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.

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.

White bread

Is it just me or are there a lot of chefs on TV? Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets, Heston's Mission Impossible, Michel Roux Jnr on The Great British Food Revival. Even Jamie's Dream School. In years gone by, I would be lapping it up, but I am left a bit disillusioned by it all. Are the margins in top end catering really so poor that these talented chefs have to be making TV programmes of such dubious quality?

I like Raymond Blanc. He is genuine, funny and conveys his enthusiasm for food. But I don't get the point of the programme. He is hardly revealing Kitchen Secrets and the recipes he demonstrates are just too complicated to tempt many viewers to try them.

I think I still like Heston Blumenthal. His devotion and idiosyncrasy are unique and inspiring but he is the wrong person to be attempting to improve catering standards in the UK. He is too whacky to revive institutions such as the NHS and British Airways. In his previous series, he came across well only by contrast to the odious Ian Pegler, the Managing Director of Little Chef. In this current series, he is even more pie in the sky and I can't tell whether its the producers egging him on. Either way, the social agenda and demonisation of a bureaucratic antihero is hackneyed, patronising and irritating.

And yet another programme called "The Great British Something". I support TV programmes that educate consumers and promote sustainable food resources, but I felt last week's episode was clumsily done. For a start, it paired Michel Roux (on artisan bread) with the Hairy Bikers (on cauliflower). For me, Michel Roux's message was confusing. On the one hand, he was arguing that artisan bread has very few ingredients and is simple to make. On the other, he presented a loaf that contained flour, milk, butter, golden syrup and yeast and told us that there were "no short cuts".

The good news is that bread really is simple to make. What surprises many people is that no kneading is required and no bread machine either. Bread machines definitely fall into the category of impulse purchase that will take up space first on your countertop and later in your cupboard as the novelty wears off. All you need is a mixing bowl and a saucepan with a lid. I learned all of this from my friends Jon and Helen, who first introduced me to "No knead bread" in the New York Times. They have evolved their own recipe and process.

Making your own bread isn't going to save you a lot of money (before you even fire up the oven, a 1.5kg bag of flour is pushing £2). And although the method is very straightforward it does need several hours to rise so you can't really make it on the spur of the moment. But it is satisfying and a nice thing to do at the weekends. Left to rise for too long, the dough will smell boozy and taste yeasty - so don't leave it any more than 12 hours. I try to make the dough last thing on a Friday night, leave it to rise overnight, allow it to prove first thing in the morning and bake it for breakfast or brunch.

500g of Strong White Flour (plain flour just won't work as well)
1 teaspoon of dried yeast (about 7g)
1 teaspoon of salt
375g of luke warm water (use 75% water to flour as a rule of thumb).

1. Mix all of the ingredients using a silicone spatula for about a minute until you have a ball of dough.
2. Cover with cling film or a damp cloth and leave to rise for a minimum of 4 hours.
3. When the dough has doubled in size, fold it over a few times. Dust it in flour, cover and leave for a further 20-30 minutes.
4. Put the saucepan in the oven and heat it up to 220 Celsius.
5. Make sure the dough ball is coated in flour and put it into the saucepan. Put the lid on and bake for 15 minutes.
6. After 15 minutes, take the lid off. The dough should have risen but will still be white. Bake for a further 20 minutes to allow the crust to brown and caramelise slightly.
7. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.

Give it a go, take a photo and let me know how it goes. Make sure your saucepan is oven-proof. I melted the handles on one pot that was meant only for use on the stove! A cast iron Le Creuset pot is ideal!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Masterchef Series 7

A couple of weeks ago I was ready to jump on the bandwagon of food critics and bloggers panning the new format Masterchef. This is the first time that I have watched the series from the beginning. I tend to get more interested as the competition progresses, which is the opposite to X Factor, where I only find the early audition episodes entertaining.

I found the first two episodes incredibly irritating: poor editing and shameless plagiarism of X Factor (sob stories and family hugs) and The Apprentice (shots of the contestants marching). With hardly any focus on the food or cooking, little in the way of judging and over-egged dramatic pauses to create suspense, I came close to turning off the second episode. I'm sure that some of the contestants that were dropped could have done very well in later stages and I'm sure that there are still one or two there that should never have got this far.

Episode three (the egg invention test) continued to disappoint with more infuriating "fast forward" editing which prevented you from getting to know the contestants or see their food. The weird Masterchef obession with the Women's Institute continued as some nobody swanned around only to add nothing to the judging of the roast dinners.

Episode four was better. There was more focus on the food and the previous finalists were able to deliver interesting and added value comments about the food. Episode five (the Highland Games) was a good test of organisation, team work and mass catering but a little unfair to knock someone out on the basis of that their team lost. I don't think Sara (the Italian nurse) is going to be a finalist, but who could expect burly Scotsmen to choose seafood when there is beef and venison on offer.

Last night's episode was more compelling. We are now getting to the stage where you know the contestants' personalities better. There was still some irritating fast forward editing in the middle but this was a real test of food knowledge and inventiveness that brought some unexpected results. Alexis Gauthier brought some gravitas to the judging panel and did so with sincerity and French charm. I would have backed Alice to do something good with her favoured duck, but she was left with slug eyes after crying over her disappointing showing. Kennedy is clearly a good cook but was disappointed with his "plate of slop". What I like about him is that he doesn't go for the cliched sound bites that some of the earlier contestants proferred. He has good attitude and doesn't take himself too seriously.

Where do you stand on the new series of Masterchef?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Green shoots

Bye bye bamboo shoots, hello green shoots? I noticed today on my way to work that Tampopo has been replaced on Fulham Road by Strutt and Parker. When a cheap Asian restaurant gets gazumped by an estate agent, surely it signals the green shoots of recovery?

I also noticed that the site of FishWorks further down Fulham Road, which has been idle for two years since the company went into administration, is being spruced up. I wonder whether the kitchen has been ripped out.

Poor, unloved blog! No entries for almost a month and no photos of Hector. Here is one of him, aged a little over 4 months old. He has started chewing on things now - Sophie the Giraffe is the victim here - suggesting that some teeth may be coming through soon.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Pheasant plucker's son

Hector in a Christmas present from his Grandma

We had our first dinner party of the new year last night with Chompo, Poth, Ben and Rom. We put aside diets and booze-free resolutions to enjoy food, conversation and competition (boys v girls Trivial Pursuit). The evening began with Chompo showing me how to remove the breasts and legs from a pheasant without plucking it. Pheasant casserole this weekend!

Ben brought a jar of chilli chutney, which we tried with both cheddar and Philadelphia. On Boxing Day, his family engage in a competition to produce the finest chutneys and condiments, including horseradish sauce and gentlemen's relish.

Our main course was lamb tagine, which I had cooked on Bank Holiday Monday, served with cous cous and steamed leeks. Like any slow cooked stew, it tasted better after a couple of days in the refrigerator. Jemma livened up the cous cous with some spring onions, dried apricots and pine nuts. Poth produced lemon tart with raspberries and double cream for dessert. Then we retired to the sitting room for coffee,  tea from Orange Pekoe in Barnes and dark chocolate with lavender, which Rom had found in Islington. I never even knew you could eat lavender. The girls won Trivial Pursuit on a Sports question! How can Michael Phelps be the answer to a 6 question?