Thursday, 29 March 2012

Laziness and Bánh Mi Buggery

Out of all the seven deadly sins that I am prone to (and I am pretty much prone to them all), the cardinal sin of sloth is the one that often snares me the most. It really is the one that I like to hang myself out to dry on because my head is always full, always teetering with good intentions and vim, to get out there and truly do something different with my life. And yet time and time again, these plans, these ideas, which always sprint off headfirst at breakneck speed, often suddenly slam violently into a wall of farty, apathetic, laziness. It's something that gets to me a lot, I am forever beating myself up but I don't know what to do about it. The crazy thing is that I am not actually lazy, I work very hard, bloody hard. I procrastinate too much though, that's the problem I think. I've lost count of the times I've sat down at the computer, flexed my knuckles and set about writing up a blog post or plan some new food adventure or tried to work out a book proposal even:

"Ah yes, right, here we go, OK......let's just have a think, ah.......ooh email, ah new Oatmeal! (click) ah...... he he, hehehe, HAHAHA........ what was I doing? Oh sod it, let's have a cup of tea."

Maybe I'll work it out at some point and very soon I hope. But in the meantime, whilst we're on the subject of indolence and torpidity, I thought it would be fun to write a quick post about a development in the world of baguettes, involving the sandwich chain Eat and their buggery with bánh mi.

So yes, Eat have recently launched their very own take on the Vietnamese classic, the Bánh Mi or in their case, the 'Very' Spicy Chicken Bánh Mi. And I picked up one recently, out of curiosity really and while I make no claim to be an expert on Vietnamese cuisine, I felt confident enough to pass this verdict. Now, this may or may not have been fair. After all, Eat do a fair to middling line range of products. But in all fairness, it really wasn't that good. The bread was far too dense and heavy. The chicken was saturated and pappy in a mayonnaise gloop. Shredded carrots and mooli were listless and sodden. And the chilli heat, smeared on as a base sauce, coating the bread, was far too hot, tasting like the "Extra sexy super chilli hot?" regret of a Friday night doner kebab. No, not good at all. And so I consigned the whole concept to the dustbin of history, never to be repeated again.

Then I popped to City Caphe earlier this week and one of those strange, whirlwind ideas came flying into my head as I stood in the substantial queue. 'Perhaps, I should order their chicken bánh mi and buy another one of Eat's version to do a test comparison? Yes, that might be good, perhaps I've been too harsh on poor old Eat,' I thought to myself. And so soon after, I found myself in a nearby park, sat on the grass, in the sunshine with two baguettes in front of me, looking like a proper glutton. That other sin I have issues with.

The resounding result didn't need much deconstructing really. City Caphe's baguette was far, far better. Light, crisp bread, succulent pieces of lightly spiced chicken, crunchy carrot with slices of red chilli and fragrant coriander leaves. Made with finesse and care and attention. It was delicious. Whereas the baguette from Eat, well it just reinforced my original conclusion. It was shite.

But what is the point of such an experiment anyway? Aside from pouring ridicule and pity on myself, I am sure my fellow park grazers were wondering what the hell was I doing eating and photographising two baguettes, the point is this; why launch a new type of sandwich to your customers when it's plainly obvious you don't give two hoots about it in the first place? Why offer a generic, modified, plasticised, Westernised version of an original? Why not be brave and introduce something to your audience that is authentic, different and vibrant? I think the answer for Eat lies at the feet of Sloth. And I don't mean that wonky-eyed, muscle bound dude from the Goonies. No, I mean it's just plain lazy. And therein lies the problem. Despite the great strides that apparently are being made with regards to this country's food cultcha, this sort of laziness will always put us on the back foot. Food prepared and served this way to the masses only waters things down to a bland, extraneous point of acceptability. This a shame and it irks me somewhat and probably needs a proper route of enquiry but this is all I can muster for now.

But hey, at least I don't feel so lazy after writing that. It's a start, eh?

Clash of the Bánh Mi's

Hmm, from this angle, they both don't look that bad but......



Monday, 26 March 2012

Why is taste historically stunted?

I have a serious question. This weekend I spoke before the Renaissance Society of America about food, of course. It occured to me that no one present would have the slightest qualms about watching a play of this era, looking at a 500 year old painting, or hearing Renaissance music. They do it all the time. It's their profession! Then at the reception, with marvellous food mind you, it occured to me: what would happen if you served them Renaissance food? I mean sweet chicken blancmanger, peacocks resewn into their feathers spewing flames, sweet sour perfumed sauces. Sugar and cinnamon on everything. They would run in terror. They might be amused for a few minutes, but no one in their right mind would take it seriously and honestly eat it with enjoyment. Why are our historic sensibilities completely and utterly stunted when it comes to gastronomy, but so highly refined for the other arts? Is there something inherently different about taste, because we ingest it? So it becomes more closely bound to our own time than any other kind of taste? Or is it because historians set the canons of taste for the past in the other arts but have never done it for food? Everyone recognizes the Mona Lisa but would be very hard pressed to identify a signature Renaissance dish.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

CHOCOLATE – Hi Everyone! Introducing.... the food dept.

We are four passionate creatives from the food industry.

Our recipe...
cup of fabulous photographer Petrina Tinslay
cup of creative art director Anne Marie Cummins
teaspoon of the talented stylist David Morgan
teaspoon of amazing food editor Sally Courtney
Mixed together… We are the food dept.

Once a month, (or maybe more) we will inspire you with our beautiful food photography and tempt you to cook our delicious new recipes. Welcome to the first edition of the food dept's new online food feature – "Hot Chocolate" –
and don't forget to tell us what you think. 

Cook, create + laugh
Petrina, David, Anne Marie and Sally
(pictured left to right) 

Images © the food dept.

food dept recipes

Self saucing chocolate puddings
Serves 4
Chocolate nirvana here we come! It's everything you expect from a chocolate pud and a whole lot more. 

• 1 cup self raising flour
cup castor sugar
2 tablespoons Dutch cocoa
½ cup milk
40g butter, melted
1 free range egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon pure vanilla essence
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons Dutch cocoa (extra)
1 cup boiling water
Double cream, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 180˚C (160°C fan-forced). Grease a 4 cup ovenproof dish.
2. Sift flour, sugar and cocoa into a mixing bowl.
3. Combine milk, butter, egg and vanilla in a jug and pour into the dry ingredients. Mix gently until just combined. Pour into the prepared ovenproof dish. Combine brown sugar, extra cocoa and boiling water into another jug, mix well.
4. Gently pour the sauce mixture into dish and bake for 20-25. Serve warm with a dollop cream.

food dept fact: This recipe can easily be doubled to serve 8, use an 8 cup ovenproof dish, bake for 35-40 minutes or until pudding batter is set and springs back when touched. For individual serves, divide the recipe between ¾ cup ovenproof ramekins, these will only take 15-20 minutes.   

Hazelnut meringues with rich chocolate sauce
Makes 6  
Try these crisp meringues with a scoop of our Dark Chocolate Ice Cream 

4 free range egg whites
Pinch salt
1¼ cups caster sugar 
2 teaspoons cornflour 
1 teaspoon white vinegar 
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 
½ cup roughly chopped hazelnuts 
300mls thickened cream, whipped 
1 quantity Rich Chocolate Sauce 

1. Preheat oven to 120˚C. (100°C fan-forced).
2. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites and salt with an electric mixer until they form soft peaks. Gradually sprinkle in the sugar a quarter at a time and beat until glossy. Add cornflour, vinegar and vanilla and beat on low until just mixed through.
3. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Using a 1 cup measure, place mixture onto baking trays to form large oval meringues. Sprinkle over hazelnuts and bake for 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and allow the meringues to cool in the oven with the door ajar. They should be crisp on the outside and marshmallowy in the centre.
4. Serve with a drizzle of Rich Chocolate Sauce.

Rich Chocolate Sauce
Makes 1½ cups

½ cup cream 
250g dark chocolate -70% cocoa, roughly chopped

1. Place cream in a saucepan over a low heat until simmering. Remove from the heat and stir through the chocolate until dissolved.
2. Serve warm with Hazelnut Meringues 

food dept fact: If the sauce is made ahead, it will set at room temperature. Gently warm again over a low heat until smooth and glossy.



Chocolate and pistachio coated brittle with vanilla salt
Makes 1 slab 
Package this up for a great hostess gift. It should also come with a warning – you won't be able to stop at one piece!

Vanilla Salt
1 vanilla bean
2 teaspoons flakey sea salt 
2 cups sugar 
1 cup water
2 tablespoons liquid glucose 
15g butter, melted 
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda 
1 teaspoon, vanilla salt 
200g dark chocolate, melted 
1 cup pistachio kernals 
1 teaspoon vanilla salt (extra)

1. Greased a 20x30cm slice pan and set aside.
2. To make vanilla salt, cut vanilla pod in half lengthways and scrap the seeds from the pod into a bowl. Lightly rub the vanilla seeds through the salt and set aside.
3. In a saucepan dissolve sugar in water, add glucose and stir over a medium heat until sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook without stirring (stirring a boiling sugar syrup will cause it to crystallize), until mixture is golden brown. Remove from heat and stir in the butter, bicarbonate of soda and vanilla salt. 
4. Pour into slice pan and allow to completely cool. Once cold remove from the pan, spread over melted chocolate and sprinkle with pistachios and vanilla salt.
Allow chocolate to set before breaking in to bite size pieces.

food dept facts: Vanilla salt is available from Simon Johnson’s or you can make your own. Alternately, just use flakey sea salt.  The unused vanilla pod can be placed in a container with some sugar, allow it to infuse to your own liking and you’ll have delicious vanilla sugar to use in baking. The pod can also be removed from the sugar and used to infuse custard.

Best ever fudge brownies with sour cherries and white chocolate chunks
Makes 16 pieces 
Delicious white chocolate chunks balanced by the burst of sour cherries in these Best Ever Brownies. Substitute the cherries and white chocolate with your favourite dried fruit or nut and chocolate combination.

200g butter, roughly diced 
150g dark chocolate – 70% cocoa, roughly chopped 
3 free range eggs, lightly beaten 
1½ cups brown sugar 
1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence 
1 cup plain flour 
½ cup dried sour cherries 
100g good quality white chocolate, cut into chunks

1. Preheat oven to 180˚
C (160°C fan-forced). Grease and line a 20cm square cake pan.
2. Combine butter and chocolate in a small saucepan over a low heat and stir until butter and chocolate have melted. Set aside and allow to cool. 
3. Combine eggs, sugar and vanilla essence in a bowl and add cooled chocolate mixture. 
Place flour and cherries in a bowl. Add chocolate mixture and stir until just combined. Pour into the pan and evenly place over the white chocolate chunks. 
5. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until cooked when tested. Allow to cool completely in the tin. Remove and cut into 16 pieces.

food dept fact: For an even ‘fudgier’ brownie, reduce the cooking time by 5-10 minutes, experiment until you find ‘fudginess’ you like.


Chocolate layer cake with chocolate mousse icing
Serves 10–12  
This is the ulimate chocolate layer cake, it's super dense and moist, but not too sweet.

1¼ cups Dutch cocoa  
3 cups plain flour 
2½ cups caster sugar
3 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda 
1½ teaspoons baking powder 
3 free range eggs 
1½ cups water 
1½ cups buttermilk 
200g butter, melted 
1 teaspoon, pure vanilla extract 
1 quantity Chocolate mousse icing 
Dutch Cocoa, for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 180˚C (160°C fan-forced). Grease and line 2 x 20cm deep round cake pans. 
2. In a bowl, sift cocoa, flour and combine with sugar, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low to combine. 
3. In a large jug, combine eggs, water, buttermilk, melted butter and vanilla essence. With the mixer on low gradually pour in the liquid ingredients and continue to beat for 2 minutes.
4. Divide the mixture evenly between the 2 cake pans and bake for 50-55 minutes or until cooked when tested. Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the pans.
5. Turn the cakes out and allow to cool completely. Using a serrated knife, trim the top of the cakes and then cut each cake evenly into 2 layers. Divide the Chocolate Mousse Icing evenly between the layers and top of the cake. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.

food dept fact: This recipe is also great for cupcakes, it makes approximately 24 good size cupcakes.

Chocolate mousse icing
Makes 3 cups 

250g unsalted butter softened
200g dark chocolate – 70% cocoa, melted and allowed to cool 
300ml thickened cream 
2 tablespoons caster sugar 

1. Beat butter in a bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, add chocolate and continue to beat for 2 minutes.
2. In another bowl beat cream and caster sugar until soft peaks form. Add cream to the chocolate mixture and beat for a further 2 minutes.

food dept fact: For best results use the icing at room temperature as soon as it has been made. Icing can be refrigerated or frozen for later use. Allow it to come back to room temperature and beat again until smooth.


Dark chocolate ice cream
Makes 1½ litres  
A luscious velvety ice cream perfect on its own or with your favourite dessert.

2 cups milk 
600ml cup cream 
400g dark chocolate - 70% cocoa, roughly chopped
1 cup caster sugar
8 free range egg yolks 

1. Combine milk and cream in a saucepan over a low heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted, allow to cool.  
2. Combine the sugar and egg yolks in a bowl and whisk until pale and creamy. Gradually whisk in the chocolate and cream mixture to make a chocolate custard. Return the chocolate custard mixture to the saucepan and stir over a low heat until slightly thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Do not allow the custard to boil or it will curdle.
3. Chill the custard and then churn in an ice-cream churn according to manufacturer’s instructions.
4. Place into a freezer container and freeze for 4 hours or overnight.

Rum and raisin icecream, Soak 1 cup of raisins in 1/3 cup dark rum overnight until raisins are plumped. Combine with the chocolate custard in the ice cream churn and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

 food dept facts: If you don’t have an ice cream churn, freeze the custard in a freezer container until firm. Break up the ice cream and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Return to the freezer container and freeze for 4 hours or overnight.


Chocolate kahlua shots
Makes 6 shots
An instant chocolate quick fix, doubles as the perfect after dinner drink or dessert.

100g dark bittersweet chocolate - 80% cocoa 
½ cup Kahlua 
300ml cream 

1. Cut the chocolate across the block into thick shards and divide evenly between 6 heatproof shot glasses. Pour 1 tablespoon of Kahlua into each glass. Place cream in a small saucepan and heat on low until simmering.
2. Pour approximately 2 tablespoons of hot cream into each glass and serve immediately with a small spoon.

food dept fact: Substitute the Kahlua for your favourite liqueur.

Remember to tell us what you think, and share your cooking experiences.




Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Springtime at The Food Urchin Supper Club - 31st March 2012

By all accounts, Spring starts today. And although sources do vary from one druid to another, I for one, am very grateful of its arrival. For when Spring is here, the world all around us becomes more buoyant, verdant, lustful and free. Finally, we can cast off the dreary shackles of Winter, finally we can strip naked and run like stags through the forest, bare foot, feeling life penetrating back up through the musty, damp soil. However, a even more exciting proposition than that (for I am no longer allowed to actually go running sans apparel these days, court injunction, can't say anymore) is the arrival of wild garlic in our garden. When the ramsons start peeking through, then that is the signal, that Aslan is on his way.

And yet, as the new shoots push their way through, I am curiously minded of death. The death of our cat Dickie who succumbed to diabetes last year, poor thing. He loved roaming around the wild garlic patch, stretching his fluffy white chin over a broad leaf for a tickle, rolling around for a dose of allium scent, perhaps to impress the lady cats in the neighbourhood. On occasion, he also used to like spraying his business over the garlic, which would fill me with rage and I would chase him down the path swinging a rake over my head, screaming. So he didn't do that that often. At least I don't think he did. The children still think Dickie lives out in the garden, living a life, buoyant, lustful and free.

"He's very naughty that Dickie, isn't he Daddy. He never comes when you call him"

I haven't the heart to tell them the truth, to reveal death, to talk of that good night, which one should not go into gently. Not yet....................

I am supposed to be telling you about the next Food Urchin Supper Club which is on March 31st 2012.

Clearly, I have been sniffing too much copydex this morning.

So yes LIFE! FERTILITY! LAMB! FORAGING! RHUBARB! BOOZE! These are just some of the elements that we shall be introducing to our guests and this shall be the very exciting menu:

Nettle and Ham Hock Soup

Fennel Risotto with Pan-Fried Scallops

Wild Garlic and Anchovy Stuffed Lamb with Flageolet Beans, Roast Gnocchi and Spring Vegetables

Buttermilk Pudding with Boozy Rhubarb

All for the respectable donation of £25.00 per head (which includes free Essex tap water, homemade bread and a refreshing granita, of some description).

Vegetarian options available on request.

For more information and to reserve a place, please email me at:

Ordinarily, I like to post menus and supper club musings on Posterous. But as the site has gorn up the wall today, I might concentrate all efforts from one singular blog. Makes sense dunnit (might get my domain name sorted out one of these days too).

Monday, 12 March 2012

Corned Beast

Ah, SO sorry I forgot to put a picture up. It's my sourdough roasted and sliced horizontally, my sauerkraut, my mustard, this wicked winey corned beef and I think melted cheese too. Browned in butter, GASP!

If you haven't done so already, now's the time to start your corned beast for St. Patrick's Day. I did it yesterday, and a full week to cure is about right. The reason to do it is not cost: corned beef was $3.99 a pound in the supermarket yesterday and raw brisket was $4.99. You do it because it's fun! And tastes better, because you can do whatever you like with it. Moreover, you don't need a buy a huge honking hunk of beast if you only want a bit. I bought a 2 lbs brisket end with a nice cap of fat. To start: sprinkle generously with salt - a little more than if you were just going to cook this. (I actually used a red salt impregnated with French wine that my friend Lissa in Paris gave me, but regular sea salt is fine.) Then very lightly sprinkle with pink salt. (Instacure #1) Then add whatever you like - I used juniper berries sent to me by Miss Butterpowered Bike from Colorado. Plus coriander, black pepper and bay leaves. Throw it in a leakproof ziplock and into the fridge for a week. Now here's the divergence. Forget boiling it. Much of the flavor is lost in the water. So after it's thoroughly cured, rinse it off. I like to put it in a casserole on a bed of sauerkraut (your own), add water or other liquid (such as beer - your own), cover and bake slowly for about 3 or 4 hours undisturbed. Serve on toasted rye (your own) with a good smear of mustard (also you own) along with the kraut. It's LOVELY.

Meating Donald Russell

My Father-in-law, a tall and stout man, often likes to dispense pearls of curious wisdom. Pearls that draw you in. Make you listen and concentrate with your head down. Usually over a pint, cupping your ear against the background din of a Friday night. And when he's said what he's had to say, Pete will often just lean back with a satisfied grin, full of sage ambivalence, finish his bitter and go and get another round in. Leaving you standing there, bemused and perplexed, wondering, "Did he just say what I think he just said?"

One pearl that Pete often likes to trot out, is this gem.

"Never trust a chippy with a full set of fingers. Same goes for butchers too."

It's a twisted logic but the train of thought goes along the lines that any craftsman, in this case, a carpenter or a butcher, who loses a digit whilst plying their trade is actually going to be more skillful and thorough. Because having paid the ultimate sacrifice, you can be sure that the care and attention that they put into their work, is going to be of a far higher standard. Far higher than your average Joe, who would probably prefer to keep their phalanges intact in the first place. Which does makes sense. Albeit in a very macabre, perverse way.

And having visited Donald Russell, master butchers and purveyors of fine foods, up in Aberbeenshire recently with May from Slow Food Kitchen, it was Pete's mantra that kept coming back to me, time and time again.

The fairly full-on day started calmly enough with tea and biscuits and a historical overview of a family business which rose from the ashes of the BSE crisis in 1996. In a nutshell, prior to this cataclysmic event for British beef farming, Donald Russell supplied to trade only, providing gourmet meats to hotels and restaurants throughout the UK and worldwide. But once the news hit, the shutters came smashing down and a lot of jobs were lost. Fortunately, for Donald Russell, a small ray of light came in the form of an idea, to sell to the public and to "send samples out, not price lists." This, in turn, bolstered consumer confidence back into beef and the business entered a whole new era, providing steak by mail. Now little success stories like that do fill me with joy but having had a peek at their website (which reveals a lot about the ambition and drive of the company, they now sell a hell of lot of products), I did have some reservations.

Personally, the Amazon led culture of buying online, especially food doesn't really appeal. Call me a caveman if you like (and my wife often does) but if possible, I would always prefer to see, smell, prod and if allowed, taste food when I am buying it. Clicking a mouse button seems too anonymous, too automated and after donning my Beastie Boy attire in readiness for our tour of Donald Russell's butchery departments and production lines, I wasn't too sure what to expect. But once I got used to the cold, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of bodies, not cadavers of cows, though there were plenty of those. No, the amount of people employed there was pretty startling. Butchers french trimming lamb racks, blades slashing back and forth. Steaks and cheeks were sliced with speed and efficiency, portioned and weighed, all by hand. Rows of pastry were lined with seasoned sausage meat, rolled and egged and cut, again by hand. I feel naive saying this but I had half-expected a whizzing, conveyor belt system attended by a dozen Johnny Number 5's. And the butchery that was on display was dazzling.

Leaning in for a closer look at one guy who in a manner of seconds, was making deft work at reducing a joint of ribeye into 5 or 6 equal steaks, I couldn't resist the urge for a quick count up. "One, two, three, four.....hmm, he's still got all his fingers," I thought to myself. Perhaps a bit too loudly because 'Piotr' suddenly paused to stop and stare back whilst clenching his scimitar, reminding me in an instant that some butchers still have the capacity to scare the hell out of me. But gratefully, he just tipped me a wink and a smile before carrying on with his business.

After that the rest of the tour went by fairly uneventfully although our foray into the maturation room did cause some brief alarm. Eyeing rows and rows of aging beef, darkened, encrusted and smelling faintly of cheese sparked off some serious tummy rumblings.

I have already alluded to the Neanderthal inside me but the ongoing display of meat was beginning to fray and feverishly, I started to wonder if taking a little nibble, just a little bite, would be out of the question. Luckily Liz, one of our guides, then announced that it was time for lunch so off we sped to their development kitchen with yours truly, dragging his knuckles behind.

Lunch was to consist largely of steak (naturally) but chef, Eddie McDonald had a couple of tricks up his sleeve to show us first, demonstrating that not all steaks are the same. Now I come from the school of thought where you should simply "wipe it's arse and stick it on a plate" and have gladly issued such instructions forth to yawning waiters in the past but Eddie had other ideas. The first curious suggestion was, that to cook a rump steak rare, you should allow 4 minutes for each side with a further 8 minutes or so for resting. Now I am all for the resting time but surely frying a steak for 8 minutes is sacrilege? But when Eddie brought out the pave rump steaks, which were as thick a er......a butcher's neck, I saw his point and with our help, we cooked three beauties to rare, medium and well done.

As this was the first time I tried pave rump (think rump really pared down and trimmed of any fat) my first impressions was that the texture was nice but the flavour was missing somewhat. And of course, the well done steak was a pointless exercise because who in hell likes well done steak, done to shoe leather. The protein overload didn't end there though because in the oven Eddie had secreted three other types of steak for us to try. Actually secreted is the wrong word because the joints of ribeye, sirloin and fillet were enormous and the electric temperature probes that were inserted into each one kept beeping off at inopportune moments. Moving even further away from the wham, bam, thank you ma'am style of cooking steak, Eddie had kept these joints in the oven for over 90 minutes at a constant temperature of 60c.

They had been seared off first but the method employed here ensured the most tender, succulent steaks possible with the least amount of effort, which I imagine is very popular with the likes of Mrs Fortesque-Smythe of Royal Tunbridge Wells. And the steaks, which were quite rare, once carved and distributed, certainly did melt in the mouth. My favourite was the ribeye with an oozing, rich vein of fat running through.

As lunch came to a close and somewhat stupified by a rush of amino acids, I clasped Eddie's hand and thanked him warmly for a fantastic lunch, noting that all his fingers were in place. Although perhaps I could have been a bit more casual about it as he did look a bit perplexed when I held his hand up to the light. And then it was then time to venture back into the tundra for our butchery Masterclass, the part of our visit that I was looking forward to most of all.

Bequeathed with warmer gear ie a very trendy body warmer, we entered the demo room where upon the slab lay a rather alien looking object and given the temperature, we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had just wondered into a John Carpenter film. But what lay before us was known as a 'roasting', essentially a side of cow and for the remainder of the afternoon, the mission of Andy Grant, butcher and production manager, was to show us how to take it apart.

As someone who professes a love for meat, I still get, somewhat embarrassingly, flumoxed at times when it comes to recognising what cuts come from where (I blame being brought up at the supermarket). So to have Andy break everything down simply and slowly was much appreciated.

The obvious clues of course do come from the names of the cuts. I know that rib roasts and ribeye comes from, well from the rib area and rump from the backside end of the cow but given that butcher's terminology can run a whole gamut from Porterhouse to hanger to flat iron to skirt to Jiminy Cricket Splitback Corner Short Rib, I was worried about keeping up. Thankfully, Andy kept everything simple and I picked up some good tips, particularly with sirloin. If you ever spot an oyster of meat just under the line of fat on a sirloin steak, it's come from the rump end and doesn't really constitute as true sirloin. I'll remember that one. Although at one point we did venture into Tafelspitz territory where I wanted to say "Oh come on Andy, you are making this up." And as he surgically broke the roasting down, it was surprising to see just how much waste is produced. For instance this piece of fillet, worthy of a sci-fi cameo.....

....was trimmed down to this.

And all that work for the most flavourless, in my opinion, piece of steak. No wonder it's so expensive.

The fun part then came as we took turns to cut steaks dressed as Sir Galahad, complete with chain mail. The butchers at Donald Russell take great pride so it seems in cutting the exact weight, all the time, everytime so the competitive element went into overdrive as May, Andy and I took it turns to slice steaks to the optimum 220 grams. The first couple of attempts I made were a bit shonky.....
......but then I hit gold.

And it was like scoring a try at Twickenham. Although Andy did disparage my celebration of running high fives whilst holding a razor sharp knife because "That's how accidents happen Danny." And told me in no uncertain terms to put the blade down. But still, it was fun.

So then the day came to a close and after a bit of a debrief, we retired quietly to our hotel (alright, there was a bit more steak tasting in the evening) and I do have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Donald Russell. It was certainly an eye opener in some respects. Going back to my initial provisos about buying meat online, I would glady order from them in future. There are a couple of buts though. I think firstly, it would be encouraging to see Donald Russell embrace the artisan behind their trade and push it to the forefront because it was certainly evident. One of the many things we talked about on the trip was the fact that butchery is slowly becoming a dying trade in this country and Mark Farquhar, Head Butcher at Donald Russell, spoke of initiatives to support the industry such as apprenticeships, training schemes etc. If I could go to the website and see more of that happening then personally, it would be more of a draw to use them.

Secondly, throughout the trip, the elephant in the room (rather than cow) was the issue of provenance. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the words 'Aberdeen Angus' once or any other breed. This is simply because it didn't really come up. I am sure that they do source Aberdeen Angus from local farms for meat but it wasn't really pushed. In fact, one curious statement went along the lines that it "wasn't about breeds but about quality." Which for a company such as Donald Russell, complete with royal appointment, sounded strange to me. Something almost that my Father-in-law would come out with. Surely customers want to know where their meat is coming from? No? I know I do. It may well be an obtuse and contrary thing to focus on, right at the end, after all I have no understanding of the company's operational level but if Donald Russell were to unravel this last cloak of anonymity, then I for one would be caught, hook, line and sinker.

And by the mouth please, not by my fingers.

Many thanks goes to Donald Russell and Wild Card for their hospitality and for organising the trip.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Kombucha Egg

This morning two long running experiments came together fortuitiously. First there is komucha. I have tasted many that were positively vile with seaweed and other garbage. Then others that just tasted like fruity vinegar. But I imagined just a sweet tea kind of komucha would be lovely. So I just made some black tea with sugar and threw in a disk of vinegar mother to see what might happen. Three weeks later it is perfectly delightful. Tart tea vinegar. Not effervescent, maybe because I left the lid off? But then it occured to me, if this is really just vinegar why not throw in some hardboiled eggs and see what happens? I didn't salt it, but maybe should have. We shall see. If it works, maybe vegetables would pickle nicely in it too. Does anyone have experience with this?

Transcendental Chablis

Pairing wine with food isn't easy. There you go, I've said it.

Alright, it might be easy if you know a little bit about the stuff. About wine that is. To truly appreciate the grape, it's inherent qualities and characteristics and then to match it with food, well there are many, many processes to master. Or so it would seem. You see it's all about vinification, classification, appellation, degustation, from all across the nations and even then, the learned expert (who has to undergo a rigorous bout of sommelification) doesn't always get it right. Many's the time in a restaurant, have I asked a wine steward for their recommendation to accompany my meal and ended up spitting the wine out in disgust. This usually happens upon finding out the price of the wine from the list, rather than have anything to do with the quality. But in all honesty, I have on occasion sat through a tasting menu, spooned a mouthful from the plate and slurped straight from the glass and thought, "Erm, I don't get it. Where are the fireworks?"

So where do we go from here?

Well it's an interesting question and it's one that I have been asking myself a lot recently because I put my hand up to take part in a competition run by The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (think Men In Black but with corkscrews). The remit was to simply come up with a food pairing to go with Chablis, one of the more sophisticated, swankier incarnations of Chardonnay that exists out there in the big, bad world of wine. And for while I was stumped. Even after sampling the best part of a bottle that was sent, a Les Domaines Brocard Chablis, 2007, no less, I was still stumped. Luckily they also sent me a Chablis Premier Cru, Les Vaillons 2007, Billaud-Simon and after tasting that, the magical genie deep within my cerebral cortex began to muse, design and reminisce from the past.

You see there is a lot to be said about personal experience when it comes to thinking about pairing food and wine. And as I let the flavours of the Les Vaillons wash over me, something strange started to happen. I don't know if it was the nose, clean with an element of soft creaminess. Or the dry, crisp, mineral notes on the palate. Or the combination of apples and citrus with just a slight hint of herbaceousness but it was as though the Chablis was furrowing through history, ploughing the terroir of my mind.

Snapshots of a holiday in the south of France before the arrival of children, in the undulating peaks of Le Fenouillèdes, began to focus in and out. A tiny gite in a tiny, tiny village, set in a cauldron-like valley where swallows would race round and round as though on a cycle track before soaring majestically into the sky. Silent mornings, spent with doors open in the listless heat, lying on our bed, peering through the cracks of our toes. Bikes and baguettes, riding through cobbled streets. Trips in the car to the sea, listening to foreign radio against crashing waves. A birthday, a celebration, a visit to the supermarche and then to a poissonnerie with pointing fingers and brief, muted embarrassment and then back home. Mussels and clams steamed in wine, squid and prawns quickly fried, linguine boiled and tossed into a shabby old colander. Oil, garlic, some chicken stock and tomatoes in a pan over heat and then stir through the shellfish. The pasta gets curled into the middle of the bowl, an island for the seafood ragout before herbs, finely chopped are sprinkled around. Good old Mr Stein, he never lets you down. And then the wine is brought out, a similar crisp, acidic Chablis, very gently chilled. A kiss, then a sip and as we eat, the sun slowly sinks out of sight, leaving us quite alone, in our quiet field and everything is just perfect.

So my ideal match for Les Vaillons Chablis would be a Seafood Ragout with Fine Herbs and Linguine.

To be enjoyed alfresco, during the last remaining rays of the day.

Except this isn't the field I remember.

This isn't the field at all.....

How did I get here?

You know, I suspect I've been thinking about this wine pairing just a little bit too much.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Circus Peanut Soup

This is a West African Recipe of such elegance and beauty that the only way to properly defile it is to use the most heinous of all mass produced junk foods: bright orange vaguely marshmallow-like, artificially banana flavored, tough chewy bright orange circus peanuts. They are the very antithesis of food. I love them. You'll need a whole 3.5 ounce bag, preferably stale. I bought mine at Walgreens. This is a serving for two as a starter; add more ingredients to make a big pot. In a small saucepan, brown 3 chicken thighs with skin and bones in a tablespoon of olive oil. Remove them, add one chopped onion, and a half cup each chopped red and green bell pepper. Add a tablespoon of minced ginger, and crushed red pepper to taste, plus some toasted and ground coriander. Then grate in two roma tomatoes, without the peel. Have fun here, you can add whatever you like. Brown the vegetables and add the chicken back in. Cover with water and simmer for about 45 mintues. Remove the chicken and discard the skin and bones. Shred the chicken and return to the pot. Taste and make it hotter if you like. Throw in the whole bag of circus peanuts and let them melt. There will be a jolt of sweetness, so adjust with a touch of acid or mor heat if you like. Garnish with a sliced circus peanut. As you will see the gelatinous goo thickens the soup well. Not perhaps as nice as peanut butter, so if you use a touch of the latter I wont tell. But here's the most perverse part. IT ACTUALLY TASTES GOOD! *I bet you could make this with PEEPS too. Next will be cooking with Necco Wafers.