Wednesday 21 July 2010

New website

You are hereby cordially invited to the shiny new site. The time has come to bid farewell to this fair blog and smash a bottle of cava over the bough of my brand new site. It would be great if you would care to join me there and update any bookmarks you may have as well.

You can also follow me on Twitter

Friday 2 July 2010

5th-17th July: Cooking at The Wild Garlic

It is amazing where slightly drunken conversations can lead. In this case the answer is Dorset. To Mat Follas’s Wild Garlic restaurant, to be more specific.

A request from the man himself to cover for a holidaying sous chef could not be passed over so I’ll be cooking there for two weeks from July 5th – a prospect that fills me with excitement given the amazing range of produce available. Knowing how much Mat values local and seasonal food, the menu will be a pleasure to cook.

What’s even more exciting is that I’ll be cooking with Terry again for the first time since what has become known as the ‘WI Debacle’. I think we’ve both improved a lot since then but it’s probably for the best that you don’t order the fishcakes.

The Wild Garlic is in Beaminster, Dorset. To book a table call 01308 861446.

Doner Kebabs

If there is a food more maligned than the doner kebab then it remains unknown to my palate.

Long the butt of jokes and the final resort of a hungry lush as he or she stumbles back home from the pub via a neon takeaway, the poor kebab as we know it in England is far removed from its original form.

Sweaty mystery meat sculpted into the famous ‘elephant’s foot’ rotates slowly in front of orange hued heater bulbs behind the counters of less salubrious dining establishments throughout the country. Unimaginably long lengths of it are hacked off and crammed into epic flatbreads or warm pitas before being topped with a token salad of four cucumber rings, some harsh raw onion and a few wedges of watery tomato.

The whole lot is finished with a Russian roulette chilli sauce that ranges from the pathetic to nuclear hot and then eaten with gusto, delight and a side order of late onset guilt.

And it tastes great.

Admittedly the average doner diner is three or even four sheets to the wind by the time they get their laughing gear around this culinary oddity that somehow manages to pack a day’s worth of calories into a single polystyrene box. They are chowed down late at night to sate the deep hunger brought on by overindulgence of the grape and grain’s fine nectar.

I can recall many morning after conversations that have included the phrase ‘I must have been quite pissed – I even had a kebab’ and fondly remember one incident when the distinctive doner niff followed us round for an entire Sunday after a heavy Saturday night. Even a shower and a change of clothes wasn’t enough to quell the odour. It was only when my friend reached into his coat pocket for his wallet and pulled out a length of brown meat that the mystery was solved.

In short kebabs tend to be eaten in haste and regretted at leisure when noxious burps scented with onion exacerbate the hangover. They are the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and a gastronomic punchline for a joke that ceases to be funny at about 6 o’clock the following morning when the belly cramps and the head aches.

But this shouldn’t be the case. In its true form, the doner is a thing of beauty: marinated lamb meat, slow cooked into tender softness – warm with spices and rich with natural fat. Blistered flatbreads with that wonderful gentle bitterness. Heat from chillies tempered with cool salad. Hummus. Yoghurt. These are all good things. Great, wonderful tasty things. And more importantly all things you can achieve at home.

Doner Kebabs

OK – this isn’t a true doner. For that you’d need epic amounts of meat of dubious origin, a large vertical spit, six hours of turning and a hungry mob to consume it all. So we cooked a simplified version which was superior in every way.

Once a lamb shoulder had been boned out and butterflied it was covered with a spice mix containing cumin, coriander, chillies, oregano, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil before being tied up and roasted in the oven over a layer of roughly chopped onions.

Three hours at a low heat was long enough to render the meat tender and almost liquefy the onions.

Whilst it was resting we cooked up a batch of flatbreads, made some hummus and a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, red onion and plenty of parsley.

The lamb meat was shredded with two forks and mixed in with the cooked onions and the fat and juices that had pooled in the bottom of the roasting tray. Heaped into fresh warm flatbreads and then finished off with all the necessary accoutrements it was a meal fit for the gods themselves. Or at least Bacchus.

Photography by Charlotte

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Rocket and Brazil Nut Pesto

We waited weeks for the truly good growing conditions to arrive. A late frost gave us cause for concern and we thought for a few days that we’d lost the entire crop of potatoes - not to mention numerous salads.

Thankfully the sad looking leaves survived and thrived into lush green offerings. The rows of potatoes now stand tall and proud, a thick carpet of the distinctive green leaves cover half the garden like a layer of cloud.

Two lines of lettuce look perky and happy and we’ve already devoured three or four, one with a simple roast chicken with warm bread, some runny mayonnaise and freshly chopped lemon thyme.

The rocket is looking healthy as well: too healthy in fact. We returned after a couple of days away to find it reaching skyward in a manner that would please NASA. Thinking quickly we harvested as many of the oversize leaves as we could and pounded them along with some basil into a fresh, summery pesto.

Stirred into spaghetti it made a wonderful and very quick supper: fresh, peppery, warm with garlic and zingy with lemon. Sometimes a glut is a wonderful thing.

Spaghetti with rocket and brazil nut pesto

Although usually made with pine nuts, the Brazil nuts we found in the back of the cupboard proved to be an excellent substitute. The slightly creamy texture added a slight richness to the pesto.

Two large handfuls of rocket leaves, washed and dried
One handful of basil leaves
9-10 Brazil nuts
2 cloves of garlic
One lemon, zested and juiced
Olive oil
20g Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

Chop the rocket and basil leaves enough to make them fit into a pestle and mortar. Pound the Brazil nuts into a coarse powder then add the garlic and a pinch of sea salt and pound some more. Add the lemon zest then the rocket and basil leaves and continue mashing with the pestle until it begins to look like pesto. Add the olive oil until it is a certifiable sauce then stir in the grated cheese.

Season with sea salt, black pepper and lemon juice and stir through warm spaghetti.

Photographs by @photolotte (flickr)

Follow me on Twitter

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Phad Thai and Cooking Like a Pro

Professional chefs work differently to home cooks. This is a lesson you learn very early on in a restaurant kitchen.

Working a successful service relies on a number of key practices but chief amongst these is doing one’s meez before the first ticket comes in.

Meez , short for mise en place, a French term for ‘putting in place’, means getting everything ready to go so you aren’t faffing around chopping vegetables when you should really be concentrating on cooking that sea bass for table 14.

It is getting everything how you want it, where you want it so when the time comes all you have to do is cook.

Whilst this is good working practice for a professional environment, it is a lesson I’ve brought home with me as well. I approach cooking differently, first doing any peeling or butchery then moving onto chopping and the like.

Only when everything is ready to go, do I start cooking. This actually cuts down the time spent in the kitchen and means that hands on cooking is as swift and smooth as possible.

More importantly it means there isn’t a mountain of washing up to do after dinner because all the clearing up is done as you go along – another lesson you learn very quickly in professional kitchens.

A chef friend of mine put it rather more succinctly. ‘The six Ps,’ he said when we were talking about cooking for paying customers. I looked at him blankly. ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance.’

‘That’s only five,’ I replied. ‘Five Ps.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I gave you the clean version. Commis chefs get the six P chat. Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.’

And he’s right.

One dish that really benefits from this approach is a stir-fry when you have a matter of just a few minutes to actually cook everything and Phad Thai is a real favourite. Last time I visited the family, my sister asked me the best way to cook this. I gave her a little lesson but neglected to write down the recipe so, Ellen – this one’s for you.

Ellen’s Phad Thai
The key flavourings are palm sugar (although you could sub in brown sugar) for sweetness, tamarind and lime for sourness, fish sauce and soy for saltiness and chillies for heat.

The core philosophy of Thai food is ensuring these are balanced so feel free to play with quantities as you see fit: There are no rules – it is a dish from the streets of Bangkok. It is fast, filling and very tasty indeed.

Ingredients are listed in the order they should be cooked

Per person:
Cooking oil (2-3 tablespoons)
½ carrot, sliced into thin strips
½ onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Tablespoon of pickled radish or pickled turnip (you should find this in your friendly local Chinese supermarket)
Fresh red chillies, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced

10-15g palm sugar
2 tablespoons of tamarind
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce

100g rice noodles, cooked in boiling water

1 egg, beaten

Tablespoon of peanuts, roasted and roughly ground
Tablespoon of dried shrimp

To finish
Bean sprouts
Finely shredded spring onion
Finely shredded red chillies
Roasted and ground peanuts
Lime wedges

Once the first ingredient goes into the hot oil this dish is about two minutes away from the plate so you have to work quickly. Get all your ingredients ready to go and set up in order – this is your mise en place. Congratulations, you are now a chef.

Heat up a wok so it is good and scorching. Add the oil then tip in the onion, garlic, carrot, chillies and pickled radish (or turnip). Move around the wok then add the flavourings: tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy stir well then add the cooked noodles. Coat with the sauce then make a well in the centre and add the egg. Let it cook, scramble it and incorporate it into the dish.

Sprinkle in the dried shrimp and peanuts, stir one last time and spoon into bowls. Garnish with bean sprouts, spring onions, chillies and peanuts then feel free to go crazy with the seasonings to pep up the dish to your own personal tastes. Finely chopped bird’s eye chillies in fish sauce is a real favourite that always brings back the memory of Thailand.

Who needs a takeaway?