Tuesday, 31 July 2007

A Meditecumbrian Diet

Attending farmer's markets and food festivals is something I urge people to do more of. Not only do you get the chance to discover some amazing foodstuffs from around your area, but you also get to meet the people who put the hard work in. Passionate producers who believe in their produce, putting a huge effort in to ensure that you are getting a quality product on your plate.

I had the pleasure to meet the guys from Shaw Meats at the Gateshead Flower Show at the weekend. They are a Cumbrian meat supplier who make some amazing cured sausages, and it is their policy to only source good meat from local farms within 30 miles of their butchery in Wigton, Cumbria. So on display were some inventive salamis such as Caraway and Nutmeg, Basil and Fennel and little chilli numbers called Firecrackers. They also had their own Biltong, a South African delicacy which is basically salt cured beef strips. All were seriously delicious, superb quality and you could tell it meant a lot to them to be selling such great produce.

The sausage I brought home with me was their own Cumbrian Chorizo. Less salty and less fatty than the chorizo I normally buy, it was also more subtle on the paprika giving you a meatier hit rather than the spice. I thought they were delicious, sausages that would improve even more with a little heat and crispiness, so I thought I would put them together in a simple salad. I love the contrast between a cold bean salad and searing hot meat. Get plenty of fresh herbs and a sharp leaf amongst them all, a few shavings of a salty cheese and perhaps some sun dried tomatoes, and you have a 10 minute Medittecumbrian supper on your plate.

Hot Cumbrian Chorizo, Bean and Herb Salad
Feeds 4

1 large chorizo sausage, sliced to the thickness of a pound coin
1 tin of butter beans, drained and washed
1 tin of cannellini beans, drained and washed
A small punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved
A handful of sun dried tomatoes, sliced thinly
Rocket leaves
Leaves of any fresh herbs, I used parsley, coriander and chervil
1 red onion, sliced
A few shavings of a hard cheese such as Parmesan or Pecorino
Rapeseed or Olive oil

For the dressing
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Half tsp smoked sweet paprika
Juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp cider vinegar
Freshly ground pepper

1 - In a large bowl, place the beans, rocket, herbs, tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes and onion.
2 - Make the dressing by combining all of the ingredients, mixing well.
3 - In a large frying pan, heat up a tablespoon of the oil and add the chorizo. Be careful the sausage does not burn and cook until crisp and seared.
4 - Dress the salad in the bowl, then place piles into bowls. Scatter the salad with the hot sausage, a few shavings of cheese and more herbs. Eat with optional crusty bread.

Sunday, 29 July 2007


Friday night, and curry cravings were in the air. We needed a curry in a hurry, simply because we were hungry and very tired after a tough week. A curry always seems to invigorate and revive. With both of the nearest Indian restaurants of a disappointing nature, it was time for a little inspiration using the ingredients I already had in the house.

Preparing a curry can often be a lengthy affair. Lots of ingredients and lots of preparation in advance, it can sometimes be a little mesmerising and off-putting, hence the reason why a curry fix is often resolved via the takeaway for many. The curry I made on Friday night took 15 minutes to complete, and it inched ever closer to the top 3 currys I have ever made.

I've taken a bit of interest in South Indian food, specifically Keralan cuisine. The flavourings in the curry from this area of India are subtle and exotic, with an emphasis on the likes of fruit, nuts, fish, yoghurt and coconut. My only experiences have been at Rasa Restaurant in Newcastle, and each time I have eaten there has been a nigh on religious experience, the food has been that stunning. Incredibly fresh food, some fierce with heat that is quickly quelled from the use of tangy fruit, fresh pickles and coconut. I adore it, and could happily eat there every night.

My crab and cod curry on Friday was a good effort on something I could imagine eating on a warm South West Indian beach, surrounded by the sound of crashing waves, tropical insects and of course a cool beer to wash it down with. Hot and sour, creamy and exotic, I swear I could do the 15 minutes preparing and cooking and then pretend to friends that I had been slaving over the pot all day. But why deny you the recipe to a fantastically quick curry, one that will have you tearing into the crab claws and relishing each morsel? One that will have you and your friends messy with the hot and sour sauce. One that will satisfy your most severe of curry cravings and leave you chuffed in the knowledge you have just whipped an an impressive curry in the time it took the rice to boil. Get cracking.

Crab and Cod Curry
Feeds 2

1 cooked crab, meat removed, claws and legs left intact
1 medium fillet of cod, bones and skin removed and cut into chunks
1 onion, chopped
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1tbsp tamarind paste (optional)
1 small tin chopped tomatoes
Half a tin of coconut milk
A handful of pistachio or cashew nuts, crushed coarsely
A handful of curry or basil leaves
Fresh coriander
Groundnut or peanut oil

1 - Heat up the oil in a large pan. Add the mustard seeds and curry or basil leaves and let them crackle.
2 - Add the onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric and chilli powder and quickly stir for 1 minute. Then add the tomatoes and tamarind paste and reduce for 2 minutes, stirring all of the time to make a rich and fragrant sauce.
3 - Turn down the heat and add the coconut milk. Bring to the simmer, then add the cod, crab meat, legs and claws. Heat through for 5 minutes.
4 - Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Stir in the nuts. Serve on basmati rice with a scattering of fresh coriander leaves.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Working Class Hero

The roast beef lunch left me with a whole host of vegetables for one of my favourite 5 minute dishes - bubble and squeak. It is a dish that I am sure people of a higher 'class' would put into the 'working class' category and snub with great disdain. I say unlucky. It is a true British classic. A working class hero.

Bubble and squeak, so named because it makes them very noises when cooking, was a dish that was served to me every single Monday evening when I came in from school. As a family that wasted nothing, what ever was left over from our Sunday roast was thrown together and fried up into a huge frying pan sized crispy vegetable cake.

I may have mentioned this before, but I was a fussy so and so as a child. Vegetables were not something I suffered gladly. No matter how many times my mam hid the turnip in the mashed potato, I always knew it was there. And as my mam stood for no nonsense, I often ate it with my fingers clamped firmly onto my nose. However, come bubble and squeak Monday, I would eat the very vegetables I hated once fried up nice and crispy with a dollop of sauce on the side. Weird.

Nowadays, I embellish my leftovers with a few ingredients to take it to another level. So in this bubble and squeak, I add a little wholegrain mustard and a strong Cheddar cheese. I also add a little of the chopped cold leftover meat if there is any left. A few finely chopped fresh herbs such as basil, parsley and sage and a fine coating of Parmesan and flour, they crisp up beautifully and make for a fine dish on its own. With one exception. There is one habit I can't resist still to this day and that is a good dollop of brown sauce on the side. Bubble and squeak Mondays - brilliant.

Bubble and Squeak

Any leftover vegetables - in mine were carrot, turnip, potato, broccoli, cauliflower cheese
Any leftover meat, chopped
Wholegrain mustard
Cheddar cheese, grated
Finely chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, basil and sage
Plain flour
Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

1 - In a large bowl, mash all of the vegetables coarsely.
2 - Mix in a couple of tablespoons of mustard, a couple of handfuls of grated cheddar, seasoning and fresh herbs.
3 - Mix a little plain flour with grated Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Then form whatever sized bubble and squeaks and dip into the flour.
4 - Fry your bubble and squeaks in olive oil until golden and crispy. Serve with a dollop of your favourite sauce.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Sweetness, Sweetness I Was Only Joking...

Last week in the weekly Organic bag, we were delivered a bag of apricots. Apricots are one of those fruits that, as a fussy child, I hated due to their spotty velvety skin. Of course now that I will consume most things, I love them. So a few Organic beauties in the bag were the cause of some excitement. How disappointed we were.

Anybody that has bitten into an apricot that has not ripened will know that horrible sense of disappointment. It is like biting into a cotton t-shirt (if you have ever had the strange tendency to do that sort of thing) - all fibrous and tasteless. The problem with apricots is it is a difficult one telling when they have ripened to sweet juicy perfection. They look ripe, they feel ripe, but they ain't always ripe. Another problem they have is that, unlike most other fruit, they will not develop or ripen once plucked from the tree. Once plucked you are, well, you get what you are given put it that way.

Not one to get down about this kind of thing, I often turn a bland tasteless bag of 'plucked too soon' apricots into a jam. But my daughter had spotted them and they needed to be developed into something edible reasonably quickly without dousing them in a bag of sugar. A great healthy way of using any fruit, ripe or not ripe, is to make a little fruity yoghurt ice.

Whenever I make a yoghurt ice I make it as if I was blending a smoothie, as my smoothies often become healthy ice lollies anyway. So into a blender goes a tub of yoghurt, perhaps a little honey and your choice of fruit stewed in a little sugar or honey. With the apricots, they certainly needed sweetening in a pan with honey, but I also spiced them slightly with a stick of vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon. I also folded in a couple of crushed oaty biscuits and an egg white. 2 hour's freezing in a pudding mould and a reasonably classy but delicious healthy dessert was born. Goodbye powdery bland apricot, hello succulent fruity yoghurt ice.

Apricot and Oat Yoghurt Ice
Makes 4 small moulds

6-8 apricots, halved and kernels removed
1 vanilla pod, split and seeded
1 good pinch cinnamon
8 tbsp honey
300ml natural yoghurt
2 oaty biscuits, crushed
1 egg white, whipped to soft peaks

1 - In a pan, add the apricots, honey, cinnamon and vanilla. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes to infuse with the spices. Remove from the heat and cool.
2 - In a blender, add the yoghurt and stewed fruit and pulse until well blended. Pour into a large bowl.
3 - Fold in the crushed biscuit, then the egg white.
4 - Pour into ramekins or small pudding moulds and set in the freezer for 2 hours.
5 - Soften the moulds in hot water then tap onto plates. Serve with a biscuit and some berries.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Goose On The Loose

A very strange thing happened to me last week. I discovered a fruit I have never seen or heard of before at my local greengrocer's. After returning home with the fruit, I then had a little surf on my fellow Blogger's sites. And there on Celia's brilliant Purple Podded Peas was this fruit I had never heard of. What a coincidence. They say that all good things come in threes, so I am fully expecting to get pelted with this fruit at some point this week from the children at one of my food presentations.

The fruit I am talking about is the red gooseberry, or as Celia says, the Whinhams Industry or red dessert gooseberry. Quite how I have never heard of them is a strange one. I love gooseberries, but the ones that I am used to and use in abundance are the green variety that often need sweetening up due to their sour nature. These little beauties need little sugar; they are sweet as can be and perfect for a bit of dessert experimentation.

I decided against the ubiquitous gooseberry crumble. As delightful as it is, I wanted something even more simple, especially as I'm now getting my daughter involved so much. I opted instead for an upside down pudding of sorts. What I'm starting to do with Cerys these days is give her a few sensible choices for the recipe I'm about to experiment with. As she demands to be on the bench when I cook these days, it is only fair to give her a bit of autonomy.

So on her list of random but acceptable choices were walnuts which were gratefully bashed to submission in a plastic bag with her mini rolling pin. These were folded into a simple sponge mixture with the tiniest pinches of ground ginger. Topped and tailed, the gooseberries were softened a little in soft brown sugar. I had to do this quickly as the delicious fruits appeared to be disappearing at a fast rate down my little helper's neck. All that was left was the fruit to be arranged in a buttered dish and the sponge mixture poured over the top and baked off in a moderate oven.

We ate this pudding with vanilla ice cream, and as the ice cream melted around the still warm pudding I glanced over at my daughter as she demolished her well earned slice. I praised her on her fantastic pud, and I was awarded with a sticky cuddle and kiss. I have a little Delia in the making methinks. Hats off to the red dessert gooseberry and unknown pleasures.

Red Gooseberry and Walnut Pudding

1 small punnet of red gooseberries (green will do but may need a little more sugar), topped and tailed
50g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
100g plain flour
100g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
50g walnuts, pounded to small crumbs
A good pinch of ground ginger

1 - Pre-heat the oven to GM4, 180 degrees C.
2 - In a small pan, melt the sugar and add the gooseberries. Cook until they have softened then remove from the heat.
3 - In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one by one, then fold in the flour, walnuts and ground ginger. If the mixture is too stiff, beat in a little milk until it falls off a spoon without shaking.
4 - Pour the fruit into a buttered baking dish (I used a square cake tin). Pour over the sponge mixture and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25-30 minutes until the sponge has risen and turned golden brown.
5 - Allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a plate and serve in generous slices with ice cream.

Friday, 20 July 2007

You Can Have A Fishy On Ya Little Dishy

'The mackerel are in'. Anybody that lives near the coast may have heard these words uttered by excited men in pubs, streets and cafes. For some reason, even if you hate fishing and have never picked up a rod in your life, shoals of approaching mackerel still induces excitement. It is as if the aliens have landed. And people rush to the shoreline to see them approach. With handheld fishing lines and tin foil in hand, South Shields pier is full to the brim with men trying to catch a little fishy for their little dishy. Some slight exaggerations here, but I do love a bit of drama.

Mackerel are so delicious and so good for you. As well as being delicious and good for you, they are really easy to catch. They are so greedy and feed in such a frenzy that anything goes. So a piece of tin foil wrapped onto a hook is very effective. Drop it into the murky waters of the North Sea and dinner has been caught. Eat a mackerel as fresh as can be and you will benefit from unrivalled flavour for the price of a pot noodle. They are so cheap and plentiful at this time of the year, and that makes me a very happy man.

I leave the fishing to the experts and opt for my trustful fishmonger, the amazing Latimers of Whitburn. Fresh from the sea, eyes still winking and gills scarlet red, I need to get them quickly into a pan. So yesterday, I boiled up a few new potatoes and allowed them to cool. Sliced in half, I popped them into a pan with hot rapeseed oil, sliced mushrooms and a handful of frozen peas. Whilst they were crisping up, I made a simple dressing with a handful of capers, the juice of a lemon, more rapeseed oil and black pepper.

Vegetables cooked, I then piled them onto a plate with a handful of rocket. Fillets of mackerel, boned and seasoned, were then seared in the same pan for 2 minutes then placed on top of the vegetables. All that was left was a quick drizzle of the dressing and a quick, fresh and tasty tea of mackerel was served. Beautiful in all of its simplicity. The mackerel are in. Best get the tin foil at the ready.

Pan Fried Mackerel with New Potatoes, Mushrooms and Peas
Serves 2

2 mackerels, filleted, skin slashed and seasoned
10-15 of new potatoes (depending on how hungry you are), boiled and cooled and halved
2 handfuls of rocket
1 handful of frozen peas
2 handfuls of mushrooms, any, sliced in half
2 tbsp Rapeseed or olive oil

For the dressing
Juice of one lemon
A handful of capers, rinsed
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

1 - Make the dressing by combining all of the ingredients.
2 - Heat up a large frying pan. Add the potatoes and mushrooms and cook until golden. Add the peas and warm through with a little seasoning.
3 - Pile onto plates then scatter over the rocket.
4 - Heat up a little more oil then place the fillets skin down and cook for 2 minutes until crisp and golden. Flip and cook for a further minute.
5 - Place fillets onto the vegetables then drizzle over the dressing.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Battered and Bruised

There are several things in this world worth getting in a bit of a tiff about. Any form of bigotry and ignorance? Certainly. Slave labour, or any form of human suffering? Absolutely. People who park in front of you on a junction when you could have been ushered out? Perhaps. Describing a certain pudding as a 'sort of fruit flan'? Hmmmm. And apparently that is what the people of the Limousin region of France did some time back when the Académie Francaise had the audacity to describe their famous Clafoutis as a 'sort of fruit flan'. Brilliant.

I adore France in all of its self assured glory. The food and wine for obvious reasons. But it is the quirky side of France that often gets overlooked or classed as arrogance over here on our small island that makes me love them so much. Whenever I go to France, I immerse myself into their culture, eating, drinking and cooking like no tomorrow. And I have to do that rather conspicuously as my French tongue is terrible and I am easily spotted as a Channel intruder if I open my mouth. Just sitting in a cafe and listening to the constant hum of conversation and debate is what I do, and that makes me happy. And lets face the facts, the French do love a debate.

So what is it about the Clafoutis that the inhabitants of Limoges were getting so irate about? Of course, the Clafoutis is that dessert of simplicity and beauty that most great food is. A simple batter flavoured with a little almond, poured over fruit and baked so that the fruit rises with the batter and bursts its juice throughout. I love the stuff. A classic Clafoutis uses black cherries with the stones left in which adds to the flavour much in the same way an apricot kernel adds flavour. When the Académie Francaise were writing their definitions of all things French, they overlooked this small point and simply described it as a pudding that will take any old fruit. The French being the French, all hell broke loose and war almost took place. Thankfully the Académie Francaise saw sense and quickly re-described it as a 'cake with black cherries'. Phew. World War 3 averted then.

Anybody who needs to bake a simple pudding that will impress all without the need to break your back in the kitchen, this is the pudding for you. And at the risk of receiving death threats from the people of the Limousin region, I often make mine using raspberries, gooseberries, plums or damsons (stones removed to avoid teeth breakage). I also tweak the original recipe to get maximum almond flavour in by adding ground almonds to the batter mixture. Oh, and a vanilla pod. Basically, I experiment and make it my own. And with my new little sous chef, whisker extraordinaire and master fruit arranger in town, my daughter Cerys, we can all kinds of fun in the kitchen messing with a classic. Just don't utter a word to my friends over the Channel....

Cherry and Almond Bake
(or my tweaked Clafoutis)

25g butter
500g cherries, pitted (if you prefer, raspberries work perfectly too)
75g flour
50g ground almonds
50g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod (optional), split and seeded
3 eggs
300ml milk

1 – Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM4
2 – Butter a shallow baking dish and place the cherries onto the bottom.
3 – Put the flour, ground almonds and sugar into a large bowl and make a well in the centre.
4 – Put the eggs into a bowl and whisk. Then whisk in the milk and finally the vanilla seeds. Slowly pour the egg and milk mixture into the bowl and whisk thoroughly until you have a smooth batter.
5 – Pour the batter over the cherries. Place onto the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes or until the batter is risen and golden brown.
6 – Cool slightly then serve with cream or crème fraiche.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Vegetarian Crime Scene

A couple of vegetarian friends came over for dinner last week. Usually when I have guests over to eat, I don't have to worry too much about what I am cooking as most friends I have will eat absolutely anything. With my vegetarian friends however, I find myself thinking extremely hard to ensure I am not committing the 'feed a veggie' crimes that are committed in almost every eatery the length and breast of the U.K.. These crimes include the ubiquitous risotto, goats cheese, pasta or mushroom stroganoff that are often palmed off onto our long suffering non-meat eaters.

Vegetarian cuisine can be marvellous, and I truly think that the best way to dine a la veggie is to celebrate the best of seasonal vegetables in all of their simplicity and glory. I discovered the most fantastic vegetarian dish I have ever eaten called Turlu Turlu recently, and in my opinion, when it is cooked to perfection it almost makes you want to not ever eat meat again. I said 'almost'.

Turlu Turlu originates from Turkey and in its home country is served both as a main course or as an accompaniment to roast meats. It basically entails slowly roasting off any vegetable you care to roast, ones that improve with a good caramelising such as roots. So in my Turlu Turlu went baby turnips, fennel, aubergines, courgettes, beetroot, carrots, potato, onions and whole garlic cloves. A little dusting in mixed spice and a scattering of coriander seeds along with salt and pepper is all that is required to pick up the flavour. The sweet tomato sauce could not be simpler either. Roast off a load of cherry tomatoes and garlic cloves then blitz in a food processor. Tip in a tin of chickpeas and you have yourself the complete dish. A few homemade flatbreads make the meal even more impressive.

My friends were impressed and delighted, as well as relieved to see that I had not committed any veggie food crimes. And I had discovered a firm favourite in our household, a dish that can be changed throughout the seasons and one that takes no time at all. It is also an ideal way of preparing any vegetable that you are struggling to get your child to eat. Serving this up to my daughter means happy days, as she will consume anything that is smothered in the delicious sweet tomato sauce that accompanies it. Veggies, food crime committing restaurants and frustrated parents alike - introduce a little Turlu Turlu into your life, you won't regret it.

Turlu Turlu
Feeds 4

4 baby turnips, halved
3 large potatoes, cubed
1 onion, cut into eighths
6 whole garlic cloves
1 fennel bulb, quartered
1 beetroot, cubed
1 carrots, cut into thick diagonal slices
1 aubergine, halved then cut into thick slices
2 courgettes, cut into thick slices
1 tbsp whole coriander seeds
Half tsp allspice
3 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and pepper
Fresh coriander

For the sauce
1kg cherry tomatoes
3 whole garlic cloves
Rapeseed or olive oil
1 tin of chickpeas

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6.
2 - In a large roasting tin, combine all of the vegetables except for the courgette with the allspice, coriander seeds, salt and pepper and oil.
3 - In another roasting tin, combine the cherry tomatoes with the garlic and oil.
4 - Place both in the oven. Roast the cherry tomatoes for 30 minutes, remove then blitz to a sauce. Pour into a saucepan and keep aside.
5 - For the vegetables, roast for 20 minutes then turn. Roast for a further 20 minutes then put in the courgettes for a further 10 minutes roasting.
6 - Heat up the sauce, taste for seasoning then add the chickpeas.
7 - Serve a good mixture of the roasted vegetables with a good scattering of fresh coriander and a few spoonfuls of the sauce. For authenticity, drizzle on a little yoghurt which has been salted.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Fun At The Big Top

In my second consecutive and final self-indulgent posting of the week, I have to tell you about one of the best weekends I have ever had. I've literally just landed from Abingdon in Oxfordshire after performing at the aforementioned Children's Food Festival. I'm exhausted, aching all over, but ecstatic.

Mark and I arrived early Saturday morning under dark skies to a huge empty field surrounded by marquees of varying sizes. As we approached the site, it was clear which marquee we had - the one that could fit 1 man and his dog in at a squeeze. Used to performing in front of at least 150 children at one time, it was fair to say that we were brought back down to earth with a huge bang. But what a laugh about it we had, and in true Northern grit style, we buckled down and made the most of an absolutely superb event. With mouths as big as ours, as well as Mark's PA pumping out the beats, we were never going to struggle to achieve a bit of interest. With 6 shows planned of varying themes, we settled on our version of The Bush Tucker Trials as it proved so popular. The children loved the surprise element at turning over a cup to find some odd fruit or vegetable there that they had to eat. And although we never planned to ever put anything other than fruit and veg under the cups, I couldn't resist placing a huge black beetle under one of the cups on Sunday morning. All in all, we were more than chuffed with our shows, and proud to perform in our little tent to hopefully spread the love of what Mark and I do with Expo Chef. We achieved our aim of making food fun for the children, as well as making it easy, healthy and tasty.

As well as working hard, we just about found time to do a bit of investigating around the site. If anybody does not know about The Children's Food Festival, it was the first ever food festival designed specifically for children in the whole wide world! And that has to be a thing of greatness. As far as we could see, the organisers at Northmoor Trust did a wonderful job in making it brilliant for the kids. First of all, it was a free event. That meant that families from affluent and not so affluent areas could come and have a great day out. And some of the attractions were fantastically thought out. Special mention has to go to the travelling bands, the giant pig and the baby water buffalo. There were also a few stars of the food world performing, and cue self-indulgence, yours truly was proud to get a big hug and kiss from Sophie Grigson. You could not ask for a more approachable and likeable star and it made my day to meet the daughter of Jane Grigson, the one woman who is responsible for my obsession with British food. The great Mr Carluccio also got a big squeeze from me, what a legend. But there was one true star that towered above everybody at the event, and he even went out of his way to come and see me perform on Sunday. Step forward one Freddie of the Great Big Veg Challenge

Freddie came along with his parents and big sister Alex, and it is safe to say that I was genuinely chuffed to bits to see them all there, as well as lost for words a bit when I spotted them in the modest crowd. What Mark and I do at Expo Chef is to try and make a little change in children's lives via a better understanding of food and what it does to your body. It is a difficult challenge but one that we are passionate about and convinced we can achieve throughout the country by demonstrating tasty, easy and healthy food. If anybody epitomises the fact that children can change their opinions on healthy food and start to eat better, therefore making their life better, it is Freddie. Thanks for coming Freddie. Despite being a Chelsea fan, I truly think that you are a benchmark for kids all over the country. As well as big sis Alex who tells me she eats everything!

On the way home, I also popped in to see a lady who I have not seen since my emotional departure from MasterChef Goes Large – one Hannah Miles. In true Hannah style, I was cooked some superb food and made very welcome in her home. It was brilliant to catch up after all of this time and I can vouch for any fans of her cooking that it is indeed fabulous. Check out her Blog, it will make you feel happy.

Right, self-indulgence over. Time to switch off, catch up on some sleep and reflect on a fabulous weekend. Hats off again to the organisers who achieved an amazing weekend of fun and food for the children. I just hope that this is the start of many more, as getting children passionate and knowledgeable about food is the first step to getting a whole generation of amateur cooks on their way to a lifetime of happiness. We were honoured to perform at the World's first ever children's food festival. Back to normality and recipes tomorrow....

Thursday, 12 July 2007

The Children's Food Festival

Well, bit of a different post today, I've decided on a little bit of self indulgence and no recipe. I am now absent from technology for a good 4 or 5 days. I've dusted down the horse and cart, checked the map to see where 'down south' is and heading off on the road. For this weekend, it is The Children's Food Festival at Abingdon Airfield in Oxfordshire - and I can't wait.

Believe it or not, this weekend's Children's Food Festival is the first and only food festival dedicated to the interests of children. So plenty of fun to be had; sausage making, butter churning, smell and taste tests, farm animals including baby Buffalo, celebrity chefs such as Raymond Blanc and Prue Leith doing cooking classes to name a few. Oh, and Mark and I are there with our Expo Chef show! So we hope to have loads of fun and spread the word a bit with our unique show. We have one or two surprises up our sleeves so fingers crossed that the weather stays good and we can get a good crowd.

It has been a fantastic year working with children and teaching them a few basics with regards to simple, healthy and tasty food. As you can see by the photos which were taken at the fantastic What's Cooking event at Middlesbrough Town Hall last week, it is so much fun and blissfully inspiring. Working with food is making a change in people's lives and I see that day to day thanks to having the pleasure to be asked to participate in such superbly organised events. Children love to eat and cook, it is all about lighting that spark of enthusiasm. It is a million miles away from the affluence of the top end restaurant trade where I always thought that I would end up after MasterChef. And working with people is where I want to be, as it is about as satisfying as can be when you can instill a bit of confidence in a child, put a smile on their face and also hopefully make a change in their life.

Organisations like the Northmoor Trust who put The Children's Food Festival together need to be more commonplace in the U.K. and have more festivals of this nature up and down the country. How brilliant would it be if every child in the U.K. could reach such events and see how important it is to retain an interest in food for all of their lives? With a bit of effort and forward thought, I'm sure that day will eventually come. in the meantime, I'm proud as punch to be present this weekend. If you are going this weekend, we look forward to meeting you.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Ice Age 3

I had a big clear out of the freezer over the weekend. It is something I've got into the habit of doing in this past year of moving around. The amount of times I have discovered a Tupperware bowl filled with something unrecognisable with no date on, and it is so frustrating when I do. So I also label when I freeze and on the label goes the date as well as the item. All of this means for less waste and less build up of ice.

I don't know about you, but if I ever freeze meat portions, I always separate into different bags. Then you don't get a huge meaty ice block that takes forever to defrost. I must have made a mistake on this occasion as there, at the back of the freezer like some sad forgotten relic, was a huge chicken ice block. After defrosting I discovered 4 chicken breasts clumped together. With time and tiredness against me on Monday evening, I decided to make something I have never ever made before - chicken burgers.

Chicken burgers are not something that have ever made my gastronomic juices flow. They remind me of a particular cheap and nasty burger chain. But I thought, if I have some good free range chicken and I am in control of what goes in there, I could make something delicious. Could I? Experiment time began.

Into the food processor went the chicken. I always have a bag of breadcrumbs in the freezer made from left over stale bread, so a large handful of breadcrumbs and an egg went in. When using meat containing fat such as beef or lamb, I often omit this binding process but the lean chicken meat needed it. A handful of fresh basil were torn and thrown in along with a good splash of Worcestershire Sauce and a grating of Parmesan cheese. The zest and juice of a lemon would spark some much needed zing to the flavour, and a few splashes of Tabasco the much needed bite. A little olive oil and seasoning finished off the 'anything goes' mentality I was dangerously developing, then a few pulses of the blender combined everything neatly. With floured hands, I formed little patties and fried them off to crispy perfection in some rapeseed oil.

The result was a huge surprise. Packed into toasted wholemeal buns with a little mustard mayonnaise and salad, these delicious and moist burgers were packed full of flavour with the added bonus of being extremely healthy. We all loved them and decided that we would do them more often. I can safely say I have never been so pleasantly surprised by something I have created. I'm aware that this isn't the height of culinary experience, but when you have a family to feed and a chicken ice block hanging around, why not? Get pulsing.

Chicken Burgers
Makes 6 large burgers

4 chicken breasts
A large handful of breadcrumbs
1 whole egg
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
A handful of fresh basil
A splash of Tabasco sauce
A good grating of Parmesan cheese
A few splashes of Worcestershire Sauce
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and Pepper

1 - In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients on the pulse setting so that you have a well combined burger mix.
2 - With floured hands, form patties, then brown off in rapeseed or olive oil in a non-stick frying pan.
3 - Serve in toasted buns with salad and your choice of condiments.

Friday, 6 July 2007

A Not So Merry Watery Berry

It has now rained non-stop for the whole of June and July. Yet despite this monsoon, this glut of strawberries that are adorning our supermarkets and greengrocers appears to be never ending. Trying my best to alleviate the strawberry invasion, I've made lots of pots of jam, strawberry and custard tarts, endless smoothies, strawberry pavlovas, strawberry and yoghurt ice lollies and trays of them marinaded in vanilla and balsamic vinegar. It is safe to say that the strawberry has been a daily ingredient in our house.

My daughter continues her obsession with our native berry and seems un-phased by the amount of strawberry based dishes I am serving to her. And she can still win the 'pop as many strawberries in your mouth at one time' competition, even with a 2 and a half year old mouth. Truly staggering stuff.

I on the other hand am beginning to tire of them. I have never seen so many 'Buy 1 Get 1 Free' offers in my life. Most of them seem to come from Scotland of all places, and last week at Alnwick Farmer's Market I participated in a little taste test. We tasted strawberries from Scotland bought in a supermarket, the ones I have just mentioned, against some locally grown strawberries. The monsters from my beloved Scotland were watery and bland, whilst the smaller berries from Morpeth were sweet, bright red and packed with a punch. No competition, and no wonder the supermarkets can happily give away such grand offers. I know which ones I will be going for from now on.

Returning home with a couple of punnets of superior strawberries, I was disappointed to see that my wife had brought some of the Scottish giants home. Only one thing for them. No, not the bin. Just a few very quick miniature summer puddings, sweetened with a little honey and sharpened with some Balsamic vinegar. One of my favourite puddings and one that never fails to please my friends and family. It even restored my love of the strawberry, Scottish watery giants or not.

Quick Mini Summer Puddings
Made 4 mini summer puddings in my moulds but will differ according to yours

500g strawberries, cleaned, hulled and halved
100g honey
1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
10 slices of white bread, crusts removed

1 - In a pan, add the strawberries and honey and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes or so, until the fruit softens and releases its juices. Take off the heat and allow to cool slightly.
2 - Pour some of the fruit juices through a sieve into a bowl.
3 - Cut rounds of bread to fit the bottom of your pudding moulds. Dip the rounds into the juice and press into the moulds. Cut the rest of the bread into small slices and continue to dip and press into your moulds, overlapping each slightly, until they are covered.
4 - Pour in fruit and juice ensuring that you reserve some, then top with another piece of bread soaked bread, ensuring that it is sealed with bread. Place in the fridge until chilled.
5 - Tap onto plates or bowls and top with some of the reserved fruit, juice and creme fraiche.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Chicken Effect

Sunday roast chicken and the house is filled with that familiar smell that makes you instantly ravenous. When I cook, I immerse myself in the whole makeup of the meal. If it looks good and smells good, the chances are it will taste good. Roast chicken is up there with bacon and onions as one of the greatest smells known to mankind. Never mind them adverts where a certain fragrance 'effect' drives the opposite sex wild; Eau de Poulet aux Oignons et au Lard is the new smell of the century.

Last weekend, despite the downpour outside, I had summer in my mind. I had a lovely fresh Free Range chicken in the fridge, but I didn’t want to just roast it the usual way and serve it with traditional vegetables. Something hot, spicy and fresh that would remind us that summer was supposed to be here was called for.

A read of Margot's excellent Coffee and Vanilla Blog a few weeks back gave me an idea I always intended to do in one format or the other - Roasted Chicken in Smoked Paprika Gravy. I decided to take the Moroccan influence and expand it somewhat. So a spicy fruity stuffing was required, containing cinnamon and cumin, sultanas, honey, lemons, pistachios and almonds. The smell of the stuffing cooking alone was sublime. I was worried that the stuffing would be too loose and not hold together, but a pulse in the blender made an amazing sticky mass of fruit, spice and nuts. Perfect for stuffing the neck end with.

All that was left was a Paprika glaze for the chicken, consisting of olive oil, lemon juice, smoked sweet paprika and a little seasoning. I also had a couple of fennel bulbs that were rolled in the roasting oils and cooked in the same tray. After just 20 minutes in the oven, my house was lifting with those familiar smells of North African cuisine as well as the aniseed aroma of the fennel. Utterly fantastic and simply irresistible.

The finished article had my daughter asking, 'What’s that?’ as the blackened chicken was lifted out of the oven. It looked nothing like the traditional bird I serve up every few weeks. But carving into the spiced flesh opened up the most sumptuous of delights as the aroma of the fruit, nuts and spice hit you with force. It tasted fabulous and we all demolished it with fresh flatbreads and cous cous. A refreshing summer packed change to a familiar bird.

Moroccan Stuffed Chicken with Roasted Fennel

For the stuffing:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 small handful of pistachios
1 small handful of almonds
1 handful of sultanas
Zest and juice of one lemon
2 tbsp honey
Olive oil

For the glaze
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp smoked paprika
Juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper

2 fennel bulbs, quartered

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees C, GM 8
2 - In a pan, heat the olive oil then add the onions and garlic. Soften, then add the spices, fruit, nuts, lemon juice and honey and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool slightly then pulse in a blender until you have a sticky mass. Stuff the neck end of the chicken.
3 - Combine the olive oil, paprika, lemon juice and seasoning in a bowl, then massage into the chicken on a baking tray so that it is completely covered. Stuff a halved lemon into the cavity then place the chicken onto the middle shelf for 20 minutes.
4 - Turn down the heat to 180 degrees C, GM4. Roll the fennel in the juices in the tray and bake the chicken for a further 20 minutes per half kilo. For example, my chicken was 1.5 kilos, so i roasted it for 20 minutes at the higher temperature, then a further hour at the lower temperature.
5 - Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Make a quick sauce by deglazing the pan with a little water then stirring in some honey. Calve the meat with a slice of the stuffing and serve with cous cous, flatbreads and a good drizzle of the sweet, spicy and sticky sauce.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Short on Shortcakes - again....

I love to make biscuits. I can remember in the days before I had a clue how to cook thinking, 'How on earth do they make these delicious biscuits?'. Well, they are so easy. And as with the last post, you can get the little ones to join in too which makes for a lovely messy day in the kitchen whilst the heavens continue their downpour.

Here are my favourite commercial biscuits in no particular order; bourbons, shortcake, Garibaldi, chocolate digestives, anything with oats in, oh, any biscuit. I can't be bothered to list them as it would go on forever. I am one of those fools that could devour a whole packet over a large mug of tea. I'm a dunker. I have to resist finishing the packet each time. If I was on Big Brother, I would be evicted on that basis alone, never mind any other misdemeanours.

Commercial biscuits can be very good. But homemade can be sublime. Especially shortcakes, as I find commercial shortcakes to often be too floury or sugary. Adding a couple of different ingredients and experimenting can be great fun. Try pepper or chilli. Or cardamon and cinnamon. Fruit can be amazing with shortcakes, and these little beauties contain lemon and almond. Substitute the lemon with orange, the almonds with hazelnuts or walnuts. Do what you want, dunk them in your tea and be very proud and happy. There is something about eating your own biscuits that makes for a satisfying feeling of peace and tranquility. And as you made them yourself, nobody can complain too much if you eat the whole packet.

Lemon and Almond Shortcakes

100g butter
150g plain flour
50g ground almonds
25g sugar
Zest of one lemon

1 - In a large bowl, soften the butter with a good beat with a wooden spoon. Beat in the sugar until pale and fluffy. Mix in the flour, lemon zest and almonds and thoroughly combine to make a soft dough.
2 - Cut out a large piece of greaseproof paper. Place the dough into the centre then, roll the dough into a sausage shape right along the length of the paper, achieving approximately 3 inches in diameter. Wrap and chill for one hour.
3 - Pre-heat your oven to 170 degrees C, GM3.
4 - Take out the chilled dough, then cut into rounds roughly the same thickness as a pound coin. Place onto a buttered baking tray and bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until golden.
5 - Cool on a wire rack, then eat discreetly when nobody is looking. These are also fantastic with my lemon and praline cream pots.