The Great British Menu comes to London

Stephen TerryBank holiday Monday; Susie was working. I went for a cycle, washed the dishes from last night, mopped the kitchen floor, found some great sounds on Spotify (Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Stereolab and the Dead Boys), and read my book (Dead Air by Iain Banks; promising so far …) in the garden. With rain in the air, I then came in and slumped in front of the telly, where Glynn Purnell, James Sommerin et al were trying to impress Oliver Peyton, Pru Leith and Matthew Fort in the new series of the Great British Menu. Queue happy memories of last week’s food highlight.

On Monday evening, the seven finalists of the 2008 series of  the BBC’s Great British Menu took over the Marriott Grosvenor Square to co-host a night of fine dining in aid of their industry charity, Hospitality Action. Here’s their spectacular menu:

  • Canapes (Jason Atherton)
  • Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (Tom Kitchin)
  • Smoked salmon with beetroot jelly, fresh horseradish, sour cream & caviar (Stephen Terry)
  • Poached halibut with cockle & smoked bacon chowder (Danny Millar)
  • Baked cannon of “Lonkshire” lamb, caramelised sweetbreads, Formby asparagus & samphire (Nigel Haworth)
  • Verbena blancmange, early summer fruit probio ‘Nutrasouptical’ & flower tissue (Chris Horridge)
  • Chocolate truffle (Glynn Purnell)

All of their dishes were interesting; inevitably, some appealed more than others. My favourites were Nigel’s sweet lamb, Chris’ blancmange (like eating shampoo, but in a good way), and – best of all – Stephen’s smoked salmon, which was rich, sour, earthy and tart all at once. A triumph that left me planning a trip over the Severn Bridge to eat at his restaurant, the Hardwick, and wanting to try cooking with beetroot.  

[This post was brought to you by the soundtrack to Kundun.)

Croeso i Cymru: learning to cook my mum’s Welsh cakes

Welsh cakes coolingOne of my fondest childhood food memories is of eating freshly baked Welsh cakes straight from the cooling rack, after my mum had made up a fresh batch. Her Welsh cakes are always delicious, but especially so, when still warm from the pan. Today, mum taught me how to make them myself – a major rite of passage, in Lewis family terms.

  • Ingredients:
  • 8oz self-raising flour
  • 2oz margarine
  • 2oz lard
  • 4oz castor sugar
  • 2oz currants
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 1/3tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • Splash milk.

First, slice the lard and margarine into small cubes and rub it into the flour. A light touch is required, to achieve a mixture with the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Next, add the sugar, currants, mixed spice and salt and mix in well. Beat the egg, stir it into the mix with a fork, then use your hands to continue mixing, once the egg has soaked in. The mixture should reach the consistency of short patry. If it is too dry to form a ball, add just a dribble of milk.

On a surface dusted with flour, form the pastry into a flat circle, then roll out until it is a half-centimetre thick. Use a cake cutter to cut out individual rounds. Take a strip of the lard’s wrapping paper and smear a tiny amount of lard around a heavy pan set on a medium heat. Add the cakes and adjust heat so you can hear a very quiet sizzle.

Three minutes on each side should suffice. Once cooked, the cakes will be a rich gold on both sides. Et voila!

See below for the various stages of the process.

Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese

celery and carrotsSunday’s supper was Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese from Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. Since Susie had another Sunday shift, I was free to prepare it early in the afternoon to the strains of 5 Live’s football commentary. I know I should get out more, enjoy the sun, maybe even go for a walk, on Sundays; but I find I’m at my most relaxed at the moment, when I’m in my basement kitchen chopping vegetables and generally pottering about. Here are a few things I learnt from making this rich, comforting and delicious dish:

  • Interestingly, there was no garlic in it.
  • The recipe called for far more chopped carrots and celery than I ever would have imagined.
  • Adding 250ml of full-fat milk realy softened the meat and sweetened the dish.
  • White wine, not read, was added.
  • In total, I reckon it cooked for four hours, on the lowest heat I could manage without the gas going out.
  • Next time I shall cut the carrots and celery finer – they looked chunky and unappealing (hence the choice of an ingredient pic above!)
  • I think it could also stand more nutmeg than Marcella recommends.

Should life be a constant meat feast?

nasi lemakLooking back over my last five posts, I see that I’ve reported on eating steak, lamb chops and lamb shanks. This is pretty much in line with global statistics. According to the Rough Guide to Food:

As a species, we are consuming more meat than ever before: world per capita meat consumption has doubled since the 1960s and, on current projections, by 2050 it will have doubled again.

Of course, much of this is down to the increasing affluence in the developing nations. But the fact remains, that in the West we eat far more meat than we need to. I used to spend half of every year in Southeast Asia with work. Time in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia taught me that tasty meals need not be based on the meat and two veg formula; and that a little meat can go a long way. Meals like Malaysia’s nasi lemak use meat as an accompaniment rather than as a centrepiece, an I think this is a really healthy attitude. Nasi lemak comprises a scoop of white rice cooked in coconut milk, to which is added ikan bilis (small, dried anchovies), roasted peanuts, fried or hard-boiled egg, sambal sauce, slices of cucumber and – perhaps – a small chicken wing or leg, or a small piece of fish. In Indonesia, I often enjoyed plates of rice which drew the majority of their protein count from nuts and tempeh (deep-fried slices of a cake made from fermented soy bean).

It’s a telling fact that, until I spent time in Southeast Asia, I never enjoyed eating meat off the bone. At Sunday lunch I would always ask or breast, not leg or wing. More fool me: not only is the darker chicken meat tastier than breast, but how spoilt I was to think that eating off the bone was somehow unsavoury or inconvenient. In many parts of Southeast Asia, people don;t have the luxury of passing up food on the bone.

In summary, a balanced diet need not revolve around a huge chunk of meat; a little meat can augment a varied dish; and bones are not evil. I must strengthen my resolve to cut down my meat intake.

[This post was brought to you by the excellent – and ad-free BBC coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix]

The enduring appeal of eating like a student

heinzZafferano, Alain Ducasse,  ras el hanout … Scanning some of my recent posts, I’m struck by just what  a faux gourmand I sound. My diet hasn’t always revolved around Michelin stars, champagne and black truffle – and still doesn’t. Back in the day, I liked nothing better than to mix and match a couple of tins and whack their combined contents on a mountain of rice.

Last night, I rolled back the years with a hefty bowl of tuna and baked-bean chilli on rice. As you would imagine, it doesn’t take the cheffing skills of an Escoffier to create this little beauty. You take one large tin of beans, one medium-sized tin of tuna (in spring oil) and stir in a massive shake of chilli powder (imagine you are talc-ing a fat man fresh out of the bath). Cook, then serve on a bed of boiled rice. Fantastic – you can have that one on me, Gordon.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew – and a trip back to school

michael-coaker-classSusie’s at work again. I’m therefore taking the opportunity to dig out Madhur jaffrey’s Indian Cookery and cook an Indian dinner again, while she battles through the crowds of grown men running around London dressed as rhinos, bananas and deep-sea divers to get home. Sometimes I don’t get her determination to drive to work in King’s Cross when she has a Sunday shift. She points out that the trains run up into Victoria less frequently than the rest of the week; but surely that’s just a matter of checking the timetable online? Hey ho, it’s her business; all I’m saying is, I wouldn’t fancy driving across London twice on the day of the London Marathon.

I’m doing Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri red lamb stew. It’s got no onions in it, which will please Susie. Interestingly, there’s also no cumin, coriander or turmeric – this hinges around cloves, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, dried ginger and ground fennel seeds, all of which is bound together with most of a pint of natural yoghurt. (Not to self: what is asafetida and where can I buy it? Wikipedia lists devil’s dung, stinking gum among its nicknames …)

While I was stirring the meat and reducing the yoghurt, I was thinking about a fantastic, life-affirming trip I took to a school in Northolt on Friday morning. I was invited along by Michael Coaker (formerly Executuve chef at the Intercontinental, Park Lane and now a senior lecturer at Thames Valley University) to watch him deliver a Chefs Adopt a School session to some teens with learning difficulties. The charitable project was set up by a cheffing organisation called the Academy of Culinary Arts to introduce kids to the pleasures of eating real, nutritious food. Chefs including the likes of Brian Turner and the Roux family teach kids basic lessons about the food we eat and the sensations they experience when they taste (bitter, sweet …) before teaching them a simple recipe to try themselves.

In Northolt, the kids were spellbound by Michael’s lesson from the second they arrived in the classroom. He had them smelling Coriander, basil and parsley, and forking the flesh from pomegranetes, before showing them how to make tomato, mozzarella and pesto puff pastry tarts and cheese straws (above). And then they were off: flour was sprinkled, pastry rolled, shapes cut and cheese and tomato sliced. I guess what the kids were doing was the same as what I’m doing with this blog: rolling their sleeves up, having some fun, becoming more comfortable around ingredients and learning along the way. If the challenge of twisting raw pastry into spirals had the kids in hysterics, the moment when their tarts came out of the oven and were plated up had them beaming like Cheshire cats. The whole session was fantastic. I wish I could add some photos I took of the class, but I haven’t got clearance from the teacher yet.

When I got home, I spent a few minutes leafing through a book of recipes by Alain Ducasse. I must admit, his endless lists of foie gras, truffle and caviar left me a little cold after having seen how much pleasure had been achieved with a few tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella and a wodge of puff pastry.

[I wrote this post listening to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and watching the helipcopters over the London Marathon]

Spoiled & demoralised by Ritz executive chef John Williams

william-kent-roomSometimes, my amateurish attempts at cooking at home are thrown into start contrast by a restaurant meal of such great beauty and flavour that it takes your breath away. This was the case yesterday, when I went to a lunch in the new wing of the Ritz, the William Kent Room, hosted by the chairman of the UK’s Restaurant Association, Bob Walton.

The Ritz’s Executive Chef, John Williams, is a seriously good cook, and it showed in the menu he laid on for us:

  • Artichoke panna cotta with smoked trout tartare and ginger jelly.
  • Supreme of Bresse chicken with wild mushrooms, salsify and baby leeks, jus naturel and fondant potato.
  • Calvados creme fraiche parfait with caramelised apples and Granny Smith sorbet.

Sadly, the light in the room wasn’t strong enough to allow me to take shots. Take it from me, that all three courses were works of art. I can do ladle-fulls of sauces, stews and curries. Chefs can create perfect discs, pryamids, cylinders and cubes, and hair-fine strands of food. Perhaps I should just give up and write a blog about my favourite programmes on the telly …