Thursday, 29 March 2007

An English Classic?

Now that I am fully on board the catering train with my BookTheCook service, I have quickly learned that minimum fuss equals minimum stress. Although I can't turn back the clock, if I could, I would be taking this philosophy on for when I famously went into public meltdown on the final day of MasterChef Goes Large. AAAAGGHH! How I still have nightmares about that day.

What that day did teach me was to not overdo things, and by that I mean try to do more than you can really do. I could have kept it very simple and progressed through to the final 3, but instead I swapped dishes at the last minute thinking that my original menu was too simple. 'Regrets, I've had a few...'.

Anyway, they say that all things happen for a reason therefore I am glad that I am learning from these mistakes. And I am going to if I want to succeed in this competitive world of catering. So far so good, and as long as I retain my passion and continue to put my all into producing food that hopefully tastes amazing and looks good (and fills people up!), I hope to be doing this for a long long time.

Onto the food. A very simple dessert that has caused many 'oohs' and 'aahs' from my menus is a variation on a Créme Brulée. In Jane Grigson's English Food, she tells a tale which could dispense the common knowledge that this classic dessert is French. As much as I adore the French and their superb cuisine, it makes me happy to think that we could lay claim to a good old Burnt English Custard! I think that we may be grasping on straws if we do believe that we invented this dish, but I am seriously considering changing the name on my menus, at least for controversy's sake.

I can eat a Créme Brulée, or a Burnt English Custard (take your choice), at any time of the day. It is so simple yet so sublime. There are no corners to be cut when you make one; it has to be full blown double cream and lots of egg yolks to maintain that dreamy thickness that melts in your mouth. Every time you pop the spoon in, you have to resist piling it on, as the moment of pleasure eating a Brulée could be over very fast if you are too greedy. My version utilises a fruit, in this instance pear that has been cooked down in a little sugar and spice. Leave a couple of centimetres of the spiced pear puree at the bottom of your ramekin and it makes for almost a double dessert.

There is also the topping to discuss. A blow torched sugary topping which just edges on being burnt is magnificent. But sometimes I yearn for more of a crunch, something to smash with my spoon and crunch with my teeth. In my photo, you will see a topping not unlike a hole in a frozen pond, which has been attained by making a caramel and pouring onto the cold custard rather than the sugar and cooks blowtorch method.

So, the simple things in life are indeed the best. Well, they are when you are trying to win a TV cooking competition as well as maintaining your fine dining business. I think I've learnt my lesson. Honest John.

Spiced Pear Burnt English Custard
Feeds 4-6 people depending on size of ramekin

For the puree
4 Pears
50g sugar
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick

For the custard
300ml double cream
3 large egg yolks
1 vanilla pod
50g sugar

For the topping
A sprinkling of icing sugar which you can torch with a cook's blowtorch or place under a very hot grill or, make a caramel with 100g sugar and a little water and pour on.

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 140 degrees C, GM1.
2 - Peel, core and chop your pears. Simmer in a pan with the sugar until they turn into a puree. Remove the cloves and cinnamon, job done. Tip into 4 ramekins, you want about 2cm in each, and allow to cool.
3 - Split and scrape your vanilla into the cream. Heat the cream in a pan until almost boiling point then take off the heat.
4 - Beat the egg yolks with the sugar thoroughly, then pour on the hot cream, stirring all of the time.
5 - Pour the hot custard into the ramekins. Place into an oven tray then pour enough hot water in to reach halfway up the ramekins. Cook for 50mins-1 hour or until it is just cooked, a slight wobble when you shake them.
6 - Cool completely, place in the fridge then when ready to eat, choose your choice of topping - thin burnt option or thick ice rink.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Spears of Destiny

Along with the first signs of rhubarb, another vegetable that gets my heart rate going with excitement as it cracks the surface of our land is asparagus. I fell in love with asparagus some years back when I used to buy huge punnets of them from a farm on my way to work in Harrogate. Freshly cut that morning, dew still intact, it was difficult getting through the day knowing that they were sitting there just waiting to be eaten. Asparagus is a vegetable that begs to be eaten as soon as it is plucked so to speak, it's natural sweetness diminishing as each second away from it's home in the soil ticks by.

All I want to do with asparagus is cook it, drench it in butter and eat it as it is. In my world, it needs no accompaniment, the flavour of asparagus so unique and beautiful that it stands up on it's own. Of course it does go perfectly with poultry and fish. But as the window of asparagus in the U.K. is so short, I am more than happy just munching it on it's own. I sometimes make a soup with it but that is only when for some reason I have left them so long that a soup is the only thing that will do them any justice. A delicate and subtle vegetable, it needs little cooking and little to lift it's flavour.

An alternative to steaming and buttering is to roast it. I often roast my spears in a little balsamic and olive oil then fresh out of the oven, scattering with Parmesan or Pecorino. The salt of the cheese and the sweet of the vinegar make it a real treat. Roast a piece of fish alongside and you have a superb quick meal in 10 minutes. Asparagus. I salute you, the King of the British vegetables.

Roast Asparagus with Pecorino

1 punnet of asparagus, washed and prepared (easiest way to prepare asparagus is to each end in both hands and gently fold down. it will break at it's natural point, ditch the woody stalk)
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
2tbs olive oil
Fresh pepper
Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan if you can't get hold of it)

1 - Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - In an oven dish, combine your asparagus, vinegar and olive oil with a little freshly ground pepper. Roast in the top half of your oven for 5-6 minutes (you may need a little longer if you have big thick asparagus)
3 - Pile onto plates and use a vegetable peeler to scatter with shavings of Pecorino or Parmesan.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Morosely Moreish

Today was the first day I can confidently say that the sunshine is on it's way back. I've just bought a house, I've spent most of the day scrubbing the kitchen and moving all of my kitchen gadgets into their places and I am already dreaming of happy cooking days ahead. The sun beams into my new kitchen, and a clear view of the seasons whilst I'm cooking or writing recipes is a massive inspiration to me. All in all, I had a happy smile for most of the afternoon whilst I donned my Marigolds.

I'm looking forward to spending a few evenings after work sitting in the garden with a simple creation and of course a nice glass of wine. The perfect wind down for me after a hard day is to cook, nothing too strenuous. Of course, during the winter months I do tend to slave over a hot and filling meal rather than a light one, but now that the summer is approaching simplicity is the key. Especially if you want to catch the final rays of sunshine.

This meal is unashamedly adapted from the glorious Moro, probably my favourite restaurant in London and an amazing pair of books to boot. I love the Clark's approach to food, their vision all of those years back when they first set out on a food journey. Researching Mediterranean food of the people, proper food with flavour and simplicity, and taking it back to their restaurant to cook up a storm. I've only visited Moro twice and each time Mr Clark was there cooking. Each time I was starstruck and sad enough to get his signature on their daily changing menu. I look forward to doing it again.

So, onto the dish which to me is summer on a plate and the kind of easy but flavour packed food that makes you happy to be alive. I served this to six hungry women on Friday night as part of my BookTheCook dining service and they loved it. I knew they would as it is a winner each time. The combination of cold beans, raw onions, tomatoes, fresh parsley and a sharp dressing with the heat of freshly seared crisp chorizo is a beautiful combination. All you need is some bread, a glass of your favourite tipple and some good company. Here comes the summer!

Hot Chorizo, Bean and Tomato Salad
Serves 2

1 tin of butter, flageolet or cannellini beans, drained and washed (or if you prefer, 100g of your choice of bean soaked for 8 hours and boiled to instruction)
4 large tomatoes cubed or a small punnet of cherry tomatoes halved
1 handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, leaves picked
Half a red onion, sliced finely
150g chorizo, cut into 1cm cubes
Red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
Olive Oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 garlic clove
Freshly ground salt and pepper

1 - Tip the beans, tomatoes, onion and parsley into a bowl and combine with your fingers.
2 - Make the dressing by crushing the garlic clove, preferably in a pestle and mortar. Mix with 1 tbs of the vinegar, 3 tbs of olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Dress the salad in the bowl then pile into 2 bowls.
3 - In a hot frying pan, fry the chorizo in a little olive oil until crisp. Scatter over the salad.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Rhubarb! Rhubarb!

I can just see the head of our rhubarb plant popping inquisitively out of it's makeshift plot in our garden. May I add that that this particular plant once belonged to my wife's late Granny, and it has now been shifted to 5 different houses. And it still survives and still yields a superb crop. You could say that rhubarb is a hardy thing. You can rip them out of their 'sockets' and a few days later, another stalk is on the way. If you treat them with great respect and foolow all of the rules of keeping roots intact, you can trail them up and down from Leeds and dig them a new home every year. It still survives. If the bomb drops, I'm sure our plant will still be feeding the survivors. Amazing stuff.

Rhubarb is, surprisingly to some, a vegetable. I think that people are misconceived as it is traditionally known for it's excellent qualities in a traditional crumble. As it is so bitter, it is drowned in sugar and perhaps that is why people often think of it as a fruit. Not so. It is incredibly versatile. I have used rhubarb as a stuffing for duck, in spicy chutneys and more bizarrely, in a curry. I'm not sure if this is a Northern thing, but as kids we used to walk around with great big sticks of the stuff and a bag of sugar. Looking back, I'm not sure that was a good thing to do. First of all, I preferred a bag of Sherbert Dib Dab. Secondly, I'm pretty sure the rhubarb's laxative effect would have had us all scampering to the loo after one or two chomps. Dear me, what were our parents doing to us?!?!

Anyway, I managed to get hold of a few sticks of the first rhubarb yesterday. Inspired by laziness and hence simplicity, plus the need for a sweet treat, I came up with the most basic of desserts that satisfies and works. With a packet of ginger biscuits, some Greek yoghurt and some stewed rhubarb, it is amazing what you can do. Not know for my finesse, this is the kind of dessert I would gladly serve up with pride. It is crunchy, fruity (in a vegetable kind of way) and creamy. Oh, and dead dead easy. Enjoy.

Rhubarb and Ginger Crunch Pot
Serves 2 glasses

4 sticks of rhubarb, washed and cut into chunks
50g sugar (if you have vanilla sugar, all the better)
300ml Greek Yoghurt
5 Ginger biscuits
1 egg white

1 - In a saucepan, put in your rhubarb and sugar and a dribble of water. Bring to the boil then simmer with a lid on for 20 minutes or so, until the rhubarb is well stewed. Leave to cool.
2 - Whisk your egg white until it reaches soft peak.
3 - In a plastic bag, crush the biscuits with a rolling pin, ensuring that you are left with lots of biggish chunks. Then sieve the crushed biscuits over a plate, retaining the small crumbs.
3 - In a bowl, fold the larger crumbs into the Greek yoghurt. Then gently fold in the rhubarb and a little of it's pink juice to achieve a ripple effect. Lastly, gently fold in the egg white.
4 - Pour into glasses and top with the remaining crumbs. Be proud that something so simple can be so great.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Brunch, lunch or one big munch?

I love the idea of brunch. The Oxford Dictionary describes brunch as, 'a late morning meal eaten instead of breakfast and lunch'. A gentleman in the 19th century had this to say on the matter - "To be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch'. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch." I must be missing a trick here Mr Beringer. Or maybe I'm just greedy. Because sometimes I have eaten a breakfast, (okay, I am up very early most mornings with the nipper), then a form of brunch, then a lunch.

Do we actually do brunch over here in the U.K.? I always saw it as an American thing, a classic eating experience to be had if you ever visit New York. Lots of bagels, crisp bacon and dare I say it, Maple syrup (sorry Ben). Blueberry muffins. Steak omelettes. Lashings of coffee and orange juice. Enough to get you through until tea time at least. I actually think it was invented for people who can't get out of bed early rather than the Oxford Dictionary description. But what a great idea. I reckon that if there was a cafe that opened at 10am until 12pm each day, only serving brunch, they would make a killing. As long as the food they served was quality of course.

The following 'brunch' is something I pinched and evolved from Mrs Smith. It has to be the only meal where I don't feel ignorant or guilty spraying it with tomato ketchup. Crispy potatoes combined with charred red peppers and onions, sizzling and crisp chorizo sausage and a big old fried egg on the top. Make it properly, it will not be an oil slick on a plate. What you will get is an incredibly filling and satisfying breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner. A magnificent one pot meal that works in every way. Break the rules and serve it at any time as it is very very delicious. 'Start spreading the news.....'

Hot Potato, Chorizo and Pepper Brunch
Serves 2 breakfast-less people

4 large potatoes
150g Chorizo sausage cubed
1 large red pepper sliced
1 onion thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic sliced
Olive oil
1 tbs paprika (try and use smoked)
A pinch of chilli powder
1tbs finely chopped parsley
Freshly ground pepper
Fried egg (optional!)
Tomato Ketchup (optional!)

1 - Peel and cut your potatoes into 1 inch cubes. Drop into a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 10 minutes, until they are almost cooked through but still keeping their shape. Drain under cold water until cool and reserve.
2 - In a large frying pan, heat up 1tbs olive oil. Add the chorizo and stir fry until crisp for 5 minutes. be careful, it will catch and burn very easily. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
3 - Drop in the onions and peppers and stir fry until caramelised. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
4 - Drop in the potatoes and stir fry until crisp and golden. Return the chorizo, peppers and onions to the pan along with the paprika and chilli. Stir fry until thoroughly combined and glowing in the spicy red oil of the chorizo.
5 - Finally stir in the parsley and a good grinding of pepper. Serve with the optional fried egg and a squirt of the red stuff.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Hannah's Big Choccy Cake

I'm no cake decorator. This was proven at the weekend when I was asked to bake a chocolate cake for a friend's mother's 60th birthday. When I told my friend that I was no fancy cake decorator, they said, "Don't worry, just make it nice and chocolatey". Then they said, "Can you also put Happy 60th Pat Love From Jim, Tony and Donna?". Why of course I can Donna, not a problem.

The cake wasn't the problem. I've made hundreds of them. Then again, I've never completely covered one in icing or a ganache. It requires a steady hand. Oh, so does the writing. Then it is going to look a little unspectacular with just brown icing and a few words on the top. And now I'm committed to it. AAAGGGHHH!!!

It is times like this that I'm glad I met a certain Hannah Miles, the number one cake baker in the West. Nobody does cakes like Hannah, loud and proud they are. So it was onto the cake hotline for a few tips. Before I knew it, a few loud feathers with hearts on and a nice ribbon or two had arrived registered post. Just in time I may add. So, after a nerve wracking 20 minutes or so perfecting the smothering of my own chocolate fudge 'ganache', and a further 15 minutes wobbling the requested wording onto the cake, ("Eeeeeh, it looks just like your own hand writing Davey", exclaimed my surprised wife, good detective work Helen), it was time for the finishing touches. With great trepidation, I rammed a giant 6 and 0 into the surface then skewered behind with Hannah's magnificent feathers. Then, like a professional cow herder, I lassoed the cake with the matching ribbons and expertly tied them into a giant bow. Always one for melodramatics, I'm obviously exaggerating here. I think I just about got away with it. The mother cried when she saw it, (with happiness, not fear I've been promised) the family finished it within minutes and my first stint as a special event cake baker was over.

So I've decided to call this one Hannah's Big Choccy Cake, as it was big, covered in chocolate and had Hannah's stamp all over it. The cake is simplicity. A basic recipe for a Victoria Sponge recipe with some of the flour replaced with cocoa powder. Thanks for the decorations Hannah, you are a true star.

Hannah's Big Choccy Cake
Feeds Lots

6 eggs
Caster sugar
Self Raising flour
Vanilla extract
A splash of milk
A pinch of salt
50g Cocoa powder

For the chocolate fudge coating
100g sugar
100ml evaporated milk
150 g 70% cocoa chocolate
50g butter
Vanilla extract

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM4. Butter and line 2x 20cm round baking tins with removable bases.
2 - Weigh the eggs whole and take a note of the weight.
3 - Weigh out exactly the same amount of butter as the eggs and cream until soft in a large bowl. Weigh out the sugar, again to the same weight, and beat into the creamed butter until light and fluffy.
4 - Weigh out the flour to the same weight as the eggs but omit 50g of flour and add 50g Cocoa powder. Add a pinch of salt.
5 - Add the eggs one by one to the butter and sugar mixture, beating until thoroughly mixed each time. Then beat in the flour and cocoa, and a tablespoon of vanilla extract, until thoroughly combined. Do a drop test. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and hold above the bowl. If it drops off reasonably easy, then it is ready. If it doesn't, add a splash of milk and beat in thoroughly until you get a mixture that drops off a spoon easily. This is scientific stuff.
6 - Split the mixture between the two baking tins and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Once baked, upturn both cakes onto a wire rack to cool.
7 - To make the chocolate fudge coating, put the sugar and evaporated milk into a pan and bring to the boil, stirring. Leave to simmer for 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, butter and vanilla extract. Leave to cool.
8 - To decorate, simply (I say simply!) smear the coating into the centre making a sandwich with the two cakes and outside of the cake using a palette knife. Scribble on some words using a piping bag with icing sugar in and of course, some extravagant decorations courtesy of lovely friends like Hannah.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Pride of the Pack

As mentioned previously, I'll be doing a fair bit of work getting the kiddiwinks of this world to eat some good food this year in my job. I would like to think I've had some good experience with the little one in my household, Cerys. When she was born, almost the first thing on my mind was how I was going to plan her introduction to food. Without sounding calculated, it just meant so much to me to not have a plan, otherwise how were we going to get her to try new foodstuffs? I've seen too many parents give up. And that is not the answer as there are now too many convenient alternatives that aren't so good.

For any parent reading who has been through this, or is going through this, the message is to persevere. Okay, I'm a food obsessive, not a minute goes by when I'm not thinking about the subject. It was a huge challenge for us and at times it seemed like incredibly hard work. One day enjoying one of my creations, the next, slinging it onto the floor with a firm, 'NO!!!'. Tears, tantrums, stress and sleepless nights. At times I was in the huff with her, good and proper, a big old Davey Hall lip sticking out and a tear in my eye. Shameful stuff.

I was a pretty proud fella tonight when I was watching my daughter eating her tea, so I've had to put up a picture of her eating it. There she was, munching away as happy as ever, on a big bowl of mash, watercress, fennel, smoked mackerel in an orange and mustard sauce (recipe in a previous post this month). And it just seemed to bring it all back. Pretty challenging food for a 2 year old you may think. But I disagree. She is eating it simply because we have encouraged all the way, and tried not to criticise the numerous plates upturned on floors. 4,5,6 attempts, she is usually there eating it. No such thing as 'adult flavours' in our house.

So please, do not get disheartened when this happens. Just smile, say never mind and then the next day, present the same dish. Keep a bit from the previous day in reserve for this. If it happens again, try the same method. This isn't the Gina Ford method of how to feed your child. It is just common sense from somebody who wants their child to eat sensibly and to try something at least once. And it seems to work. So I beg you to try it if you want the same results. I'm not being a smart Alec, I'm not being boastful. I just know how hard it is, but I also know how good it is when it works. Please let me know your stories and if you need any recipes, I would love to help out.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Expo Chef - Official

Just a short note to anybody interested. I'm extremely proud to say that I am now on board the Expochef train and looking forward to helping the guru, Mr Mark Earnden, to push his brilliant work forwards throughout the U.K. The work is truly inspirational and it is safe to say that putting a smile on people's faces, giving them confidence and showing them that food does not have to be complicated, that it can be easy, fun and healthy, is about as satisfying as it gets. Here I am in my Expochef whites, and I'll be taking on shows throughout the North East in the coming months. Please check out the website for more information, as well as Mark's interestingly creative new photos on Expochef,

For anybody in the North East, Mark and I will be doing a show at Eldon Square on Saturday 14th April as part of the Cook, Eat and Enjoy festival. We will be cooking alongside a few of the top North East chefs in the area and it will be a fantastic day of food, fun and, errrm, I'm sure the odd F word....

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Northern Delights

"Cockles and mussels, alive alive oh!". An Irish song of course, but it could well be adopted in these parts. Us Geordies have had a love affair with the mollusc that cling to our landlines in their vast numbers that go back to when time began. And rightly so, as they are cheap, plentiful and delicious.

Think of a classic mussel recipe now, go on. What is it? I can bet you have Moules Mariniere on your mind yes? And what a fantastic recipe it is. Very simple to make, variations aplenty, it is and will always remain my wife's favourite. Trying to think of more classic mussel recipes then becomes a struggle. A Northumbrian recipe for mussels involves cooking the mussels in boiling water, usually sea water (I would not recommend that now of course) and taking the flesh from the shells. Make a thick sauce involving a roux, wine, milk and cream which was then poured onto the mussels and eaten with hunks of bread. Bring it up to date with the addition of a good cheese and herbs then flashing it under a hot grill. Hey presto, mussel gratin.

As children, we used to call cockles a name that I can't repeat here, but it still makes me laugh. Sold in small paper cups on South Shields beach, drowned in vinegar, they made for a face clenching treat that often crunched as you chewed due to the grit inside the cockle. A much lovelier way of preparing cockles is as an addition to a hearty soup. Cockle soup is a recipe that derives from Newcastle Upon Tyne, the original containing just onion, celery and a thick cream sauce. Lovely, but bland. I've brought the recipe bang up to date with the addition of another food loved in these parts, leeks. Add a few potatoes, a hint of garlic and some fresh herbs, it makes for a very tasty and plentiful treat that celebrates the area in style. "Cockles and mussels,whey aye, whey aye oh!".

Cockle, Leek and Potato Soup
Serves 2

2 leeks, halved, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 large potatoes, cut into 1cm cubes
3 large handfuls of cockles (sorry, no measurement as I picked them from the fishmongers myself!), washed thoroughly.
250ml white wine
200ml single cream
Fresh parsley and chives
Salt and pepper
Olive Oil

1 - Bring a large pan of water to the boil and simmer the potatoes until tender. Drain and reserve some of the water.
2 - In a large pot, heat some olive oil and sweat the leeks and garlic slowly until soft and aromatic.
3 - Pour in the wine, bring to the boil and reduce slightly. Tip in the cockles, place a lid on the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes until the cockles pop open in a satisfying manner. At this stage, you can tip the liquor through a fine muslin cloth to extract any grit that may linger. Personally, I'm hardened to the grit and don't bother, it will be scarce.
4 - Pour in 100ml of the potato water, the potatoes and the cream, and cook for a further minute. Season, but go easy on the salt as the cockles will release salt. Stir in a good knob of butter.
5 - Pour into large bowls, sprinkle liberally with the fresh herbs and eat with crusty bread. Delicious.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

The Champ

Just a quick note to say many congratulations to Steven, our new MasterChef Goes Large champion 2007. Although I watched most of this week with a pang of envy, especially the Downing Street episode, as the week grew to a conclusion I knew that I was watching 3 outstanding cooks who blow me out of the water when it comes to MasterChef standard cuisine.

Even though I know these guys, have cooked alongside and laughed and cried with them, I watched tonight in amazement at some of the dishes they were producing. I can only hope and dream, and I am proud to say that I cooked in the same kitchen as them and at least tried to give them a run for their money. Well done Steven, Ben and Hannah, they are all champs in their own right and should be very very proud of their efforts, especially under such pressure and personal sacrifice. Congratulations my friends xxx

Ravishingly Rare

I don't know if the Welsh can actually lay claim to the delightful snack they call Welsh Rarebit, and I invite response as it seem like a typical pub question, but one thing I am sure about is that I love it. I can remember as a lad at school during home economics being shown how to make a rarebit, and it has stayed with me ever since as a thing of utter beauty. Yes, anybody that knows me will know that it is the simple things in life that get me going. Not that it takes much on the subject of food to get me enthusiastic.

Like most classics, it will have it's variations from town to town. Whether or not the towns in Wales that lay claim to have invented the dish, have pitched battles over the subtleties of how it is made, I really do not know or care. After all, if you have a bouillabaisse in one town in France you can just about place your house as a bet that it will taste different in the next. That is what is so brilliant about being obsessed with food, that ability to tweak and experiment, to debate and discuss, classic or not. As long as it tastes good, has not been butchered out of all recognition and contains the main ingredients, then good on you for even thinking about changing an original recipe. Of course, this philosophy does have it's limitations. You can clearly see on some of the menus of today's so-called modern brasseries that to tweak too much is to commit a crime. Just last week I choked on a tarragon chicken dish which had been 'tweaked' with the addition of curry. 3 spoons in I called for the chef, it was that bad.

Back at school, I very much doubt that we used beer in our Welsh Rarebit recipe, but the classic does call for this. Does it need it? In my opinion, yes. The French use their own tweak on the recipe with a Croque Monsieur which of course is simply a cheese paste made with a roux, milk or cream and cheese. The beauty about a Welsh Rarebit is that it remains a unique British classic, packed full of flavour thanks to the mustard, Worcestershire Sauce and strong ale. So you don't need anything other than a piece of bread, a hot grill and the remainder of the beer bottle to have a cracking little tea.

I use Newcastle Brown Ale in my recipe, for no other reason than it is what us Geordies are very famous for and it makes for a delicious rarebit. It will fill your house with the most enticing of aromas, making all available stomachs rumble. Be creative and use this in a multitude of dishes. Keep the sauce loose and stir it into your mash, or as a sauce in it's own right as an accompaniment to pork. Spread it onto chunky white fish and grill it to bubbling perfection. Amazing, simple, beautiful, life and food should always be like that yes?

Newcastle Brown Ale Rarebit
Serves 2 on lots of toast

50g butter
50g flour
250ml Newcastle Brown Ale (or any strong beer)
200g strong cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbs Worcestershire Sauce
1 tbs English mustard
Freshly ground pepper

1 - Melt the butter in a deep pan and add the flour, stirring for 1 minute to form a roux.
2 - Pour in the beer bit by bit, stirring all of the time until you have a thick sauce.
3 - Stir in the cheddar cheese, Worcestershire Sauce and English mustard, a good grinding of black pepper and stir until thoroughly combined. You should have a thick paste.
4 - Toast your choice of bread, finishing the 2nd side with a liberal spread of rarebit mixture and grilling until golden and bubbly. This cries out for the remainder of the ale, so consume quickly before anybody else does.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Spring In The Step

As Spring gently eases its head rather lovingly around the corner, I start to feel excited. Well, more full of optimism I think, a sense of good things ahead, of warmer sunnier days and longer barmier evenings. I love the winter, I welcome the first frost as it makes me feel all toasty and Christmassy (is there such a word?! Well there is now...). But after the seasonal will has passed we are left with dark realism as January kicks in. And it begins to outstay it's welcome.

As March hops on towards Easter time I already feel like I am waking up to a better day, and of course there is one subject that consumes my mind when I plan the day ahead - food. What will I make for breakfast, and what can I prepare for the family when I get home? The seasons are changing and with that brings a parade of new seasonal ingredients to cook with. Hooray!

Now that MasterChef is almost finished and I can exorcise the evil spirits that haunted me on my final day of hell last Friday, I can begin to re-approach the dishes that I wrote for the show that for some reason were never used. And how I wish I had used this one. I can safely say that I would have been more relaxed and prepared, full of confidence as I confidently strutted towards the critics as opposed to stumbling rather sweatily with a plate of utter rubbish.

It is still a little early in the year to use fresh locally caught mackerel, so please feel free to use smoked preserved mackerel instead. But when the silver beasts start to thrash their way aggressively towards our shores again, I beg you to eat them in their droves. For me, they are the best tasting fish out there. Okay, I do have a love for halibut but price compared to taste, like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Ford Focus, it simply does not compare (as you can see, I know zilch about cars).

If you can cook a fillet of mackerel perfectly, by which I mean searing very fast on a well seasoned skin before flipping over for the briefest of 10 seconds, it will go very well just on it's own with some good bread and butter and perhaps a dollop of mustard mayonnaise. This dish serves that tasty specimen on a mound (I will never learn, PORTION CONTROL DAVID!) of creamy watercress speckled crushed potatoes with that perfect fishy companion fennel, braised with orange and mustard and tossed with some walnuts. Unusual I know but it works. I think even Mr Campion and Ms Spicer may have enjoyed this one.....

Mackerel on Watercress Crushed Potatoes with Orange and Mustard Braised Fennel
Serves 2

400g King Edward Potatoes (or your fave floury ones), peeled and cut into 2" chunks
50g Watercress chopped roughly
2 Mackerels, gutted, cleaned and filleted and skin slashed several times
1 Fennel bulb
500ml Orange juice
1 tbs English mustard (or if you can't stand the fire, go for Dijon)
50g Walnuts, broken
50g butter
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1 - In a heavy based pan, melt 25g butter and 1 tbs olive oil. Quarter the fennel bulb and season. Colour on all sides, then pour in the orange juice and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer with a lid on for 30-40 minutes, until you can push a sharp knife through without too much resistance.
2 - Reduce the orange juice until thickened, add the mustard, 25g butter and season.
3 - Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the potatoes. Boil until tender and drain. Return to the pan and crush with a fork. Stir in watercress, seasoning and a good knob of butter.
4 - In a non-stick pan, bring a tbs olive oil to a shimmering heat. Add the seasoned mackerel fillets skin side down and hold with your fingers for a few seconds to ensure the skin catches. Cook for 2-3 minutes until you achieve a good colour. Flip and cook for 10 seconds. To check your fish is cooked, put a knife into the thickest past of the fillet, the flesh should come apart easily.
5 -Serve the mackerel on a dollop of crushed potatoes with the fennel on the side and a good pouring of delicious orange, mustard and walnut sauce.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Something Fishy (and easy)

As the year advances, I will be throwing myself into working with Expochef, AKA Mr Mark Earnden ( A truly inspirational guy who has taken the North East by storm with his healthy, nutritional and easy educational roadshows, I cannot wait to become more involved. To get out amongst the schools and see children loving every minute of an interactional lesson that involves cooking and tasting. To sit with some of the general public who are having a tough time, a loss of self esteem due to their situation in life and helping them with some quick and easy recipes. This is the kind of involvement with the subject that I love that drives me on, inspiring me as I hopefully inspire others.

Lots of the children and adults that we present to have extremely poor diets. A simple dish of cous cous with roasted vegetables and mackerel is often 'yukked' at. A cold rice pudding made with yoghurt, honey and fruit is sometimes 'yakked' at. It is equally baffling, sad and challenging at the same time. Clearly, a lot of the people we speak to have a one dimensional attitude to food which is a disturbing glimpse into the problems that are already ingrained into our society. Some people are addicted to salt, sugar, crisps, cheap fast foods, you name it the signs are there that health problems are alive and kicking in the U.K. It is depressing, and the government really do have their work cut out if they want to halt this decline quickly. But thanks to Expochef we can at least help to change the attitude of the nation.

We present dishes utilising everyday store cupboard ingredients in an effort to show to people how easy it is to cook and eat tasty food. Often it is mind over matter, a question of changing a perception or attitude to enable somebody to realise that they don't need tons of salt or sugar or fat in their diet. Changing that perception or attitude is the difficult bit, but via every body's need to eat food, it at least gives us a platform to work on. If we see a child, just one child from 200, eating a salad with a zingy and interesting dressing or slurping on some butternut squash soup, food stuffs they may think that they despise, it makes it all worthwhile. And that is why I love being involved. No pretension, no frills or need for flair and prettiness, just inspiration and motivation.

Each week I aim to present to Mark a quick, easy and healthy dish that we could use in our presentations. Of course it isn't always that easy for us. Working on a portable hob with large numbers of low attention span children staring at you becomes a great challenge in it's own right. It needs to demonstrate simplicity each time otherwise the people we are trying to convince will never buy our philosophy. The majority of the adults we speak to think that they cannot cook. But we think anybody can cook. It's that mind over matter situation again. Cooking can be simple and fun. You don't need to be a professional chef with an overblown ego to make a brilliant plate of food.

So here is a familiar recipe I have adapted that anybody can make. Fish pie is the kind of food that the general public buy pre-packed in their droves. The preference to buy a tiny portion of salty and not too fresh insipid square of sloppy potato covered grey fish, over the option to dedicate 30 minutes of your time to make a very filling healthy classic food that fills the whole family, is a baffling one. No need to poach and drain, to sieve and marinate, my easy peasy fish pie is a dream, comfort food at it's best. If you prefer cod over haddock, hate prawns, or prefer salmon over both, use whatever fish you want from the list below. I've mentioned this before, but I have the perfect test base for my cooking in my daughter. 2 year old she is, and she adores this fish pie. She has a voracious appetite and is happy and healthy. That is the tick of appreciation that makes me feel good, that I must be doing something right and that food can be simple, healthy and very very easy peasy.

Easy Peasy Fish Pie
To serve 4

1kg Potatoes, the floury kind like Maris Piper please
500ml milk, semi-skimmed will do the job
125g cheddar cheese, grated
1 tsp Dijon mustard
500g mixed fish, cubed (cod, haddock, smoked haddock, naturally smoked and not the luminous yellow painted stuff, salmon)
100g fresh or frozen uncooked prawns (optional)
100g frozen peas
50g butter
50g flour
Small bunch of flat leaf or curly parsley, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6. (At our lessons we would omit the baking of the pie and cook the fish for longer, topping with mash).
2 - Peel and chop the potatoes. Place in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and cook until soft. Mash thoroughly, add a splash of milk and stir until you have a superbly smooth mash for topping your pie.
3 - In a saucepan, melt the butter and pour in the flour. On a medium heat, stir continuously for 1 minute. Gradually add the milk, again stirring continuously, until you have a rich and smooth white sauce. Stir in 100g of the cheese and the teaspoon of mustard to make a mild mustardy cheese sauce.
4 - Tip in the fish, prawns and peas. Bring to the simmer then stir in the parsley. A good grinding of pepper will suffice, no need for salt as it is present in the cheese and the smoked fish.
5 - Pour into a 3 pint oven proof dish then spread out the mash on top. Decorate with a fork if you are feeling arty, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and cook for 20-25 minutes. Serve with broccoli and carrots, or any vegetable for that matter.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

MasterChef Update

Honest, this is my FINAL comment on the show.

I was obviously hiding the events of last night's show in my previous write up. Once again, thanks for all of your kind words, it is amazing to see that people support what you are trying to do and also to see that some of you do actually have a love of Great British tucker.

I went to pieces when it really mattered and it made for very uncomfortable viewing for me. I have never broken my heart so much in all my life and I'm glad the they edited out the real whooping noises I was making for a good 15 minutes. That was how much it meant at that time. I knew what was going through my head at that moment. Insanity comes to mind. From being happy, smiling and confident (that is confident as opposed to arrogant!), enjoying every minute and throwing myself into each challenge with enthusiasm, I suddenly felt like I had 'hit the wall' and my standard dipped to poor proportions. I have experimented and served that dish up so many times and tested it on friends and family. Each time it looked and tasted great, it was my dish for the critics meal and I was so confident it would work. How wrong I was! It was cringe worthy serving that terrible plate up to professional critics, I knew they would rip it apart. Rightly so, I was evicted and I have no complaints. It's a fair cop and all that.

What the show has done for me is simply give me a bit of belief in what I have been believing in for a long time. Yes, my food isn't the prettiest of things and it appeared that it never was going to be. I'm never going to be a Michelin type cook. It will always remain honest and gutsy and filling and I'm proud of that. But more importantly, I want to uncover some of these Great British classics and try to get people more interested in food of their own area, being proud of it and singing it from the rooftops. What is wrong with a bit of suet stuffed with delicious ingredients? Or a slab of beautiful roast aged beef with seasonal vegetables? There are so many hidden gems that were originally invented from a need for survival that should be more prevalent on our landmark. It is the food I love and that is what I wanted to show on MasterChef, as opposed to changing for the sake of winning a competition. As much as I would loved to have won, the right people are in the final 3 as they are on their own missions and their own learning curve. They are learning from their mistakes and adapting as opposed to my bullheaded belief in big bold British plates of food. I regret nothing as I cannot explain my meltdown. That's life!

It will make for a fascinating final week and I'm torn between who I want to win. Good people with great ideas and a massive belief and love in food and their own conviction. Nothing wrong with that I have to say.

Tomorrow I will get back to what I have been doing on here for ages, and writing a good old British recipe that I'm sure will be loved by some and hated by others. What a rubbish world we would live in if we all agreed eh?! Food is subjective, fascinating and for me, the perfect subject for conversation and debate. But nothing beats opening up your mind and eating it, enjoying it and loving it.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

MasterChef and all that jazz

I'm writing this rather late in the knowledge that I have not done too much writing this week. There are several reasons for this, the main one being work commitments which also means that I have not cooked much at home this week at all. The shame of it.

For this reason, I have decided to not write anything about food. I'm feeling all cooked out after watching my red face adorn the box for the past week or so on MasterChef Goes Large. I've been proud one minute, deeply embarrassed the next and constantly amused as my daughter gets confused as to why I'm on the TV and the couch at the same time. In a brief moment of self indulgence on my involvement on the show, I've decided to just write a few lines on the subject. I apologise in advance; aside from my poor wife who has had to live through the whole experience, I have not really put my thoughts down in writing.

First of all, I cannot begin to explain to you how difficult the competition is. Not only are you up against some brilliant amateur cooks with the same intention of winning on their minds as you, but you are put under extreme pressure that tests you to your limits. It is exhausting, both physically and emotionally. It is also exhilarating and depressing, taking you from extreme highs to extreme lows in a very short space of time. To try to cook in a short time with cameras in your face, a small kitchen, bizarre tasks and two very probing judges on your shoulder asking questions all of the time is about as far removed from reality as it can get. All in all, it was an experience unparallelled with anything that I have ever done in my life. Would I do it again? Well, I did this year and after two shots at it, I can now safely say a firm no. What I can say is that I loved it each time, the experience is fantastic.

I was lucky enough to meet some people that shared a love and, dare I say that over used word, passion for their subject. Ambitious, creative individuals who were trying to live the dream just like me. I am being as honest as can be when I say that I felt so bad for the likes of Susie, Jan, Marta, Gillian, William and Harriet. After all, I was evicted the previous year and it broke my heart. I know how they felt and probably still feel. If any of you guys are reading this, I have thought about you all so much since. You were all brilliant in your own ways, never lose the love. Get over it quickly as you are all cracking cooks and take confidence from the experience rather than taking it as a blow. Gillian and I had such a close competition in the quarter finals with her and I can seriously say that after seeing the show broadcast, she deserved it more than me and should have gone through on her food alone. Her tucker was sublime, the techniques were quality and her will, knowledge and passion for superb seasonal food clear to see. Gillian will do some great things in the world of food and I cannot praise her enough.

As for the 3 finalists I spent a lot of hours with, rarely can I say that I shared and bonded so well in such a short space of time. All four of us were driven and determined, competitive and injected liberally with fighting spirit. But not once did I feel anything other than a bond and a want for us all to do well. Okay, on the odd occasion we drove each other bonkers, more so me with my non-stop talk and the odd need to hug their heads off their shoulders. But that was my way of hiding the nerves. And I know they appreciated it deep down. I'm very happy to say that we all keep in touch and continue to share our recipes and ideas. Check out my links. Ben is one of the most naturally talented amateur cooks I have ever met and his food is a dream (aside from maple syrup on the breakfast of course, ouch! :o)). A complete opposite to my big British dishes, but packed with finesse and appreciation. He is also one of the finest cheese mongers in the UK (taken directly from his website.....) and I look forward to coming down to sunny Cheltenham in the not so distant future to sample some of his dairy delights. Steven is a dude, a self confessed lover of food and the arts and one brilliant individual who cooks some of the tastiest grub known to mankind. Hannah is the best hugger in the world,very supportive, cooks the best cakes in the whole wide world and I hope to always be sampling them for the rest of my life. All 3 are the most talented of cooks and I am proud to have spent a long time with them all.

The people in the background were a constant support and believe me, we needed it. Lovely people who did an amazing job in a very pressurised environment. As for the judges Gregg and John, in Gregg's own words they have the best job in the world. That is until they have to evict somebody. I always felt a genuine empathy from them. They kept faith in what I was doing, my belief in our great British menu and my desire to bring some of these hidden gems to the forefront of people's minds. Their knowledge is second to none. I learned so much from their constant talk and I thank them for all of the good and the bad things that they said to me as it was always taken as good advice, never as criticism. Even Gregg's jokes were usually pretty funny.

A brief message to people who feel the need to write malicious comments on fools like us who bare our souls for the sake of TV - I can't blame you at all for watching this brilliantly addictive TV show and wanting to write or talk about it. But never assume that these people you see on a heavily edited show are the people that are being perceived. It is never true to life, as it is impossible to show 2 days of filming within a 30 minute show. We are all pretty normal everyday people with not too many bad bones in our bodies. Okay, I'm a Geordie, but please forgive me for that. Seriously though, words do hurt and it is sad when you see people that you know are good people being ripped apart. I can't speak for myself and I'm sure you will continue to make up your own minds on me, but Steven, Hannah and Ben are superb individuals and I cannot say anything bad about them at all. And I know them. If you still think bad of some of us, all I can say is please enter the competition and give it a go. Really, only then will you see what it is actually like and live the threshold of agony and ecstasy that we did. And then relive it all of National TV for all to see your best and worst bits, especially my double chin.

Well, that is it from me on the subject of MasterChef, although I might want to add a few more words as the final week progresses. Thanks to everybody that have somehow found my Blog and decided to write to me with lovely kind words, I've been touched and flattered each time. And it also a relief to see that not only Gregg Wallace swooned over my leek pudding as it has been my most requested recipe! And that makes me very happy, as it proves that the nation do believe in simple, honest, gutsy and not always pretty food. Often it is flavour and quantity that do count you know.

Right, back to normal food waffling after the weekend. Thanks for listening xxx

PS Apologies for the poor quality of the photo, I pinched it off Ben....

Sunday, 4 March 2007

The Devil In Disguise

Have you ever been asked what your final meal would be, such as if you were about to take your place on the electric chair? Bizarre conversation I know, but I have been asked and it throws up all sorts of dilemmas. If you ask yourself that question, I swear you will take it seriously and give yourself a bit of a headache.

My choice of meal never changes I have to say. I adore crabs, and my choice of final meal would be a simple boiled crab, delivered to me on a platter in it's whole boiled state with nothing more than a hammer, some fresh wholemeal bread, butter and a pot of homemade mustard mayonnaise. My meal of champions and kings, simplicity on a plate, everything I preach about that is good about simple fresh produce in which the ingredients all speak for themselves. I would die a very happy man.

Crab is such a sweet tasting meat and it is essential that it is fresh. Unless you have huge trust in your fishmonger, it is always best to just learn how to prepare your own pincer waving specimen from scratch rather than buying a prepared crab. First of all, you know how fresh it is, especially if one of it's nippers catches you as has happened to me several times. In my opinion, there is nothing that can compare to that taste of a freshly boiled crab, it's flavour really peaks as soon as it is cool enough to eat it. Leave it for too long and that unique taste of the sea disappears. Crabs are plentiful, they are generally caught humanely and they are cheap. At my local fishmongers, Latimers in Whitburn, they fly out the door as fast as they are brought in fresh from the trawlers. And that makes my heart sing as it proves that people are enjoying them as much as me.

If I still can't convince you to wolf back a plain old crab in all of it's glorious sea sweetness, a good way of preparing fresh crab meat for the whole family to enjoy is in a Devilled Crab Tart. The spices synonymous with that ancient food technique of Deviling complements the crab perfectly, in the same way that the mustard mayonnaise works with plain crab meat. You will need the meat of two crabs, cocks or hens, and if you can't face the pleasure of picking crab meat ever so patiently from every crevice then you will just have to trust your monger and buy it pre-prepared. Serve this with a simple salad and boiled potatoes and of course, brown bread and butter. It is a fantastic Sunday tea time delight, another British classic and one to be celebrated.

Devilled Crab Tart
Feeds 6-8 people

1 quantity of shortcrust pastry
Meat from two freshly boiled crabs
1 whole egg and 2 egg yolks, reserving the whites
Half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and English mustard powder
1 tbs Worcester sauce
250ml double cream
100g strong cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6. Butter and line a 22cm tart tin and line it with shortcrust pastry.
2 - Put in a sheet of baking paper and fill the tart with baking beans. Bake blind for 15 minutes, remove the beans and paper, prick with a fork several times and bake for a further 5 minutes.
3 - In a large bowl, beat the eggs and egg yolks with the spices and Worcester sauce. Thoroughly mix in the crab meat, cream and cheeses and season.
4 - Whip the egg whites into soft peaks and fold gently into the mixture. Pour into the pastry case and bake on the middle shelf for 40-45 minutes. Keep checking to ensure that tart is not 'catching' and if so, lower the heat slightly and cover with baking paper.
5 - Leave to rest until warm enough to cut into wedges.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Gregg's Ginger Pillow

Cakes, I love them. I sometimes wish I didn't love them with such passion, then I could go a week or two without feeling like I am missing a best friend. I have to avoid making cakes more than I wish simply because my late 30's metabolism has slowed down to pear shape making speed. No quantity of sea kelp or training seems to be able to halt my ability to put on weight with the merest glance at a cake. But hey, who cares.

This kind of cake reminds me of soggy cold days indoors when cake eating and hot tea slurping is a must. Beautifully spicy, deep and musky, my richest of rich ginger cakes melts and crunches in your mouth at the same time. It is as much an adult cake as it is a kid's cake. I can remember as a young lad in South Shields being addicted to them Jamaican Ginger Cakes made by a very famous treacle company. I could eat a whole one in 5 minutes and still play '3's and in' until we couldn't see the ball any more. Happy days indeed.

I am pleased to say that if you bake this cake to perfection, happy days will return very fast. I can guarantee a smile on your face as much as I can guarantee that you will not be able to resist another slice. It begs to be eaten with a huge mug of strong tea. Quintessentially English, despite the spice and the tea coming from way out East, these are the kind of nibbles that make us what we are over here in the U.K. It will fill your house with the most enticing of smells and will make everybody thankful that they know you.

Rich Ginger Cake

250g Plain Flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
130g salted butter
200g golden syrup
130g muscovado sugar
4 lumps stem ginger finely diced
4 tbsp stem ginger syrup
250ml milk
2 eggs beaten

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM3. Grease and line one 20cm loose bottomed cake tin.
2 - Sieve the flour, bicarbonate soda, ground ginger and cinnamon into a large bowl.
3 - In a large pan, melt the butter then add the syrups, diced stem ginger and sugar. Melt until it is oozingly caramelised then remove from the heat.
4 - Pour into the flour and spice mixture, stirring all of the time. Then pour in the eggs and milk and beat until thoroughly combined.
5 - Pour into the cake tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 35-40 minutes.
6 - Remove and cool on a wire rack. Serve in large slices with lots of tea and, if you are feeling clever, a drizzle of easy peasy home made butterscotch sauce.