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, 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