Sunday, 27 April 2008

A Taste Of The North

It isn't every day that you meet a hairy biker. No, I don't mean some random Hell's Angel with excess hair. I mean one of THE original and one and only Hairy Bikers, Mr Simon King. I was chuffed to bits to bump into Simon on Saturday as I was leaving my show at the Journal Taste North East England Food and Drink Festival at Gibside in Rowlands Gill. And what lovely bloke he is, every inch the warm and happy fella you see on their TV show.

The whole point of the day was to highlight what I have been singing about for ages now; that up here in the chilly North East, we have some amazing small producers supplying unbelievably good food and drink. Without sounding like the down-trodden northerner, I do think that we suffer a little when it comes to National recognition for great food and drink production. But thanks to The Journal, our flagship newspaper, the event was a huge success with thousands of people coming out to see what all the fuss was about.

I was first to present and I actually thought that the looming dark clouds and early start may have given me one man and a dog to present to. I was astounded to see a packed marquee full of food loving people who were happy to see me chirping on for half an hour. Young fennel and Seahouses kippers were the order of the day on a variation of my orange, mustard and saffron braised fennel. I love to see people smiling and realising how easy it is to cook something that may at first seem like a complicated recipe or a confusing taste combination. I was told that within an hour, my friend Sandy Higson of the brilliant Coquet Valley Preserves had sold out of her English Mustard with Newcastle Brown Ale. Happy days.

Here is a quick fish and fennel recipe that entails minimum fuss and maximum flavour. It is great with buttery boiled potatoes and greens. And if you see a Hairy Biker, one of the originals, give them a shout. You will be assured of a big cuddle and a warm smile.

Baked Mackerel with Fennel, Apple and Cider

Feeds 2

2 mackerels, filleted
1 fennel bulb, sliced thinly lengthways
2 apples, peeled and cut into slices
150ml dry cider
2 tbsp cider vinegar
25g butter
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, GM6.
2 - Put the cider and vinegar into a pan and bring to the boil.
3 - Layer the sliced fennel and apple into a small baking tray. Place the fillets on top, season with salt and pepper then pour on the hot cider and vinegar. Dot with butter, cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes.
4 - Remove and scatter with finely chopped fennel fronds.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

English Half English

“My breakfast was half English
and so am I you know
I had a plate of Marmite soldiers
washed down with a cappuccino
And I'll have a veggie curry about once a week
The next day I fry it up as "Bubble 'N' Squeak'
'Cause my appetite's half English
and I'm half English too”

Happy St George's Day everybody. I'm sure you are all wearing your red roses in your lapels today and can't wait to get out of work to get home and celebrate our National Day, probably with a few English ales, a traditional English meal followed by a rousing edition of Jerusalem. Methinks that this is not the case, for like many other traditions, us Brits seem to be forgetting what they are all about.

I still can't work out why we don't put more emphasis on St George's Day in England. We all don large pixie hats and do the jig to fiddle-based tunes whilst getting sloshed on the black stuff on St Patrick's Day. I've been there, despite not having an ounce of Irish in me. I just like to take advantage of the stout offers that are usually on in the local and I have been prone to the odd jig.

So why don't we bother too much on St George's Day? Is it because we don't have a huge multi-corporate stout company advertising it in every pub? Or is it because we are apparently losing our identity and a little pride? Or are we simply embarrassed to fly the white ensign in fear that it might look like an advert for the British Nationalist Party?

One of our national broadsheet writers condemned St George's Day last year, saying that it is too much of a flag waving celebration of Anglo Saxon survival and that it should embrace our modern multi-cultural society. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree; as much as I love the fact that we have embraced cultures into our country and subsequently improved and expanded our culinary desires; and as much as I deplore the far right element to some our flag bearers. I do think that a National Day should be just that; a day to celebrate our country and instil some pride back into it. For us to smile at each other, wish each other all the best and generally be happy about where we are from. I have to ask - what on earth is wrong with that?

I love people from all over the world and I take everybody as they come no matter what country they come from. But I am proud to be English and I have no problems telling people that. So celebrate our one and only National Day with pride, crack open a few real English ales or ciders and perhaps try my version of an English classic meal. As the one and only Billy Bragg once lamented, “Oh my country, Oh my country, Oh my country, What a beautiful country you are.” Happy St George's Day everybody.

Lamb's Liver and Bacon with Ale, Sage and Onion Gravy

Feeds 4

8 slices of good quality back bacon
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 large onion, peeled, halved and sliced
A handful of sage leaves, roughly torn
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
300g lamb's liver, cut into strips
3 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp English mustard powder
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
Half bottle of good English Ale, I used Jarrow Brewery Rivet catcher
100ml stock
1 tbsp English mustard
Salt and pepper

1 - In a large non-stick frying pan, heat up the oil. Cook the bacon for 2-3 minutes each side until crisp and golden. Put aside on kitchen paper.
2 - In the same pan, add the onions and sage and cook for 5-10 minutes until soft and golden. Add more oil if required. Put aside on kitchen paper.
3 - Mix the flour, mustard powder and a little seasoning together then drop in the liver. Ensure it is well coated.
4 - Heat up the oil in the pan and then add the liver. Cook for 2-3 minutes until golden all over. Return the onions to the pan and pour in the ale and stock. Bring quickly to the boil then simmer for a further 2-3 minutes. Stir in the English mustard and taste for seasoning.
5 - Serve with the slices of crisp bacon with buttery mashed potatoes and greens such as kale or broccoli.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

All Aboard The Choc Star Express!

It is post 200 for me today, so time for a bit of self indulgence. Hopefully you were all watching Channel 4 last month when they screened, what was in my opinion, one of the most interesting food shows I have ever seen - Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory.

The 4 part show followed the fortunes of the hard working, determined and charismatic Willie Harcourt-Cooze in his efforts to turn his passion into a dream. With a huge love for top quality chocolate, Willie buys a cacao farm in Venezuela and the show sees him turn the bean into the bar. Hugely entertaining, realistic and with loads of Willie's brilliant simple recipes, it was a proper Sunday night treat.

In one of the episodes, Willie was seen teaming up with a lady called Petra to try out some hot chocolate recipes and then see what the public thought of them. Petra's orange infused chocolate was the winner. And how surprised was I a few days later when that very Petra emailed me with details about her plans, asking me if I wanted to participate?! For Petra has her own business selling choccy delights in her amazing converted ice cream van Jimmy, AKA The Choc Star Express.

Petra has hit the road with Jimmy on a culinary adventure to see what the folks of Britain have to offer. It is a fantastic idea, one that will hopefully spawn the most alternative of travelling books, and I will be delighted when Petra hits the frozen North East next month and she becomes our lodger for the evening.

I implore you to check out her Blog which is detailing her diary of events on the road. Get in touch with her, join her Facebook group, encourage her and most of all, enjoy her brilliant humorous approach to life via her writing. The world would be an incredibly dull place without people like Petra. And in dedication to her, I've attempted one of her recipes that I asked her to send me. Needless to say, it was simply brilliant and as you can see, it passed the Cerys test with flying colours. In Petra's own words, "It's like a cold, crunchy, dark slice of truffle and very moreish and so easy". What more do we need? Choctastic. See you in May Petra.

Chocolate, Almond and Orange Terrine

300g chocolate, min 70%
250g unsalted butter
A few broken fingers of shortbread (or digestives if you prefer...or any crunchy biscuit)
100g caster sugar
2 eggs and 1 egg yolk
100g toasted flaked almonds
Grated zest of 2 oranges
A jolt of brandy (or Cointreau, or rum)

1 - Melt the chocolate in a bain marie with the butter.
2 - Whip the eggs together with the sugar - not too much but so they're well blended. Stir into the chocolate butter mix thoroughly.
3 - Stir in the broken biscuits, zest, almonds and booze. I also added a handful of glacier cherries.
4 - Pour into a medium loaf tin lined with good strong cling film and place in the freezer to set for a couple of hours.
5 - When you're ready to serve, remove from the freezer 10 minutes before, remove from the tin and peel off the cling film...and then slice that old rascal up.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Going Bananas for Bananas

I'm thinking about bananas a lot at the moment. I seem to want to use them in any sweet invention that I do. I think it all stemmed from the Skinny Banoffie Pie I did earlier this year, that superb combination of banana, toffee and cream. Bananas just seem to marry quite happily in a concoction of sweet things, with most of mine involving chocolate.

Knocking together a cake is pretty much a weekly task now, and most of them are like the equivalent of one of those 'bottom of the fridge' soups in which you use up a few things that have seen better days. That experimentation I talk about quite often is crucial to the development and confidence of the home cook. Stick with the basics then develop them with a bit of trial and error, the makings of most of even the greatest chefs.

This cake is a little like a banana loaf cake, a great 'cake' to start with for any budding baker as it is literally a cup of this and a cup of that. I've taken mine to a different level with the addition of some chocolate. I've also caramelised some bananas in honey which makes for a sumptuous, sticky and fragrant topping.

Sticky Banana and Chocolate Loaf Cake

6 bananas (3 ripe for the top, 3 not so ripe for the cake)
150g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
50g oats
100g honey
100g butter or low fat spread
2 eggs
100g chocolate, roughly chopped into small chunks

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3.
2 - Drizzle a little honey into a non-stick frying pan and heat up. Slice 3 of the bananas into diagonal 1cm chunks and cook until caramelised on both sides.
3 - Line a loaf or square tin with baking paper then line this with the caramelised bananas, pouring on any sticky caramel from the pan.
4 - Mash the 3 bananas in a bowl.
5 - Beat together the butter/margarine with the honey until pale, then beat in the eggs. Fold in the flour, oats, baking powder, bananas and chocolate.
6 - Pour this into the prepared loaf tin and bake on the middle shelf for 45-50 minutes. If it starts to go brown before cooking time is up, cover with a piece of baking paper.
7 - Remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Perfect as a dessert with cream or yoghurt or just with a good old cup of tea.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Identity Crisis

You need a curry fix every now and again. The chilli, ginger and garlic along with a myriad of spices seems to pick you up, clears the sinuses and makes you happy that we live in a multicultural society. We seem to have more passion for a curry over here in the United Kingdom than anywhere outside of India or Pakistan. Check the stats; the number one takeaway isn't fish and chips or pizza. It is a curry.

I've tried and tested so many curries over the years, especially when I moved to Yorkshire where my eyes were opened up to some true delicacies. Over time, I started to recognise what constituted a good and a bad curry, as opposed to the teen years of getting 'bladdered' in South Shields, stumbling into an Indian restaurant and ordering the hottest thing on the menu. Yes, times have moved on for me thankfully.

A curry appears on our family menu most weeks and I prefer to knock one up myself than order one in. I've got a few that I can turn to that take 10 minutes prep and 15-20 minutes cooking time, making it fresher and faster than the takeaway. If you have some garam masala, chilli, garlic and a tin of tomatoes in the cupboard, it is the basis for a whole host of curried delights.

With a few 'rules' broken during the cooking process, this curry isn't sure if it is from Thailand or India. But I reckon our Keralan friends in the south would be happy with it. Break some of these so called cooking rules, and you might be surprised at how good a simple, healthy home cooked 30 minute curry can be.

Aubergine, Cashew Nut and Coconut Curry

Feeds 2

1 aubergine
2 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
1 onion
1 thumb size of ginger
4 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
1 red chilli or a tbsp dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tin of coconut milk
A handful of cashew nuts
Fresh mint
Fresh coriander
1 lime (optional)
Salt and pepper

1 - Half the aubergine lengthways then slice each half into 1cm slices. Heat up the oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry them on each side until golden brown. Put onto kitchen paper and set aside.
2 - In a food processor, blitz the onion, ginger and garlic into a paste. If you don't have a food processor, just chop everything by hand, it will still be great.
3 - Heat up the oil in a pan and add the paste. Cook for 5-10 minutes until fragrant and beginning to colour.
4 - Add the garam masala and chilli and cook for a further minute. Add the coconut milk, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes until slightly reduced.
5 - Add the aubergine and cashew nuts and heat through. A squeeze of lime juice would be great. Taste for seasoning.
6 - Serve with boiled rice, chopped mint and coriander and some roughly chopped cashew nuts on top.

Monday, 7 April 2008


With spring supposedly here in the United Kingdom, the weekend saw a big freezer clear out to see what was left from the winter store. My wife, the list maker extraordinaire, loves these times as it means that she can draw up one of her famous lists and stick it onto the fridge. I know which job I prefer.

It is amazing what you can hoard into a domestic freezer. Ours is only small but there is still enough in there to provide several meals; bags of frozen fish, sorted so that I can instantly make my quick and easy fish pie; several tubs of puréed fruit and yoghurt ice; various curries and casseroles. The undisputed king of the freezer was the huge turkey leg left over from Christmas. It was taking over the whole of the middle shelf and it was time to put it to some use.

I find turkey legs a little tough if not braised rather than roasted. This soup, or broth, is adapted from one of my mother-in-law's recipes, one of those 'everything in the soup' recipes with a little refinement. And with a few herb and mustard suet-less dumplings bobbing on the top, the sorry looking left over leg became a memorable meal in a bowl. And freed up a whole tray in the freezer ready for the new summer hoard...

Turkey, Lentil and Orange Soup with Chive and Mustard Dumplings

Feeds 6

1 turkey leg, split into a thigh and drumstick
3 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery sticks, diced
A few thyme stalks, stripped of their leaves
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 tin of tomatoes
Zest and juice of 1 orange
500ml water
100g brown lentils
Salt and pepper

For the dumplings
150g self raising flour
75g butter or low fat spread
A handful of fresh chives, chopped
1 tbsp English mustard
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3.
2 - Heat the oil in a large casserole dish. Quickly brown the turkey leg all over then remove and keep aside.
3 - Add the bacon, onion, celery and carrot and cook for 10 minutes until beginning to colour.
4 - Stir in the thyme and garlic. Cook for a further minute then add the tomatoes. Return the turkey leg to the casserole and then pour in enough water to barely cover the leg. Stir, bring to the boil then place in the oven for 1 hour.
5 - Take out of the oven and stir in the lentils. Return to the oven and cook for a further 45 minutes.
6 - Remove from the oven and take out the turkey leg. Strip it of the meat and put this back into the casserole dish and stir through along with the orange zest and juice. Taste for seasoning.
7 - To make the dumplings, run together the butter and flour. Stir in the remaining ingredients along with a little water to form a soft dough. Roll into balls the size of golf balls and place onto the top of the soup. Put the lid on and place back into the oven for a further 15-20 minutes until the dumplings are puffed up and cooked through.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Mules To The Muffin

Up until the weekend, I had never made a muffin. I've eaten plenty of them, but for some reason, they have never been tinkered with in my kitchen. I don't mean the good old English muffin, that delicious yeast leavened breakfast bread which is amazing toasted with lots of butter. I mean that big old American import that you find in commercial coffee shops, usually speckled with burst blueberries.

Muffins are almost a healthier option to a cake. I say almost as there is still butter and sugar prevalent, but generally less than a standard cake. They often come with fruit, bran, oats or wholemeal too which ups the healthy stakes.
My little sous chef Cerys, getting more and more enthusiastic by the day, encouraged me to make some when I told her I had a few bananas going black. This is a sign to her that we are going to make a cake with them, but I explained the muffin to her and within minutes we were stirring away.

There is nothing to them, they are easier than making a cake, can be experimented with at will and ready in 30 minutes. The only problem is trying to not eat them all as soon as they come out of the oven, they are so good. We added some oats, bran, honey and walnuts and as you can see by one of the pictures, my sous chef appears to trying to steal one before I've even taken the photo. And deservedly so, as we had a hoot getting messy in the kitchen on another wet and windy North East weekend.

Banana, Honey and Oat Muffins
Makes 6

175g self raising flour
50g rolled oats
25g bran flakes, crushed
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
3 ripened bananas, mashed
2 large eggs
50g low fat spread or butter, your choice
100ml runny honey
100ml milk
A handful of walnuts, roughly chopped

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 190 degrees C, GM5.
2 - Sift the flour, baking powder and cinnamon into a bowl. Stir in the oats and bran flakes.
3 - Melt the butter. In another bowl, stir the eggs, butter, honey and milk together. Stir in the banana.
4 - Pour the wet mixture into the flour mixture and beat together with a wooden spoon. Don't worry if it looks lumpy, all will be fine. If the mixture seems a little dry, add a little more milk.
5 - Drop the mixture into greased muffin cases. Sprinkle on a few walnuts. Place onto the middle shelf and bake for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown.
6 - Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly on a wire rack. Eat whilst still warm, amazing.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Squash Up Please

As strange as it seems, I cook a butternut squash every single day. Yes, I'm well aware that it isn't always seasonal. But in my job as Expo Chef, I try to demonstrate to children how something as weird looking as a butternut squash can taste fantastic. 9 times out of 10 it works, and little Johnny, who otherwise thought something had dropped from the planet Zog into his school, is munching away like no tomorrow. And that is why I cook using a butternut squash every single day. It looks and feels weird. Lots of children don't know what it is. They decide it must be disgusting. I try to convince otherwise.

Over at The Great Big Vegetable Challenge, Charlotte has been having a version of this every day for the whole of young Freddie's life. Freddie hated vegetables, every single one of them. Charlotte decided to do something about it and looked to the world of Blogging for inspiration. Over a year has passed now and exciting things are happening in their household. For our Freddie, Expo Chef's unofficial mascot, is now a vegetable lover. So it works; inspiration, confidence and best of all, simple tasty food has won him over. Hooray! I cannot wait for the book to come out in July.

The current vegetable on trial is the Squash, and the Great Big Squash Up is challenging us all to come out with some yummy scrummy recipes that include the squash. There are loads of superb and bizarre looking squashes out there, and they are one of my favourite vegetables. Sweet, nutty, earthy and versatile to loads of cooking techniques; roast them, bake them, squash them.

As I cook using a butternut squash every day, I thought it pertinent to use one of them. This is a regional recipe adapted from the Cumbrian Tatty Pot. Similar to the Lancashire Hot Pot, it combines lamb, black pudding and vegetables which are slow cooked to melting deliciousness in a large pot. I've simply replaced the traditional potatoes with a squash and upped the flavour with lots of fresh thyme. It is simple, economical, unfussy, delicious down to earth food, the kind of food that I approve of. Let’s hope that Freddie, and all of you for that matter, approves of my Cumbrian Squashy Pot.

Cumbrian 'Squashy' Pot
Feeds a family with accompaniments

500g lamb shoulder, cubed
3 tbsp plain flour
Salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
A handful of fresh or dried thyme
2 small black or white puddings or a combination of both like I did, sliced
1 butternut squash, peeled, halved, deseeded and cut into 1cm slices
500ml of hot lamb or vegetable stock

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C, GM3.
2 - Coat the lamb with flour and a little seasoning.
3 - Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Add the lamb and onions and quickly cook until golden brown for 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the thyme.
4 - Take a casserole dish. Begin to layer, starting with butternut squash, then lamb and onions, then black pudding and finally a grinding of salt and pepper. Do another layer finishing with a layer of butternut squash.
5 - Pour in the hot stock until it is barely covered. Dot a few nobs of butter on the top, cover with a lid or foil and bake on the middle shelf for 2 hours.
6 - Remove the lid or foil and cook in the oven for a further 20-30 minutes or until the top begins to brown.
7 - Rest for 10 minutes then serve with greens.

Meatball Marinara

An unnamed high street food provider has a version of this on their menu. Meatball marinara: hot meatballs, tomato sauce and cheese stuffed ...