Monday, 26 February 2007

Well, my freshly shorn head is well and truly out in the open now as my local paper have decided to run a story on me. Not that I'm vain or anything of course. But I am aware that it is 21 years since I had a bonce like this. And I'm starting to like it. So here is the picture, and if you are interested, here is the link to the story. Beans on toast anybody?

More food wafflings soon....

Thursday, 22 February 2007

'Til we have built Jerusalem

February isn't the most inspiring of months is it? Generally damp and dark, we are all spent up after the January sales and our festive optimism disappeared along with all of the good intentions of New Year resolutions. We are all feeling fat and fed up. Just to add to the misery, if you one of the few who enjoy cooking seasonally using your local produce, there isn't much to get you excited. With Spring just around the corner, surely it should become law to simply allow us to hibernate in this shortest of months and wake up when life seems sunnier and happier?

All is not lost. The best thing to do in February is to lock yourself in the kitchen and try to use what you can get your hands on. Let food be your labour of love and allow it lift your spirits. It need not be fat and sugar packed wintry puddings, although they generally are sensational and very good at making you happy. Believe it or not, there are a few 'salads' that can be scrapped together which combine the best of the current crop, one or two winged creatures and the tastiest of the remaining root vegetables, Jerusalem artichokes.

I make this salad often, and it is a real treat that doesn't cost the earth but looks and tastes great. Perfectly seared pigeon breasts, with their deep purple interior, sit amongst the robust and metallic leaves of Swiss chard and spinach. Thin slivers of beetroot have their ringed earthiness brought to a different level with a brief marinade of red wine vinegar. And roasted hazelnuts add a crunch when you don't really expect it. Be creative and add other seasonal fruit and vegetables, such as slices of pear, apple, chicory and watercress. Either way, it will be a delight and will not add pounds to your waistline or your shopping bill. If you can't face eating pigeon, add chicken instead but I beg you to try and change whatever negative views you have on the bird. Cooked correctly, it is the tastiest and the cheapest of all game.

Winter Salad of Pigeon, Swiss Chard, Jerusalem Artichoke and Beetroot
To serve 2

Breasts of 2 pigeons, skin removed
2 tbsp Olive oil
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper
1 beetroot, peeled, halved and sliced very thinly
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp caster sugar
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and sliced thickly
4 handfuls baby spinach leaves
4 Swiss chard leaves, stems cut out and sliced into 1" strips
10g Hazelnuts, toasted
100ml dry white wine
50ml white wine vinegar
1 garlic clove
2 tbsp olive oil

1 - Mix together the olive oil, thyme and seasoning and toss with the pigeon breasts.
2 - Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the Jerusalem artichoke slices for 5 minutes. Drain and cool.
3 - Mix the red wine vinegar, sugar and garlic and toss with the beetroot slices. Leave for 30 minutes.
4 - Heat up a non-stick frying pan and sear the pigeon breasts for 2 minutes on each side. Leave aside. For the dressing, add the wine and garlic clove to the pan and reduce by half. Add the vinegar and reduce by half. Add olive oil and season. Remove the garlic clove, it is there for flavouring only.
5 - In another non-stick pan, heat up the olive oil and pan fry the artichoke until crisp and coloured.
6 - Dress the leaves in a bowl and pile onto plates.
7 - Be creative and begin to dress the salad with the slivers of beetroot, artichoke, pigeon and hazelnuts. Be happy that Spring is almost here.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Stuff it

I mentioned in a previous post that I am appearing on the current series of MasterChef Goes Large. One of the tasks that you are expected to do is to invent a dish of your own and reproduce it on the show under the glaring lights, interfering cameras and of course the judge's constant questioning. Great fun albeit slightly pressurised compared to doing it in your own kitchen! The following dish is one of the many that I invented previous to appearing on the show. We were advised that it was best to be armed with a whole variety of dishes.

Aside from a good old roast, I don't often cook with chicken. I prefer game birds for flavour and texture. However, if you can get creative with the leg of a chicken it can bring all kinds of delicious options to your usual idea of a chicken dish. If you are not scared of getting messy with a piece of meat, please go down to your friendly local butchers (if any still exist in your area) and ask for a bit of time with him. Ask him to show you how to fillet a full bird. As well as giving you an amazing skill, it will save you money in the long term. You will never buy pieces of a bird again once you know what to do with a complete one. Ask him to show you how to take off the leg, remove the bone and leave you with a superb piece of meat that begs to be stuffed. You will never forget how to do it. If you don't have a butcher to befriend, get your head in a book and learn.

Spring is just around the corner, but the stuffing used in this recipe sings of the Autumn. Wild mushrooms and thyme, chicken liver and hazelnuts, it looks amazing and tastes sensational. Each bite has a satisfactory 'crunch' and a massive delivery of flavour. It really does bring a humble chicken leg to life and adds a different dimension to the bird.

The technique used for this is a little tricky but if you enjoy a challenge, please try it. The technique of making a 'ballotine' has several guises. Mine involved keeping on the skin of the chicken, stuffing it and then tightly wrapping it in foil before simmering for 20 minutes. The cooking process will form a neat sausage which you can either pan roast off to crisp up the skin or simply remove the skin and slice into neat rounds. Serve it with traditional vegetables and a rich red wine and port sauce if you can be bothered. The sweetness and body of the port will compliment the savoury of the stuffing perfectly.

Chicken stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, Liver and Hazelnuts
To serve 2
For the stuffing
75g/ 2½oz Wild Mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
28g/1oz hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1 chicken liver, finely chopped
1 tbsp Olive oil
1 tbsp fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
1 good quality pork sausage, skin removed

For the chicken
2 Free range chicken legs, boned with skin on
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6
2. To make the stuffing, heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan and gently sweat the mushroom, hazelnuts and thyme for 5 minutes. In a bowl, mix the cooked mushrooms, thyme and hazelnuts with the liver, parsley, sausage meat and seasoning combining thoroughly. Set aside.
3. To make the stuffed chicken ballotine, on 2 large squares of foil, drizzle with olive oil and seasoning and lay the boned chicken legs skin side down. Half the stuffing and roll into a sausage shape that fits into the centre of the chicken. Roll into a sausage shape ensuring that the ends overlap. Fold over the foil so the edges meet and seal completely. Begin to roll the chicken firmly in the foil then when finished, twist the ends of the foil up tightly so it resembles a Christmas cracker, it is important to ensure it is water tight.
4. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and simmer the chicken for 20 minutes.
5. Remove the foil from the chicken, take off the skin and slice into neat rounds.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The Spice On The Tyne is all mine all mine!

Life is full of surprises, and last night was no exception. After a full day of research for our business, driving around North Tyneside and generally getting nowhere, my wife and I decided that a meal was on the cards. Newcastle has moved on so much as a city, improving drastically in every direction. One welcome addition to the Newcastle night scene are the amazing selection of top quality restaurants. I noted one particular restaurant last week when I was walking around with baby in pram, window drooling as I took in each menu of eateries I had never heard of.

Rasa ( is situated by our beautiful quayside on Queen Street, just under the Tyne Bridge. Although I had noted some of the mouthwatering food they serve by their window menu, I had no idea that I was in for such a surprise. The food was simply sensational. The brainchild of Das Sreedharan, Rasa serves traditional Keralan food, an area on the South West coast of India on the Malabar Coast. Like all of the best food you can eat, it is derived from the need for survival and utilising the fantastic array of ingredients they can assemble. Das grew up in a village in Kerala and learnt his trade from observing and helping out his mother to cook for the whole family. He moved to London to study but soon found out that food was his forté, and in 1994 he opened up the first Rasa in Stoke Newington. Since then, Das has opened up 7 restaurants in the London region and Rasa Newcastle is the first to be opened up outside of the capital. Oh how happy I am for that choice Mr Sreedharan!

How can I explain this cuisine? Delicately spiced is one phrase. Beautiful and subtle combinations of ginger, cardamon, sesame, chilli, tamarind and coconut to name a few ingredients. Almost Thai-like in flavour but with it's own identity, Karalan cuisine is a taste sensation. You feel emotional eating it, savouring each mouthful and not wanting any flavour to disappear. Moreish and magnificent. It is so good that I want to eat there every day. The finance states that it will be more like every month but how I anticipate my next visit.

I had 3 dishes last night. The starter was a silky soft dumpling, shaped like a doughnut which was made of lentils, chillies, onions and ginger and served with a pungent curry sauce and a refreshing coconut chutney. Main course was a King Fish (almost like swordfish in texture) served in a delicately spiced sauce with tamarind and tapioca root. Tapioca root?! Beautiful. My wife had roasted aubergine pieces in a hot, sour and creamy cashew nut sauce which was equal in taste explosions. My dessert was a simple banana pancake served with banana ice cream.

The Rasa restaurant chain has won so many awards but I could not help gushing with enthusiasm to the head waiter on my experience. The chefs are highly skilled, highly trained and serve high standard food that begs to be eaten. Just writing about it makes me excited and I have an urge to discover more about this amazing cuisine. All I can say is if you can get to a Rasa, whether in Newcastle or London, get there soon. I can guarantee you will fall in love with the place. Below is a recipe I found for my starter, Medhu Vadai, which I will attempt to make one day. Until then, I will just dream. Oh Kerala, so much to answer for......

Medhu Vadai
To serve 4-6

250ml Urad Dal (black lentils, or use mung or azuki beans as a substitute)
3 chopped green chillies
1 thumb of ginger
10 whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
10 curry leaves
Vegetable oil

1 - Soak 1 cup urud dal in sufficient amount of water for 1 hour and grind into a thick fine flour.
2 - Add 1 tsp salt, 2-3 chopped green chillies, 1 tsp whole black ground peppers, grated ginger, the curry leaves and mix well.
3 - On a flat surface place a ball of the 'dough' and flatten it by hand.
4 - Deep fry this in oil and turn over until it turns golden brown.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Happy Birthday To You, Squashed Tomatoes and Stew

My daughter turned into a 'terrible 2' at the weekend, and what a weekend it was. Three lots of parties to cater for, including one pre-school packed affair that was harder than I ever anticipated. Just how do you fill the small stomachs of a load of crisp and sweet loving darlings whilst maintaining your determined approach to feeding children reasonably healthy food?

I decided that it was going to be almost impossible, so the obligatory crisps did make an appearance at the table. So did that condiment so beloved of kids, tomato ketchup. I tried ever so hard to balance it out by putting out my version of tempting treats; mini root vegetable rostis which seemed to go down well, healthy sandwiches in wholemeal bread, potato wedges and the 'highlight' of the day, the design your own pizza awards where I tried to get the kids to cram as many vegetables as possible onto their own bespoke pizza. Sweetcorn eyes anybody?

Despite spending the rest of the day prising pieces of half chewed trodden in food from my carpet and finding the odd bit of pizza in places where pizza should never be, the day was a success. No tears were spilled over the fact that chicken nuggets, sausage rolls and potato faces were not on my menu. I kept the E numbers down to zero by avoiding any multi-coloured sweets and pop. Any I succeeded in getting them all to eat courgettes and mushrooms via my rostis and pizzas. But no party would be a party without a cake.

Here is a cracking cake that gives you a sugary hit required at any birthday party, as well as some of your '5 a day' requirements. It is nothing new or fancy, but it makes for a really good alternative to the usual chocolate caterpillar with E packed treats or for the need to smother your birthday cake in a full packet of icing sugar. Even the mention of carrots and orange did not deter the hungry mites from walloping it back, although I resisted telling them all about the mascarpone and orange zest coating.

As I watch my daughter grow and become generally cheekier by the day, I think I can be happy with my contribution to her current liking of food. It is always a test trying to get them to eat something different and maintaining a healthy stance, but no test is greater when birthday time comes around and your house is besieged by a variation of children's diets. But this weekend is testament that it needn't be a trip down to Iceland for a fun packed crap packed selection box of disasters for the top shelf of the oven. Just think a little, be brave and go with your conviction. And ensure that if all else fails, the cake delivers....

Carrot and Orange Cake with Sweet Mascarpone
225g Butter
225g Caster sugar
175g Self Raising Flour
1 tsp Mixed Spice
1 tsp Baking Powder
4 eggs
1 Orange, juice and zest
100g Ground almonds
300g finely grated carrots

For the coating
250g Mascarpone cheese
1 Orange, juice and zest
50g Icing sugar

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180 degreesC, GM4. Grease and line two 18cm sandwich tins with removable bases.
2 - Beat the sugar and butter until pale and fluffy. Sift in the flour, baking powder and all spice. eat in the eggs, orange juice and zest and the almonds until thoroughly combined. Finally, mix in the grated carrots.
3 - Divide the mixture equally between the two tins and bake on the middle shelf for 30-35 minutes. Test with a skewer, if it is clean it is cooked. Turn out onto a wire rack and cool thoroughly.
4 - To make the coating, beat together the mascarpone cheese, icing sugar and juice and zest of the orange. Smear half onto the centre of the cake and the rest onto the top, like one big sandwich. Decorate with anything you like, just like I did.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Beans, beans, good for your heart....

Back to health food today, I've been feeling under the weather ever since returning from Barcelona. I've got the sniffles again and my limbs are aching. So I'm keeping the waffle to a minimum today as I'm lacking in creativity and spark. Usually when I feel like this, I reach for the comfort food. Basically, anything simple and inevitably not so good for you.

My wife and I have been trying ever so hard to cut back on the 'not so good for you' side of food for a few weeks now, so I'm not going to let a little fever spoil that habit. What I'm not good at when I'm feeling like this is cooking for any length of time. For some reason, my natural enthusiasm for cooking disappears and all I want is simplicity.

Looking through the cupboards, there appeared to be a huge array of tinned beans. Flageolet, chick, borlotti, all kinds that really needed a bit of creativity. I guessed that I could put up with the inevitable wind to create a delicious 3 bean salad. Combining a few different beans with a superb Spanish influenced dressing of garlic and sherry vinegar seemed the order of the day. A bit of crunch from some cold bashing red onions and radish, a few cubes of Feta and lots of cherry tomatoes made for a delightful supper. And it was a doddle to prepare. And my wife and daughter loved it. Winner.

So next time you are feeling like doing nothing due to illness, but crave for food, reach for the tins and knock yourself up an impressive number like this. 5 minutes of thinking. 5 minutes of preparing. 5 minutes of devouring. Over and out....

3 Bean Salad with Radish and Feta Cheese
To feed 2 adults and 1 child

3 tins of mixed beans (I used black eyed, chick and kidney)
1 Bunch of radish
20 Cherry tomatoes
1 red onion
Fresh parsley
Feta cheese

For the dressing
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of half a lemon

1 - Make the dressing by crushing the garlic with a little salt in a pestle and mortar to make a paste. Mix in the vinegar, oil and lemon juice.
2 - Drain and wash the beans and place in a mixing bowl.
3 - Finely slice the radish and onion, mix with the beans. Quarter the cherry tomatoes and mix with the beans.
4 - Combine everything with the dressing and finely chopped fresh parsley and give it a good dose of freshly ground black pepper. Pile onto plates with cubed Feta cheese and serve with crusty bread.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Spanish Harlem

I've just returned from a few days in Barcelona. Unlike the trip I had a few years back with my wife, there was not a great deal of culture vulturing going on as this was a stag party. Two days of missing out on some of the best architecture and restaurants around. However, I did find some time to visit my favourite market in the whole wide world, La Boqueria market just off the Ramblas.

When I first visited La Boqueria, I was blown away by pretty much everything. From the beautiful stained glass entrance, you are slammed in the face by vibrant colours, smells and noise. The whole of Barcelona appears to be in here, all after one thing - high quality fresh food. Not a cheap clothes or toiletry store in here, just pure food food food. Fruit and vegetable stalls piled high with freshly plucked grapes, strawberries and melons. Fish stalls twitching with life with every imaginable sea creature struggling for attention. I saw purple sea anemones, winking clams and huge spider crabs with their intimidating armour disguising the sweetest of crab meats. On the meat stalls, freshly skinned rabbits lay alien-like alongside piglets and lamb, entrails on show. Magnificent sausages exploding with flavour hung like an armoury and their natural accompaniment, cheese and bread, created a myriad of choice and temptation.

I always feel envious when I see these fantastic European markets. For some reason, we cannot compete over here in the UK on choice and quality. Of course we do have the odd exception in the likes of Borough market, but I'm a Northerner so not the easiest of places to get to. Our superb Farmer's markets are not every weekend and again, you usually need to travel. As a nation, we do not have the natural instinct to want to shop at them every week, preferring the soulless and character sapping supermarkets. Heart breaking. Everybody heads for La Boqueria and I'm sure they hold it with great pride and status. And rightly so. With my 10g of cheap-as-chips saffron in my hand, I left La Boqueria with my hangover vanished and optimism returned.

Here is a dish that celebrates several ingredients I gazed upon on that day. Combining the sweetness of beautifully fresh clams and mussels, gently steamed open with Spanish Fino sherry, subtly flavoured with that most Spanish of spices saffron and combined with soft butter beans and Spanish red onions, it makes for a simple supper which begs to be eaten with crusty bread and of course a bottle of the deepest and smokiest Rioja. Yo le saludo La Boqueria!!!

Clams and Mussels with Saffron Butter Beans
Serves 2 adults

250g Clams, thoroughly washed and cleaned
250g Mussels, thoroughly washed and cleaned
1 Clove garlic, sliced
Half a red onion, thinly sliced
100ml Fino sherry
200g cooked butter beans
Fresh parsley
A good pinch of saffron, infused in a little boiling water

1 - Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and garlic and briefly stir. Add the sherry and reduce by half.
2 - Add the clams, mussels, beans and saffron and put on the lid. Steam for 2-3 minutes or until the clams and mussels have opened fully. Ensure that you discard any that have not.
3 - Sprinkle with lots of fresh parsley, plenty of pepper and serve in large bowls with crusty bread and lots of good Rioja. Magnífico!

Thursday, 1 February 2007

A Couple Of Swells (heads)

Well, I've just returned from the beautiful Isle Of Arran where my brother Darren resides. Somehow, he has managed to convince me that the way to go is shaven. So above you can see my unfortunate bonce along with Darren's.

Of course, there is a reason I did this, aside from the fact that my hair was beginning to resemble Shirley Temple's. It was simply a bit of fun in aid of the non-funny fact that my big brother has Hodgkin's Disease. Solidarity in follicles. You can read more on Darren and his battle on his very own Blog in the links to the left. In the meantime, have a good laugh at my vacant cranium. I've told my daughter that the birds pinched my hair to use in their nest. She believes me.

I'll be back later with more food waffling and a tremendous version of a dish I had on my travels.....