Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A Surprising Soup


I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but we are experiencing a fair bit of rain and miserable bitter cold winds up here. It is like February all over again in the North East, and February is officially the most depressing month of the year. What better way to pick you up on a cold May Day than a reviving winter soup of all things.

This week saw what is, hopefully, the last of the sad looking root vegetables. They look as though they have been through a few Februaries and are miserable, limp and ready for the scrap heap. The carrots are strewn over the bottom of my fridge, and only a stock or a cheap soup is the place for them. I decided that a little roasting with some onions and garlic would attempt to bring out any remaining sweetness. Ever the optimist of course.

With the soup made, it still looked incomplete. Perhaps it was the lingering thoughts of the sad carrots that had been made over like some cruel TV show. But it needed something else. A handful of pasta which had been cooled and fridged from last evening’s tea would add a bit of much needed carbohydrates and texture. But that flavour was still lacking.

A nice addition to the bag, which at least made it look like a May Day, was a handful of mixed wild herbs. Chervil, parsley, chives, basil and mint. In a last desperate attempt at creativity, I made a crude but surprisingly tasty wild herb and almond pesto which adorned the soup like a map of a country I had never seen before. But a quick whisk of the spoon and we were eating one of the best soups I had ever made. Seriously.

So not the most conventional of soups, and not one you would expect to be eating at the end of May. But when the weather turns and the vegetables lack charisma, think outside of the box and break the rules. You might just surprise yourself as well as cheer up the household. Bonus.

Roast Carrot, Onion and Pasta Soup with Wild Herb and Almond Pesto
Feeds 2 adults and 1 child

5 carrots (sad or happy, it doesn’t seem to matter), peeled and sliced
2 onions, peeled and sliced
3 cloves of garlic, skinned and left whole
1 potato, peeled and cubed
500ml vegetable stock, preferably fresh
Salt and Pepper
Olive oil
A couple of handfuls of cooked pasta

For the pesto
A handful of fresh herbs, parsley, chives, basil, mint or chervil
1 clove of garlic
A handful of skinned almonds
Extra virgin olive oil
25g Parmesan cheese, grated

1 – In a large pan, heat the oil then add the carrots, onions and garlic. Pan fry until they take on some colour, this will bring out the flavour.

2 – Add the potato and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the potato and carrot are soft.

3 – Using a hand blender, pulse the soup to thicken but do not purée completely, keep some texture in there. Taste for seasoning, add the pasta and bring to the simmer again to heat up the pasta.

4 – In a pestle and mortar, pound the dry pesto ingredients then stir in the olive oil until you have a thick green slurry. Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese then a good grind of black pepper.

5 – Serve the soup with a good tablespoon or two of pesto on the top.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Tag - You're It!


This blogging lark has been an interesting ride. I've met some cracking people and shared a lot of advice. Little did I know that the blog world had it's own game called Tag in which fellow bloggers 'tag' each other and ask a random question. As a man who can't resist a list, it is with great sorrow that I produce my 2nd Tag list in as many weeks. This one came courtesy of the wonderful Great Big Veg Challenge, but I doubt any of my facts can better Charlotte's sprout on the gob for 2 hours trick! I now tag William of The Boy Done Food, my brother Darren on Daz's Almost Daily Dose, and Margot of Coffee and Vanilla.

7 Random Food Facts

1 - When I was 2, apparently all I wanted to eat were processed cheese triangles. Lots of them and nothing else.

2 - As an adult I will eat anything, but as a child I hated certain vegetables. I used to hide the turnip or cabbage under my mashed potato and tell my mam I was full. It worked now and again. When it didn't, it hurt.

3 - A delicacy of the young David Hall household was kippers with jam on bread, yum!

4 - When I was in the Navy, for some reason I had it in my head that if I ever went to Hong Kong I would go straight out to a Hilton hotel and eat a lobster. And I did. It remains over-rated.

5 - When I first started getting into cooking, I thought I was the best cook in the world when I found out that rubbing garlic onto toast made it into 'one of those bruschetta things the Italians eat man'. When I tried to impress my family with a 3 course meal, starting with roast tomato bruschetta, I consumed so much wine that I ended up serving garlic-less soggy tomatoes on toast. It has been a long journey.

6 - Can you remember that Creme Egg advert in the 70s where a man was fired from a cannon into a warehouse full of Creme Eggs? I wrote to Jim'll Fix It asking to be that man in a re-enactment of the advert. Jim didn't fix it for me and I still harbour bitter thoughts.

7 - The food was so bad in the Navy that I survived on Pot Noodles and King Size Mars Bars. And I still managed to be the fittest lad on the ship. Somebody please explain.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Meddling in the Med

I received a phone call last week asking if I would like to go and chat about the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet on the lovely Julia Hankin's show, BBC Radio Newcastle (http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/content/articles/2005/12/19/presenter_profile_julia_hankin_feature.shtml). Anybody that thinks this Med diet stuff is all a lot of nonsense need to look at the simple facts. And they ain't too nice.

Over here in the United Kingdom alone, we already have the highest numbers of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis in Europe. This is because we are THE most obese nation in Europe. Obesity has managed to treble in only 20 years in the U.K. alone. We eat the most confectionary. We eat the most crisps. We eat the most fast food and convenience food. Very scary, and something that needs to be reversed quickly. Too much saturated fat and salt and not enough consumption of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish means we are an island with one or two 'large' issues to contend with.

I'm not going to go on and on about this as it becomes a bit preachy. But just think about it with some common sense. A typical Med diet is one rich in fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, grains and pulses and the liberal use of olive oil in their cooking and salad dressings. Antioxidants and monosaturated fats aplenty there. And more importantly, some pretty tasty food there too. Very simple and fantastic tasting food. It isn't rocket science why they have relatively few health problems.

Here is a recipe that I have cooked often; I suppose it is a typical meal in my house. The reasons are that it is very tasty, my daughter will eat it and it is also very good for you. It also takes minimal time to prepare. It is packed with all the right things - the long words I described previously which will help keep nasty things at bay and lots of flavour and texture. The simple things are always the best and a Mediterranean diet proves that on every level.

Fish with a Fennel, Leek, Tomato and Olive sauce
Serves 2 and 1 child

1 fresh fish, skinned and flesh cut into chunks (no need to be picky here, use what you like best but of course an oily fish such as mackerel or salmon will make for an even healthier dish)
1 Fennel bulb, chopped finely
1 Leek, halved and chopped finely
1 bunch of spring onions, chopped finely
1 clove of garlic, chopped
A handful of black olives, chopped roughly
1 tin of tomatoes (or 250g fresh tomatoes, chopped)
Fresh basil, torn
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

1 - In a large pan, heat the oil then add the fennel, leek, spring onion and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes until softened and slightly coloured.
2 - Add the tomatoes and olives, and simmer for 5-10 minutes until slightly reduced.
3 - Add the chunks of fish and cover lightly with the sauce. Cut on the lid and cook for 10 minutes on a low heat until the fish flakes easily.
4 - Taste for seasoning, go easy on the salt as the olives will make the sauce salty.
5 - Serve with rice and a simple salad (I used wild and long grained rice and fresh uncooked spinach), sprinkled with the torn basil.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Ken Comes To The Toon


An eventful day today. After a few days of relative peace and general unexcited nothingness, I was asked if I would like to go and watch a magician in action. Not a magician in the conventional sense, but one who can do amazing things with sharp knives, hot woks and chopsticks. A certain Mr Ken Hom was paying a visit to the area to demonstrate a few of his dishes from his new book. As it was going to be in the institution that is Fenwicks of Newcastle, I had to get off my backside and see the great man in action.

Ken is one of the true TV chef greats. In this day of TV saturated with people trying to show us all how to cook, Ken Hom comes from a time when it was unusual for anybody outside of Fanny Craddock, Delia Smith and Keith Floyd to be on television cooking. Especially one trying to show a whole nation of pasty white Brits the benefits of cooking using a wok. I can remember watching him as a young lad and thinking it was all too complicated. But how wrong I was, and today Ken showed an eager crowd of Geordies just how quick and simple this stir-fry lark is.

When I spoke to him, he blew me away by saying, 'I am honoured to have you come along and watch me cook'. Of course I nearly fell over, but I regained my composure and stuttered something like, 'Errm, of course Ken, but it is my honour to watch you'. I think the guys at Fenwicks who know me had told him I had been on MasterChef and he must have thought that made me a star. I'm happy to pretend just for one day! What a lovely guy; very down to earth, very polite with no ego or arrogance. Rare qualities in a man so rich, successful and talented.

Anyway, in a break from my usual style, I thought I would give you one of my favourite Ken Hom recipes. I own so many cook books, but I only own one Chinese cook book and it is Ken's 'Travels With A Hot Wok'. I don't cook much Asian food at all but this one is brilliant which anybody can do, and if anything, I'm inspired to start doing a lot more with my wok. Ken, it was a pleasure to meet you. A true gent and a genuine star.

Stir-Fried Chicken with Mushrooms
Serves 4

450g chicken meat, cut into chunks

For the marinade
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornflour

For the Stir-fry
25g dried mushrooms
350g button mushrooms, sliced
2 tbs garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
Half teaspoon five spice mixture
2 teaspoons orange zest
2 tbs rice wine or dry sherry
3 tbs oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
Large handful basil

1 - Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and add the chopped chicken. Leave to marinade for 20 minutes.
2 - Soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain and squeeze.
3 - Heat a large wok then add the groundnut oil. Add the chicken and stir-fry for 5 minutes until brown. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon.
4 - Add the onion and garlic and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the salt, five spice, dried and fresh mushrooms and stir-fry for 1 minute.
5 - Return the chicken with the orange zest, rice wine and stir-fry for a further 4 minutes. Finally, add the oyster sauce, sugar and basil leaves, cook for a further minute. Serve with plain boiled rice.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Pelion Dreams


A few years back, my wife and I visited Pelion on the East coast of Greece. Anybody that has preconceptions on Greece being a dry and arid country need look no further than Pelion. Beautiful and almost tropical, searing heat, vast beaches and rolling dramatic countryside. Stunning.

We arrived after travelling by boat, train, and car. Trains Planes and Automobiles. I was John Candy and Helen was Steve Martin. It seemed like an age to get there and with ferry strikes and closed car hire shops to contend with, it truly was an adventure of sorts that had my pessimism at full flow. By the time we arrived in the village we were staying in, it was pitch black and our stomach's were crying for food.

Thanks to the ever-lovely and friendly Greek locals, we were kindly directed to an unremarkable and traditional little restaurant that were eager to serve. Anybody that knows me will know how much of a pain I can be when I am hungry. The look on my face had the owners rushing off to quench me with some fantastic crispy Zucchini served with a garlic hot Tzatziki. A few glasses of home-brewed red wine returned the smile to my face. Next we had a superbly rolled belly pork which had been flavoured with a little orange, cumin and fennel. Alongside a traditional Greek salad, it had my heart racing with glee. Some freshly baked honey cake finished things off perfectly. Any doubts I had on our holiday being a little like the classic comedy disaster were eradicated.

Needless to say, the next 2 weeks were bliss and I fell in love with the people, the culture and the food. I've still to go anywhere friendlier. But the food was a huge surprise to me. For a man who sings British food from the rooftops, I'm a close second with Greek cuisine. It is like proper soul food, devised and cooked from that need to survive and making the most of simple seasonal ingredients that don't cost the earth. Seriously quality tucker.

So this recipe is inspired from that very meal. Using a quality piece of thick free-range pork belly, it is simply rubbed profusely with orange zest and spices then roasted to perfection. Unlike the rolled pork belly I had that day, I prefer a good pork crackling. The flavour of that crispy fat with the correct amount of spice and butter soft meat makes pork belly the best cut of the pig for me. Serve it with a simple salad or some roasted root vegetables with a little lemon and oregano for a perfect, simple yet stunning dinner.

Roast Belly Pork with Orange, Fennel and Cumin
Will easily feed 4 people

1 piece of top end belly pork, enough to fit into your roasting tray
2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp dried oregano
2 oranges, zest finely grated
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat your oven to 220 degrees C, GM 8.
2 - Using a sharp knife, slash the pork fat in 1cm steps ensuring that the cuts do not penetrate the meat.
3 - In a dry pan, roast the seeds then crush slightly in a pestle and mortar. Sprinkle onto the flesh side of the pork belly along with the orange zest and some salt and pepper. Massage into the flesh.
4 - Turn the belly and place into a roasting tray along with the oranges, halved. Sprinkle the skin liberally with salt, ensuring that it goes into the cuts, and leave for 20 minutes. Pat dry and wipe with kitchen towel (it will leach a little water) then sprinkle liberally again with salt and then pepper.
5 - Place onto the top shelf of your oven for 30 minutes. Turn down the heat to 200 degrees C, GM6, place onto the middle shelf then roast for a further hour.
6 - Leave to rest in foil for 10 minutes then serve in large slices with your accompaniment of choice.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Marked For Approval


After the gourgefest that was the chocolate and orange tart, we were in serious need of some health food. The tart was enough to feed 10 people and between 4 of us, we finished the lot. My man flu had not made any improvement but my stomach certainly had. Time to reach for some handy recipes recently handed down to me.

Thanks to a gentleman called Mark Earnden, my life has taken a turn for the better. Introducing myself to Mark has resulted in me taking on his brilliant concept and assisting in teaching people about good, simple, healthy and tasty food. A dream job for me. He has also given me a few impressive recipes that destroy any image of food being difficult to make. 10 minute meals that are packed full of health, vitality and more importantly, taste.

Lamb, feta and courgettes aren't a new concept. But combining them with grapefruit is one I had never heard of before I met Mark. This recipe takes all of these ingredients and makes a little bit of Summer on a plate. If you are turning your nose up at the thought of a grapefruit mixed with some classic Greek ingredients, I urge you to at least try it before dismissing it. Not only will it make you happy to know such simple things can taste so great, it will also be on your plate in 10 minutes flat. Cheers Mark!

Lamb served with Courgette, Pink Grapefruit and Feta
Feeds 2

6 x Lamb loins cut into strips
1 courgette, halved down the middle and cut into segments
1 pink grapefruit
Rocket leaves
Fresh mint, chopped
Feta Cheese
Pinch of dried oregano
Freshly ground pepper
1 x table spoon of olive oil

1. Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the lamb strips. Cook to your liking.

2. Add the courgette and cook for 2-3 minutes until slightly caramelised. Sprinkle in the oregano and black pepper.

3. Cut the skin from the grapefruit and cut out the segments into a bowl.

4. Add the cooked lamb and courgette to the grapefruit, then add the rocket and mint and mix thoroughly together.

5. Pile onto a plate and crumble on the feta cheese.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Perfect Match


There are some classic combinations in this myriad of foodstuffs. I could name so many off the top of my head, the kind of partnerships that would not be the same without the other. One of my favourites has to be chocolate and orange. Everything from the sickly sugary 'tap it and unwrap it' variation to more adult ones like a bitter chocolate and orange tart. And that is precisely what I needed to make myself happy after a few days of nursing the man flu.

When people ask me for a simple but impressive dessert recipe, I tend to turn to these kind of tarts. Make a custard of sorts with your flavourings of choice, pour into a pastry case, then bake in a low oven for an hour. You have yourself a large and superb dessert that will feed many and ensure lots of accolades for your efforts.

I've made these using a lemon and lime combination. But chocolate and orange wins hands down. The key to getting the flavours right is to ensure you extract the oils from the skin of the fruit. So a gentle heat on the cream and milk with the grated zest of one orange and the rind of another will do just nicely. Just make sure you pull the rind out before baking otherwise it will make for an unpleasant surprise for somebody. I also put cocoa powder in the pastry to provide a double chocolate hit.

Bitter Chocolate and Orange Tart

For the pastry
150g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
75g butter
Pinch of salt
A little water

For the filling
300ml double cream
150ml milk
300g 70% chocolate
Zest of two oranges, one finely grated and the other cut into slivers
100g sugar
3 egg yolks

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3
2 - Make your pastry by combining the dry ingredients in a food processor or by hand. Drizzle in water and combine until it forms a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for 30 minutes.
3 - Grease and line a tart tin with a removable base, I used a 12" tin. Roll out your pastry and line the tart tin leaving the edges overlapped. Line with baking paper and fill with baking beans, any old dried beans or peas will do. Blind bake for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool a little then trim the case with a sharp knife.
4 - In a deep pan, bring the cream, milk, zest and rind of the orange and the chocolate to boiling point then remove from the heat. Ensure the chocolate is melted and thoroughly combined. Remove the large slithers of zest.
5 - Beat the egg yolks and sugar together. Pour in the chocolate mixture beating all of the time. The pour into the pastry case and gently place onto the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the mixture is almost firm. Cool before serving.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Flabby Things of Joy


Scallops are a bizarre creature and not everybody's favourite choice of seafood. On the current series of Great British Menu on BBC2, Jeremy Lee described them as, 'big horrible flabby things'. Very funny and sometimes very true. I find that the bigger they are, the less attractive in taste and texture they become. But I still love them.

The key to a good eating experience with scallops is to eat them as fresh as possible, as well as minimum cooking time in the pan. Seared in a scalding hot pan for 1 minute on both sides is all you need. Any more, the texture can become rubbery and the natural sweetness disappears. If anybody reading this hates the things, then try one cooked properly and see if your view changes.

I came home last weekend with a dozen or so King scallops from Ponteland Farmer's Market. They were just the right size, around the diameter of a 50 pence piece with a beautiful glowing orange coral. Some people tend to not eat the coral but I like it as it gives a completely different taste and texture to the white flesh.

With a handful of new season asparagus, I came up with a simple recipe that gave us a lovely little Saturday night treat. A simple potato cake, pan fried in butter, made for the perfect bed for the asparagus and scallops. A simple deglaze of the scallop pan with Vermouth and lemon juice, finished off with a knob of butter and some chopped herbs, completed events perfectly.

Scallops and Asparagus on Potato Cake with Lemon, Vermouth and Herb Sauce
Serves 2

6 scallops
12 Asparagus stalks, washed and trimmed
2 large floury potatoes such as Maris Piper or King George, peeled and chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tbs Vermouth
Butter
Olive Oil
Parsley and chives finely chopped
Salt and Pepper

1 - Put the potatoes into a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Cook until soft, then drain thoroughly and mash in the pan until dry and smooth. Season and add a knob of butter. Shape into circles using a biscuit cutter or chef's ring then fry with a little olive oil and butter until crispy.
2 - While the potato cakes are cooking, cook the asparagus in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
3 - Heat a frying pan and a little olive oil. Season the scallops then sear on both sides for 1 minute each side. Remove and keep warm.
4 - Pour the Vermouth, lemon juice and zest into the scallop pan and reduce, it won't take a minute. Add the herbs and a knob of butter then taste for seasoning.
5 - Arrange the potato cake on a plate with the asparagus and scallops on top, then drizzle the sauce over and around.

Friday, 11 May 2007

An Interesting Salad


The Organic bag arrived yesterday, and as I tipped it onto the table, a product I had not used for ages fell out - Mixed Bean Sprouts. Mung beans, lentils, aduki beans, chickpeas. A superb and healthy array of green, orange and brown little sprouts. All lovely to look at, but what could I do with them?

Bean sprouts are so lovely. Fresh and crunchy and with a taste of a freshly podded pea, they are perfect to pick up any old dull salad. Health experts reckon we should be eating more of them, and after sampling the ones that arrived at my house, I'm happy to take them up on the offer. Delicious and different with the added bonus of being rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins.

I had a little thin rump steak left which I guessed could be cut into strips and briskly fried. I also had an abundance of greens such as rocket, spinach and baby red chard leaves. An interesting salad was on the cards. And that is what I did.

An exciting chilli, honey and orange dressing was quickly made up using the bottom of my orange juice carton, a little drizzle of honey, a pinch of chilli powder and some olive oil. It was then just the simple matter of slicing a few tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, olives, a shallot and combining it all with the leaves, bean sprouts and dressing. Hot beef on the top and within 5 minutes, we all had a very tasty and healthy salad for lunch. Beautiful.

Mixed Bean Sprout and Hot Beef Salad
Feeds 2

100g Mixed Bean Sprouts
Mixed seasonal leaves, such as spinach, baby chard, rocket and watercress
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 sun dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
A handful of olives of choice
3 large tomatoes, sliced
100g rump beef, thinly sliced

For the dressing
3 tbs orange juice
1 tbs olive oil
1 tbs honey
A pinch of chilli
Salt and pepper

1 - Make up the dressing by thoroughly combining the ingredients.
2 - In a pan, heat up some oil and briskly stir fry the beef.
3 - In a large bowl, combine all of the salad ingredients then toss with the dressing.
4 - Pile onto plates then scatter with the hot beef.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

A Taste Of The High Life


No recipe today, just a chat and a lazy photo.

I've always wondered what it was like to be a judge of food, a food critic of sorts, somebody who can walk into a restaurant and be paid to eat food and then write about it. As somebody who loves eating and writing, it is the perfect job for me. And today I had a little taste of what it is all about as I was invited to be a judge from Hi-Life at the 'Taste Of The Tyne Hi-Life Challenge' at the Black Door Restaurant in Newcastle.

Newcastle has been going through a bit of a transformation recently, with some fine eateries and some talented chefs in abundance. This competition was a celebration of the area’s culture and cuisine with a contemporary twist and a competitive edge. Simon Brown of Blackfriars, (starter), Terry Miller of Rockafella, (main course), and David Kennedy of Black Door, (dessert), were invited to create the ultimate North East meal. Using traditional foods from the area, they attempted to bring the dishes right up to date for a thoroughly contemporary feel.

A superb soup of Creamed Potato and Onion started things off. Terry then produced a boned and rolled Northumbrian Salmon on beans and capers with a pan haggerty. David's finale was an odd but brilliantly palate cleansing lime and mango parfait with lime and mint granita. I voted for Terry as it seemed to be the dish that was the most complete, but all in all, it was a pleasure and a privilege to be eating food cooked by some of our top North East chefs and having the honour to be able to judge. Oh, and having a few cheeky ones too. My perfect job. Hic....

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A Simple Plan


A busy weekend of work and play, with the added challenge of a terrible twosome stomping around the house, the cooking of food this weekend has been a challenge for a change. A positive start on Friday evening with a Greek feast of moussaka, salad and lemon and oregano potatoes elapsed into a strange lack of enthusiasm come Saturday. This happens rarely. And at times like this, I'll not give in to the dreaded convenience factor.

In our roadshows with Expo Chef, we demonstrate lots of quick, simple and healthy meals. Considering that I cook these a few times a week for lots of people, I have never been tempted to cook any of them for me and my family. Until now.

One of the dishes we do is a simple as can be pasta dish that takes 10 minutes to make. And it is packed with flavour. Bacon and onions, a pinch of chilli then your meat or fish of choice, rounded off with a little low fat créme fraiche and a few slithers of sun dried tomato. It is always the favourite with the crowd no matter what meat is utilised. For example, today in Morpeth I made it using some salmon and crab meat. In the school last week, I used prawns. In our house during this time of food mental shut down, I used chicken. It was brilliant, and gave me enough energy to start planning meals for the rest for the week.

This food is never going to win you awards. But it will satisfy you when you want a very quick pasta hit without the need for complicated sauces. It proves that anybody can cook as well as wipe clear the notion that tasty food has to mean spending an age in the kitchen. 10 minutes, start to finish. Ready, steady......

Spicy Chicken and Bacon Pasta
To feed 4

6 rashers of bacon, I used streaky, cut into 1 inch slices
2 chicken breasts or 3 thighs, sliced
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 tub of créme fraiche, full or half fat
A handful of sun dried tomatoes, cut into thin slivers
A pinch of chilli powder
Freshly ground pepper
Olive oil
Fresh parsley, chopped

1 - Bring a pan of water to the boil then pour in your pasta of choice, I use penne.
2 - Heat the olive oil in a deep pan, then add the chicken and quickly brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
3 - Add the bacon and onion and cook until well coloured. Return the chicken and stir until cooked.
4 - Add a pinch of chilli and the sun dried tomatoes. Then stir in the créme fraiche and a grind of pepper. Bring to the simmer then remove from the heat. If you leave it for too long it will curdle.
5 - This should have taken 10 minutes at which time your pasta will be finished. All that remains is to stir it through, then serve with a few scatterings of parsley and Parmesan cheese.

Friday, 4 May 2007

A Few Things You Probably Don't Know About Me (or want to know for that matter...)

Our Hannah of MasterChef Goes Large fame has 'tagged' me. Tagging apparently means giving somebody a topic to discuss then passing it onto other Bloggers. A bit like a chain letter I suppose. Or a chain Blog. Oh dear. Here goes.....

1. I was lead singer in the classic early 90s band Austin when I lived in Leeds. We had no hits, one demo tape (yes, a tape), lots of gigs (once quite literally to one man and his dog) and in our last gig, I infamously walked off the stage halfway through the 2nd song, glowing with attitude throwing the Vs to the rest of the band. We were terrible.

2. I have a medal for fighting in the Gulf War in 1990. I'm not proud. I just have one because I was paid to go there.

3. I have still to find anything on this planet that I will not eat.

4. I once scored a goal against Peter Shilton, was out marked by Trevor Francis and flattened by Terry Butcher in the same match. It was one of those 'Beach Soccer' tournaments, and I had no idea how I found myself on the same pitch of sand in New Brighton on the Wirral as some of my heroes. But it was fun.

5. I have kissed and hugged 2 of The Smiths and that makes me sadly proud (evidence in photo here, with a very scared looking Mike Joyce being hugged off a very sweaty and happy me). Johnny Marr and Morrissey have so far evaded my clutches, but I am on their case.

6. The team I have supported since I was a wee boy are Newcastle United. I had a season ticket for 12 years. Then a couple of years back I decided I was sick of them. So now I don't have one.

7. I've been offered as one of the prizes in the forthcoming Black and White Party on 9th June for The Tiny Lives Fund (www.tinylives.org.uk). You can use your imagination for what prize it is.

8. MasterChef facts. I've stupidly been on it twice. It gave me approximately 6 months of sleep problems. Gregg Wallace said unspeakable things of praise about my ginger pudding. Ben was the most talented amateur cook I have ever met. The day before I was evicted from MasterChef, I drove a 500 mile roundtrip to be best man for my top mate Paul Moran.

9. I'm at my happiest with a large boiled brown crab to devour, a glass of Pouilly Fume and either The Smiths or the Stone Roses on the jukebox.

10. I was sent an e-mail from Nigel Slater last week. And I nearly fell over when I realised it wasn't a hoax. I had a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

I tag my brothers Darren and Andy.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Cauli Power


Wednesday is Organic bag day. I decided when I moved back to the North East that I would utilise the local greengrocer's Organic bag scheme, and it turns out to be quite an exciting day in my life. In exchange for £10, a small brown paper bag is dropped off with a selection of local seasonal fruit and veg. A quick tip onto the table and I'm away with the note pad, scribbling away like a mad man trying to invent something.

Last week saw the first cauliflower of the season. It was a small number, not one of those huge alien like fiends you often see any time of the year in any supermarket. Cauliflowers are one of those vegetables that I hated as a child. Perhaps it was the way it was always served to me boiled to submission so that it was completely devoid of flavour and texture. I was a bit fussy with my vegetables when I was a wee one, and cauliflower definitely stands out as a thing of my nightmares. Now I love the stuff. And any other vegetable for that matter.

Cauliflower cheese has to be a true British classic. Whoever thought of combining this beautiful white specimen with a rich cheese sauce deserves a medal, as it has to be one of the few vegetable dishes you want to eat in its entirety with no accompaniment. It is simply delicious. When it tipped onto the table, I decided immediately that I wanted that dish. But what if I turned the cauliflower cheese philosophy into a simple summer soup, one that could be eaten cold as well as hot? So I did.

This soup is a true joy to eat, and any good strong cheese will suffice. I used a slab of Berwick Edge cheese from the amazing Doddington Dairy in Wooler (http://www.doddingtondairy.co.uk) as it is one of our tremendous local cheeses that sings like the best cheddar yet has a silky soft texture. Flavour and texture. Berwick Edge delivers it all.

All that was left was to make a simple purée with some peppery watercress, a few frozen peas and a little yoghurt. It all seemed to work nicely as a quick and effective afternoon soup for a sunny day in Spring. The Organic bag delivered another winner. It is a real lucky dip for an obsessive foody. Give a bag a go.

Cauliflower and Berwick Edge Cheese Soup with Watercress and Pea Purée

1 Cauliflower, trimmed and chopped roughly
1 shallot, sliced
Olive oil
500ml water
150g Berwick Edge Cheese (or any good strong cheddar), grated
50g butter
50g plain flour
250ml milk
Salt and Pepper

For the purée
2 handfuls of frozen or fresh peas, softened in boiling water for 2 minutes
2 handfuls of watercress
100ml yoghurt

1 - Heat the oil in a deep pan and add the shallot and cauliflower. Cook for 5-10 minutes stirring regularly, until softened but not coloured.
2 - Add the water, bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes until softened completely. Blitz until smooth in a food processor or using a hand processor. Push through a sieve for a smoother consistency but I prefer the texture.
3 - Make a roux by melting the butter and adding the flour, stirring for 1 minute. Add the milk gradually until you have a thick sauce, the consistency of double cream.
4 - Stir in the cheese and thoroughly combine. Then stir into the soup. Taste for seasoning.
5 - Make a simple purée by blitzing the peas and watercress then stirring into the yoghurt.
6 - Serve the soup in bowls with a good spoonful of purée and a few shavings of cheese.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Peppered with Peppers


I seem to be taken over by peppers of all things at the moment. With a few leftovers from the roadshows, it can soon mount up. And peppers seem to be the things that are overflowing the vegetable box in my fridge. It is a good job I love them.

There is so much you can do with a pepper and it is a truly versatile vegetable. Stuff it, roast it, slice it and serve it raw, cook it down and blitz to make simple purée. But I think it really shows its true form when roasted to sweet perfection. A charred skin and a juicy interior makes for a mouthwatering prospect and I can devour lots of them just like that. I've roasted and sealed peppers in jars with good olive oil in the past too. It is a superb way of preserving and of course you are never far away from a cracking flavour addition to pick up any meal.

A visit to the butchers is always inspirational when trying to think of recipes. I returned with a few new season lamb chops which I simply coated in a little olive oil, smashed rosemary, garlic and lemon then chargrilled. Mouthwatering perfect flavour combinations. A pepper accompaniment for this beautiful lamb is a simple yet stunningly affective way of utilising an abundance of peppers. Pan roast a lot of sliced peppers down in a pan and you are left with a caramelised sensation. Pan roast a few whole shallots and garlic cloves and add a splash of Balsamic vinegar, and things get scarily amazing. Sticky and sweet, these peppers can accompany just about anything you want to place alongside. They pack a powerful punch. I served my peppers and lamb with a watercress mash and it was a memorable supper.

Sticky Caramelised Peppers

4 mixed peppers sliced
6 shallots, peeled and left whole
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
6 tbs Balsamic vinegar
4 tbs olive oil
Salt and pepper

1 - In a large non-stick pan, heat the olive oil then add the peppers, shallots and garlic. If you feel you need more olive oil, then add some more, this requires a good dose.
2 - Cook down, stirring regularly, until the peppers have collapsed and the skin has began to caramelise, a good 15-20 minutes of cooking.
3 - Turn the heat up high then pour in the Balsamic vinegar. Cook and stir for another 5 minutes so that the vinegar reduces and you are left with a sticky jammy pile of beautiful peppers. Taste for seasoning.
4 - Serve with anything you like. They will keep in an airtight container for a good week.