of long grain rice.

Lunch on Wednesday
Soup was always going to be one of our lunch options and I hoped there'd be enough left in the fridge in case we got hungry. I was going to make two types, but for simplicity, I decided to make one and make it as good as I could manage. I took the chicken stock, discarded the bones, set aside the vegetables and passed it through a fine sieve. I set aside 1 litre for cooking and used the remaining 2 litres or so for making soup.

Curried soup with chicken and split peas (about 5-6 portions)
2 litres of chicken stock
200g of yellow split peas
1/2 tin of chopped tomatoes
1/2 tsp curry powder
Pinch of salt

1. Rinse the split peas and bring them to the boil in the chicken stock.
2. Add the chopped tomatoes and a large teaspoon of curry powder and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the split peas are cooked.
3. Blitz in a jug blender. This is a good time to season the soup, with salt and cayenne pepper for more heat, if desired.
4. Pass through a sieve, if you want a smoother texture. Personally I'm happy with it being coarse this weeks - it makes it feel a bit more substantial! You could even add some cooked pearl barley to the soup before serving.

Supper on Wednesday
So far we've had chicken risotto and 'jerk chicken' (it wasn't really but we served it with rice and peas!) for suppers. On Wednesday, we had a mulligatawny style pearl barley stew. I love pearl barley. It's partly a nostalgia thing - my mum made lovely Scotch broth - but also because I love the bitey texture. It's very satisfying (and equally distressing if you overcook it into a gelatinous mush, as I did on one occasion). This recipe uses a British ingredient, cooked using the same technique as risotto, with Asian flavours. I did, however, overlook that pearl barley takes a while to cook - probably twice as long as  rice, so it's not great if you want to rustle something up in ten minutes. I served it with the chicken legs, which I boned, partly to help them cook quicker, partly for presentation. Don't get me wrong, drumsticks have their place, but with something like barley, I think it's nicer for the diner to be able to eat everything on the plate, instead of having a forkful of barley then gnawing away at a bone!

Chicken legs with curried pearl barley (serves 2)
2 chicken legs (preferably boned)
Veg oil
Cayenne pepper
100g pearl barley
200g chicken stock
Large pinch of salt
1 tsp curry powder
Water from the kettle

1. Preheat the oven to 190c and boil a kettle.
2. Coat the chicken legs in veg oil, sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes. Use the grill at the end, if necessary to get the skin to crisp up.
3. Bring the barley, chicken stock, salt and curry powder to the boil then reduce to a lively simmer.
4. Add water from the kettle when required and cook for at least 40 minutes.

Day 4, here we come. What's left with two more days to go? The chicken wings, half a tin of chopped tomatoes, 100g of split peas, 400g of pearl barley and lots of long grain rice. Although, Live Below The Line is a tough challenge and exactly why it's such a good awareness raising campaign, it's the kind of challenge I like from a cooking perspective. The tough thing about Invention Tests on MasterChef was being spoilt for choice and having to narrow your choices. For me, a true invention test is when the cupboard is bare and you have to create something out of very little.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 4

Well, I can confirm it only gets tougher. It was hard enough working out how to spend just £5 per head on food, but now comes the reality. My first observation is that with a limited budget and a limited range of ingredients, food becomes about sustenance. Eating becomes as mundane as having a shower, putting your clothes and going to the loo. There is no great pleasure in it, no breaks in the day to look forward to.

On Monday, I did two main jobs to prepare us for the week ahead. First, I portioned a chicken and made a stock out of the bones. Second, I made a hummus, by cooking and pureeing yellow split peas. As I blitzed it in the blender, I added a little rapeseed oil, some salt, the juice of a lemon and some cayenne pepper for kick. It looks like hummus and it is certainly edible, but it doesn't have garlic, olive oil and tahini (ground sesame seed paste).

Yellow split pea hummus (serves lots)
200g yellow split peas
1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tsp salt
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1. Rinse the split peas, cover with plenty of water and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until cooked.
2. Blitz the peas with the oil, salt, lemon and cayenne pepper in a smoothie maker. You can make it as coarse or smooth as you like. I like coarse. You could add some curry powder or some garlic salt if you have them, but I quite like it lemony.

Lunch on Monday
Lunch on Monday was particularly challenging because we went to Foodies Festival at Hampton Court and couldn't try any of the delicious smelling food. We were pleased it was raining because we had an excuse to go home and make chicken sandwiches! I had removed the mini fillets from the chicken breasts and gently poached them in the chicken stock for a couple of minutes. It was pretty bland, so I added some very thinly sliced onion and a few turns of the black pepper grinder.

Supper on Monday
On Monday evening we made a version of jerk chicken with rice and peas, inspired by one of the stalls at the Foodies Festival. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as good and we didn't have jerk seasoning, but we made do with cayenne pepper and ras el hanout.

Crispy spicy chicken thighs with rice and peas (serves 2)
2 chicken thighs, boned (put the bones in the chicken stock)
1 tsp veg oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ras el hanout (or other spice mix)
Dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 onion, sliced
1 tbsp veg oil
2 large pinches of salt
120g rice
150g tinned peas
200ml chicken stock
500ml boiling water

1. Preheat the oven to 200c and boil the kettle.
2. For the crispy chicken, rub the veg oil over the thighs, then sprinkle with salt, spice mix and dust with cayenne pepper. Roast the chicken for about 20 minutes while you cook the rice. I turned the grill on for the last couple of minutes to get the skin to crisp up.
3. Fry the onion slices in veg oil and salt until they have some colour to get flavour into the rice. Add the rice and the chicken stock and cook until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep adding boiling water as required and check frequently for seasoning and bite. Add some spice powder if you want some extra flavour. Don't stir too much as its cooking - you want to keep the rice separate and you'll also probably leave rice on the side of the pan where it won't be able to absorb water. When the rice is just cooked, add the peas and warm them through.

Lunch on Tuesday

While the mini fillets made sandwiches for 2, one of the chicken breasts (poached in the chicken stock) provided enough meat for 5 or even 6 sandwiches (when sliced very thinly!). I enlivened them by rehydrating 10g of Paxo stuffing (about 4p from my store cupboard budget).

Supper on Tuesday
We actually made Tuesday's supper on Monday evening since it used many of the same ingredients but cooked with slightly different techniques. I also wanted to make sure the other chicken breast was cooked, so that we didn't find that it had gone off later in the week. While we made rice and peas in a frying pan so that they were quite spread out, I like to make risotto in a pot. Because of budget constraints, we were using long grain rice, which is less starchy than arborio or carnarolli rice. To try and mimic  risotto rice, we cooked it in a pot and stirred it continuously, to encourage the grains to rub against each other and become creamy. A bit like casseroles (some even say pizza!), it benefited from spending a day in the fridge. It tasted better and the texture was stickier, more like risotto rice and less like long grain rice.

Chicken and pea risotto (serves 2)
1/2 onion, diced
1 tbsp veg oil
2 large pinches of salt
140g rice (preferably risotto rice!)
750g chicken stock, hot
1 chicken breast, diced into 2-3cm cubes

1. Sweat the onion in a small pot with veg oil and salt.
2. When the onions are on the verge of browning, add the rice and coat all the grains in the oil.
3. Add a couple of ladles of chicken stock and stir gently. Keep stirring as frequently as you can, adding stock as you go. Stirring the rice helps give it a creamy consistency without adding cream.
Keep the stock hot so you don't keep reducing the cooking temperature of the rice.
4. After about 10 minutes taste the rice for seasoning and bite. When it is a bit too al dente, add the chicken with another ladle of stock.
5. For the last minute or so of cooking, add the peas and a large pinch of spice mix, if you still find it too bland.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 3

Last week I gave some advice to a radio presenter who was taking the Live Below The Line challenge a week earlier than most participants. Here is a summary of that advice:

1. Team up with at least one other person. There are economies of scale when you purchase things like a bag of rice or pasta and by pooling resources, you can have a much more varied diet during the 5 day challenge.

2. You have probably bought some ingredients that are fairly bland on their own (rice, porridge, pasta, potatoes) but don't have much left to buy other ingredients. Remember to keep a little money left over so you can dip into things in your dry store. This week, spices and cayenne pepper are your friend. Don't forget you'll also need veg oil (I use rapeseed) and salt, but you won't need a whole bottle or a whole tub, so you take some from your stores and charge a prorated amount to your budget. When it comes to spice mixes, I tend to keep Garam Masala, Curry Powder and Ras el hanout in my cupboard.

3. Colour = flavour. That's what someone taught me and it's what I told John and Gregg if I burnt something on MasterChef! One of my old colleagues would make us all hungry by making toast at about 4pm in the afternoon. There's a reason that the smell of toast is so enticing - the bread is already cooked but toasting it caramelises the surface. The same is true of onions - when I have a hotdog, I like the onions sticky and brown so they are caramelised and sweet, edging towards bitter. I hate it when the onions look like they've been poached in water. No colour, no flavour.

4. If you're using a chicken, don't throw away the carcass - use it to make a stock which will give more flavour to rice or vegetables than cooking them in water. Chop the carcass with a cleaver and rinse to remove any blood and guts which can make the stock cloudy and bitter. I made a brown chicken stock rather than a white one because it smells and tastes more of roast chicken. Fry the chopped bones until well browned then add a carrot and an onion (both quartered) and brown them slightly. I leave the skin on the onion for extra colour. Then add three litres of water, salt and a bay leaf and bring it to the boil. Reduce immediately to a very gentle simmer so you can skim it. Simmer for at least 2 hours, with a lid to minimise water loss and maximise flavour extraction.

My next blog will include recipes.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Live Below The Line Part 2

In my previous blog (Part 1), I outlined the shopping list for Live Below The Line and what I planned to do with it. One of the major advantages of taking this challenge with a friend is that you can pool the £5 budgets and get more variety into the food. When I first agreed to the challenge, I assumed that our diet would be exclusively vegetarian, but our biggest extravagance this week is a chicken.

Chicken is generally cheaper than other meat (often worryingly cheap) and I'm sure we all eat far too much of it. But this particular blog isn't about the ethics of eating chicken or meat. There are many other people who research and write on this topic far better than me. This blog is about Live Below The Line, a campaign to raise awareness about the 1.4 billion people in the world that live on less than £1 a day.

The reason that the chicken is an extravagance is that it occupies 40% of our weekly budget, so I have been very conscious about getting the most out of it. On the way home from Scotland, we stopped at Westmorland Farm Shop in Cumbria and bought a local chicken for £4.00 exactly. It weighed in at just under 1.4kg (i.e. £3 per kilo).

By jointing the chicken myself, I reckon I have managed to get 12 portions out of it (that's about 30p per portion), before including the portions of soup that I will make from the stock. Admittedly, the portions are not particularly generous.

2x 170g chicken breast fillets
2x 30g chicken breast mini-fillets
2x 150g chicken thighs
2x 100g chicken drumsticks
2x 80g chicken wings
1 chicken carcass, about 400g

I compared how much this would cost if the supermarket did the butchery for you.

2 chicken breasts, £6.16 for 400g
2 chicken thighs, £1.43 for 300g
2 chicken legs, £0.85 for 200g
2 chicken wings, £0.65 for 160g
Chicken stock, £2.69 for 500g

That works out at almost £12 per kilo, butchered, compared to the £3 per kilo for the whole chicken. The most expensive cut is the breast, which at more than £15 per kilo, is more expensive than some cuts of beef!

I'll save some of the details of what I did with the chicken for a subsequent blog. 

Monday, 30 April 2012

Live Below The Line Part 1

When I accepted the challenge to Live Below The Line, I didn't appreciate how hard it is to live on £1 a day. Live Below The Line is a challenge being taken by around 20,000 people across three continents (in the UK, USA and Australia) to raise awareness and funds to support the 1.4 billion people around the world that live below the poverty line.

The challenge is to feed yourself for £1 a day, for 5 days. You could fill yourself up on toast, but the real challenge is to come up with a diet that is nutritious and varied. My wife and I are teaming up to pool our £5 budgets, which helps on this front. The shopping list is as follows:

2 loaves of wholemeal bread, £0.94
5 bananas, £0.60
1 chicken (approx. 1.5kg), £4.00
1kg of rice, £0.40
500g of pearl barley, £0.49
500g of split green peas, £0.49
1 tin of chopped tomatoes, £0.29
6 carrots, £0.50
3 onions, £0.48
5 apples, £0.68
1 tin of peas, £0.21
1 lemon, £0.25

That comes to £9.33, which leaves us 67p to dip into various store cupboards, such as oil, salt and spices. We were expecting to live vegetarian for the week, but reckon that we can be thrifty with a whole chicken. The first job will be to joint the chicken into 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings and oysters and 1 carcass for chicken stock.

Fortunately, the first Monday is a bank holiday which should give us a little more cooking time than usual. I will write full recipes and a plan for the week, but here's the rough plan, per person:

Daily breakfast
2 pieces of toast, with half a mashed banana

Daily snacks
Half an apple, half a carrot, glass of water

1. Soup: Chicken and barley
2. Salad: Chicken and rice
3. Soup: Chicken and split green peas
4. Sandwich: Chicken and split green pea hummus
5. Sandwich: Split green pea hummus and grated carrot

1. Chicken risotto
2. Jerk chicken legs, rice and peas
3. Chicken thighs, barley, spiced carrot mash
4. Barley biryani with curried chicken wings
5. Split green pea curry and rice

Do you think you are up for taking the challenge?

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

St Peters

One of the hardest bits about being on MasterChef was keeping everything secret - not just my participation but also how far I had got. One of the most difficult questions to handle was whether I knew who had won. Since I was one of only three contestants who did know, just answering this question would have given away that I had made it to the final.

At last, however, over four months after the final was filmed, I was reunited in a kitchen with my fellow finalists Tom and Shelina. I had agreed to cater for a guest night at my local church and was delighted when Tom and Shelina both agreed to help me in the kitchen - in particular given we were catering for 80 people.

Cooking for 80 not only means a lot of prep time, but also designing dishes that can be plated up quickly so that the food stays hot and the last table is served as soon as possible after the first. I faced issues of both budgets and logistics. Fortunately, we had decided to host the dinner in the church itself, leaving the church hall as our kitchen, but we would be unable to use it during the morning because of a kids' club that was running during the Easter holiday. Furthermore, the facilities in the small church hall kitchen wouldn't be up to catering for 80 people so we would have to rent industrial equipment, such as gas burners, ovens, plate warmers and a lamp heated pass.

We spent £400 on equipment hire (or £5 a head). I estimate that if we'd had to pay minimum wage for labour, overhead costs would have been increased by £1,000 (another £12.50 per head). Fortunately, everyone front of house and in the kitchen was volunteering their time, which meant that we had a decent budget for ingredients. We set ticket prices at £20 per head for three courses to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

For the starter, I wanted something cold plated. It was a little too early for English asparagus, but Jersey royal potatoes were in season. They are grown by the sea and fertilised with sea weed, so the flavour goes naturally with seafood. I chose mackerel as it is inexpensive and reasonably easy to fillet. I dry cured it the Japanese way, first for an hour in sugar, then for an hour in salt. At the end of the process, a lot of water has been drawn out of the flesh and the fish becomes much firmer, as if it has been cooked. It remains quite an oily fish though, which is why it pairs well with horseradish, to give the overall dish a light zinginess. I kept the dressing for the potatoes light by using rapeseed oil instead of butter and adding fresh chives and parsley. You occasionally see apple with mackerel, so I used cider vinegar for the dressing to help counterbalance the oiliness. This dish worked out at around £3 per portion. For vegetarians and those who prefer their fish cooked with heat, I substituted salt baked beetroot for the mackerel - it goes well with both the herbs and the horseradish.

Cured mackerel, Jersey royals, herbs, horseradish

For the main course, I wanted a braised meat as it can be prepared a day or two in advance and will retain its heat well during service. For beef bourgignon, I usually use shin of beef, but I chose ox cheek, as it is inexpensive and easy to portion, once the meat has cooled - one cheek serves two. I ordered 20 kilograms of ox cheek to arrive on Saturday and spent 2 hours trimming off the sinew. I then placed it in a marinade of wine, port and dark bitter for 24 hours, with mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery and leeks) and hard herbs (rosemary, thyme and bay leaf). The following day, I set up 3 frying pans and browned off the cheeks - the caramelisation of the meat provides flavour - called the Maillard effect. I placed the meat in large gastros, with the marinade and some gelatinous chicken stock, then braised it at 100 celcius overnight for 12 hours. It took 4 hours to cool so that I could put it in a fridge and pass the braising liquor through a fine sieve to make the sauce. We served it with parsnip puree, potato rosti topped with a porcini butter, Chantenay carrots and discs of Savoy cabbage.

Browning the ox cheek

The ox cheek before braising

Braised ox cheek, parsnip, porcini rosti, Savoy, Chantenay

For dessert, we served poached pears, with chocolate, walnuts and Dolcelatte (an Italian blue cheese). I find that Williams pears are the best for poaching - the more common Conference pears tend to be too powdery and disintegrate. Fortunately I had volunteers to help, but it still took the best part of 2 hours to peel them. We poached them in white wine, sugar syrup, bay leaves and cinnamon. When they were cool, we removed the core and filled it with a slightly salty cream, made from Dolcelatte, double cream and icing sugar. We then drizzled them with dark chocolate and placed them on a bed of ground, toasted walnuts.

Poached pear, chocolate, walnuts, Dolcelatte

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sunday Chicken Part 2

Hector eating fish fingers on the beach

Hector is a texture fiend - he loves anything crunchy or with a crispy coating. He particularly loves fish fingers, but I do worry how much salt and other things are added, when we are away from home. When I made Chicken Kiev, I was left with the inner fillets from the chicken breast and some extra breadcrumbs, so I made chicken patties, with just five ingredients.

Ingredients (makes about 4 small patties)
250g chicken meat
1 egg
1 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp polenta
1 tbsp bread crumbs

1. Place the chicken meat and coriander in a food processor and pulse for 10 seconds. Scrape the sides down and pulse further if necessary, but keep the texture rough.
2. Add the egg and pulse for 5 seconds. The pattie mix will be quite runny.
3. Add the polenta until the pattie mix is stiff but remains sticky.
4. Take 2 tbsp of mix and form it into a pattie.
5. Flatten the patty and dip both sides in the breadcrumbs.
6. Fry on both sides for 3 minutes (depends how thick the patties are).

If you don't have a food processor, you can chop the chicken by hand and mix in the egg and polenta with a spoon and mixing bowl.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Sunday Chicken Part 1

Last week, I recalled the childhood story of Stone Soup, which MiMi remembers as Nail Soup. I have since discovered that it is also known as Axe Soup in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. This week, childhood nostalgia also took me to Eastern Europe. Chicken Kiev, may have originated in Moscow in the early 1900s but takes its name from the capital city of Ukraine. It was popularised in Britain in the late 1970s by Marks and Spencer as what they called a 'recipe dish', or a 'ready meal' in other words. By the 1980s, it was a dinner party favourite.

The first thing you will need to do for this dish is make a compound butter. "Beurre composé," by its French culinary term in Larousse, is just butter with other ingredients mixed through it; garlic, lemon and parsley in this case, but you can make Asian compound butters with chilli and spices. You might as well take a whole pack of butter, since you can freeze it and use it for other dishes. Soften the butter in a bowl. You can use a microwave on a low setting but don't melt it as the ingredients will sink to the bottom if it is not still semi-solid. Peel 3 or 4 garlic cloves and mince them finely with a knife or use a garlic press. Fold the garlic into the softened butter, along with the zest of a lemon and a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley (or coriander, if you prefer). Spoon the compound butter back into the packet or onto some foil and roll it into a log. Put it in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Garlic compound butter
1x 250g pack of salted butter
4 cloves of garlic
Zest of 1 lemon
Large handful of flat leaf parsley (2 tbsp once chopped)

Once the compound butter has set hard, preheat the oven to 180 Celsius and start making the Chicken Kiev. Take 2 chicken breasts and trim off the mini-fillets and any rough edges. Set these aside to make chicken burgers for the children. There are two approaches to filling the chicken breast with the compound butter. I went for the incision approach. Take a sharp, but narrow bladed knife and insert it into the middle of the chicken breast. Swivel it a little to form a pocket but be careful not to go through the fillet. Slice the frozen compound butter into shards and stuff them into the pocket. When you make the incisions, try and make them so that they face upwards when you place the chicken fillet on a baking tray. This way, when the garlic butter melts, it will have a more difficult job leaking out.

Make an incision but go in from a higher angle than this

The alternative method is to butterfly the chicken breast first and flatten it. The advantage of this method is that the finished cutlet will cook more evenly. The disadvantage is that it is a little more work and breading it may be more fiddly. Furthermore, if you don't have a meat mallet, you may have to use a saucepan.

Jay using his initiative. If you don't have a meat mallet, improvise.
If you go for the flattened approach, you will have to fold the chicken breast carefully around the frozen butter. Next, set up a pané station (pané is French for breaded).

Breadcrumbs, seasoned flour, egg
Chicken Kiev ingredients
1 chicken breast per portion
Garlic compound butter, above
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
4 tbsp of breadcrumbs (make your own in a food processor or buy ready made) 

Dip the chicken in the flour first, then the egg, then the breadcrumbs. If you want  thicker crust, repeat the "egg-flour" stage. The chicken breast on the right has an unfortunate bald patch - this is where I was holding it with my thumb.

Shallow fry the chicken breast in vegetable oil on both sides, then transfer to a baking tray. Use one with sides, in case the butter melts and makes a mess in the oven. Bake in the oven at 180 Celsius for about 15 minutes. By then the butter will be molten, but basting the chicken from the inside to keep it from being dry. Personally, to complete the nostalgia effect, I would serve it with fries; potato wants to soak up the garlicky juices but retains its crispness. However, on this occasion, I served it with lentils and cabbage, both of which I wanted to use up. I simmered the lentils in chicken stock for about 15 minutes, while the Kiev was in the oven, then added shredded cabbage for the last couple of minutes.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Stone soup

Dtom Yam gung (Tom Yum soup)

As a child I loved the folk tale of stone soup. It is the story of a hungry tramp who knocks on the door of an old lady asking for some food. She turns him away, so he pulls out a large, polished stone and sets off to make stone soup in a pot over a fire. The old lady is curious and comes to see how he is getting on. The tramp persuades the old lady to add vegetables and garnishes one by one until he has created a delicious potage.

Yesterday, Jemma was upset with me because I trumped her pasta, pesto and roast vegetables with a Thai version of stone soup. I have monopolised the kitchen for the past several months while I've been practising for Masterchef and it is fair to say that her cooking has got a little rusty.

When I arrived back last night, she had carefully cut up red onions, mushrooms, carrots and bell peppers, dressed them in olive oil, herbs and salt and was about to put them in to roast. There is nothing wrong with pasta, pesto and roast vegetables on a Monday night and I do like to have one or two vegetarian dinners each week, but on this occasion, I had other plans. It was a little mean of me, then, to pull out some ingredients and invite her brother James, who is staying with us, to make Thai stone soup in the time that it took to roast the vegetables (about 10-15 minutes).

This Thai stone soup I speak of, is in fact, just Tom Yum soup. 'Dtom' means 'boil' and 'yam' means 'mix together'. It is a wonderful soup to make in January, especially if you are on a post-Christmas diet, because it is healthy but surprisingly filling, detoxifying but pleasantly invigorating! And it's very quick - only the speed of your chopping will hold you back. If it's all chopped and ready to go, it can be ready in less than 10 minutes.

Dtom yam gung (Hot and sour soup)
Serves 2

1. Take 2 bowls that you are going to serve the soup in.
2. Fill them full with water and pour them into a saucepan. Switch the heat on full.
3. Add a thumb of fresh ginger or galangal (peeled, preferably).
4. Add a stalk of lemongrass (bruised and chopped into 4 pieces). You're essentially making a ginger and lemongrass tea, so bring it to the boil and then reduce to a simmer.
5. Add one small onion or a leek (sliced).
6. Add one red birds eye chilli (sliced, with seeds).
7. Add three mushrooms (sliced).
8. Add three cherry tomatoes (sliced in half).
9. Add one large handful of raw, peeled prawns (about 75g). You could also add one small chicken breast (sliced into thin strips) instead of, or as well as the prawns.
10. Add 100ml of coconut milk and switch off the heat. Now it is time to season it so that it is SWEET, SOUR, SALTY and HOT!
11. Add one teaspoon of palm sugar - SWEET!
12. Add one teaspoon of tamarind paste (optional) and the juice of one lime - SOUR!
13. Add one teaspoon of fish sauce (nam pla) and a large pinch of salt - SALTY!
14. Add one teaspoon of red chilli paste and stir in well - HOT!
15. Thai stone soup. Delicious, healthy and quick. But it will taste even better with a handful of roughly chopped coriander, sweet basil and spring onions.

One technique is to put the raw prawns in the bottom of the serving bowl and marinade them quickly in the sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli paste. The prawns will cook with the heat from the soup and the seasonings retain their vibrancy. And remember the golden rule of seasoning - you can always add more.

If this takes your fancy, here is the ingredient list.

2 full bowls of water
1 thumb of ginger, peeled
1 stalk of lemongrass, bruised then chopped roughly
3-4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
1/2 leek or onion, sliced thinly
1/2 red birds eye chilli, sliced thinly (leave the seeds in)
2 mushrooms, sliced
1 chicken breast, sliced into thin strips
50g of raw prawns, peeled back to the tail
3 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
100ml of coconut milk (optional)
1 tsp of palm sugar (though any sugar will do)
1 tsp of tamarind paste (optional)
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp of red chilli paste
1 tsp of fish sauce (nam pla)
1/2 tsp of salt

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Baby MasterChef

Tasting and stirring

To celebrate his daddy getting an apron as one of the Final 12 contestants in Masterchef, Hector's nanna (my mum) made him an Masterchef apron from a pillow case! She even did the embroidery herself - it's a little bit wonky, but it's brilliant all the same. Thank you, Nanna! Here he is at his cooking station!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Nose to tail beetroot

Hector is now eating three square meals a day. He generally has Weetabix and fruit for breakfast, pasta or cous cous for lunch and meat and two veg for supper. The problem with cooking for him is that his portions are so small that any normal batch of food will go off in the fridge before he has eaten it all. Therefore we generally resort to cooking at the weekends and freezing excess portions.

This weekend we had an excess of home made fish fingers so we decided to help him out. The fridge was somewhat bare as we haven't been shopping for a while, but fortunately my mum had sent us home with some baby beetroot plucked fresh from the garden on Saturday evening. Fish fingers and beetroot isn't an obvious pairing but necessity is the mother of invention...

The beetroot, being home grown, came with stalks and leaves so I decided to make the most of them. I cooked the beetroot themselves in salted water for 20 minutes, then separated the green leaves from the red stalks. Breadcrumbed food usually needs a sauce, so I made a beetroot tartare sauce from the stalks. I chopped them roughly and added them to a couple of cloves of garlic that had been sweated in a little butter. When they were cooked, I blitzed them in the smoothie maker with some greek yoghurt to loosen it. Some fronds of dill would have been lovely, but I didn't have any. It needed salt, more garlic (so I added dried garlic granules) and some heat (so I added cayenne pepper).

I decided to treat the beetroot leaves as I would spinach - sauteed in butter and served as a bed for the rest of the dish. They are slightly bitter, so I added a little orange zest to give it a distracting fragrance. Jemma thought it was a touch overpowering, so next time I might simply add some spinach to dilute the bitterness. I don't like the idea of throwing the leaves away, not just because of the waste, but because the red veins make them more attractive on the plate.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Clear gazpacho

Jemma and I took Hector on his first trip abroad to Mallorca, to attend the wedding of Laura and Ralph, in the picturesque town of Deia. It was a busy half time flight and Hector behaved well. Sadly, although we were lucky enough to stay in the Nock family's beautiful Finca in the neighbouring village of Fornalutz, it was the worst night's sleep either of us have had since Hector was born. He struggled to cope with the heat and was up through the night, too uncomfortable to sleep.

We perked up in the morning with freshly squeezed local oranges, black coffee and ensaimadas - a Mallorcan breakfast pastry. A few hours later, we were enjoying fresh lemonade (large, local lemons with thick, fragrant and unwaxed skins), gazpacho and Spanish cured meats. Jemma isn't a big fan of chilled soups, but has come round to gazpacho, with the rich umami of ripe tomatoes, the sweetness of red peppers, refreshing cucumbers and the spiciness of raw garlic.

Coincidentally, the night before we departed for Mallorca, we hosted a dinner party, at which we served a type of clear gazpacho. It came from a Raymond Blanc recipe for tomato essence, which he uses to make a colourless tomato risotto. I wasn't sure what I was going to make with it, but I'd also seen it served with pickled cucumbers and sea trout tartare at Medlar restaurant. I loved the tomato taste without the coarse texture of the tomato pulp and decided to serve it on its own as a chilled, clear tomato soup.

The secret to getting just the clear tomato juice is to let it hang in a muslin - I made the mistake of squeezing the pulp through the bag. This yielded more liquor, but also the cloudiness and colour of the tomatoes. I was able to salvage it by letting the heavier red pulp sink and skim off the colourless liquid with a turkey baster. I kept the red liquid, added some more tabasco and heated it with a couple of leaves of gelatine to make a tomato jelly. I cut this into cubes and served it in the soup, along with diced, de-seeded cucumber, shredded basil leaves, chive oil and purple chive flowers.

Ingredients - serves 4
1 kg cherry tomatoes
1 stick celery, chopped
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/2 sprig thyme leaves
5 basil leaves
1 teaspoon salt
3 drops tabasco or large pinch of cayenne pepper

1. Halve or quarter the tomatoes straight into a food processor or smoothie jug.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse three times, for 2 seconds.
3. Leave the ingredients to infuse in the refrigerator for up to 3 hours.
4. Place the tomato mix in a sieve lined with muslin or cheese cloth.
5. Leave over a pan for several hours to collect the tomato water. Do not squeeze!
6. The water collected should be clear.
7. If you squeeze rthe muslin bag, you can use the red juice to make a tomato jelly.
8. Simmer the pulp with some water and sieve it to make a passata by removing the skins and seeds.
9. You can also turn the passata into a tomato soup by adding red lentils and chicken stock.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Knife through butter

I have now worked at Medlar on three occasions. I did a back-to-back, double shift the first time, where we did around 20 covers for lunch and 40-something for dinner. After receiving some positive reviews, the restaurant has been fully booked in the evenings.

My second experience was dinner service last Friday, when we did over 60 covers. Dinner service starts at 5.30pm with staff supper, in the kitchen for the brigade, in the dining room for the front of house staff. The first bookings are at 7pm, so you have just over an hour to finalise your mise-en-place. Once the checks start printing in the corner by the pass, the evening flies by. It pays to be organised and to know where everything is in your fridges. Hence the expression: mise-en-place.

There can be a dozen checks on the pass, each at different stages. At one stage, I was asked to count up the number of wood pigeons on order: fourteen, all at different stages of cooking. The oven was full and Andrew, the sauce chef, was operating at full throttle. It was amazing to witness. The grill burns on his forearms are testimony to the fact that he operates in the hottest, most dangerous part of the kitchen.

If things go wrong during service, bottlenecks occur. A cod was dropped on the floor - start again: the 3 second rule only applies only in domestic kitchens! We ran out of bearnaise sauce, mid-service, so I found myself making a fresh batch at about 10pm. Andrew was giving me quantities and instructions, while carving wood pigeon breasts and rack of lamb: melt 250 grams of butter and trickle it into 90 grams of egg yolks. I was terrified of splitting it and having to start again. I am allergic to eggs, so I have never made bearnaise or a hollandaise sauce. Feeling somewhat inadequate, I resolved to spend Sunday evening revising Delia's chapter on eggs, as it's clearly a weakness for me.

Once the last checks went out after 10.30pm, we started cleaning down the stoves. If television manages to portray any glamour in professional cooking, it is because they leave out details such as thick black rubber gloves, scouring pads, hot cast iron stoves and water that turns black almost immediately with burnt-on food and sauce. Meanwhile the pastry chef was still sending out desserts. The pastry chef has the short straw; if the restaurant bakes their own bread, he is often first to start and last to finish.

My third and latest experience at Medlar was lunch shift on Wednesday. Joe gave the larder chef the morning off and charged me with three cold starters. Salad of tongue (delicious, but not that popular), thinly sliced pork belly and tartare of sea trout. Unfortunately, none of these can compete with the crab raviolo, which accounts for around half of starter orders, so out of around 20 covers, there were only two orders for sea trout. Despite this, I found it much more difficult than I expected. Although I'd reorganised my fridges and prepped all of my mise-en-place, it's fair to say that I didn't know where everything was, which put us under pressure when I was responsible for some of the cold garnishes on the hot dishes.

Before, during and after service, there were enormous amounts of prep to do, aggravated by the fact that the suppliers were late to deliver. One of my first jobs was to break down the most enormous block of butter into smaller portions. That is my largest knife in the photo (about 20 cm or twice the size of a normal supermarket pack of butter). I have cut myself several times at home, but never cutting butter. I felt like I had committed the classic rookie error - cutting myself in the kitchen. Joe teased me as I went to find a plaster: "man down". I managed to pick up two further nicks that day, one removing the rind from a side of pork belly. I don't know how I picked up the other one, but I noticed while I was squeezing a lemon.

Back home, there is also lots of prep to do as Hector is starting to enjoy solid food and we are offering him new tastes. We started with pureed fruit, but he has quite quickly learnt to chew with his toothless gums and loves soft fruit such as ripe pears and orange segments. It may even encourage us to breakfast healthily, as he enjoys porridge, strawberries and blueberries. On the vegetable front, he has tried potato, sweet potato, carrots, peas, butternut squash and broccoli. Like me when I was young, he harvests the florets, omits the stalk and drops it onto the table in disdain. Now he is moving onto protein such as chicken and mushroom risotto and barbecued snapper. It seems to be agreeing with him, if this smile is anything to go by.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Returning to Medlar

Yesterday, although Masterchef's TV cameras weren't there to expose my inexperience and nerves, I was dropped straight into the deep end of a professional kitchen - one that last week received a higher rating from Fay Maschler than Jason Atherton’s much hyped Pollen Street Social.

The night before, I felt like a little boy on the eve of starting a new school. I selected four knives (large chef's knife, smaller chopping knife, flexible filleting knife and small paring knife), sharpened them and folded them inside a tea towel. I packed a bottle of water and I laid out what I thought I should wear: a sports shirt (in case it was hot), jeans and a pair of trainers.

The next morning, Jemma asked me if I would like a sandwich to take to work. I chortled as I declined her offer: I was working in a kitchen - I could eat there! I set off just before 8am without even having breakfast. Time flew by. I eventually completed my first 8 hour shift having eaten nothing all day but a spoonful of left over sorbet, a slice of focaccia and a latte.

Staff at many kitchens in London operate double shifts, starting at 8am and finishing around 11pm, with an hour or two break between lunch and dinner service. The first shift is mainly about 'mise-en-place' - which is French for 'put in place', i.e. preparing everything you can before customers start to arrive. Among the list of my jobs during that first shift was squeezing 40 blood oranges, chopping 30 shallots, sweating and pureeing 5 celeriac and 2 dozen turnips, finely chopping 10 leeks, peeling, de-seeding and chopping 50 tomatoes, shelling and peeling hundreds of butter beans, cutting a score of ravioli sheets and  checking 1 kilogram of crab meat for shell and cartilage.

When you are 'prepping' in those sorts of volumes, it pays to find the most efficient ways of doing things and avoid putting strain on your body. Thus, you specialise in certain tasks through repetition, stand near the counter and keep everything within arms length. By 10am, I was already complaining of sore legs and a gentle burn in my lower back. Varicose veins are common in those who choose catering as a career and rookies often suffer elephantiasis of the lower limbs. Hands and forearms are subjected to cuts, burns and irritation from constant exposure to acids such as citrus fruits and vinegar.

Kitchens, especially in London, where property is expensive, tend to be small. At Medlar, the main kitchen area is not much bigger than our kitchen at home, but accommodates six chefs and a kitchen porter. In one corner,  the pastry chef, Max, started the day baking sourdough and focaccia. Near him, the larder chef, Morteza, took responsibility for checking vegetable deliveries. The larder chef is one of the junior chefs in the kitchen, usually responsible for cold starters. He was overseen by Andrew, the sous chef, who was in charge of the sauce section. In some restaurants, 'sauce' specifically refers to meat, but here it also means fish. Between them by rank but not location, was Cosmo, who helped with hot starters and mains, with access to the stoves, frier (for chips) and water baths (for pasta). I took a station between Cosmo and Andrew. With my back to the stoves, the oven and the salamander (the overhead grill), it was one of the hottest places in the kitchen to stand, not that I was offered a choice. Head chef, Joe, stood opposite me for most of the morning, mucking in with general prep jobs such as shelling beans and making pasta dough.

One of the first lessons I learned was in etiquette. Due to the restricted space and potential dangers, I noticed chefs calling "Show" as they passed behind one another. Joe explained that this was in fact "Chaud", French for hot. For lunch service, Joe occupied the space by the 'pass', the heated shelf where dishes are plated and passed to the waiting staff. As tickets came down from the dining room, Joe would call "Summage: trout, crab, cod, wood pigeon, 6 minutes." Summage, I later found out, was in fact a bastardisation of the French 'ca marche' meaning 'let's get it going'. In order that the whole table receives their dishes at the same time, each of the chefs has to be able to get their dishes to the pass in 6 minutes. Too bad if their dish is popular.

Since lunch was reasonably quiet, the chefs would go back to their mise-en-place during breaks in service. By 3pm, the only guests still in the restaurant were some fellow chefs enjoying their day off and as things wound down, Joe told me to take a break at 4pm. I returned just after 5pm, about to start my second shift as the 9 till 5 workers were dispersing from the tube station. Andrew had made a big pot of mushroom and pea risotto for staff dinner at 5.30pm. Here I realised the difference between front of house staff and kitchen staff. The former, dressed smartly in crisp shirts and pressed trousers, filed past to collect a plate of food and took it to a table in the dining room to eat together. The latter, stood at their stations in aprons stained by a day's cooking, revising check lists and finishing jobs. It was like forwards and backs in rugby, I thought: same sport, totally different types of people - different physiques, different attitudes, different culture.

From the first orders at 7pm, until the last mains went out at around 10pm, the checks came in thick and fast, with a crescendo just after 9pm, when tensions rose as the chefs battled to prevent bottle necks in the service. There was little time for prepping during dinner service except when Joe had to roll out and fold additional portions of potato ravioli (more popular than expected) and I was called upon to slice radishes. Thanks to Murphy's Law, a plate was returned to the kitchen (undercooked) moments after the burners and ovens were switched off. A thinner portion was selected and replated within 6 minutes. Thereafter, only the pastry chef was left working, while the other chefs cleaned down their stations and equipment.

I ventured into the dining room, still in chef whites, to talk to some of my friends that had come for dinner. I'm not sure whether they, or the food critics, know what has gone on behind the scenes in order to produce the food. It is nothing like cooking at home. There are eighteen dishes available (six starters, mains and desserts). Not counting waiting staff, it takes almost 100 man hours to produce these, all of which will be enjoyed during just 5 or 6 hours of service.

I enjoyed it so much, I will be going back on an even busier service, this Friday night and one day next week (Wednesday, tbc)...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Medlar restaurant

Less of a blog and more of a plug. I am doing a trial shift (double shift, in fact, from 8am till 11.30pm) at Medlar restaurant next week.

Jemma and I went when it opened to the public at the beginning of April and were very impressed by the food and the value for money. Andy Hayler rated it on a par with Atelier Robuchon, Launceston Place, Murano, Nobu and Tom's Kitchen. And it received a good review from Fay Maschler in the Evening Standard.

So if you want to make my trial tougher, please book yourself in for lunch or dinner on Tuesday 3 May.


Friday, 15 April 2011

Street vendors

In developing nations across South America and Africa, it is common for travellers on buses and trains to be offered snacks by street vendors. Fresh fruits and packaged confectionery are generally the safest option, followed by home made crisps (potato or plantain) and savoury parcels (empanadas or samosas). For those with sturdier stomachs there are 'meat' kebabs.

But in Asia, where space is at a premium, vendors set up market stalls right by the train tracks. How close? This close.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Lentils, leeks, goats cheese and hazelnuts

Lentils with leeks, goats cheese and hazelnuts

As you may know I have given up meat for Lent. Most people are skeptical when I tell them I don't have to observe this on Sundays. Lent lasts for forty days because, according to the Gospels, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert. But there are forty six days between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday so most Christians don't count the six Sundays of Lent.

On the fifth Sunday of Lent, I roasted a fore rib of beef (for about twenty minutes too long, if I'm honest). We served it with saffron roast potatoes, parsnip gratin, eight hour braised carrots and shredded spring greens stir fried with garlic, chilli and crushed peanuts. I couldn't find fresh horseradish anywhere, but I found some freshly grated in a jar at a stall in Chapel Market. Horseradish is a member of the mustard family and unlike chilli, which burns the mouth, it irritates the sinuses. This one, like a strong wasabi, cleared the nose and made the eyes water with just a sniff.

After Sunday, it was back to vegetarian dinners. On Tuesday, we had fresh pasta with parsley pesto. I had the most enormous bunch of parsley from the North End Road market and blitzed it with garlic, chilli, parmesan, and almonds (instead of pine nuts). I used olive oil and the juice of half a lemon to loosen the pesto.

Jemma and I are going through a chilli phase. Perhaps it is because it imparts interest to meals that lack the flavour of meat, perhaps it is just because we enjoy the self-inflicted heat on our palate. This evening, I had half a chilli left in the fridge. I could have left it out entirely, but it added some colour to the dish and I figured that goats cheese is delicious with tomato chilli jam.

Goats cheese also pairs well with caramelised onions. Goats cheese and onion tarts are a ubiquitous gastropub vegetarian option, because the acidity of the sweet and juicy onions cuts through the dry, crumbly tartness of the cheese. I had leeks in the fridge, so substituted them for onions and used up some hazelnuts, for texture. There is protein in the goats cheese, but I served it with protein-rich Puy lentils dressed in vinegar and honey, with chopped tomatoes, thyme, mint and parsley, for freshness.

Ingredients (serves 2)
100g Puy lentils
2 tablespoons of vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
2 tablespoons of oil (I used olive oil and walnut oil)
1 tablespoon of runny honey

1 tomato, finely chopped
1 large handful of chopped herbs (I used parsley, mint and thyme)

2 washed leeks
2-3 slices of goats cheese

50g whole hazelnuts
1 dried chilli
1 tablespoon honey

1. Rinse the lentils and simmer for 15 minutes in plenty of water.
2. Cut the leeks into lengths of 7-8 cm and steam over the simmering lentils.
3. Put the oven on at a low heat (120c) and cut the hazelnuts in half.
4. Crush the dried chilli and mix with the honey and a little salt.
5. When the leeks have softened, slice them lengthwise and caramelise them over a low heat in some butter.
5. Blanche or steam the leeks before caramelising to soften them.

6. Coat the hazelnuts in the chilli, honey sauce and toast for 10 minutes in the oven.
7. Drain the lentils and dress them while they are still warm with the vinegar, oil and honey.
8. Mix in the tomatoes, herbs and add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Assemble the lentils with the caramelised leeks, sliced goats cheese and sticky, toasted hazelnuts.
10. The hazelnuts should be quite fiery, but if you can handle some extra heat, add some shredded red chilli for colour.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Hector's Christening

Hector was baptised in Withington on Sunday. Jemma was christened in the very same church when she was six years old and we were married there more than twenty years later, during a brief respite in the 2007 summer floods.

Reverend John Beckett, who married us, again lead the service. When he baptised Hector's cousin Beth, the service finished with an unaccompanied spiritual song ("Walk with me, for the journey is long"). On Sunday, the final hymn was less memorable for its lyrics (for me at least, because I didn't have a hymn book) than by the fact that it was accompanied by a recording of African drums because the organist had to get to the next service in the neighbouring village.

Hector was resplendent in a lace christening gown that was worn by both his uncle James and his grandfather Guy when they were christened. Not the most masculine, but a beautiful antique garment.

Almost as historic was the top tier of our wedding cake, which had survived in the Rookers' pantry for approaching four years. It was made and decorated by Hector's nanna, but because of our indifference to marzipan, the rich contents had leached into the icing and it needed a makeover. In the absence of any iced cygnets, an Easter chick joined the two swans on the top. We hope that the brandy has done its job in preserving the cake, when we come to taste it at Easter.

Finally, here is a picture of what the Easter bunny might look like.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Asian arancini

On Saturday, Rosie Nock told me that 'pictures of white bread' are no good to her. I hope this post will please her more.

I first tried arancini, a type of Italian street food, in 2001. A ball of rice is used to envelope a filling of ragu, peas, mushrooms or mozarella. It is then coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried until golden. They are called arancini because they resemble 'little oranges' (arancia means orange). They make very convenient portable snacks: the Italian version of Cornish pasties, samosas or onigiri (Japanese rice balls).

They probably originated from left over risotto and I too had some rice in the fridge. Unfortunately, it was pilau basmati rice, which posed two issues to address: flavour and texture.

Starting with pilau rice, I pursued South Asian flavours by crushing fenugreek, cumin and fennel seeds with a pestle and mortar. I then added fresh coriander leaves and a red chilli.

Basmati rice is not as sticky as risotto rice or Japanese rice, so it is difficult to make it into balls. To make it stickier, I added some tomato passata, an egg yolk and some gram flour. Gram flour is made from chickpeas and is the flour used for onion bhaji.

Cooked rice (about 1-2 portions)
1 tsp fenugreek
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 red chilli (de-seeded and finely chopped to produce about 1 tbsp).
1 large handful of coriander leaves, finely chopped
3 tbsp of tomato passata
1 egg yolk
Gram flour
Panko breadcrumbs


1. Mix the herbs, spices and chilli into the rice.
2. Add the tomato and egg yolk and mix through.
3. Add gram flour gradually until you get a sticky consistency.
4. Form balls no bigger than a golf ball.
5. Coat the balls in breadcrumbs.
6. Deep fry in hot oil or flatten the balls into patties to shallow fry.
7. Fry in batches, drain excess oil with kitchen paper and keep in a warm oven.
8. Serve with chilli sauce or lime and coriander mayonnaise.

Although these originated as convenient street food, they make nice amuse bouche, with a cold beer or a glass of wine, if you make them small enough. We noticed that you could taste the fennel much better once they had cooled down to just above room temperature.

I wonder if there's any left over rice at Soushi, to turn into onigiri-arancini.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Chocolate and hazelnut buns

This week on Masterchef the contestants faced a vegetarian test. I wasn't sure whether to be amused or uncomfortable when Yotam Ottolenghi told James (the carpenter from Milton Keynes) that he "looked like a carnivore". James responded awkardly "That's alright, you look like a rabbit."

Torode and Wallace couldn't decide who should join Kennedy in leaving the competition. In my view, Tom, Sara and James all failed to shine, but the judges overlooked the fact that James glaringly defeated the object by producing "the only dessert". I wouldn't have minded if he'd been inventive enough to produce a dessert using naturally sweet vegetables such as carrots or sweetcorn.

I have now abstained from meat for over a week and although I haven't missed it too much I have found it challenging to cook without it. I have found that Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines lend themselves to a vegetarian diet. You can enliven vegetables, pulses or tofu with strong flavours such as cumin, chilli, coriander and ginger. Moreover, meze style dishes and curries are less exposed to the absence of animal protein than the 'meat and two veg' format. Here are some of the things I have been cooking this week:

Cauliflower fritters with chilli and coriander yoghurt
Thai red curry with aubergine, mushrooms and green beans
Asian chick pea salad with peppers, soy sauce and sesame dressing
Butter bean and cauliflower jalfrezi
Sweet potato and cauliflower coconut curry
Chick pea and spinach curry
Lentil moussaka

I tried a vegetarian Japanese restaurant near Kings Cross for lunch on Tuesday but I wasn't compelled. I enjoy pickled vegetables, steamed greens, braised carrots, sesame dressed seaweed as side dishes or condiments, but a bento box needs some grilled fish or meat!

My biggest temptation this week was sausages. The prospect of home baked white bread, pork and leek sausages, rocket and chilli jam was very tempting. To assuage my temptation, I made Chocolate and Hazelnut buns (this doesn't count as packaged chocolate, which I have also given up for Lent).

Thanks to Matt for pointing me in the direction of Dan Lepard's sour cream white bread - I shall try it this weekend. Here is the recipe for Chocolate and Hazelnut buns.

For the dough:
350g strong white flour
10g dry yeast (a generous teaspoon)
5g salt (half a teaspoon)
20g sugar
50g melted butter
1 beaten egg
150ml warm milk

For the filling:
100g of chopped hazelnuts
75g sugar
25 g cocoa

1. Mix all the dough ingredients together and knead by hand or food processor for 5 minutes.
2. Put the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave for 2 hours.
3. Go for a run or read the papers while the dough is rising.
4. Preheat the oven to 180 Celcius, prepare the chocolate hazelnut filling and make the buns.

5. Blend the hazelnuts, cocoa and sugar together in a food processor for a 30-60 seconds.

6. Roll the dough out to somewhere between an A4 and A3 sheet of paper (1-2cm thick).
7. Spread about 25g-50g softened butter over the dough to absorb the filling.
8. Sprinkle the chocolate filling over the butter.
Sprinkle the chocolate filling over the butter.

9. Roll the dough from the long side.
10. Cut the rolled dough log at about 4cm intervals.
11. Grease a baking tin, or line with silicone lining.
12. Put the rolls next to each other - so that they have soft sides when you break them apart.
Cut the rolled dough log at about 4cm intervals.

13. Bake for 25 minutes, until they are golden brown.
14. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling tray.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


This week, Hector first tried solid food. He had a couple of spoonfuls of baby rice on Saturday and Sunday. I'm not entirely convinced he wouldn't have preferred his bottle of milk, judging by the fact that much of it ended up in his eyebrows.

On Sunday evening, I got out my newest kitchen accessory. Jemma doesn't normally approve the acquisition of kitchen gadgets but this one is a food processor that can puree baby food. I considered Magimix and Kitchen Aid, but in the end chose a British manufacturer, Kenwood (named after the company founder, Ken Wood). It can blend, chop, slice, knead, mix and grate. It can make freshly squeezed orange juice or pressed apple juice. It comes with a mill that can grind coffee, herbs and spices and a blending jug for making soups and smoothies. I quite like it.

So Hector has now had pureed carrots. He isn't the only one on a vegetarian diet. On Shrove Tuesday, Jemma and I made pancakes and discussed what we would give up for Lent. Jemma gave up Chocolate, Crisps and Cakes. I have given up Meat, Coffee and packaged chocolate (there was a tub of Nutella that I couldn't finish with my pancakes).

I do enjoy meat, but I have been reading a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Although not entirely compelling, it has made me reconsider the amount of meat I eat. I realised that too many omnivores now take meat for granted when I read that Americans eat 150 times as much chicken as they did 80 years ago.

So far, I'm not missing meat. We'll see how I feel by Easter but I certainly won't be touching any chicken wings or hamburgers ever again.