Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Taste of My Life

I watched a week’s worth of the Taste of My Life reruns today and as well as really enjoying some of the reminiscences and the ensuing dishes (I am completely in love with Jane Horrocks’ tomato-free Vincigrassi Lasagne); it also got me thinking how I would concoct a similar résumé. Don’t get me wrong I am never going to be in the hallowed presence of one of my food heroes Nigel Slater whilst he recreates some of the seminal foodie moments in my life, but just in case the completely impossible happens, I thought I should put some serious preparation in.
A Taste of Childhood
They always start off at the beginning, lots of sepia-tinged flashbacks of standing on stools carefully stirring large simmering pots, chubby fingers helping mother/grandmother or even a linen clad nanny roll meatballs and pod broad beans, or squabbling with all the other little chubby fingers over who should lick the last vestiges of the butter cream off a wooden spoon. Being entirely sibling free and fairly sure that the vegetable-dodging M would not have ever podded a broad bean or engaged my services in this manner my little vignettes would be entirely different to those I’ve been watching on screen. The following montage of random images mostly tasty, occasionally not quite so delicious, form my fond childhood food memories. There’s the cosy meat and potato pies from the local chippie and kept warm on little gran’s Rayburn and then many years later rushing back from the Grove chippie clutching a plump greased-spotted paper parcel with a meat and potato pie and proper fat chips nestling within. Once home they’d be plates warming by the fire and couple of slices of white bread slathered with butter waited to have the salted and malt vinegar drenched chips thrust between then. I am not supposed to make references to Findus Crispy Pancakes, Goblin meat puddings and similarly Fray Bentos steak & kidney pudding, Angel Delight, and Smash mash potatoes as this list hints of a epicureally deprived upbringing. I should instead wax lyrical about big gran’s fresh baked custard tarts heavily laced with nutmeg, little gran’s fallen Lancashire Hotpot cooked for hours until the potatoes ‘fell’ and melded with the thin meaty juices to thicken them and M’s classic cheesy pastry enrobed Quiche Lorraine, Fish Pie with a delectable and extremely covetable cheesy topped mash potato and that cheesecake topped with tinned mandarin slices (very Family Circle circa 1975). And being a picky child there was a long list of foods I couldn’t abide, some I grew to really enjoy, and some remained on the black list forever like my much documented aversion to all tomato based products. One of the things I really couldn’t face back then was peas, however I would be forced to maybe eat three or four in a single meal. And of course I would exercise every effort to avoid this purgatory. I now will eat peas, but only ever petits pois, I still have to be a traitor to my northern roots and eschew both mushy peas and marrow fat peas – the latter don’t even sound nice!

I think I was feeling nostalgic a few weeks ago, the weather was a little grey around the edges and I craved a little culinary comfort and instead of the usual ‘old reliable’ of sausages and mash I really fancied a steak & kidney pudding. Goblin puddings have thankfully, I believe, disappeared from the face of the earth but I'm fairly sure Fray Bentos are still going strong. But in deference to more grownup taste buds I plumped for the Waitrose version instead, with an enticing butter enriched suet pastry. And it was rather lovely, it didn’t have the slightly San Tropezed colour of a Fray Bentos and even more delightful, I seem the recall the inevitable slight indentation in the top would host a pool of greasy liquid, probably exacerbated by the process of steaming in a punctured can and this Waitrose one is still steamed (either on the hob or in the microwave) but thankfully entirely devoid of this fatty residue. So my memory of steamed steak & kidney pudding has been revitalised with a rather tasty and pleasantly stodge-free exponent and to also prove that I have been reformed, I ate it with sautéed peas and lettuce.

Another distinct barometer of my shifting tastes has been scrambled egg. As a baby apparently I was a huge fan, but then after discovering new foods I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole, dry and tasteless and occasionally rubbery I decided (I've been told to say it wasn't M's scrambled egg that I considered rubbery, as if you were in any doubt that I could remember how it tasted as a baby!). I used to whip it up quite frequently for friends visiting however, and I thought it looked nice but would never eat it myself. And then I had a revelation in Paris at a lovely brunch place. The side order to all the other gorgeous brunchy items, was the tiniest cup of scrambled egg topped with chopped egg and a scatter of chives so then I realised I may have been wrong and decided to revisit it. I then became a huge fan of scrambled egg, but really just my version. I pop a little pat of butter into a small non-stick saucepan. As it melts I crack two eggs directly in the pan (who needs extra washing up?), whip vigorously with a silicon whisk and then douse with a good slug of double cream. As soon as the soft curds begin to form I top with any additions I may have to hand – salmon slivers, shards of smoky bacon and once crab meat or leave 'au natural' like this morning's and tip straight onto a hot plate then dredge with the finest chopped chives and a few whirrs from the electronic black pepper mill. I have since discovered that this is very Bill Granger, but I have always made mine like this. And of course never any toast, I love toast but not made soggy with scrambled egg.

A First Taste for Travelling
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this category on the show but I think it should be included in my little culinary “This is Your Life”. I think my first foodie holiday memory is whilst on a Greek island and being somewhat suspicious of the local fare (what 8 year old wouldn’t be) opted to eat only egg and chips and drink lemonade at every meal. Quite odd because I don’t think I ate egg and chips for many years after that, perhaps a two week stint of relying solely on the ‘egg & chips’ food group had saturated me.

Having a parent in the travel industry gave me a wonderfully different view on holidays, whilst my school friends might have been slurping sticks of rock bundled up on a typically British summer blustery beach within a stones throw of their caravan I was fortunate to be eating Christmas Day turkey sandwiches on a very sunny beach in Perth, Australia. When not on the beach we were drinking Orange Fanta bought from petrol stations and spotting Hungry Jack’s, the Australian equivalent to Burger King. I can’t recall if we ever ate there but I suspect not because we gorged ourselves on fabulously meaty barbecues where even the dogs couldn’t get through the ample leftovers but we liked the name. I also seem to recollect our pre-beach Christmas lunch was my first experience of the eclectic meal of beef, crayfish and garlic snails (the latter due to our French hostess).

We didn’t have many holidays but when we did they were always pretty exotic and far flung. A few years after our forays to Australia I had my first taste of the U.S. And that was diners with a multitude of egg serving choices, the largest sandwiches in the world that M would turn into a moveable picnic and nibble at during the day and a revelation - hamburgers topped with curiously orange squares of cheese. The processed cheese I was familiar with – Dairylea, was considerably more anaemic so American cheese seemed rather racy.

Another special trip was the surprise visit to Amsterdam to celebrate my then upcoming sixteenth birthday, it was such a surprise that I didn’t even know we were leaving the country. You could be on your parents’ passports until you were sixteen then so it was easier to organise such a stealthy mission. Curiously, I didn’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that picking me up from school to go out for a meal was a little early in the day to go dining. But we did go out for a meal, it was in Amsterdam and it was Italian! Nobody at school on Monday really believed me about our Dutch adventure and even the tulip-shaped lollipops that I bought back didn’t entirely convince them.

A Taste of Success
Obviously the premise of the programme is that the interviewee is successful and well known – often as an actor, sometimes a comedian and very rarely a cookery writer. But I think success is more the moment you feel you’ve made it, suddenly feel very grown-up if you will. You’re earning a wage and the world is literally your oyster. Though I didn’t choose oysters, if I recall, as my first taste of the crazy life of haute cuisine was M&S tuna pâté (M&S being the pinnacle of upmarket food shopping in my mind). And when in those fancy Italian trattorias, which would be my initial experiences of restaurant life, it would always be Pollo alla Valdostana – chicken stuffed with ham and melting cheese, probably fontina (aka Chicken Cordon Bleu if is was actually a French bistro instead). I didn’t really like garlic then; it was a taste I grew to enjoy so Chicken Kiev, the other bistro/trattoria stalwart, wasn’t for me. As you may be aware, I never grew to enjoy tomatoes though and I remember that every time I ordered my beloved Valdostana I would have to verify if it was one of those with the unnecessary tomato sauce suffocating it! And then either ask for this stage to be omitted, or move to plan B.

For my twenty-first birthday I was working very far from home and my then boss and wife took me out to a local fish restaurants and I tasted my first ever whitebait. I was convinced I'd hate the little fishes but actually really enjoyed them. Oh yes, very grown-up now!

A couple of years earlier when I'd just left home I first hosted my own dinner parties and for reasons slightly lost in the mists of time I didn’t have a cooker in my first flat. Instead, I relied solely on my versatile Rima Grill, a precursor to the George Foreman Lean & Mean grilling machine. The plates were interchangeable, you could have the flat ones that I would top with a saucepan or two and use as a hob, ridged for the tiger-striped sandwiches and you could even raise the top plate and slip a baking tray between the two plates. In that well-used baking tray, I would bake pies, chocolates cakes and sausage casseroles. But for my dinner parties I developed a rather curious dish, before the heady tastes of that first M&S tuna pâté, I formulated my own version. This was a béchamel sauce cooked on top of the Rima Grill, thickened with copious mounds of grated cheese and then well-drained tinned tuna. I would then spoon the ensuing mixture in to individual ramekins and serve with French baguette for dunking. And if I didn’t conjure up this ‘treat’, it would be a cheese fondue in my bright red fondue set, clearly I believed that fine dining entertaining was all about melted cheese!

A Taste of Family
This idea of cheese fondues was a bit of a family tradition, I learnt all about the importance of Gruyère and Kirsch from the original D. I may have avoided his gravy (artificially browned sprout water mixed with beef dripping and cornflour anyone?), hated the bananas but he did a mean fondue!

The slideshow of family meals would definitely include fighting for the best parts of the cheesy topping from the cottage pie or fish pie, being showered by flaky pastry eating Gregg’s sausage rolls whilst shopping on a Saturday, the customary lentil soup and loaf in front of Saturday evening television, bacon sandwiches dripping with butter and the incredibly unfair sharing out of the now infamous chocolate gingers. And with a not unexpected lump in my throat as I write this, I now realise that the act of me successfully wheedling more than my allotted portion was all part of the ritual and I was supposed to hone my feminine guile on my ability to snaffle an extra one… or two of these hallowed biscuits – thank you D!

I guess there are shades of little Gran pretending (at least to me) to sneak some Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers into my bag under the eye of M & D. And later when visiting, her bringing me out a slice of fruit cake whilst I was still locking up my bike – as if I could get hungry on the short distance to her sitting room!

But that’s where my inherent feeder tendencies cloaked in the respectability of northern hospitality comes from. Never knowingly under-catered, I can’t bear to think of guests leaving hungry!

And that also goes for the now annual tradition of the extended family ‘around Christmas’ party – where the canapés flow and flow and then there’s the main event of some sort of meat with more vegetables than M ever wants to be in the presence of.

Christmas lunch was another memorable occasion, often held at unusual hours (!) and generally featuring beef as D couldn’t really fathom poultry. I think one of my most requested, which has been recreated more than once, was the hunk of beef fillet spread with pâté and then slices of Parma ham. I first saw this on one of the earlier Jamie Oliver shows fortunately getting the accompanying DVD for Christmas; I could reacquaint myself with how many ‘pukkas’ that dish required before tackling it!

The Final Feast
The finale of the Taste of My Life show is a table generally groaning with the dishes making up your ‘just before you die’ meal. There’s often a huge amount probably because a) like me they find it difficult to narrow it down to a couple dishes and then b) if you’re going to expire tomorrow, who on earth is going to bother about the calories? I am just so torn; I’d have to start with a Kir Imperial (made with my beloved black raspberry liqueur, Chambord) to prepare me for the gluttony ahead. And this photograph depicts a special coordinated with the room raspberry concoction from the bar above Joël Robuchon delicious restaurant - L’Atelier

For a starter I couldn’t choose between a few dream dishes so I’d have to a small spoonful of each. There would have to be some exquisitely perfumed white truffle loaded fresh pasta like that I enjoyed at the now sadly defunct Neal Street Restaurant.

But somewhat controversially I am also a huge fan of foie gras and was in complete hog (or should that be in 'truffle pig') heaven at Divertimenti’s Taste of Perigold evening when amongst many other earth shattering delights we tucked into foie gras filled pasta with a truffle and mascarpone sauce. Simply phénoménal, superbe, formidable and magnifique!

But I also adore a starter topped with a sunshine yolked egg emitting its golden wonder over the rest of the dish. There are so many to choose from but this fabulous crisp soft egg, morel duxelle and Roquefort truffle toasts from Gary Rhodes W1 is a stunner so can represent all those I've enjoyed.

Oh then there's also scallops, asparagus, risotto, globe artichokes and maybe the odd Lobster Thermidor - no I think I will have to draw the line somewhere.

For the main course, they’d have to be rare beef, ideally topped with more foie gras and accompanied by some sublime mash and various bits of greenery. Here’s a perfect example from Addendum of the beef fillet and fat foie gras, though the rösti was lost a little and I said at the time that I fancied more vegetables.

Of course considering a dazzling beef dish, Gary would have to feature again. This would be due to two reasons, firstly I have been lucky enough to dine the most number of times at both Gary Rhodes’ various restaurants and also Blueprint Café. Though I am sorry Jeremy, but as tasty as your food is, and it really is, Gary’s looks a little more beautiful and photographs so very well!

So here is the stunning roast beef fillet with red wine onions, oxtail hash, and poached egg béarnaise that I ate at my last visit. This deserves a special mention as it also had the oozy egg that I adore plus the my favourite béarnaise sauce. And of course, Gary is pretty damned good in the dark art of mash potatoes.

Though really it is my final meal so I am only going to allow some of Joël Robuchon mash nirvana to adorn my plate, I will accept no substitutes!

But one final possibility for the beef dish is Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for beef fillet with a gratin of mushrooms and sautéed new potatoes, which has crowned a few occasion meals at home, and is not too shabby either. But I still want Joël’s mash and whilst I am at it why not go for the whole hog and demand his truffle mash potatoes, oh yes, that is truly the pinnacle of mash mimosa. His ‘everyday’ mash is already like no other and the truffle mash – well when I first tasted this I am sure I heard angels sing!

If I’ve been able to stagger through the truffles, foie gras, pasta, gooey egg, beef fillet and truffled mash without keeling over from a heart attack, I might be able to squeeze in a little dessert. This is a hard choice as I would just probably go for the ooziest chocolate fondant ever but particularly after a rich meal a slice of a tart lemon tart (especially if my favourite raspberries are embellishing it) might be a wise idea. No cream for me though, I'm not savinf on the richness I just don't like it that way.

But perhaps I could have my cake (or tart even) and eat it as these are the tiniest and most lovely chocolate fondants I have ever experienced and yes, it’s at the hands of Gary again but he served them as petits fours so I could have them AND the tart!

I also think I should have little something from our seminal Heston’s Fat Duck theatrical meal and it was a hard, hard decision as it was all so indescribably unique but the hot and cold tea would perhaps aid digestion and take me right back to that very special evening. Though I'd be pretty keen to have Heston recreate that amazing Christmas meal he concocted last year with the gold, frankincense and myrrh etcetera. But I think that was a one-off!

And somehow I'd have to save a small corner for a magnificent gooey cheese board, perhaps another slice of that fabulous ripe truffled Brie and some shards of Grana Padano from Harvey Nix or some 'so difficult to get hold of' Flower Marie from the Cambridge cheese shop or just a fondue made from a whole Camembert baked in the oven. I am being to suspect that my foodie tastes are just all about melted cheese, rare beef and it seems truffles - how very revealing!

I can see why the guests on the Taste of My Life enjoy themselves so, it’s not just about eating all that delicious food (though of course that helps) but it’s been so fabulous tripping down my culinary memory lane and maybe a tad cathartic. Perhaps today being today, I am extra reflective and even though I’ll never get to relive it all again for Nigel Slater, at least I am primed. However now I’m really hungry, I wonder if I can lay my hand on a bit of foie gras and truffle oh and yes, some potatoes and cheese. Hmmmm, sorry it was rather a ‘long’ taste of my life once I'd started it was hard to curtail my deliberations, aren’t you glad I didn’t go for the sixteen courses tasting menu version? Maybe I could have a sudden reprieve from my imminent death that supposedly precipitates all these ponderings and then go for seconds! Well maybe!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

No 1

When H and I decided to indulge in lunch with the lovely m and P our only problem was whose hands we would trust with our pampering. I was hankering after a chance to visit Hix Oyster & Chop House but it seems me and the entire salivating world have the same idea at the moment and seats are just not to be had for love nor oysters. So my next cunning plan was 1 Lombard Street, conveniently located and often lauded. I had reservations though; I’ve only eaten there once previously, a few years ago and BB (before blogging) and I recalled lovely posh nursery food, soft smoked haddock topped with a soft poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Pale and very interesting! However H took another client there on a later occasion and had a very disagreeable time being practically ignored by the waiter and then unceremoniously told that they were closing for a private party, and vowed never to return. So it was with a little trepidation that I secured one of their curved banquettes and in their bright converted banking hall bathed in light beneath the glass domed ceiling vowed to give them another chance. Our first surprise was the menu based on Tolstoy’s great works, a hush fell on the table apart from small murmurs of appreciation, this was a serious task we were undertaking. Firstly there was a section of starters, but no it didn’t end there as you could also pick from the soup, egg & pasta menu and of course the vegetarian. And then there were two other menus of random dishes, not entitled and not on the website – so maybe the daily specials. But no I haven’t finished yet, you could choose from the fish menu, or crustacean, then of course, meat and finally a small list of classics. But you’ve still got to select from the side dishes and later puddings and finally a cheese list. I was seriously exhausted just reading it all, the terminal indecisive could possibly pass out from starvation. They don’t have a tasting menu here which possibly is a shame as there were so many dishes we could have chosen, but eventually we reached a decision.

P had only recently become acquainted with the dark art of smoking Scottish salmon so opted to check out their version. I didn’t ascertain if until now he has had his salmon sans smoke or whether he has until now dodged all salmon – I suspect it’s the latter. And I think his Oak smoked Scottish salmon with brown bread, dill salad capers and lemon looked exceptionally vibrant and so very round. And more importantly P declared it delicious.

I, breaking a habit of a lifetime went for the Seared foie gras and asparagus salad and it was perfect!

After being similarly overwhelmed with the choice, m went for Artichoke bottom stuffed with wild mushrooms, poached egg, sauce Hollandaise and parsley jus from the vegetarian selection. And seemed very impressed, the egg yolk performed well breaking and flowing and mingling with the mushrooms and artichoke bottom. I guess this is the herbivore version of my last meal here.

H was particularly hungry and plumped for the very spring-like Spinach, garlic and potato soup with crème fraîche and nutmeg. And stunningly verdant it was too.

After scanning the copious dishes on offer I had to admit that, true to form, they completely had me at ‘white truffle oil mash’ and so went for the Roast new season lamb chump chop with white truffle oil mash, rosemary and garlic jus. And then I realised that we’d all chosen this dish; you see the powers of white truffle oil mash and was going to select an alternative. But there’s just so many wonderful options, what to do, what to do? I panicked and left the order the same; at least we couldn’t have meal envy! Now consulting their unabridged works of culinary excellence I can quickly spot another ten random interesting options -

Coq au vin ‘bourguignon’ made from black leg chicken, mashed potatoes

Roast suckling pig with wild mushroom and bread stuffing, warm cabbage and speck salad

Casserole of mussels and clams with white wine, garlic and parsley broth

Caramelised diver caught scallops with fettuccini in lobster sauce, chervil

Grilled lobster with tarragon, mustard and garlic butter

Smoked haddock spinach and poached egg with Colman’s English mustard glaze

Caramelised organic Hebredian salmon with asparagus and sauce Hollandaise

Roast turbot on the bone spinach and mash with wild mushroom and lobster sauce

Roast cannon of lamb rosemary and garlic jus with potation gratin Dauphinoise

Loin of veal forestiere spinach and mash with Chablis, wild mushroom and tarragon veloute

And that’s really just a drop in their vast ocean of dishes. But I certainly wasn’t disappointed, though probably the least interesting looking dishes I could have selected, the lamb was rosemary-perfumed, rosy and delicious. And truffle oil mash is always going to be a good thing!

m managed better than me and swiftly swapped her lamb for the Seared stone bass with braised fennel, pesto and sauce vierge. And again seemed happy and this does look so pretty. I am sure I’ve seen it on the cover of someone’s cook book! In hindsight, always a wonderful thing, if I was sat there clutching the twelve (!) menus and wanted to make a last minute substitution I would have gone for the Caramelised diver caught scallops with fettuccini in lobster sauce, chervil or maybe sticking to the lobster sauce theme I could choose Roast turbot on the bone spinach and mash with wild mushroom and lobster sauce. Or perhaps the Roast suckling pig with wild mushroom and bread stuffing, warm cabbage and speck salad if I could persuade someone to share this dish for two. No it’s still too difficult, I guess I will just have to visit again soon and ‘try’ not to be seduced by words like ‘truffle’ and ‘mash’.

Thankfully the puddings menu wasn’t such an epic and we were quickly able to choose two desserts to share – Hot chocolate fondant and pistachio ice cream and Thin crispy ‘upside down’ apple tart with crème Chantilly and calvados Anglais.

We were intrigued by the decoration on the chocolate fondant plate, H obviously though it was for her but I suspect that the dish was put in front of m, not me, and therefore it’s actually the Roman numeral I they have on a brass plate at the entrance. The pistachio ice cream is a ideal foil for the rich melting middle chocolate and we made short shrift of this.

The apple tart was tasty as well as took me right back to the oh so French tarts that M used to make for dinner parties.

Considering the issues we’d had making a decision amongst all the dishes on offer, I should also say that we were dining in the brasserie (as I have a penchant for banquettes and glass domed ceilings) but if we were having dinner I think we would have gone to the restaurant, where, yes you’ve guessed it, there is a further myriad of exciting menu options available. Personally I am delighted we gave 1 Lombard Street another try, we had a fabulous meal with wonderful company in elegant surroundings. We weren’t moved on in the slightest, even though we were the penultimate table to push back our chairs and leave. And after polishing off a rather good bottle of Malbec that was actually slightly harder than it seemed.

A redeemed 1 Lombard – Please accept your three forks with my pleasure!

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Great British meal at the top of the 'gherkin'

So the public have decided what the world gets to dine on at the top of "the Gherkin" (see photo if you are wondering why the Swiss Re building is more usually called "the erotic gherkin"). And I’ve think they’ve chosen well! I for one am pleased that the sensible voters have banished all thoughts of artfully dribbled on slate roof tiles (can you just imagine how excruciating the sound of your knife scraping against that would be? - ughhh!) worthiness and the infamous ‘my body is my temple’ Chris Horridge cooking for the world’s culinary elite.

But they’ve certainly given my favourite Jason Atherton a fair old challenge. Firstly he beat Chris to the chance to produce the starter. His witty take on a sandwich platter will be delighting the guests at the banquet. And even with the inclusion of the dreaded tomato I am pleased the Bacon, lettuce and tomato with Croque Monsieur rose to the top of all the choices. Though actually my favourite starter would have been Tom Kitchin’s stunning looking and surely glorious to eat Wild boar British breakfast and it would also have been a very fine start to the feast. Obviously I would have left both the stuffed tomato and home-made baked on the side of the plate but would have enjoyed the rest. But it was not to be, so my second choice would be Jason’s butties!

For the fish course a couple of the chefs totally changed their final dishes, Tom Kitchin completely abandoned his bone-ridden pike and swapped it for beautiful looking Carpaccio of octopus and Glynn Purnell also threw out his pike for a brave entirely fish free Haddock milk with cornflakes. The judges felt that as Glynn had only used essence of fish in his dish that perhaps is was a little avant garde. And the cornflakes, slightly perplexing even with the tale of a young Glynn pocketing a handful of cornflakes to nibble on the way to school.

I was probably slightly biased against Stephen Terry in the regional heats because I was hoping Angela Hartnett would get through but putting that aside I did think his salmon “three ways” looked rather fabulous. The crab encased in the thinnest slices of potatoes bound together with both a little potato starch and a lot of hope looked dreadfully fiddly but probably tasted pretty good. So I think his homage to Welsh seafood the Organic salmon and smoked salmon with crab fritters and cockle 'popcorn' will make a very fitting fish course for Heston’s do. And Matthew Fort was delighted “that they’ll be eating fish fingers at the gherkin”.

And then it’s the main event, this is where I was hoping Jason would shine, Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrow bone would definitely have been my first choice and it wasn’t all about the smoked potato purée, the substituted beef (as the Dexter fillets arrived a little scant) looked sublime and the judges confirmed that it was both “beautifully simple and perfect cooking”. But Jason winning the main means he has to cook two courses, and coincidentally his original mentor Stephen Terry came second with his entirely reworked Salt duck breast and duck hash with quails' eggs, peas and broad beans and that could be quite a feat on the day (how very Mark Hix I thought!)

The dessert was hotly contested, those chefs that hadn’t been chosen in the top three every day were determined to leave with some accolades, Steve came third stopping it being a two chef only feast and then Chris came second with his not quite indulgent enough but undeniably pretty Blackcurrant mousse tartine, berry soup infused with basil and wheatgrass foam. But the crowning course of the exemplary banquet in June was Glynn Purnell and his Marinated strawberries with tarragon and black pepper honeycomb with burnt English cream surprise. Pru Leith called this “orgasmic!” which certainly raised the collective eyebrows or Oliver and Matthew. This was my choice again for the winner and Glynn couldn’t have been happier after lagging behind some of the other chefs. And how quintessentially British, to have some jewel bright luscious strawberries and a little crushed Crunchie (not to say orgasmic!)

I don’t know yet whether D feels we could tackle this menu and have our own ground level gherkin experience, maybe if heavily paraphrased. It is undoubtedly a very accomplished menu and ideally I would like to eat it rather than attempt it. And as I would so adore the opportunity to sample some of this feast; I will be keeping my eyes peeled for opportunities to indulge in a repeat performance (as my invitation to Heston’s Gherkin event hasn’t turned up yet!).

But you never know, maybe as the long six week holiday stretches ahead, D may feel we are up to the challenge and in anticipation of that I will be on a suitably modern British eggcup watch!

A curious aside to the post, I decided that I’d write about the winning menu with the accompanying chefs’ photographs on Thursday evening many hours before the winners were announced. And rather curiously I only downloaded three photographs - Jason, Stephen And Glynn. I am not sure why I only went for these three (though I was pretty confident about Jason’s beef) but Chris has fared well in the finals and I didn’t bother to get his photo. I also really wanted Tom to win with his elegant breakfast inspired starter but still I didn't download his photo. It seems I have predictive powers, how very spooky!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Serious fan!

I mentioned recently my joy at finding another seriously good dessert from those clever Serious Food people. This fabulously photogenic Gianduja Mousse with Sea Salted Caramel in their slinky newly revamped ceramic pots was their latest creation to adorn my ever popular heart-shaped plates and it tastes even better than it looks.

And then I heard from the Serious Food PR people, it seems my adoration hasn’t gone unnoticed. Each month fellow Serious Food lovers are sent a newsletter with news on their brands, some recipes from their chefs, details of some tasty competitions and a Serious recommends section.

This month Serious are recommending checking out “Come Dine with Me” (which is definitely one of those shows that make you shout at the TV “why on earth did you say that/cook that or feed that to your unfortunate sadly delusional guests?”, the Food Lover Britain website to enlighten discerning food lovers as to their local foodie treats and finally a blog – in fact this little old blog. Well thank you kindly, Serious Food – the feeling is mutual!

Friday, May 16, 2008

They have our tastebuds in their hands...

So after eight weeks of whittling down the 28 Great British Menu chefs we have the seven finalists. These in turn will be narrowed down again next week until we have a winning menu for the Heston Blumenthal hosted extravaganza showcasing the pinnacle of modern British cooking at the iconic gherkin building next month.

I have followed this and indeed the last two competitions very closely over the last three years. The first in 2006 was to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday, where the stunning Marcus Wareing custard tart was introduced to the world and D and I rather ambitiously tackled the entire menu without the aid of sous chefs or a safety net. The following year was our chefs showing off at the ambassador’s residence in Paris and saw Mark Hix triumph producing two of the four courses and astonishing everyone with his unique crayfish and rabbit Stargazy pie. D and I planned to reproduce that menu also but somehow never actually found the time to actually take up the challenge. This year I am not sure we could even contemplate such a feat, the world has leapt ahead and it’s all about water baths, Pacojets and the somewhat despised foam. Hmmm I think we’ll have to ponder this one. Well we don’t need to make a final decision until the ultimate menu is announced. But it’s going to be a combination of one of each of the following.

Starters:
Glynn Purnell's Rabbit, pea and black olive trifle with rabbit lollipops
Stephen Terry's Asparagus and Carmarthen ham with goats' cheese
Tom Kitchin's Wild boar British breakfast
Danny Millar's Sweetbreads with peas, broad beans and morels
Nigel Haworth's Warm hot pot salad, sweetbreads, pickled red cabbage
Chris Horridge's Wild pigeon with broccoli sprouts and omega rich seeds
Jason Atherton's Bacon, lettuce and tomato with Croque Monsieur

Fish Course:
Glynn Purnell's Pike noodle mousse with a salad of cauliflower, enoki mushrooms and summer herbs
Stephen Terry's Organic salmon and smoked salmon with crab fritters and cockle 'popcorn'
Tom Kitchin's Smoked pike served with summer baby beetroot salad, watercress and horseradish cream
Danny Millar's Smoked eel 'jellied' with apple and beetroot
Nigel Haworth's Line-caught Whitby cod, trotters, tripe, broad beans and peas
Chris Horridge's Poached ling, broad beans with liquorice-ginseng foam
Jason Atherton's London cure salmon with avocado purée and horseradish 'snow'

Mains:
Glynn Purnell's Veal fillet rolled in liquorice charcoal with tamarind jam, liquorice purée, black rice and rocket
Stephen Terry's Salt duck breast and duck hash with quails' eggs, peas and broad beans
Tom Kitchin's Barnsley chop with braised summer lettuce parcels, kidneys and sweet breads
Danny Millar's Caramelised pork belly with Strangford prawns and potato and bacon sauce
Nigel Haworth's British white beef, smoked marrowbone, baby cauliflower and watercress purée
Chris Horridge's Rabbit, carrot purée and vegetables
Jason Atherton's Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrow bone

Desserts:
Glynn Purnell's Marinated strawberries with tarragon and black pepper honeycomb with burnt English cream surprise
Stephen Terry's Milk jelly with tomato and nettle syrup
Tom Kitchin's Heather honey parfait with gooseberries, elderflowers and raspberries
Danny Millar's Poached rhubarb with crisp porridge, hot milk and ice cream
Nigel Haworth's Curd tart with rose petal cream and redcurrants
Chris Horridge's Blackcurrant mousse tartine, berry soup infused with basil and wheatgrass foam
Jason Atherton's Arctic roll, berry salad and raspberry sarawak pepper jelly

I’ve had my favourites all the way through the competition and was really rooting for Nigel Haworth, Jason Atherton and Tom Kitchin. I thought Jason and Nigel’s competition were tough especially the much revered Atul Kochhar. The judges always seem to go doolally over Atul’s food and even though I admit that it probably is utterly amazing and defies categorising, I still struggle with the British tag. His influences are so very much Indian, he was born and bred there and came to England early in his cooking career. But then the same could be said for the careers of Raymond Blanc, Giogio Locatelli, Jean-Christophe Novelli etcetera etcetera. Atul declares his food to be Anglo-Indian which is considered acceptable for this competition but why is his ‘fusion’ food so very British but Angela Hartnett’s equally praised food born of her Italian-Welsh roots is considered ‘not cricket’ and just wrong for this platform? I think I’ve probably worn out my soapbox on this subject so I will leave it at that… for now!

Unfortunately Angela didn’t get through but I was delighted that her fellow Ramsay-family chef Jason did and Nigel showed these new pretenders (especially Anthony Flinn) that he knows his stuff and isn’t as much of a dinosaur than the extremely arrogant Anthony believed. They was actually rather a lot of cheffy handbags at dawn this year, the laid back but exceedingly talented Jeremy Lee, Richard Corrigan and Mark Hix opted not to participate this year and instead we had a few chefs who like to snipe at each other and fling the odd finely honed tempered steel Japanese knife towards the back of their opponent. Contrast Chris Horridge and Elisha Carter last week and the ‘are you honestly going to put a soupçon of butter in that dish, don’t you realise you could kill your diners?’ with Jason helping Atul out with both of his foams and an errant Pacojet today. Last week I secretly hoped that both Chris and Elisha could both be eliminated as they were as bad as each other!

Now if it were my choice for the menu to grace the hallowed tables of the gherkin before the worlds’ eminent chefs I think I would select:

Tom Kitchin's Wild boar British breakfast
Nigel Haworth's Line-caught Whitby cod, trotters, tripe, broad beans and peas
Jason Atherton's Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrow bone
Glynn Purnell's Marinated strawberries with tarragon and black pepper honeycomb with burnt English cream surprise

Though a lot does depend on if they have the original rule of a chef only preparing one course because I like the idea of Jason’s starter - Bacon, lettuce and tomato with Croque Monsieur and Nigel’s Warm hot pot salad, sweetbreads, pickled red cabbage does really appeal to my Northern tastes.. Also Tom’s dessert - Heather honey parfait with gooseberries, elderflowers and raspberries sounds interesting though it did look rather like a car crash! Actually Jason’s Arctic roll, berry salad and raspberry sarawak pepper jelly would be a real giggle as well!

I have to admit that I am going for the chefs I favour as well as the food. I know it should be all about the food but Chris annoyed me too much last week to consider his Rabbit, carrot purée and vegetables despite the judges singing its praises from on high! Oh decision, decisions though of course it won’t be my choice. The judges will deliberate and cogitate and decide the top three perhaps for each course and then the great British public can hit their redial buttons to decide the eventual winning combination. I do so hope they choose well, the worlds’ chefs will be watching and I guess D and I will be ruminating whether we can possibly simulate a vacuum-packed-poached-in-a-water-bath dish, without losing our sanity. I suspect that the resultant feast will be one to savour but not really to tackle in the confines of ones own inadequately appointed (for the modern molecular gastronomist at least) kitchen!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Narrow escape!

Not being French it’s very rare that we indulge ourselves in a ‘proper lunch’ during a working day. Sadly we are lucky if we get to grab a sandwich and then consume it back at the desk whilst firing off a couple of emails trying not to get crumbs in between the keys of the laptop. But today, fortunately we have promised to take some clients for lunch and having exhausted most of the reliable eateries in Canary Wharf we venture forth further down the River Thames and sit in the glorious sunshine at one of the Gordon Ramsay new pub ventures – The Narrow. I had a fabulous meal here with D at the end of last year, but it was winter and I didn’t really anticipate how extra decadent it would seem to be fed delicious food whilst basking in the rays of a fairly rare May British sun. There are some delicious starters on offer; I was toying between chicken liver and bacon salad poached duck egg or Welsh rabbit when we decided rather sensibly to forgo starters in favour of hitting the desserts later.

Not just because of the possibilities of a mound of creamy mash, I choose the cock-a-leekie pie and mash for my main meal. I am intrigued how a traditional Burns Supper stewy leek, potato and chicken stock soup works in a pie. And it’s very light; the pie has some chunks of poached chicken in the light broth and doesn’t seem to have the prunes that are often added to a cock-a-leekie soup. And the mash is very nice too, it just seems that mash works in any weather. Or is that just my humble opinion?

H’s Hereford rib-eye steak, Portobello mushroom and parsley butter looked pretty fine also, and that was before the addition of the chips and the nutmeg laced spring greens. In fact all the dishes seem to really hit the spot and our cunning plan of eschewing the starters mean we have the pick of the dessert list and decide to order our three favourites for the centre of the table.

We went for firstly, a chocolate tart – well it was compulsory, it was deliciously soft, melt-in-the-mouth and quickly devoured by the flashing spoons.

Next there was orange posset and shortbread; I thought this would give us a refreshing citrus bite after all that richness. And it did all that and more! It managed to be tongue tingling tart and creamy smooth at the same time and was a beautiful colour.

Finally there was a lemon cheesecake with rhubarb. Initially I held back from this, I was concocting my own ‘jaffa cake’ with both the orange posset and chocolate tart – very good! But the mmmm noises from around the table lured me in, and I was really surprised, I don’t generally like cheesecake but I had to agree with the consensus this was a seriously tasty version of a cheesecake. Maybe I have been converted!

Sadly all too soon, we had to leave the scraped-clean dessert plates discarded on our sun drenched table, with the French windows open wide overlooking the sparkling River Thames. Those silver towers of Canary Wharf which, glittering greedily on the horizon, remind us that those days of whiling the whole afternoon away over a bottle of Malbec or maybe a bottle or two of Laurent Perrier Rosé have long since gone. Such nineties decadence has been replaced with two-hour conference calls, endless spreadsheets, looming deadlines and then nursery commitments. But we all feel that it was a wonderful Narrow escape whilst it lasted and to be honest, we probably couldn't drink much more than a glass of something deep and red anyway. Clearly we're just so out of practice!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Love food, hate waste!

I was sent an email this week about the love food hate waste campaign and I definitely had a little twinge of conscience. I think I’m pretty good about avoiding food waste, I try not to be suckered into the buy one get one free offers unless I really think I can use the second before it dies on me, I consider the use by dates when I buy items and when practically I will be consuming them and all my leftover food goes into the green bin. But I could do more, for example, really my green bin should only contain egg shells, vegetables peelings and the odd exhausted tea bag. It shouldn’t have whole slices of bread, forgotten rashers of bacon and strangely green furry bits of chicken thigh. I hang my head in shame; I guess the rule should be - if I buy it to eat it, I should actually eat it – otherwise I could cut out the middle man and chuck a few pounds straight into the bin. And then of course the conundrum would be which container to put it in, could it go in the black box with the bottles and cans? If I just decide it’s a fiver, does that go with the paper in the blue bag or the white bag for the plastic bottles, foil and card? The answer is that I should pay attention to the love food hate waste five sure fire ways to save money off the weekly food bill and then I don’t have to throw away any money. I can't promise to improve the lot of the 2.8 million tomatoes we throw away every day, but at least I can promise not to add to the discarded tomato heap, I just won't ever buy any!

1. Get familiar with you fridge & friendly with your freezer

This is where my best intentions occasionally flounder, I have definite plans to concoct greatness from some well chosen items and then I eat out or work late or horror of horrors get attracted to something more sparkly on the way home and eat that instead and let other things expire in my fridge.

2. Storecupboard savvy

I probably fare a little better here but there is the perennial habit of bulk buying exotic whatnots when I am abroad or lured into purchasing a small basil mustard mountain at a food show and then letting them languish in the back of the cupboard until a decade has passed. So I guess a regular spring clean should be in operation so a) I don’t just stockpile needlessly and b) just as important I don’t run out of the critical stuff.

3. Carb control

Apparently this is a common offence and we throw away 7 million slices of bread and 5.1 million potatoes every day. And yes I can be accused of the bread crime, it is hard to believe for a well-known bread monster but I don’t generally get through a loaf before it’s growing some exciting new culture. The first problem is that I don’t really like the crusts, but then M&S do a half loaf that doesn’t have the two crusts so I should confine my loaf buying habits to just that particular one. And then as sometimes I don't really want all that bread, I should always (rather than occasionally) spilt the loaf in half and freeze some for toasting later. It is helpful when you can buy one or two potatoes to whip up a little mash or a small handful of Jersey Royals for a potato salad but loaves are more 'one size fits all'.

4. Lovely leftovers

I’ve mentioned on various occasions that I enjoy the challenge of revitalising some jewels from a previous meal and repurpose the remainder into a new delight. For example my recent foray into risotto resurrecting, my joy at a well turned bubble and squeak and turning some delicious remnants into an oeuf en cocotte or scrambled eggs. But occasionally you look at the remains and wonder if you should just put them out of their misery, so again I need to take a leaf out of Rose Prince's fabulous new book and always recycle.

5. It pays to plan!

I do occasionally stick a list of the items in my latest Ocado order and an eat-by-date to the fridge to remind myself of what lies within, but still get the odd surprise when I find an inadvertently unopened packet of salad complete with a brown sludgy liquid lurking at the back of my fridge so I must do better!

With all these tips in mind I was determined not to succumb to shiny new food today but see if I could conjure up a feast from a few sad pieces. Firstly the question of the salad, as it was indeed questionable. But with a new found zeal I washed it thoroughly and span it in the salad spinner until it was positively dizzy and it did seem to bring it back from the brink. I had some stems of purple sprouting broccoli remaining and hoped they could join the party but they were way too furry and no amount of mouth to mouth resuscitation would persuade me to eat them - so straight in the green bin. They were a few remaining rashers of smoky bacon left after the canapés on horseback the other night so they got snipped into a a frying pan. A few cubes of slightly over-mature Cheddar and a golden yolk oozing over the Balsamic drizzled resurrected lamb's lettuce later and a new dish was born!

And rather dashing did it look on my new RE-found objects cutlery-printed linen table mats. It seemed very appropriate as re-found specialise in REmarkable, REcycled, REscued and REstored objects which seem entirely in keeping with the theme of today's salvaged salad.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

All Buffed up!

Hold on to your hat, Stephanie, I thought I’d arrive early and help you set up for the party. Yes, possibly for one of the first time ever I have got my act together and am ready ahead of time. When Stephanie announced the theme of this month’s blog party as “Buffy” as in vampire slayer, I was initially a little thrown. I am aware of Buffy and her tendency for lurking about graveyards and brandishing pointed sticks but I couldn’t remember anything particular about food. I consulted imdb.com, as the font of all vital celluloid knowledge, but it didn’t give me much inspiration. My limited knowledge of vampires is that they don’t eat, unless you count the biting of flesh of a well-turned neck so I am not bothering catering for our fanged friends or the undead. Instead maybe I should consider demon-busting sustenance for the Scooby Gang et al, and I am guessing that generally they wish to repel vampires - apart maybe from Angel!

As usual when the month’s theme is publicised I start pondering the turn my canapés will take, their vital ingredients and presentation. Buffy inspired crockery, I am completely flummoxed here. So bearing in mind that I don’t think any of the “energetically pursued by Buffy” vampires ever turned into a bat (it seems that is very last year for the modern vampire, Mick St John and the dashing Josef in Moonlight don’t go in for bat transformations and Henry in Blood Ties doesn’t either) I decided that artistic licence was in order. It’s not as if my place is awash with vampiric accoutrements (no really!) but I wanted bats – and the bats I’d set my little black heart on was bat-shaped table confetti. Why did I really want bats? I can only think this is some deep-seated love of Count von Count and his batty companions from Sesame Street, rising its head again.

However it seems that these furry bodied winged creatures are considered a tad seasonal, really are bats not for life? And being months from Halloween I had to do a bit of searching, but fear not my quest was successful. Though with the general shortage and all I had to buy a job lot of variously shaped confetti and had the absorbing task of sorting them into their respective genus (be afraid D, I can foresee other confetti-strewn events in Cambridge!) So when DD contacted me and asked what I was doing and I said, “sorting bats” that’s the reason why!

Shiny little black bats duly scattered around the Hell mouth I then had to devise the various little bites to serve (yes, I had to make that pun also!).

Angels on horseback and devils on horseback immediately leapt to mind (also kindly suggested by the multi-brothered J); would they be Buffy-ish enough? I can’t really think of any demonic dishes, but devilled (as in marginally fiery) seems to be a popular culinary treatment! The ‘angels’ should strictly be oysters, but I wasn’t enthused by the crusty examples on offer and substituted them for scallops instead; well I’ve always considered scallops to be far more angelic! The devils I selected for this particular sacrifice were pitted soft Agen prunes stuffed with a slight spoonful of cayenne spiked cream cheese and then wrapped in bacon like the angels. The final ensembles were spiked with miniature wooden stakes (not cocktail sticks, I wanted something heftier so I cut down a packet of wooden skewers) and served the whole on heart-shaped plates. I was going for the whole stake through the heart theme (just in case you are wondering)

First little nibbles done - what next? D had suggested a staked steak, (a pun after my own heart) and vegetarians turn away now, that was the next plate. Hunks of fillet steak impaled by a stake, served suitably bloody of course!

Next I thought I better keep some of the undesirables away, so a sprinkle of salt by the front door and some garlic-laced Boursin stuffed freshly baked dough balls.

Then it was time for more devilment, skewered strips of devilled chick thighs. My devilishly good mixture was a finely sliced garlic clove, a good shaking of Worcestershire sauce, a slug of double cream and a liberal dusting of chilli flakes. And not too scarily hot for me but with that little kick after each mouthful.

After all those savoury goodies, I thought I should end on a sweet bite and decided upon morsels of devil’s food cake impaled by blood red silver stakes (I seemed to right out of bullets). And I understand how devil’s food cake gets its name now; if you eat too much you feel somewhat hellish!

When considering this month’s drink I thought that if others were paying homage to Buffy in a similar vein (holding my sides in mirth!), their obvious choice would be Bloody Mary or even a Virgin Bloody Mary, (perhaps even more desirable in the after world), however not on my watch! Ooh I am really warming to the theme now! Tomatoes, as you may be aware, I really can’t bear in any shape or form but a Bloody Mary seems to concentrate all that I detest in that dreadful fruit/vegetable/salad item/stuff of nightmares (delete as applicable) or is it just that being confined in an aeroplane seat with some imbiber of that foul smelling drink seems to make it more ghastly in the fact that I cannot escape? And secondly, if I need one, that’s the obvious choice. Instead after a little research I adapted the recipe for a Vampire Cocktail – black raspberry liqueur (Chambord anyone?), vodka and cranberry juice. I went for some delicious ruby coloured blood orange juice instead of cranberry juice, it seemed more appropriate and such a lovely colour, I then finished off with a final bat adorned blood red cocktail stick. But then as Coco Chanel always said - "accessorise, accessorise, accessorise!"

Well that was fun, no-one died, surely that makes a successful party and as they say "in every generation there is a chosen one... she alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness”, and perhaps offer them a bite to eat! Must dash, I want to scare Stephanie by turning up over a week early, when the other guests turn up I will post them here and as the great Buffy herself says “People to see, demons to kill!”

UPDATE: As I was so ahead of myself (probably for the first time in my life) I had to wait a while to see the other guests' fanged offerings. But here we all are up to our unbitten necks with stake impaled food and bloody sauces, admiring Stephanie's gravestone adorned table (you don't get to say that often!) I have to admit I was the only one who had invited a colony (some say cloud, I prefer 'fang') of "precisely yet randomly scattered bats" into their inner sanctum.

But then I could live to regret that little act, my previous experience of table confetti is that it’s incredibly pervasive. You think you’ve rounded up every little reindeer / snowflake / heart / star / black and white rubber duck or pale yellow Easter chick but mysteriously sometimes years later they materialise say in the bath. And you wonder where they’ve been hiding for so long. I am intrigued what thought-provoking theme Stephanie has lined up for next month and will it push the envelope of my vast tableware collection? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The best potato salad ever?

I still have some of my baby new potatoes left, they are slightly past their best so sautéing is a good way to give them a new lease of life and realise their inner buttery-ness. My Mother Hubbard’s fridge doesn’t have too much to escort them as my Ocado delivery is not due for many hours but all is not lost. There’s an unopened packet of Jamón de Trevélez from my Action Against Hunger goodie bag last week so a few rosy slices torn and strewn amongst the golden tinged potatoes seemed a perfect accompaniment. And for a final flourish a couple of spoonfuls of the utterly gorgeous Stark Naked basil pesto let down with a few glugs of my absolute favourite basil-tastic olive oil –Tornatore Extra Pesto.

So a simple exploration into what is at the bottom of the fridge netted a truly stupendous hot potato salad – possible the best ever?