Mummy’s Little Helper

August 15, 2011

Ask anyone where they got their passion for cooking from and more often than not they will immediately drop their heads to the floor, begin to fumble with a button at the bottom of their shirt and raise an awkward left foot onto tippy toes before answering, “in my Mummy’s kitchen”. Shortly after this brief retreat back to childhood, it is then quite normal for the person in question to expand, quite vividly, upon a detailed history of peeling, baking, chopping, stirring, and tasting, all by their Mother’s side. Knee high to a grass hopper is demonstrated by level palm and the battered stool to reach the counter top is reminisced with tearful joy. Before long, they start boasting that they we’re doing the Sunday dinner at the age of 6 and had cracked champagne sabayon way before the first hairy shoots of pubescence appear. Such is the wunderkind who owes it all to Mother.

Well I have to say from personal experience, that this is a load of rubbish. And before I go any further, I should tell you that am reliving, in part, a tale I heard from a chef in a tv studio. As I sat there, listening to him regale an over romanticized upbringing of culinary enlightenment starting at the age of 3 (all of which of course was all down to his dear, dear Mummy) I found myself desperately wanting to shake him and slap him and scream “THIS IS NOT TRUE!” Why? Because I’ve got kids myself and despite all my best efforts, the pair of them are absolutely crap in the kitchen. Have you seen their pastry? By the time it goes in the oven, it’s grey, malformed and usually has a brick of Lego stuck in it. And we can never ever get frigging cupcakes baked, you know why? Because the bloody mixture always gets eaten before it can be spooned into the paper cases and the hundreds and thousands usually gets scattered into hundreds and thousands on the kitchen floor. And as for chopping vegetables, how difficult is it to mirepoix some onion, carrots and celery? Quite difficult with a plastic knife by all accounts but the fact that the twins still haven’t got to grasps with redumentary chopping techniques drives me up the bloody wall.

So in short, anyone who opines that they caught the cooking bug by helping their Mum in the kitchen is a bloody liar. Like Nicola from The Shed, she’s a bloody liar. I’m not buying into the ol’ ‘there used to be a mark on a cupboard in our kitchen where I used to balance and scrape my cooking stool against it’. I don’t believe that she ever made cakes and pastry with her mum and that her childhood was always a wandering journey of homemade feasts, picnics and eating out. Ditching university to work at Foreman and Field sounds like a complete nonsense to me (although she now works at Hubbub – a food delivery company in Norf Landaan that utilises local shops). And to suggest that her supperclub was only ever to be a venture to push her cooking futher and to have fun, yes fun! Well come on, Nicola, you’re making this shit up aren’t you?

Maybe she’s not.

Because her Mexican meatballs, complete with hot chilli sauce, gremolata and rice was pretty amazing. Spicy and tangy but not as hot as Nicola feared, the meatballs were fantastically moist, well seasoned with hints of lime and chipotle, the rice was plain and simple. Her dessert of meringues with strawberries and caramel sauce was an absolute belter. Delicately formed tears of crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside meringue, decorated with what, food colouring? I dunno but they were great with chopped strawberries and drizzled with sweet toffee flavoured, caramel sauce and cream. A real, naughty, decadent dish and delicious meal overall. Hard to believe that Nicola rustled it up after a night on the razz but we’ll won’t tell her Mum about that.

And as for me. Well I obviously have to pull my socks up where the twins are concerned. Either that or pass the baton to Mrs FU.

Thanks for a lovely kick start to WMPC Nicola, I hope you enjoyed the wine!

So who is next?

Meringue Yo! Rice Yo! Strawberries Yo! Meatballs Yo! Thundercats Yo!

Saponara, an Italian deli that is on the Hubbub rostra I believe

Mexican Meatballs with Gremolata and Rice

Meringues with Strawberries, Caramel Sauce and Cream

I drank the rest of the caramel sauce afterwards
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Marrow Rum Update

August 9, 2011

In these scary, portentous and angry times, it doesn’t feel right to be flippant but as I am absolutely fucked off with everything and haven’t posted in a while, in an effort to lighten the mood and to get this blog fired up again, I thought I would give you all an update on my marrow rum. This rum or grog or batshit bizarre bongo juice has been gurgling away in my kitchen for the last few weeks now and just the other day, I took the brave steps to sample some. These were the unexpected results.

Like I said, the marrow has been sitting quite benignly in the corner of our kitchen for some time now. I had sealed the bugger up pretty well, using sellotape at first and then moving onto clingfilm. If it hadn’t been for the attention of the odd fruit fly, I may well have forgotten about it but I do distinctly remember walking into the room thinking ‘where the hell are all these fruit flies coming from?’ and my eyes zeroed in on said corner. ‘Aha, lets see how the ol‘ marrow rum is getting on’ I thought. It was 10 in the morning.

Brushing the fruit flies away, I peeled off the clingfilm, popped the top of the marrow off and peered down into the abyss.

If I were to be really honest, looking at it, well it reminded me of a terrible case of bum gravy I once encountered in Zimbabwe a long, long time ago. But the fierce scent of alcohol was searing the hairs of my nostrils, clean off in fact, so I felt encouraged enough to pour some off into a glass using a funnel and an old pair of my wife’s tights (at least I think they were old).

It still looked like bum gravy but the more vegetal, floral notes of the hooch started to emanate from the glass and I began to grin at this point. Sure it looks pretty grim, I thought but as experiments in home brewing go, this could be a success! Buoyed by a resurging confidence and a quick fire business plan to enter the drinks market with my new range of ‘vegetable-based’ rums, I toasted to a premature success.

I brought it to my lips. And my nipples exploded.

And then I turned into Edgar from Men In Black.

Can I say anything further on the tasting? Well no. I am really sorry but I really can’t at present. Well apart from “er, it needs tweaking”. I can say this though, I’ve tried some more tonight and given the transformation, I feel fully prepared to hit the streets and scare the bejesus out of the little fucking shits who are rampaging throughout our cities.

Keep an eye out for me on the news in the morning…………..

Bag of Meat

July 25, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I had what I like to call a ‘Charlie Bucket’ moment. But before I go any further, perhaps I should explain exactly what that is and in order to do so we need to cast our minds back to the final scene of that camp and slightly sinister classic from 1971, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka, Grandpa Joe and Charlie Bucket have just miraculously smashed through the glass factory roof in a glass elevator and are flying through the air, surveying the wonderful Bavarian scenery below. After a short period of uplifting violins and wonderment, Willy Wonka (or Gene Wilder rather) then delivers his coup de theatre, revealing that he wants to pass on the chocolate factory and all that it encompasses to Charlie Bucket. For me this is the pivotal point of the film. Because the look that Charlie Bucket shoots back at Willy Wonka is truly, a thing of beauty. This simple, well executed look symbolises in one short, sharp hit the realisation that after a lifetime of poverty, desperation and grime, everything is finally about to change. It is both glorious and heartbreaking to watch and why child actor, Peter Ostrum didn’t get any work after that film is beyond me. So, simply put, a ‘Charlie Bucket’ moment occurs when all your dreams come true.

My CB moment happened in Porterford Butchers and fellow blogger MiMi from Meemalee’s Kitchen was my very own personal Willy Wonka. I had heard her talk about this butchers on Watling Street before, wittering on about buying ‘bags of meat’ but I always assumed MiMi was just getting her protein haul in for cooking in the week ahead. The carnivorous chanteuse that she is. But then I met her recently for lunch and she suggested that we get a bag of meat to eat. This was a curious proposition and I have to say I wasn’t quite prepared when I walked in through the door of Porterford Butchers that day. Standing behind a winding queue of city gents, the shop itself seemed fairly regular as we slowly shuffled past a respectable display of joints and meats but then the suits fell away and I found myself basking in the warm glow of halogen lamps. The sight in front of me was one to behold and took my breath away. A cabinet jam packed with endless varieties of cooked meat. Sausages, chops, ribs, steaks, breasts, legs, kebabs, you name it, it was there. And the only concession to your five-a-day was a tray of sticky looking roast potatoes.

I looked at MiMi with a tear in my eye and she just put her hand on my shoulder, offering warm support. The guy behind the counter then chirped up in brusque fashion, asking “what would you like sir?” Mindful I think of the growing queue behind me. “When can I move my family in?”, I replied. Which prompted a frown from said guy and a jab in the side from MiMi. “I’ll have two ribs, two sausages, a jerk chicken leg, a minted lamb chop and some roast potatoes please.” And he duly handed it all over in foil-lined bag.

I had just bought my first bag of meat. Naughty, delicious, guilty and salty but after scoffing the lot, it felt like I was on top of the world. You should go, you might get to feel like Charlie Bucket too.


Some of the photos are courtesy of MiMi.

Courgette Soup and Marrow Rum

July 14, 2011

It’s all gone a bit mad down the allotment, especially with our courgette plants, they seem to be growing and fruiting at an exponential rate. Pick one healthy size specimen, return a couple of days later and bang, a pair of bruising green truncheons appear in it’s place. Leave it a week or so and woof, the zucchini transform into massive weighty clubs, fit for cavemen and trolls. It must be the wet but warm weather we’ve been having. Although I think the fact that I’ve left the plant’s man and lady parts alone this year has helped too. You know, their flowers. Last year, I kept snipping off these delicate golden blossoms for stuffing and tempura, ignorant of the fact that I was making the plant less fertile and the yield was a lot lower as result. I feel a bit ashamed actually. The arguments I must have caused due to tension, frustration and feelings of inadequacy. The turning of backs, hitting of pillows, whispered name calling, ‘flopsie wopsie‘, oh dear. But like I said, I have let the bees and Mother Nature do their thang this season and we really are reaping the benefits. So much so that we appear to be heading towards a ‘glut’ – a word which in itself seems have connotations of wanton abandonment – and so I have had to resort to extreme measures to cull the tide. In other words, I’ve been making soup, that great subjugator of excess food stuffs.

Courgette soup comes in many guises and with this fruit as a base, it seems like you can run off in various directions. During research on t’internet, I discovered that carrot, mint, watercress, curry powder (a Pear Cafe suggestion), tomatoes, chickpeas all make happy bedfellows but yesterday I plumped for a traditional Italian combination of courgette and parmesan. This is a slightly bastardised version of a recipe I found here to accommodate the quantity of courgettes I had. I also omitted some ingredients such as the cream simply because I didn’t have any lying around in the fridge but I am not sure the soup needs it as courgettes do have an inherent, lush creaminess when cooked nice and soft which goes well the salty bite of the cheese. Great served warm but I bet it would be equally delicious cold.

Courgette and Parmesan Soup
serves 4 (with some to go in the freezer afterwards)

ingredients

50 gms butter and a healthy splash of olive oil

5 garlic gloves, chopped

handful of basil leaves, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 and half kgs of courgettes, quartered and sliced into 1cm rounds

1 litre of vegetable stock (I used Marigold Swiss Vegetable Boullion)

100 gms of finely grated parmesan cheese, plus some to serve

salt and pepper, for seasoning

method

Take a large pan and heat oil and butter until its foams and then add the courgettes, garlic, basil and bay leaf and cook gently for 10 minutes or so until courgettes are soft.

Take about a quarter of courgettes out and then add the stock and simmer for 10 minutes, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly, take out the bay leaf and then blitz in a food processor or blender.

Pour the soup back into the pan and place onto a low heat, add the cheese and stir through until it has melted and warmed through. Season for taste, although you probably won’t need much salt. Ladle into a bowl and spoon some of the reserved courgette into the middle. Sprinkle with some extra parmesan and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil around the outside of your courgette pile for poncy presentation effect.

Courgette and Parmesan Soup

Now I was always of the opinion that marrows were just overgrown courgettes and as they both member of the squash family, it’s not too far flung a belief to behold. After all, when a courgette becomes huge and bloated with water it tastes exactly like marrow and therefore is pretty bland to boot. This didn’t discourage us in sowing some marrow seeds earlier this year but after facing this recent onslaught of courgettes, I’ve been scratching around for alternatives this Daddy which rose into view across the allotment path like “wot no” Chad.

Again, I did a bit of research online and some unusual ideas did come up such as marrow and ginger jam which is pretty intriguing but then my eyes zeroed in on a recipe for marrow which featured the magic word ‘Rum’. And then a ping of deja vu zipped through my brain. ‘Didn’t Helen of Food Stories say she was going to make rum with a big, fat marrow that I gave her as part of WMPC?’ I asked her on Twitter and the answer was verily, “No! Bugger! Didn’t get around to it”.

I think I got to the shops and back within ten minutes, juggling bags of demerara sugar.

So yes, I am now on a journey to procure some of my very own hooch. There are many questions surrounding this project. Such as will this actually bloody well work? And what is the legality of making your own rum at home? Is it in fact rum or something entirely else? Grog? Minging marrowy mead? To be honest, I haven’t got the faintest clue to any of these questions but still, it is all rather exciting and I hope to report back in a few weeks time with the outcome. My only real reservation is an innate worry that the stuff will turn out to be as potent as some poteen that I tried way back in my uni days, having been smuggled in from Ireland. After only a couple of glugs, I had a conversation with Elvis, went blind in one eye and woke up in a pool of my own vomit and urine. I doubt or at least very much hope that the same will happen here. In the meantime, here is a little pictorial of the first stages of my making marrow rum. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Take your marrow, cut the stem end off and hollow out all the pith and seeds.

Fill the cavity with demerara sugar (roughly 3kgs)

Pour in some orange juice and activated bread yeast (not pictured)

Stir and marvel at the concoction and wonder, will it work? Will it?

Place stem end back on top, seal with sellotape and leave for 3 weeks in a muslin bag (not pictured). The second stage involves some filtering into a demi john or something but I haven’t got that far yet. Whoop!

A review of some cookbooks wot I recently got

June 26, 2011

“Morning darling, now listen up a second will you. How is it that when we last went shopping *BONK!!!!* I wasn’t allowed to buy a dress *THWHACK!!!!* because we’re watching the pennies and yet you *KERPLUNK!!!!* can buy all of these books online? Why is that darling? Can you explain? *SHHPLANNKKK!!!!*

Bleary-eyed, bewildered and ever so slightly battered, I finally awake. Thinking that the ceiling has possibly collapsed on my head, I peer through a gap and spot her at the base of the bed, arms crossed with one brow raised in an arch of grievance. Having glanced at the logos on the cardboard pressed against my face, my frazzled brain begins to put the pieces together and and it soon becomes clear that my recent purchases from Amazon have arrived. Purchases which fly in the face of recent protestations of clothes purchased a few days previous. I breathe in deeply and take my time, trying to think of the best way to respond to such an abrupt alarm call. Finally, I decide that this situation is best dealt with a degree of tact and humility so I rise up and take action.

“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU SCARED THE LIFE OUT OF ME! AND THESE BOOKS, THESE BLOODY BOOKS ARE GOING TO SAVE US MONEY. YOU DAMN, BLOODY WOMAN!”

*PWINK!!!!*

You know what? I wish I had seen the wooden hair brush in my wife’s hand before I said that. Because of all the items that were thrown at my head that fateful morning, it was the brush that really, really…really smarted.

I am grateful to say that such scenes of domestic strife rarely happen in our household but before I carry on with this brief review of cookbooks wot I recently got, I would just like to announce to husbands and boyfriends of the world: If you decide to have a splurge chaps, always have stuff sent to the office.

Nuff said.

So first is up is Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden. Now I know James fairly well having met him on numerous occasions and I’ve also nipped up to his flat in North London a couple of times to eat at the popular supper club he runs with his sister. He is friendly, funny, young, good looking, writes well and most importantly, James is a great cook. Which makes him a bit of a bastard in my book. And when I first thumbed through his authorial debut, I was slightly dismissive. Recipes using tinned goods from the cornershop? Vignettes of late night feasts after the pub closes? Definitions of harissa, sousing and trendy Hoxton drinks? What the hell could this whippersnapper ever have to say to me? A tired, balding, family man in his mid 30’s? “Bastard!” I screamed again, flinging the book into a corner. But since that outburst, I have to say I’ve been having a proper ferret through and I really am starting to warm to his ideas and recipes. Particularly the notion that cooking should be stress free and enjoyable and that we should all feel free to twist or tweak dishes without constraint. A no brainer suggestion really and one that plants James firmly in the accessible ‘cooks’ camp of food writing over the sometimes overly technical ‘chefs’ camp. Which isn’t to say that the recipes are ordinary. Far from it and I am very eager to try his Ox Cheek Chilli and Pork Wellington, fantastic alternatives to familiar dishes. I’ve already taken on board his Lemongrass and Basil Granita for my supper club. If I can let the jealousy subside for long enough then I might give credit where credit’s due if it goes on the menu again but in the meantime, Small Adventures is an assured first outing and James is worthy to be considered a ‘New Voice’ in food. The bastard.

Next is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, another debut that has been much lauded by all and sundry, winning prize after prize. Before I kick off, you should know that the actual basis for buying this compendium of flavour pairings and combinations was due to the fact that I must have spent more on overdue library fines borrowing the book rather than owning the damn thing. I have been keeping this greedily to myself for the last 6 months or so without renewing so hurrahs all round then because this really is a great book, one that I am now proud to own. And now the people of Upminster might be able to take a peek at it too. So what’s so good about it? Well by turns the book is informative, enlightening, intelligent, humorous and also makes for great reading in the toilet where it’s all peaceful and quiet. Simply put, Segnit takes 99 ingredients and then groups them using themes, applying characteristics to each group such as ‘Earthy’ or ‘Spicy’. And then she goes on to suggest pairings and recipes, some which are familiar such as lamb and mint. And some that are down right strange, such as bananas and bacon (think Devils on Horseback but with er bananas instead of prunes). At times it’s bonkers stuff but everything is made all the more entertaining by Segnit’s notes, personal stories and the historical references that she’s unearthed for each suggestion. All in all she comes up with 980 different pairings offering an abundance of opportunity for the adventurous and not so adventurous cook. I particularly liked her take on that MasterChef classic, black pudding and scallop. As she vividly described in The Flavour Thesaurus, the scene of a delicate bivalve “trembling like an ingénue, on a filthy old black pudding’s knee”, for some reason I couldn’t help but think of Greg’s gurning, sweaty face. A brilliant book that I will keep dipping in and out of for a long time to come

The Frugal Cook by Fiona Beckett came out a couple of years ago and may well have passed me by hadn’t it been for some debate on Twitter regarding Sainsbury’s ‘Feed a Family for £50’ campaign. Mindful of our increasing food budget at home, I was chatting and sparring with other tweeters as to whether it offered a good deal or whether it just offered a boring, carb-loaded and somewhat un-ethical diet. Especially when it came to provenance and quality of ingredients. Fiona then entered the fray on line saying that she always believed that you were going to be better off buying every couple of days over a whole week’s shop, thus reducing potential for waste. She also added that if you can be strict with your shopping list and plan ahead and resist temptation in supermarkets then there’s no reason why your food shop should ever be overly expensive. With a final remark she casually threw in “I’ve got lots of other tips in my book you know, incidently the second edition has just come out” and then whoosh, she was out of the room. And so I headed straight for Amazon. Authors of the world, this is Twitter at it’s best, engage with your audience and they will buy your book. At least I will anyway. I must admit I’ve yet to explore Fiona Beckett’s book properly and pick out some recipes to try although I have taken on board some of the golden rules to cut your food bills. Such as shopping only when you really need to and to avoid impulse buying. Though it is interesting, standing there in the aisle, wrestling the inner demons within my soul whenever I start to reach for two bumper bags of Twiglets on special offer. Must. Buy. Twiglets. No Luke! Use The Force Luke! Use The Force!

The last book in this merry bunch is Offal: The Fifth Quarter by Anissa Helou, a sensuous celebration of all the bits and bobs of the animal that we tend to ignore. The head, the tail, the feet and the ‘oh-my-God I can’t look’ innards. I didn’t say that but I have heard a squeamish couple squeal the very same in the butchers before, gibbering madly at a tray of kidneys. And I get the feeling that this is the kind of response that Anissa Helou is trying to rally against, not that she delivers the message in a preachy, holier than thou way. No, as she interweaves childhood memories and other stories into the recipes along with some lipsmacking photography, the whole approach is one of encouragement. And some of the recipes look very good indeed. I’ve already made her Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird’s Eye Chillies which was surprisingly simple and fiery hot (probably a touch too hot as I went against her instruction and also added 2 scotch bonnets – ouch) but it aptly demonstrated just how delicious offal can be so please do try the recipe below. And there are tons of other recipes to have a crack at yet. I am actually thinking about putting on an offal-only dinner party for some of my more adventureous friends and family. Or what about an offal theme for a supper club? The shopping list is bound to produce quizzical looks from my butcher though. And from the people standing around me. Asking for cock’s combs will probably elicit the biggest response and I will have to explain further that I am after the fleshy, red comb that adorns the top of a rooster’s head. And not some toothed device to carry out some funky pubic topiary.

Jamaican Oxtail in Red Wine with Bird’s Eye Chillies
serves 4

2-3 tablespoons coconut oil
750g oxtail
1 bird’s eye chilli
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped celery
2 mild chilli peppers
1 whole head garlic, cut in half
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
120ml tomato ketchup
120ml good red wine

Method

Put the coconut oil in a large saute pan and place over a medium-high heat. Add the oxtail and the chilli and brown the oxtail, taking care not to let the chilli burst.

Add the onions, celery, peppers and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to tast and cookm stiring occasionally, until the onion has softened.

Stir in the ketchup and let it bubble for a few seconds. Then add the wine and let in bubble for a minute or so. Stir in 120ml water. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered for a couple of hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. Check on the sauce every now and then to see that it doesn’t dry out. If it gets too dry, add a little water. Taste and adjust the seasoning at the end of cooking. Remove the bird’s eye chilli and serve very hot, accompanied with plain rice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get myself off to Primark. I’ve seen a copy of the dress that Mrs FU was after in there.

Much cheaper.

Foraging with The Fat Hen and unearthed

June 16, 2011

It’s 2011 BC and a rag tag group of Celts are standing around in a circle at some remote coastal location in Kernow, all clutching straws. Adorned with animal skins and feathers and smothered in wode, the mood seems pensive and tense. Eyes flick back and forth towards a strange bush situated near the edge of a cliff. A grunt is issued from one older looking man, quite possibly some kind of shaman given the fact that a badger skull is jauntily perched on his head and everyone simultaneously opens their hands. There is a collective sigh and general murmur of approval and relief amongst everyone. Except for one rather small chap whose face drops into a frame of intense sadness and anxiety as he stares down as the short straw in his palm. The shaman notices this and motions towards the bush with a bark and a thrust of his gnarled wooden stick. Slowly but surely the small chap edges towards the bush and somewhat shakily stretches his hand towards it. Again, all becomes quiet. With a swift movement he grabs a clump of leaves and stuffs them into his mouth, chews down fiercely and then swallows. Time seems to stand still. Only the gentle breaking of waves on the cliff face below interrupts the silence. The small guy blinks and then lifts his hand, motioning to the group with a victorious thumbs up before suddenly clutching his stomach. He then screams, staggers back and falls off the cliff. Everyone’s shoulders collectively sag before badger man motions everyone to move on in single file. As they trudge off, a frowning misfit right at the back begins to whisper to his consort in front.

“ You know the same thing happened to Barry last week don’t you, I think the old man is starting to lose the plot. How are you dealing with the mushrooms he made you eat?

“Polly wants a cracker. Polly wants a cracker”

“Ah that’s great”, he mutters to himself, looking up to the sky. “That’s just bloody great…..”

Now let’s fast forward to a rugged outcrop near Penzance in modern day Cornwall and this is precisely the scenario that enters my head. I’m standing there in the pouring rain, clutching a single green leaf, poised to place it in my mouth. I’m not worried or anything. I have total faith in our guide, Caroline Davey of The Fat Hen. But then suddenly, I am dumbstruck by this strange sense of awe, this bizarre feeling of wonderment, this notion that when it comes to foraging wild food and garnering all that knowledge down throughout the ages, that simply hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people must have died along the way. If it wasn’t for all those poor souls, those hunter gatherers who unintentionally carked it, well we wouldn’t be here would we. None of us would. ‘This is amazing’, I think to myself and I am desperate to share this anthropological epiphany with Caroline and the rest of the group. But having turned up to the unearthed Foraging Masterclass in shorts, trainers and with no waterproofs whatsoever, I felt it would be best that I keep this little revelation to myself. You know, to save any further embarrassment.

Shaky evolutionary theories aside, I have to say that I had a very enjoyable albeit soggy time down in the south west last Friday with unearthed and The Fat Hen. Arriving early in Penzance via the overnight sleeper from Paddington (or ‘sleepless’ as it is also known as according to Ismay, she’s right) our merry band were transported to Fat Hen headquarters for a breakfast of fresh bread, japanese knotweed jam and sloe gin before heading out into the wilderness. The main aim of morning as you might expect from a foraging masterclass was to learn all about wild food. A subject I thought that I knew a little bit about but after just a few minutes in the company of Caroline – botanist, ecologist and professional forager – it seems that I’ve been kidding myself. With an easy, warm manner she dispensed lots of information, expertly pointing out each plant to our group, it’s latin name, properties and culinary uses. What astonished me most was the seeming abundance and availability of edible plants that can be found on such a short walk by the sea but saying that, Caroline was eager to encourage of sense of respect and responsibility. Take only the very common plants such as nettles, alexanders and sorrel, use scissors to cut leaves and leave more than half the plant to grow back were just some of the mottoes of the day. The best part though of course was plucking leaves to smell and taste. Towards to the end of the walk we wandered into a Tolkien inspired woodland and picked some wood sorrel which had a much subtler citrus note than the common variety, it’s certainly an ingredient I’d like to discover closer to where I live.

Accompanying us on the walk was Simon Day, founder of unearthed and I sidled up to him at one point to ask “so what are you doing here anyway?” because at first I couldn’t make the connection between an importer of continental artisan food stuffs and the really wild stuff. Simon explained that on his travels around Europe looking for different producers, he noticed that a lot of areas thrive on a wild food culture and foster a symbiotic connection between making food and foraging food. Plates of charcuterie, slabs of pate, bowls of olives served up on tables in quiet, dusty villages will often have been made or presented with foraged ingredients. So Simon thought it would be fun to see what The Fat Hen could come up with using some of the products in their range. This did beg the question as to why weren’t we using artisanal foods from Cornwall then, a nice local cheese for instance but Simon just smiled wryly and said that he was looking into sourcing some British products for unearthed. I hope he does. We had a really good chat and a giggle on the walk, although I could have started off better. I actually kicked off with “so how long have you been with Unearthed?” “Er, I started the company Danny.” “Ah…….” Sometimes ignorance isn’t bliss.

Having then spent the morning wandering around, gaily skipping around in the rain, snipping leaves and flowers to put in my basket, it was soon time to get back to Fat Hen farmhouse kitchen for the important part, lunch. For this part and as part of her Gourmet Wild Food Weekends, Caroline employs the considerable talents of local chef and tutor, Mark Devonshire. I met Mark many years ago at Rick Steins Cookery School and although I don’t think he remembered me, he still remains the funny, cocksure chef with a penchant for olive oil and cling film from way back when. Caroline and Mark had evidently put a great deal of time and thought into combining the foraged ingredients with the range from unearthed and sitting around a table listening to Mark explain the menu whilst nibbling on canapes and drinking wine was very pleasant indeed. Well it would be wouldn’t it.

Canapes came in the form of Pork rillets with pickled rock samphire on sourdough toasts, Chorizo, cornish scallops and wood sorrel and Saucisson Sec with crispy laver seaweed were all delicious. The saucisson and seaweed was amazing actually. Soft, garlicky slivers of pork salami wrapped around crunchy laver proved to be a devious incitement to filing my stomach up but I was able to walk some off before heading into the goat barn for the main event. To start we had Nettle rotolo with barrel aged feta cheese and wilted wild greens, accompanied with a fantastically punchy wild salsa verde. For main we had Monkfish wrapped in wild herbs (wild fennel, wild chervil) and Serrano ham, served with a marsh samphire rosti and a rock samphire fritter. And dessert came in the form of Panettone and elderflower bread and butter pudding with eldeflower ice cream and elderflower fritter.

The sign of a good meal is usually silence but as we all got stuck in, the air was often punctuated with “ooh that’s different” and “now what does that remind me of?” which is testimony to the fact that whilst our palates and brains were recognising the flavours, the use of wild ingredients meant everything was just ever so slightly off kilter. And I say that in a good way. It was like discovering something new but which is not new. If you get my drift. But most importantly, there was a nice balance throughout. The aforementioned punchy salsa verde was offset by the creamy feta in the rotolo, the herbs complimented the monkfish and serrano ham and the elderflower ice cream? Well that’s a kingly addition to any kind of pudding in my opinion, it seems to be made for sweets. It was, in short, an excellent lunch.

Brimming and tired, I have to admit I was happy to get back to the hotel for a late afternoon snooze but happier still for meeting up with Caroline and Mark at The Fat Hen and Simon from unearthed and trying their gorgeous food. But the sweat drenched nightmares later that evening? Of ghostly ancient ancestors, pawing at me with wide eyes and foaming mouths? Warning me – “Stay away Danny! Stay away from the cow parsley!”

Well I wasn’t too happy about that.

Thanks to Unearthed and Wild Card for the invite down to Cornwall.

Nettle rotolo with barrel aged feta cheese and wilted wild greens and wild salsa verde

Monkfish wrapped in wild herbs (wild fennel, wild chervil) and Serrano ham, served with a marsh samphire rosti and a rock samphire fritter.

Panettone and elderflower bread and butter pudding with eldeflower ice cream and elderflower fritter
Sloe gin, bread and japanese knotweed jam

Mallow flowers, Caroline holding a dock leaf, hogweed

Dunno what Caroline is holding here (can’t remember), rock samphire, foraging said samphire

Giant burdock leaves, black mustard, elderflower

Wild fennel, beautiful woodland, wood sorrel

Chorizo and scallops, rotolo, crispy laver seaweed

Caroline’s store cupboard, Unearthed charcuterie and cheeses

The Goat Barn, Mark Devonshire, Fat Hen HQ

Food Urchin Supper Club Menu – 24th June 2011

June 14, 2011
Garlic grown by my own fair hand

When it comes to running a supper club, the one thing I’ve been looking forward to is being able to utilise the garden and the allotment. And now that the growing season is fully underway, I am happy as Larry to say that the fruits of our labour are starting er, well fruit and I can now start to incorporate home grown produce into our menus.

“Aha!” I hear you say. “That’s because you’re going to improve your profit margin eh? Using all this stuff you’ve grown for free”

Well no because of course home grown produce doesn’t come for free. If we forget the actual cost of seeds for a second and actually factor in the man-hours and physical work, the digging, the muck spreading, the sweat, the watering, the toil and the profanity (oh my god the profanity). No growing your own fruit and vegetables comes at a high price indeed. But when you prepare and transfer this food to the plate and take it to the table, you are offering something else over shop bought ingredients. And that is love, care and devotion*. And just a little bit of pride. For the Food Urchin, this is a rather sentimental statement to make but if you like the look of the menu and fancy coming along to FU Mansions in Hornchurch next Friday night, don’t be surprised if I plonk your plate down and tearfully wail “I bloody grew those potatoes I did” before shuffling back into the kitchen an emotional mess.

Here is the menu.

Broad Beans and Black Pudding with Mint and Fennel on Sourdough Toast (see here for recipe)

Lamb Shoulder Braised in White Wine and Garlic with Roast New Potatoes and Sautéed Swiss Chard.

Summer Pudding with Elderflower Cream.

Plus homemade bread and palate cleanser. Vegetarian options and iced tap water available on request. BYO booze. All for suggested donation of £20.00.

There are are currently 12 spaces left.

Please contact me at foodurchin@yahoo.co.uk for reservations.

Cherries to be (controversially) included in the Summer Pudding

The Fiddle and The Faff

June 9, 2011

During my time as my man and boy, I’ve heard lots of people extol the virtues of simply spending time in the kitchen preparing fruit and vegetables, happily easing themselves through the day with a spud in one hand and a peeler in the other. And I have to agree. There really is something quite pleasant about whittling away minutes, hours or days at the sink. Stopping occasionally from time to time to contemplatively stare out the window zone out and pause. Very nice. This state of zen is normally interrupted by a prod in the backside by a wayward son with a light saber or a vision of the cat squatting over my beloved zinnias but nevertheless, this state of grace, however long it last is a very pleasant place to be. I do get caught out sometimes, particularly with aubergines. I think it’s something to do with the lovely firm purple skin of this very sexy looking fruit. Standing there grinning with heavy eyelids, cupping the base as though it were a buttock, I easily become distracted and lost in time, thinking lascivious thoughts of yielding, soft flesh. ‘Oooh, I am gonna flame grill you until you drip all over the hob, you saucy little thing you’. Again, in this incidence, things usually come crashing to earth when Mrs FU slaps my out of my stupor and tells me to get on with the baba ganoush. But for even if it’s just a little while, it’s beautiful space to inhabit. Just beautiful.

Not all vegetable preparation needs to be meditative or titilating though. Many a squash has been cleaved in half with the zeal of Jason Voorhees which of course helps to release tension, frustration and anger. Sometimes I find it very soothing to personify said vegetable, even going so far as to stick a photograph onto my butternut before sticking my cook’s knife in and slashing it down the middle whilst screaming “DIE! DIE! DIE!”. I have done this a lot lately which is probably not healthy but hey, it keeps me out of jail. However, some preparation of fruit and vegetables do sadly racket up the blood pressure due to their sheer finicky attitudes to life. I love gooseberries but I hate top and tailing the buggers. And why, I ask myself, do sulphourous brussels sprouts have to be crossed at Christmas time? And just what is the point of globe artichokes? Never has a vegetable have to give up so much for so little. Well that’s my experience anyway, detractors have commented on the size of my artichokes in the past. The humble broad bean is similar in some ways in that you have to pod them from their fluffy overcoats and then further remove them out of their little jackets. To me this is the veritable padlock on a pair of knickers which is time consuming and fiddly to unlock. (The key of course is to blanch the beans for just a minute or so and then they will pop out with nick from your thumbnail and a gentle squeeze.)

Still the rewards are great because this sweet green little bean is very tasty indeed and I always look forward to this time of year when they are ready for harvesting from the allotment. We don’t grow many and for that I am grateful but once I’ve got the fiddle and the faff out of the way, I always end up being rather grateful for them. If that makes any sense.

With this year’s batch I made Habas y Morcilla or broad beans and black pudding to you and me. In fact, the black pudding came from Bury and not Spain so this dish does have a fervently British slant to it, he says triumpantly and I urge you to try this handsomely moreish recipe which I got from the first Moro cookbook. It really is worth the effort.

Habas y Morcilla – serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil

200 g morcilla (or Bury black pudding) cut into 1cm slices

2 cloves garlic sliced

Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds

1.5 kg broad beans – to yield approximately 500gms of podded beans

100 ml chicken stock

A good handful of fresh mint roughly chopped

sea salt and black pepper

Method

Warm the oil in a fryin pan over a medium heat and then throw in the black pudding. Leave for a minute or two, making sure that the pudding crisps up but doesn’t break down. Put to one side.

In the same pan fry the garlic and fennel for a minute until the garlic begins to colour and the throw in the broan beans, pour on the stock and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the beans become tender. Throw the black pudding back in the pan to warm through and right at the last minute toss in the mint. Serve up with griddled bread. Delicious.

From this….

to this…

and this…..

then this…..

and then finally this….

……phew!

How To Celebrate National Barbecue Week Without A Barbecue

June 2, 2011

By all accounts it’s National Barbecue Week. “Good grief, really?” I hear you yawn. Yes it is. And yes, whilst at times it feels like there’s not a week that goes by without some preceding nomenclature to promote some cause – last week was National Incontinence Week which ran the slogan ‘Hey! It’s OK to piss yourself!’ – I do believe that as a nation we should get behind the campaign and celebrate this wonderful way of cooking. Sure along the way there will be sunburn, liver failure, food poisoning and statistically, at least two deaths from petrol being thrown on the fire but that shouldn’t stop us because something else at stake here. And that is pride. You see over the pond, our US counterparts tend to scoff at our interpretation of barbecuing favouring smoking and cooking huge joints and carcasses, normally from piggies, indirectly in cavernous barrels. On stilts. The meat will have been thoroughly rubbed (and in some cases dry humped) with piquant spices and cooked for 12 days until the flesh falls off the bone in ribbons and can be collected from the bottom of said barrels, scooped up with alooominum buckets. All then to be slapped onto individual platters with ‘slaw, whatever that is and smothered with a rich vinegary, mustardy tomato-based sauce. This sauce by the way is normally knocked up by pouring all the industrial sized components into a bath and then a guy called ‘Jed’ will climb inside and writhe about with no clothes on.

It sounds disgusting doesn’t it.

No give me five minutes of prodding sausages around the grill with a fork until it’s black on the outside and pink in the middle any day of the week. I might simultaneously singe the hairs on my eyebrows and knuckles as I bend down to scrutinise the one damn sausage that has lept into the fiery pit. I might decide to pour beer over the bbq in an effort to quell the inferno that the £1 Iceland burgers have invited. I might, after the event, decide to throw little bits of cardboard onto the charcoals in a vain effort to keep the hypnotic primordial flame alive. I might just go for a sleep under the tree because I’ve drunk too much cider and my head is pounding. But I don’t care because this is the British way dammit. And this is why I am going to have a barbecue tomorrow, in the blazing hot sunshine because this week is our National Barbecue Week.

Except I don’t actually own a barbecue. I still haven’t got over Betty see so won’t even consider buying a new one. But I thought it would be fun to show you just how we’ve been getting along with her.

First of all I select a spot.

Then using a cunning array of bricks and a metal grid that I somehow seem to have acquired from somewhere, I assemble a very simple but very effective barbecue.

I then place one of those ready-to-light bags of charcoal in the middle and er, set it alight. And you can bugger off all you snobs that complain about meat having a tinge of white spirit. It all adds to the flavour.

I then sit back and admire my handywork, with a beer in my hand and smoke in my eyes.

After a while, I get fed up of the smoke and decide to speed things up with some frantic flapping.

I then bring out the meat and other combustibles that will go on the barbecue. In this case lamb steaks that have been marinated in olive oil, lemon, garlic and thyme and a piece of pork belly that has been rubbed with crushed sea salt, fennel and coriander seed and already slow roasted for a couple of hours. Plus the ubiquitous squeaky halloumi which no barbecue should be without. And some pitta bread.

I then cook the meat, trying to keep the lamb a bit pink in the middle but hotspots in the coals dictate that it gets cooked all the way through (see how I blamed ‘hotspots’ there?) The skin on the pork belly crisp up wonderfully though.

I then throw on the cheese. Now there are different preferences to grilled halloumi in our household. Mrs FU likes it quite burnt, I like it just nicely browned and the kids couldn’t care less.

After quickly toasting the pitta, we then sit down to a feast adding a delicious greek salad to the mix and Daddy gets to sup some Moroccan beer, courtesy of Badger and Bumble.
Link
Barbecuing, there’s nothing to it really.

My Vege-Gel Hell and Supper Club Stories So Far……

May 16, 2011
DIE VEGE-GEL! DIE!

To be confident and have confidence running through your veins is an admirable trait. When the heavy burden of fear and doubt starts weighing heavily on your shoulders, sometimes all you need a quick burst of self-belief, a little whisper in your ear of “you can do it” and yeeehaaa you’re off, over the posts, waving your cowboy hat in the air. I’d say that when it comes to running a supper club, confidence is a necessity because the prospect of feeding numbers in excess of 20 people can be quite daunting. So yes, I have approached this whole adventure so far with a certain joie de vie because it helps to get you through the task in hand. However, complacency can often be mistaken for confidence and can bugger things right up. To quote Ed from Shaun of the Dead, “I’ll do it on the night” is a mantra that I will never ever adopt again. Because for Food Urchin Supper Clubs in future, I never want to have that feeling of bowel wrenching, sweat dripping panic as people come traipsing into the room. It’s not a nice feeling at all. Welcome to my Vege-Gel hell.

We had returned to the Brentwood Theatre on April 29th to commemorate the Royal Wedding and to run a pre-theatre supper club for people attending a production by Eastern Angles. 8 out of the 24 covers booked were vegetarians so I came up with two different menus. The fact that I originally put fish on the vegetarian menu sums up what I know about vegetarian cooking but at least after a conversation on the phone (“You don’t eat fish? Really?” – who knew?) I was put firmly on track. And as I was making Red Wine and Rhubarb jelly as part of the dessert, I soon realised that an alternative to gelatine would be needed so when I did the food shop I bought packets and packets of Vege-Gel, which is made by the curious Dr Oetker, Willy Wonka of bakery products throughout the land. Oh and as I was making a Chicken and Leek terrine starter for the meat eaters, I thought ‘what the hell, might as well stick to using the veggie stuff for that too, I know I haven’t used it before but how different can it be?’ Quite a lot different as it turned out. Making the jelly the night before was quite traumatic simply because Vege-Gel works very fast on cooling and as I was trying to achieve as clear a jelly as possible I poured the liquid through a fine sieve. Which set as soon as it made contact with the mesh. Now you know when you see a small child in a supermarket throw themselves on the floor when Mummy does let them have their own way? Well that was pretty much my reaction in the kitchen, late on a Friday night. But I gathered my wits and with some gentle reheating, fast work and a supportive hand from Mrs FU, I was able to produce 24 individual jellies (in muffin tins by the way) and felt quite pleased that we overcame that challenge with confidence, yes confidence and vigour. The jellies set quickly and although they had a strange, almost slightly salty tang, they still looked and tasted good. And so we went to bed.

The next day came and it was the usual case of loading the car up with as much stuff as possible including portable hot plates and slow cookers as the theatre doesn’t have a kitchen as such. More a cupboard with sink and microwave really. With Mrs FU on board and plus help from my Mum and Dad, we transformed the studio into a presentable little pop-up restaurant, complete with bunting, flags and pictures of Will and Kate, sorry Catherine and soon the space was filled with smells of pot roast lamb, red wine sauce and er broccoli soup. Which does smell nice, I promise. We had a short break at 4pm and then returned half an hour later to get ready for the impending arrival of our diner guests. At 5pm I took my pressed prosciutto wrapped terrine and placed it in a freezer to firm up some more. A terrine that I had lovingly assembled the day before with layers of chicken meat, leeks, mushrooms and herbs. A terrine which had received lashings of warm, rich chicken stock, heavily dosed with Vege-Gel and ladled in between each layer to help the terrine to set. A terrine that looked bloody amazing once it was taken out of the freezer 20 minutes later and eased out of a loaf tin onto a chopping board. A terrine that started the crumble and collapse with each painful slice as people started filing into the room. As the horror unfolded before my eyes the best I could do was to stuff my fist in mouth to prevent anyone hearing the torrent of profanity that was gushing from my mouth. A clip around the ear from my mother also helped. But that was that, the terrine that I had such high hopes for looked at best like malformed meat and veg slices of squished Soreen and we had no other choice but to serve it up because we certainly didn’t make enough broccoli soup. Of course, a true craftsman never blames the tools he works with but I fucking well blame Vege-Gel for that travesty.

I am possibly being too hard on myself here and after that 10 minutes of sheer hell, the one saving grace was that nobody seemed to notice, the plates came back empty with full compliments to the cook. Still the lesson learned here is that nothing should be left to chance and in future I am going to properly test recipes before releasing dates for more supper clubs. Especially if I am trying out something new or using an ingredient that I have never used before. I still say confidence is a good thing to have on board when cooking though, therefore and with great aplomb, I would like to announce the new menu for the next Food Urchin Supper Club.

Dun dun daaah!

Celery and Leek Soup with Truffle Oil

Pan-roasted Chicken with Lentils, Roasted Tomatoes, Aïoli and Basil Oil

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool (OK I still haven’t quite tested this out but it will be fantastic, no it really will)

This will be held at a secret salubrious location in Brentwood on Saturday 28th May and at present there are 4 places left so if you are interested then please contact me via email at foodurchin@yahoo.co.uk. The menu includes homemade bread and a palate cleanser, suggested donation is £20.00

On one last note, a general comment that people make when you tell them that you run a supper club is “what you let strangers into your home?” and I often respond to this with a nonchalant smile and a shrug as if there was nothing to fear. It’s that confidence thing again. But the Royal Wedding supper club certainly bowled us a curve ball, in terms of how to deal with some members of the general public at large. And there are some strange ones out there. In this case, we had a gentleman who was vegetarian and who was actually expecting fish for his main course (see they do exist). I was first alerted to this by Mrs FU who discreetly whispered in my ear “there’s a guy on table 4 who really wanted fish and he looks really, really pissed off”. Using all my charm and guile, I wandered over and explained that we had decided to take fish off the menu because er it actually wasn’t vegetarian. “Ha! Stupid me” I said “but I am sure you are just going to love the Sharpham Park Spelt Risotto with Asparagus, Wild Garlic and Lemon I’ve made for you.”

He just looked up as if he wanted to kill me but silently nodded that all was fine. And then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening looking over at us, looking as if he wanted to kill us. Towards the end of the night, Mrs FU was up for giving him a complimentary bottle of Reina María Cristina Cava to compensate for his woes. This was by means of shoving it up his jacksy by the way, a typically feisty gesture from my beloved wife no less but the whole experience was quite unnerving I have to say.

But still this is all an adventure, this supper club business and one must remain confident at all times.