Thursday, 29 May 2008

Sloe Dive

Last winter I decided to make my own sloe gin. After stumbling across a few blackthorn bushes in local woodland, literally 300 yards from my home, my wife and I decided to risk permanent scarring for the sake of our favourite tipple. 8 months on, we are still enjoying our efforts, but the demi john had to be emptied for use elsewhere which left me with a bit of a dilemma; what was I to do with the hundreds of gin swollen berries?

If you have ever tasted a sloe berry picked fresh from a bush, you are unlikely to forget the experience. They are so acrid that just one nibble and your mouth seizes up into a dry mass. Horrendous. Quite how such a nasty tasting berry infuses gin with sensuous tastes and smells is beyond me but the miracle does happen. The process also takes away any lingering bitterness in the berry and what you are left with is a pleasant, sweet and chewy berry with the exception of a large stone.

I guessed that the delicious left over’s would be more suited to a boozy cake than the compost heap. What I didn't guess was one hour of stone picking which has left me with stained fingers (if you can't be bothered with this, steep some currants and sultanas in gin overnight to replace). The resulting cake was worth all of the effort though. Moist and crumbly, heady and sensuous with the unmistakeable hit of sloe gin with each mouthful. One to hide from the nipper but one for us adults to indulge in for a lovely alternative take on a typical fruit cake. We ate ours with chilled shots of sloe gin, and the memories of this unexpected invention will linger long after the stains in my fingers are gone come sloe picking time at the end of the year. Dive in.

Sloe Berry Loaf Cake


75g Demerara sugar
75g muscovado sugar
150g butter or margarine (I actually used low fat marg and it was perfect!)
200g sloe berries from home made sloe gin, stones removed
Half tsp cinnamon
A grating of nutmeg
A pinch of ground cloves
A small glass of sloe gin
150g self raising flour
50g ground almonds
2 eggs

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3. Butter and line a medium loaf tin.
2 - Put the sugars, butter, berries and spices into a pan and gently heat until melted and well combined. Let it cool a little.
3 - Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Tip in the ground almonds and pour in the contents of the pan. Stir thoroughly until combined.
4 - Crack in the eggs and beat in until combined. Finally, stir in the gin.
5 - Pour into the prepared loaf tin, sprinkle with a little Demerara sugar and bake on the middle shelf for 50-60 minutes.
6 - Allow to cool slightly then turn onto a wire rack. This cake will keep well wrapped in shrink wrap and foil for 3-4 weeks and will improve with age.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

All Around The World

Take 200 primary school kids. Put them in a hall. Get a chef along to try and get them all to eat food from around the world, such as Thai fishcakes, curry and paella. Let madness commence as 200 primary kids first of all shout, 'eeeurghhh', in unison. Then try to control 200 kids as they all clamour to devour the food. This is just a snapshot of my working life as Expo Chef. And how I love it.

Yesterday I was asked to do a World Food Day at a primary school in Gateshead. It is challenging enough trying to inspire and encourage young children to eat the right things without the school requesting a handful of recipes that stretch the globe. But what a laugh we had. Judging by the empty plates at the end, the food that most of them had never had before was a new and welcome taste to them all. Happy days indeed.

My Caribbean bananas were, surprise surprise, probably the favourite, especially amongst the nursery kids. It is a 5 minute dessert and there are two versions; one for the adults with a good splash of rum in there, and one for the kids of course without. Give it a go. An incredibly simple no fuss dessert, 5 ingredients, that banana lovers will adore. What ever you do though, don't invite 200 kids to your house when you make them...

Caribbean Bananas

Feeds 2

2 bananas
6 tbsp honey
1 lime
A good splash of dark rum
A handful of sultanas

1 - Pour the honey into a large non-stick frying pan. Bring to the boil.
2 - Split the bananas lengthways with their skins still on and place cut side down into the honey. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
3 - Remove the bananas and place cut side up onto a serving dish. The flesh should have turned all golden and caramelised.
4 - Grate a little of the lime zest into the honey and squeeze in the lime juice. Add the rum and sultanas and bring to the boil. You may want to add more honey.
5 - Pour over the bananas and serve with crème fraiche or yoghurt.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Chocka Bloc

It has to be a special day when an ice cream van parks right outside your house. Especially when that ice cream van is the travelling Choc Star containing the one and only Petra and her collection of chocolate related goodies. This weekend, South Tyneside was Petra's stop off on her monumental tour of Britain and we welcomed her with open arms, especially as she had a Choc Star style pudding in tow! Cerys was besides herself with excitement to see an ice cream van right outside of her house, and with a free ice cream given to her inside the beast with chocolate sauce poured all over it, this was about as good as it gets for a 3 year old.

If you haven't been checking out her adventures, Petra has decided to pack her bags and tour this gallant land in an effort to get inside the real chocolate loving Britain. With a different stop off each day, Petra and the Choc Star (AKA Jimmy) have been having the most amazing gastronomic adventure, meeting amazing characters and sampling foodstuffs of different styles.

And what do we get for offering her a bed and meal? Well, a superb pudding for one. But best of all for us was to finally meet Petra who is one of the most interesting people we have had the pleasure to meet. What she is doing is the stuff that dreams are made of and if I had the time and less commitment, I would love to do something like this. It must be so interesting finding out about people, the real people and the true reflection of this land. I guess you have to be a people person, and Petra is definitely that.

I decided to put out a bit of a Greek and Turkish combination of dishes along with flatbreads. One of the favourite dishes was a roast beetroot, chard and caper concoction. Simple and tasty, just how I like it. Then Petra dished out the best chocolate mousse cake we have ever eaten, especially as it was made using Willy of Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory fame Venezuelan Black 100% pure cacao. Sensational.

So bon voyage Petra and Jimmy, and we cannot wait to see you back in these parts for the Choc Star Tour Part 2!

Roast Beetroot, Chard and Caper Salad
Serves 4 as an accompaniment or 2 as a main course

6 whole beetroot, peeled and cut into quarters
2 tbsp olive oil
4 handfuls of Swiss chard, cut up roughly

For the dressing
2 tbsp capers, rinsed
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
A handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
Salt and Pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6.
2 - Place the beetroot into an oven tray and toss with the olive oil. Roast for 30-40 minutes until tender and beginning to colour.
3 - Wash the chard and with the water that clings to it, place into a hot pan or wok. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring regularly until wilted.
4 - Combine the beetroot and chard in a serving dish. Mix together the dressing ingredients and pour all over the vegetables.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A Humble Pie

Sometimes in restaurants, there are descriptions for meals that just don't ring true. 'Essence of Crab with a Toasted Seaweed Foam', or 'A Pippin of Grape Granita and Liver Sundae', for example. Well, you get the picture. Sometimes an unnecessary use of French words are packed into a description. It all makes me feel uneasy, as if the chef is trying to hide something. Culinary insecurity I call it.

With two cabbages in my fridge, delivered in the weekly box in a desperate attempt to use up the space left void from a lack of seasonal vegetables, I had to get them used. I've seen recipes for Russian cabbage pies before and often wanted to have a tweak with the recipe in my head. But I have a problem with that description; cabbage pie. It just doesn't sound appetising enough.

When I told my wife and daughter what they were getting for tea, it was met with both shock and disgust. And who could blame them? I had conjured up an image of some overcooked cabbage with its sulphurous sloppiness slithering out of a pie crust. So I began to think of elaborate names that could hide the fact that it was cabbage pie; 'Brassica Surprise', 'Spring Green Greeting in a Crust' and 'Le Chou a Emballé dans la Pâtisserie de Beurre', were a few of the best that came to mind. I was suffering from culinary insecurity.

The resulting pie was far from disgusting. Onion seeds helped bring out the natural sweetness of a fresh spring cabbage. A pinch of chilli and plenty of black pepper gave a welcome heat. I put smoked bacon into mine which, well, added smokiness (vegetarians, leave out the bacon and you will still love it). And it was all bound together in strong Cheddar and eggs within a flaky shortcrust. After one bite, my previously disgusted daughter announced, 'Daddy, this pie is soooooooooooo good!'. And that was enough for any culinary insecurity to rapidly disappear, and for us all to eat the most surprisingly delicious of humble pies.

Cabbage Pie

1 quantity of shortcrust pastry
6 new potatoes, cut into small cubes
1 onion, halved and sliced
2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
4 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
2 small spring cabbages, shredded thinly
1 tbsp black onion seeds
A pinch of chilli flakes
Salt and pepper
4 eggs
100g strong cheddar cheese, grated

1 - Re-heat the oven to 180 degrees C, GM4.
2 - Line a pie dish with some of the pastry, leaving enough for a lid. Line with baking paper and fill with baking beans. Blind bake for 15 minutes.
3 - Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the potato, onion and bacon. Cook for 10 minutes or so until golden brown. Tip into a bowl and set aside.
4 - Add the cabbage to the pan along with the onion seeds, chilli and seasoning. Pour in a little water and cook for 5 minutes until wilted and the water has evaporated. Tip in with the potato, onion and bacon.
5 - In another bowl, mix together the eggs and cheese. Mix in with the vegetables and bacon then pour into the blind baked pastry case.
6 - Roll out the remaining pastry to fit the pie dish. Dampen the edges with beaten egg then lay the pastry on top. Crimp around the edges with a fork or your thumb then trim off the excess pastry. Push a hole or two into the top with a knife then brush with beaten egg. Bake on the middle shelf for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.
7 - Allow to cool slightly then serve still warm with a simple salad.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Do It Now, Say It Now

They say that sometimes it is best to strike while the iron is hot. In other words, act before the opportunity has passed by. In this instance, I am striking while the grill is still hot and writing this whilst the crumbs are still on my lips. For I have found a leftover revelation and I must share it now.

It doesn't take me much to get happy and giddy about food, be it a recipe or an ingredient discovery. The more simple and tasty, the more animated I become, hoping to prove that simple, easy and rustic is the way forward. Hey, it is all I can do!

I adore Welsh Rarebit, or posh cheese on toast, that combination of cheese and beer that grills to golden perfection, a common snack in our household. Looking at the tired leeks at the bottom of my fridge, nestling alongside yesterday's roast chicken scraps, gave me an idea. An even posher posh cheese on toast! So here you have it. Hot, beer tinged spicy mustardy roast bubbling delight. Hungry yet? And excuse my enthusiasm. But if you decide to make it, you might see what all of the fuss is about.

Roast Leek and Chicken Rarebit
Serves 2

2 medium leeks, halved, trimmed and sliced into 1cm chunks
1 tbsp fresh or dried thyme, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
25g butter
25g plain flour
100ml beer
150g strong Cheddar cheese
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp English mustard (I used the superb Coquet Valley Preserves mustard with Newcastle Brown Ale, seriously, source some)
A couple of handfuls of leftover roast chicken, shredded
Salt and pepper
4 thick slices of wholemeal bread

1 - Heat up the grill to high.
2 - Heat up the oil in a pan and gently cook the leeks until soft and beginning to colour. Keep aside.
3 - Melt the butter in a pan and add the flour. Stir for 1 minute then gradually add the beer until you have a thick beer-like roux.
4 - Stir in the cheese, egg yolk and mustard. Season with a little pepper, it won't need much salt due to the cheese. Stir in the leeks and chicken.
5 - Toast one side of the bread, turn then pile on the mixture. Cook under the hot grill until golden and bubbly. Serve with the leftover ale.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Touch The Heart

Have you ever eaten a starter in a restaurant and thought how content you would be to just have more of the starter? You know, something so delicious and moreish that you want more and then probably want to go home and make more? Indian starters spring to mind; every time I eat at an Indian restaurant, I go overboard on the delicious starters and then can't finish the main, secretly thinking that I wished I had just had a huge plate of starters.

The Chinese dim sum, a selection of small light dishes, are another example with one particular dim sum really getting my mouth watering; Chinese dumplings. Especially the ones that are all crispy on the bottom and light and juicy at the top. Although I indulge myself in most foods in my own kitchen, I had never attempted to make these before until I came across a certain Lizzie of the brilliant Lizzie Eats London.

Lizzie is new to this world of food blogging and her very first entry had me excited, as it was a simple recipe for the very dumplings that I adore but had no clue how to make. I made a couple of small changes to Lizzie's recipe and I was surprised at how incredibly simple they were to make. It made for probably the most memorable meal my wife and I have eaten this year. The best bit about it was having a huge amount of them to eat as a main course as opposed to the 4 or 5 you usually get in a restaurant. A dozen each to be precise. I served mine with a simple enoki mushroom, bok choy and pomegranate salad. Oh, and dim sum means 'Touch The Heart' in Cantonese. These certainly did. Cheers Lizzie.

Pork and Crab Chinese Dumplings

Makes 20-24 dumplings

For the dough
150g plain flour
Water

For the filling
75g minced pork
75g white crab meat (tinned is fine if you can't get fresh)
3 spring onions, finely sliced
1 thumb size of ginger, finely grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
A handful each of coriander and mint, finely chopped
A squeeze of lime juice
1 egg white
1 tsp corn flour
Salt and pepper

Vegetable oil

1 - Tip the flour into a bowl with a little salt and pepper. Pour in water and stir until it comes together to form a stiff dough. Knead for a minute, wrap in clingfilm and leave aside.
2 - For the filling, mix together all of the ingredients in a bowl.
3 - On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a thin sausage. Cut off pieces and roll them all into little balls.
4 - Roll each ball into a circle approximately 4 inches in diameter. Don't worry if they are thin, it will work.
5 - Place teaspoons of the mixture into the middle of each circle of dough. Bring up the edges to meet each other and crimp together roughly until they form little parcels with a flat surface.
6 - Pour a little vegetable oil into a non-stick frying pan. Cooking in batches, add the dumplings to the hot oil and cook for 1 minute. Then pour in a little water and place on the lid. Steam for 7-8 minutes, checking to see that the water isn't boiling dry.
7 - Remove and serve with a simple dipping sauce of sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds and a green salad of fried mushrooms, sliced bok choy, pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. Delicious.