Tom Aikens, Pinterest UK and me.

30 May

I was delighted to be invited to a Pinterest UK event at Atelier des Chefs this week. Actually, I was offered the ticket by Vikki Morgan, who couldn’t attend, but I have no shame and jumped at the opportunity to participate in a cook along with Tom Aikens (really, I would have cancelled a trip to visit her Majesty herself for this one!)

The event was for foodie bloggers, a group with which I aspire to be associated, and which I am determined to earn the right to call myself. I’ve a long way to go, but this evening really fired me up, so watch this space!

Upon arrival, having been plied with the most delicious bubbly, the wonderfully bubbly and energetic host Lizzie from Pinterest UK asked us to form groups around different work areas and get to it. I worked alongside colleague and friend Alex Goldstein the inspiring and talented Urvashi Roe (The Botanical Baker) and also Laura and Toby from the Daily Express.

Our first task was to listen attentively while Tom talked us through the first recipe; Beetroot marinated Salmon, Beet Dressing & Pickled Baby Beets. The salmon had already been marinated, but we watched Tom create paper thin slices, and then had a go ourselves. Being a left hander, I found this a little challenging, but Alex and Laura proved themselves to be whizzes, so the rest of the group left them in charge and focused on the dressing. Interestingly, either we were greedy guts, or just knife gurus, as our plates were the most loaded of all of the attendees, and our piece of salmon laid bare by the end – but perhaps we just don’t like waste?

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Verdict; absolutely delicious. I would definitely make this again, and as a cold starter it would be great for a dinner party. Especially as I could throw in the “Oh this? So easy. I learned to make this with Tom Aikens, you know?”

Tom was charming and hovered around helping and assisting throughout, without any cheffy tantrums or big dramatic sighs. Being non-pros we were a little hesitant with the seasoning and he was always about to have a quick taste and flick in another pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.

Our next dish was baked scallops with a sauce vierge. We learned how to clean the scallops and prepare them and made the sauce. Ours was a little heavy handed with the tarragon, and we got caught sneaking “samples” from the chef’s bench, but he didn’t appear to mind! 

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Finally we made an incredible dish of Seabass with Herbs, Peashoots and Orange. Tom showed us how to season the parchment paper and then lay the fish fillets over it, seasoning again, which I will definitely do again – at the end it was really easy to decant the beautifully flavoured fish onto the plates without having to use a fish slice and mess them up. Tom had already prepared the “cheffy” ingredient of the orange powder, which was simply microplaned orange and lemon zest, gently dried out, but it didn’t appear to be too much effort and added a special something to the dish.

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A couple of us helped Tom to prepare and pod the broad beans for the dish and, slightly lubricated by the wonderful wine on offer, we jokingly said that we would be adding “Sous chef to Tom Aikens” to our CV’s.

It was a lovely evening, with great company and the opportunity to cook along with a great chef – so thank you PinterestUK for allowing me to fill the last minute place!.

Image, Lizzie and Tom

 

 

 

 

Feeding the family (and the freezer too!)

25 Feb

This half term, while on leave from work, I rolled up my sleeves and got making. As I am away from home at least 1 night per week, I do attempt to make it easy for my dear hubby. Not only that but I’d rather the girls didn’t just eat “brown food” – you know; fish fingers and potato wedges from the freezer. Not only that, but after years of me being first cook in the house, P has lost the knack a bit. He does a pretty good risotto and, being a man, can cook steak really well, but the rest… well, pasta and jars, plus the above brown food, are his regular offerings.

Of course, before I started this cooking for the freezer fun, I had to venture to the fantastic butcher no too far from here, where I spent an OBSCENE amount of money on meat. It was all from high welfare animals though, and on display in the window too (Don’t even get me started on recent news about a butcher having to take down the game display as it offended locals!*)

Next – other ingredients, which were largely storecupboard, with a few extras thrown in the basket at Lidl.

Here’s the list of what I made:

Lots of ragu. My fussy younger daughter won’t touch mince, and I can’t afford to feed her on steak, which would be her ideal, so we meet halfway. We ate it on the first night and the vast amount of leftovers became a sort of cottage pie, a sort of chilli con carne and a sort of pasta and cheese sauce concoction. I’m sure it has a name, but can’t think what it might be!

Loads of beef stew. Always great for the freezer.

 

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Slow cooked shoulder of lamb, which later became the basis of 3 individual shepherds’ pies.

And finally a load of mac and cheese. OK, it doesn’t freeze brilliantly, but my older daughter isn’t a huge fan of meat, so while I’m away during the week she can reach into the freezer for a portion of this.

This was all made easy by the beast – my wonderful dark blue AGA, and all slow cooked in the bottom oven (except the mac and cheese, obviously). I can’t recommend enough cooking meat long and slow to really bring out the flavour and make even the cheapest cuts tender and delicious, and I’m told that the counter top slow cookers are fab too. Must get one – any recommendations?

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Actually; do get me started. This will be my next blogpost

Teaching the kids to cook – at school

27 Jan

It is parents’ evening for our oldest daughter tonight. She’s in year 8, she’s not especially academic but she tries reasonably hard (they could always try harder, couldn’t they?) and she’s happy at her current school.

I’m generally happy too. Of course, there are issues, as with any school, but she’s not at the top, nor at the bottom and I am content with her progress, I think. Her handwriting is dreadful, but since she has been diagnosed with Irlinn Syndrome, and wears coloured lenses in her glasses, the improvement has been little short of miraculous*. She even reads for fun now!

But… I cook. A lot. I even write recipes for ingredient brands, have done demos, and taught a bit too. So I would reckon on knowing a bit about cooking and I’m really unhappy about the home ec course at the school.

Now, before I proceed, K is at a girls’ school, and a high achieving academic one at that. So Home Ec isn’t offered at GCSE in order to favour the more traditional sciences. I would like them to change that, in the first instance, as I think it’s more than just a hobby – it’s a life skill we should all have.  But what riles me is that they aren’t learning useful skills! Surely, if they won’t be getting an academic qualification in it, it is way more important to furnish them with everyday skills and recipes to start them on their way?

Bugbear #1

I’m Mrs Traditional. I always make a white sauce the old fashioned way. Messieurs Roux got it right and I’m more than happy with that. The all in one method just doesn’t work as well, so please don’t tell my daughter she’s wrong when she automatically makes a cheese sauce my way. If nothing else, it’s not wrong; it’s just another method (with better results!)

Bugbear #2

Why so much theory? They spend more time learning hygiene theories than actually doing any cooking? To work in a professional kitchen you need Food Hygiene Level 2. It takes a day to learn all that is necessary, and you can do it online. So, why not get the girls to do that – it’s good enough for professional kitchens!

Bugbear #3

Don’t baby them. Most of these middle class girls cook at home; a lot. K even tests recipes for me sometimes. She’s a whizz with choux pastry and I never make puddings anymore because she’s better than I am. When the school holds baking competitions or school masterchef, it puts me to shame. These girls can already cook quite well so please don’t just stick with cupcakes and all in one sauce for mac and cheese, and only cook 3 times a term. Reduce the theory and give them a challenge, teach them to improvise and use up leftovers; give them recipes they can take to Uni and on through life with them!

Now, I know that it’s my responsibility, as K’s parent, to provide her with the life skills she needs, and the responsibility of the school to take the academic side. So I can understand the school taking the theoretical approach to Home Ec, but then why bother with the practical at all? I know that’s a simplistic view, but why wouldn’t cooking be considered important and useful? Look at Jamie et al; they’ve made millions by cooking. We’re cooking crazy these days! It’s gone back to being OK to want to cook for a living, and there are loads of people signing up to cooking classes because they never learned. Let’s teach them properly!

 

So, I hope that I can ask sensible questions tonight, and not just blurt out that I think that the Home Ec teacher can’t actually cook… Wish me luck!

 

*I was sceptical about this. I’m bored of bandwagon mums who clamber aboard every syndrome and complaint, declaring that this is the reason for their child’s behaviour. But they insisted on testing her, and with normal glasses her reading was pitifully slow, with coloured lenses she reads as she ought. Can’t argue with that!

A plus sized range from size 12?!

22 Jan

I greeted the news that Mango have launched a plus sized fashion range initially with glee, as I’m no lightweight myself, being a comfortable size 18, dreaming of a 14. (It is achievable, it is!) I find plus sized retailers depressing and overpriced, and it is RIDICULOUS that I have been unable to shop in some high street fashion ranges because a 14 is the max they deem appropriate.

I don’t condone obesity. In fact the battle against it is one I win, and then lose, with depressing regularity. However people are getting bigger… but please don’t assume it’s just because they’re getting fatter.

Let’s look from the bottom up. Literally.  60 years ago the average British woman had size 3.5 feet. (source, UK National Sizing Survey 1951) Today it’s a 6. My mother (6ft tall) has size 10 feet and was ridiculed when buying shoes in her youth. In fact she had to have them specially made. My feet are an 8.5 or a 9, and while it’s not easy, I can certainly buy off the shelf if I know where to look*. Surely that must tell us something – you don’t get bigger feet by eating too many chips.

Image source http://bit.ly/19NXIvT

We’re bigger and heavier and with larger feet than in the 1950’s. It’s supposedly down to better nutrition, warmer houses and better health (crucially, the introduction of antibiotics), so in childhood we can devote our energies to growing, rather than simply staying alive.

But – why do we actually need ranges of clothing called “plus sized”? Can’t we just have…clothes? In all sizes? Mango’s fatty range starts at size 12! That’s well below the normal for UK women, so is not plus sized in any way that I can recognise. Why can’t retailers just produce clothes in sizes that fit women, without having to partition them into outdated groupings?

Perhaps I might feel differently if I were the size 14 that I dream of. I’d still be able to buy from the Mango Violetta range though…

What are your thoughts?

*Retailers – stop making me look so bloody hard. Feet are getting bigger. Make bigger shoes – there is a market for them!

The bread of life is …well, bread?

15 Jan

A few weeks ago I ran out of bread. It’s a common event in a household of 4, with packed lunches to consider too. My normal reaction would have been to jump in the car and hit the supermarket, or send one of the kids on their bikes to the local Co-Op. But that day I decided to give baking my own loaf a go again, not least because the supermarket loaves contain ingredients that I don’t understand, and I’m sure that they aren’t that good for you.

My main influencer is Erika – a friend whose home I stayed overnight in recently. In the evening I hardly noticed her throwing a few ingredients into her Kitchenaid, but in the morning it was wonderful to come downstairs to the aroma of freshly baked bread.  The competitive side of me said “if she can do it; so can I!”  She’s much more earth mother than me though, so I wasn’t entirely confident, but nothing ventured….

I tried baking bread years ago and it’s taken me a long time to get over the memory of the rock hard, doughy, salty nastiness that I produced. I even own a breadmaker and the results from that have been… average. The hole in the middle is also useless for proper sarnies too.

However, Erika’s bread was made with no elbow grease (no time for all that kneading!) and as my slightly eccentric mother has something of a thing for vintage Kenwood mixers, I knew I’d be able to lay my hands on something to do the hard work for me.  Here’s the aged mixer that I discovered gathering dust:

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The recipe I chose was from baking god Paul Hollywood. I’ve been a fan of his for years – maybe even from my student days… did he do “this morning” or “ready, steady, cook!”?

And here is the result of my first time!

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Since then I have popped the ingredients into the Kenwood most days. It keeps for a day or 2 if you wrap it in a teatowel – if you don’t eat it all.

I’ve adapted the recipe a bit though:

500g bread flour

About 1 tsp salt (we only have Maldon salt in the house – God, we’re so bloody middle class! – so I grab some and scrunch it up a bit)

1 sachet yeast (PH suggests 2 but 1 does the trick for me)

About 320ml warmish water.

And finally – about 40g Flora Buttery (or a dollop)

Chuck the dry stuff into the bowl, pop the Buttery on top and then about 2/3 of the water. Start the mixer on #1 and mix until combined. Add bits of water as you go – just until it combines, but don’t add it all if it doesn’t need it. Once combined leave on #1 and go and have a cuppa. This will be about the right amount of time to knead it perfectly!

Once it’s elastic and lovely, take it out of the bowl and sort of knead it into a ball – I just rub some flour onto my hands and do it without making a mess on the table.  Pop into an oiled bowl, sprinkle with flour, cover with a towel and leave it alone.

I’m lucky enough to own a fabulous AGA and I put mine on the surface next to it to prove. Just for about an hour.

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Once it’s doubled in size, knock it back a bit, shape it into whatever you like or whack it into a tin and then leave it alone again.

When it’s ready to bake, sprinkle with flour and slash the top with a super sharp knife and then get the oven steamy – this is what makes it really good, and the reason my bread in the past has been too crusty and not nice.

I pop a tin with water on the bottom of the top oven of the AGA and splash it around to create steam (careful!) and then immediately put the bread on the middle shelf.  After about 20 mins I put it on the floor of the oven to create a perfect bottom.

Once it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom it’s done – and it’s good.

Let me know if you try it!

Yummy London Burger Heaven

11 Oct

One of the great advantages of working in London is the food. My home county of Suffolk has some fantastic artisan food, especially closer to the coast, although the restaurants near me can be a little lacking. (If you live in Mid-Suffolk and have any recommendations please, please let me know!)

Suffolk also has no sushi that I know of, except in the vast sushi factory barely a stone’s throw from my house. You can’t buy it there though and so we’re limited to the pathetic offerings of the supermarkets. Or you can make it yourself – but really, who has the time?!

Sometimes it’s just nice to go out and be fed. A great burger can be just what you want, and London has burgers aplenty. Last week was a burger marathon for me, but as they were all good quality meat and extras, why worry?

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The first burger was supplied by Grill Shack, (Beak St, Soho) a mere hop and skip from my office in Great Pulteney St. This new joint is a bit self service as you order via an app or go to stations to order. It’s pretty quick though, which is often what you want on a weekday. Good meaty burger (£4.95) in a light bun. The shoestring fries (£1.95) were just what we needed too. It’s not a place to take clients, but reasonably priced and pretty good.

Burger 2 was from Bill’s, at the bottom of Gt Pulteney St, on Brewer St.  It’s a bit noisy in Bill’s but the burger (£9.95) was a meaty beast, with a chunk of gherkin on the side. Filling fayre and low on the grease factor too.

Finally was Byron, the self proclaimed burger maestro. Having had a fair share of the humble burger, I opted for le Smokey (£9.75), a 6oz hamburger with smoked Cheddar, wafer-thin bacon, crispy fried onions and smoked chilli BBQ sauce, plus sliced pickle and shredded iceberg lettuce for contrast and crunch, all in a classic glazed bun. The verdict: OK. I’m glad it’s not a permanent feature. On the plus side – the courgette fries (3.25)  are really good!

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Rowan jelly – a foragers’ favourite (well, mine anyway!)

1 Oct

One of my favourite additions to meat (roast or cold) is a good jelly. I’ll settle for a redcurrant, but my absolute favourite is rowan. You can’t buy rowan jelly; or at least I’ve never seen it for sale. If you know where to buy it please enlighten me! The flavour is delicious – sweet with a wonderful tart tang. It’s not a jelly for toast, but as an accompaniment to savoury dishes.

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The rowan tree is otherwise known as the mountain ash tree, although it’s not related to the common ash trees at all. In the autumn the trees are covered in clusters of bright orange/red berries which are a great source of vitamin c.

I do have a rowan in my garden but I covet that of a neighbour as the berries are always brighter, juicier and more plentiful, and, importantly, lower to the ground. I’m keen to avoid tree climbing if I can! I have an agreement with friends and neighbours about the fruit in my orchard: they can have as much as they like, but they have to provide me with a sample of what they make with it. Janet and Stephen can expect a delivery of rowan jelly later this week.

To harvest  the clusters of stunning red berries I always use kitchen scissors as it causes less damage to the tree than wrenching off the fruit.

Once you’ve collected your berries you will need to separate them from the stalks. This is a really easy job, but there’s no shortcut! Use your hands to pull them away from the stalks – you don’t have to be too precise though – you’ll be straining the mix later.

Once you have 4lbs you’re ready to go. By this point your hands will be black from the juice and the dust from them, so give the berries a rinse if you wish.

Pop them into a jam pan and almost cover with water – not completely though as they’ll mush down and you want a reasonably concentrated juice at the end. Add a few handfuls of chopped cooking apples, or crab apples (I used about 1.5lbs). Leave the cores and skins as the pectin from them will help the jelly to set.

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Turn on the heat and let the fruit bubble for about 45 mins or so until the berries and apples are cooked down to a mush.

Cool and then strain through a jelly bag. I do this overnight – it reduces the temptation to squeeze out the juice which makes it cloudy. One of the joys of this jelly is the beautiful clear jewel colour of it – it’s like a citrine.

Measure out the resulting juice and then add 1lb sugar for every pint of juice. Bubble away as you would any other jam and when it reaches setting point it’s ready to go!

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I’m making a lot this year! Friends and family – this is what you’re getting in your Christmas stockings!

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