Tag Archives: recipes

The rise of the tenuous celebrity chef

It has seemed of late, that when a celebrity has reached ego satiety from tv, film or tabloid, they will do one of two things. They will either enter Celebrity Masterchef, or they will write a cookbook. If it’s the former, then I will sigh in a slightly superior manner and take the opportunity to loathe Gregg Wallace a little more, but if it’s the latter, there will normally be anything from a slight hiss to a positive spit of rage.

Because who do these people think they are?

Ker-ching…

Take Sophie Dahl. Actually born Sophie Holloway, she opted to take her maternal surname (cannot imagine why), and has so far published two cookbooks with accompanying tv series. She’s a contributing editor for Waitrose Kitchen. I can’t argue with the fact that she can write (given her pedigree it’s hardly surprising), but can she cook? Uhhhm, no. Not really. Oh, you cry, but she went to Ballymaloe! And? Thousands of people have been to Ballymaloe, but that doesn’t make them equipped to teach the nation how to eat. It seemed to me that the main content of her first book was the flouncy introductions to her recipes, urging you to eat them by candlelight, your head resting on your beloved’s chest as soft piano music tinkled in the background. Did she mention she’s married to Jamie Cullum? And once your head is full of romantic notions of eating dimly lit prawn curry on top of a short jazz musician, are you actually going to notice the recipe is only really flavoured with curry powder? Obviously not, as some bright spark commissioned a second book.

And Gwyneth Paltrow. Just because she named her child after a fruit, it doesn’t mean we all want to eat her macrobiotic muffins. Stick to acting Gwynnie, it’s a rare gift for an American to produce a convincing British accent. Fay Ripley attracted my ire when she announced that she wanted to write a book to teach people how to feed their families. Well, that’s a lovely sentiment Fay, but why you? Do you have any authority on cooking? No? Oh, Cold Feet? Well, carry on then.

The latest offering to irritate me afresh is Gok Wan. The simpering lifestyle coach is about to appear in his own Channel 4 tv series about Chinese cookery, with a sparkly book to match. His credentials? Alright, they’re better than some, his father owned a Chinese restaurant. But looking through his book, there are almost as many pictures of him gurning with noodles, gurning with rice, gurning with potstickers as there are recipes. And do I really want someone with such a complex history with food telling me what to cook? I’m not sure I do.

Look good eating that naked and I might be impressed.

Now, you may rubbish me for having extreme professional jealousy, and to a certain extent you’d be right. It’s unbelievably frustrating watching talentless celebrities doing utterly predictable things with chicken, when it’s taken a lot of training and hard work to make me think I have any form of authority about cookery. It seems that because cooking is something that most people do, they feel entitled to share their opinions on it, and if they’re famous, this can mean globally. But it takes real skill to write a successful recipe, which most don’t have, and the upshot is a raft of failed dinners and disappointed consumers who were sucked in by the ‘Look, just look! You too could have my life if only you buy this book!’ of it all.

And before you judge any further, I have absolutely no jealousy towards the truly wonderful food writers and chefs that we’re also fortunate enough to have advising us – Nigel Slater, Diana Henry, Lucas Hollweg, Simon Hopkinson being just a few of my favourites. These people know their stuff, and you can trust their judgement implicitly because they’re not just in it to satisfy some whim for recognition in a different field to their norm.

So the next time Sophie Dahl looks like convincing you to eat something under the boughs of a blossom tree, or Gwyneth makes you think sugar is evil, or Gok Wan so much as opens his mouth, steel yourself, turn away and look to a respectable cookbook. Or, you know, you could always check out one of my recipes

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The trouble with chalet holidays

As an ex-chalet girl, I have my fair share of guilty secrets. I occasionally was not averse to cheating a little bit, knocking off ingredients here and there, leaving out a step, ‘forgetting’ to make the porridge, cleaning the bathroom with glass polish (it makes it shine without scrubbing). Anything that would give me a couple more hours out on the slopes. The minute the next set of guests stepped off the mini bus each week, they were no longer cheerful holiday makers, they were pests who were deliberately trying to ruin my life – harrassing me with fatuous questions like ‘how cold is it at the top?’ (I don’t know, I’m down here, making your scrambled eggs), or ‘so what do you do for a REAL job then?’ Grrr. One man, a company director in work time, even got me out of bed on my day off to request a lesson in how to turn the kettle on. The kettle was a Kenwood, imported from England at the start of the season. I never did find out which company he ran…

My lovely little chalet Myrtille

And yet, despite my moaning and underhand activities, I still consider myself to have been a pretty good chalet girl. The chalet always looked clean (I mean, you don’t really need to bleach the bath every day, do you?!) I was always cheerful and polite, albeit sometimes through gritted teeth, and I did put genuine care and pride into my food. Which is more than can be said for some of my colleagues, who let’s just say didn’t quite share my blossoming love of cookery.

There was the chalet boy who forgot to put any sugar in the lemon tart one evening, and when his guests winced, just plonked the bag of caster on the table with a spoon. There was a girl (later fired), who, not bothering to make dessert had grabbed a load of out of date yogurts that were sitting in her apartment, dished them out to guests, then remained blank faced as one lady choked on rancid salmon mousse. (A note to all prospective overseas workers…if you’re going to use shop bought, make sure you can read the language.) Another host I knew had told her chalet-holiday-virgin guests that they could only have starter and main course, or main course and pudding, but not all three. I remember something similar written in my school canteen…

My recent chalet holiday, it seems, was run by staff from the same school of customer service. And although I was given strict instructions from the boy not to be all ‘snobby food writer’ about the dinners, I reached my breaking point when everyone else was actually laughing out loud at them. Because, actually, I wasn’t being snobby food writer about it at all. I was being snobby ex-chalet girl.

The problem with the whole chalet system is that they employ young people who just want to ski, drink and kiss people. Sorry Mother, but it’s true. As a rule they’re not interested in whether or not their cream sauce has depth of flavour, or if their pannacottas set. And for some reason, most chalet companies insist on making their staff cook awful 80s dinner party food, peppered with outdated words like jus, tian and  assiette. One of our chalet girls had such trouble with the word pithivier I ended up butting in and telling the token veggie ‘it’s an aubergine pie’.

Do you seriously want these people touching your food?!

This all-fur-coat-and-no-knickers approach to the menus only exacerbates the problem of the Lacklustre Chef. Most hungover youths with a week’s cooking course behind them can knock up a pretty decent lasagne or pie, but cooking 25 duck breasts to pink perfection takes a bit of effort (and a vaguely clear head). And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t rather have a bowl of really good pasta at the end of a hard day skiing than a wizened, leathery old pork chop with a mint-infused, honeyed (insert pretentious term) watermelon salsa? Watermelon. In the Alps. Seriously.

So my idea is this. If and when food writing holds no more promise for me, I want to set up a chalet company that serves proper food. No jus, no bavarois, no poivrons farcis just delicious, unpretentious, proper food in generous portions, that hungry skiers look forward to sitting down to. And I promise to clean your bathrooms with bathroom cleaner, and not glass polish. Now, who would like to bankroll me?!

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Why does my food taste average?

I’m sure this has happened to most of us. You’ve eaten something somewhere, you’ve managed to get hold of the recipe, you follow it to the letter, but it just doesn’t taste as good. And why does that starter from the Hawksmoor cookbook not fill you with the joy it did when you ate it at Hawksmoor? What is Ottolenghi doing that you’re not? And HOW does the meringue roulade in the magazine look so wonderfully crispy and light, when yours looks more like a slug?

It's all about the beating

Well, it could be almost anything – different ingredients, wrong season, complete lack of talent, but here are some of the more obvious ones that a trained chef will do without thinking, but you might be surprised to read…

Seasoning

Now I know I harp on and on about this, but there’s a reason I’m writing it first. Seasoning is the building block of cookery – without salt, your food will taste bland. Period. If you’re cooking with meat, you should always season it while it’s still raw, before it’s even seen the heat. It will make a huge difference to the flavour that just can’t be achieved after it’s cooked. And remember to season everything, even down to salad dressing. My idea of a pinch of salt is a four-fingered pinch so be bold, buy some Maldon and throw it about with gusto. And take heart, my blood pressure is absolutely fine.

Onions

Don’t rush your onions. They’re nature’s sloths, they like to do things in their own good time. If a recipe tells you to cook onions until caramelised, it’s safe to say you’re going to be waiting for at least half an hour, maybe longer if you’re doing a big batch. Cook them low and slow, and use plenty of butter. Caramelised onions form the flavour base for so many dishes, and if you rush the beginnings, the finished product will never taste as good.

Garlic

Burnt garlic will taint an entire dish, so treat it with respect. If you’re putting it with an onion base, add it only a couple of minutes before you add the rest of the ingredients – it doesn’t need as long as an onion to cook, just a few minutes to take the raw edge off. Never add it to really hot oil, it will burn instantly and smell of sulphur. For a dish like garlic prawns or mushrooms, add it finely chopped just before you serve – the heat from the food will soften it, and it will taste perfect.

Stock

This one is make or break, the difference between a masterpiece and a finger painting. If you’re cooking anything that lists stock as a main ingredient (a broth, a rich casserole, a gravy), you need to use the proper stuff. Either you can make your own, by roasting bones then cooking them slowly covered in cold water brought up to a gentle simmer with onions, bay, carrots, celery and peppercorns for about 3-4 hours, or you can buy the fresh ones from supermarkets. Heston’s from Waitrose is fantastic, well worth the cash and a gorgeous dark colour. The M&S ones aren’t bad either, and if you’re really stuck, the Touch of Taste bouillon bottles are ok too. But use fresh if you can, if only just to make me happy.

Ingredients

This is basically a common sense issue, but it stands to reason that some asparagus that’s come over from Peru in the dead of winter is not going to taste as good as a freshly picked spear from Kent in May. If you’re confused about what’s in season when, there are tons of websites you can look at (my favourite being this one from River Cottage). Also make sure you’re buying the best you can afford of the everyday stuff. Value Cheddar isn’t going to be a patch on the mature farmhouse stuff. Although this works both ways – for example, cheap mozzarella is better than buffalo for pizzas – the buffalo goes watery – you want the rubbery brands for cooking, save the good stuff for eating raw.

Meat

This needs a whole post to itself really, but please please always buy the best meat you can afford. Battery farmed chickens, grown super quickly with hormones taste bland, slimy and dry. And then there’s all the welfare issues. Anyone who thinks chicken or pork are tasteless has obviously been buying the budget packs, and if you find your cottage pie or lasagne has a slightly rancid taste, it’s probably because you used cheap mince. With meat, you get what you pay for, so find your nearest Q-Guild butcher, and start up a beautiful relationship with him.

Beating

Don’t get too excited, I’m talking about with a whisk. As you know from my cake post, butter and sugar needs a lot of beating to realise its full potential, but beating is equally important for other puddings. For example, your meringues should be beaten to firm peaks before adding any sugar, and even then it should be added a tablespoon at a time, and the mixture beaten well in between each spoonful. It incorporates as much air as possible, and breaks the proteins down in the egg white so your meringue will be more stable while cooking. And if you think that sounds like too much effort, just think of all the good it’s doing your bingo wings…

 

 

 

 

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Cheesecake.

Everyone in our office loves cheesecake. They LOVE it. Like one might love a firstborn child. Alright, not that much, but certain members of the team have been known to yelp when I put a freshly baked cheesecake on the communal table. That’s a pretty strong reaction to a bit of Philly and some egg if you ask me.

Because I don’t really get the obsession with cheesecake. It’s very tasty, it can occasionally, possibly border on delicious, but I would never order it in a restaurant, and I would never make one for a dinner party. And yet, consumer research time and again tells us that people want cheesecake recipes. When we do a gallery of them on our website we get a massive spike in user traffic. Am I just completely unaware that the Holy Grail of puddings is staring me in the face?

The world, it seems, is also against me. Cheesecakes have been around since Ancient Greece, when the Romans nicked the recipe and started making theirs using a cheese similar to ricotta, sweetened with honey and usually shaped into loaves. The addition of flour to the mixture would have produced a heavier, drier style than the smooth confections we’re used to, but the idea was the same.

Our widely accepted version using Philadelphia was born when an American accidentally invented cream cheese while trying to re-create French Neufchatel. Later, James Kraft (recognise the surname?) invented pasteurised cream cheese, somebody decided to bake it with eggs and sugar, and the modern cheesecake was born. Latterly, people have gone a bit nuts with the flavourings, as the fashion for one-thing-that-tastes-like another has gained popularity. If you fancy whiling away half an hour in contemplative gluttony, check out The Cheesecake Factory’s menu to see what I’m talking about. My favourites so far are ‘Adam’s peanut butter cup fudge ripple’ (what?!), and their Low Carb selection. AS IF you’re worrying about your carbohydrate intake if you’re supping at The Cheesecake Factory…

But what is it about the cheesecake that is so irresistible? Is it the (buttery) biscuit base? That unspeakable trougher Gregg Wallace seems to enjoy it. Is it the sometimes smooth, sometimes curdy main bit that fills your mouth with sweetness at the same time as setting your teeth slightly on edge with an alkaline tang? Is it the topping – the melted chocolate, toasted nuts, fruit compote or (God forbid) peanut butter cups? Or is it simply the knowledge that you’re eating not one, not two, but up to six or seven fattening ingredients in one, sinful, ecstatic mouthful and you feel like a kid in a candy shop?! I suspect the latter has more to do with it than most of you would care to let on…

Alright, so maybe I'm pretty proud of this one...

And while I can’t claim to be whisked away on a cloud of cheesey dreaminess at the mere mention of the C-word, I can see why people love them. All the elements of taste are there. I just have little joy in making them – there’s not the same feeling of alchemy that comes from making cakes, not the sharp intake of breath at the spectacular finished article. I’m mainly worried about whether the damn thing’s going to crack or not. (By the way, I can find no reliable cure for this – sometimes it works if you put it straight in the fridge, sometimes it cracks anyway. I think it’s the cheesecake’s revenge on me for not giving it its proper respect.) But people love them, so I suppose that is enough of a reward for making them on a fairly regular basis. Cooking is all about selfless giving to others and all that. But I’d still rather have cake.

NB. Check out this video of Louis Armstrong extolling the virtues of cheesecake, courtesy of our lovely photographer Myles New. It’s hilarious.

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Consumer Research

Having recently been handed a load of research into recipe related search terms in google, I was quite surprised by what came up as being the most searched for. I knew chicken recipes would feature quite highly, as would pasta. But omelette? Ratatouille? Waldorf salad?! Does no one remember Fawlty Towers? It’s CELERY, APPLES, WALNUTS, GRAPES! In MAYONNAISE! Clearly people are cooking at home, but they’re not always cooking what I thought they were.

For instance, in the chicken recipe category butter chicken features rather highly up the scale above, for example, chicken and mushroom pie. But who, in all honesty wants to see first hand the volume of saturated fat that goes into butter chicken?! Once you’ve stepped through the frosted glass doors of The Bombay Star, you’ve made the decision that calorie content is not an issue that evening, but stirring rivers of butter into your supper is a different matter entirely. And it wasn’t just this takeaway staple that was high up the list – korma, masala, jalfrezi were all up there, along with chicken chow mein and lemon chicken from the Eastern contingent. Is there a whole generation of internet users who are trying to recreate the curry house and Chinese at home?

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make curries – in fact, I’m pleased that so many people want to make curry, because it’s not the easiest thing to make.  It requires time, patience, and a list of ingredients as long as your arm. We’re constantly concerned that people only want quick, on-the-table-before-you’ve-got-your-coat-off type food (Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals out-selling The Bible would suggest they do). But if people want to cook curry, then we clearly have nothing to worry about. And we have tons of curry recipes on the website, but we try very hard to make sure they’re not the sort of dishes you would get in your local tandoori.

I think this is where food writers are on a bit of a sticky wicket. We’re forever looking for the ‘twist’. You can’t do a roast chicken, everyone’s had roast chicken, you have to do roast chicken with sumac. Or anchovies. Or, oh I don’t know, plums? But what about just a plain old roast chicken recipe?

And lasagne. In my working life I’ve done recipes for lasagne with meatballs, lasagne with spinach and mushrooms, a gratin that looks suspiciously like a lasagne, and lasagne with Fontina and butternut. Should I have just done one with ragu, béchamel and mozzarella? I assumed most people would know how to make that, but then, if you only ever do a twist, how could they?

Lasagne or gratin? You decide.

So what would you like to see? Should we be re-inventing the wheel every month, or keeping it simple? What about a little bit of both? If we’re going to attract all types of cook then there has to be a balance, but if you’re a confident cook, would you get irritated by seeing an omelette recipe taking up space? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts. And maybe their lasagne recipes…

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Cooking with nuts

If you were to go looking through my hopelessly overcrowded freezer at home, you might be surprised by the number of packets of nuts in there. First, if you didn’t know that nuts could be frozen, they can, and second, I have so many of them because they’re so incredibly versatile. Think of any dish, and I could probably find a way of working nuts into it. Toasted macadamias tossed through a salad. Ground-up walnuts to thicken a Persian chicken stew. Chopped hazelnuts stirred through pasta with fried courgettes, or whole almonds coarsely ground in a fragrant orange blossom cake.

Nuts provide protein, natural fat, flavour and texture – they’re nature’s powerhouses that, unlike many superfoods, taste fantastic. I don’t think I’d be sprinkling goji berries liberally all over my supper. Alright, they’re not the cheapest adornment to your cookery, but they make such a difference, I really think it’s worth forking out for them. A Vietnamese salad loses a large part of its charm without its scattering of toasted peanuts, and I just don’t see the point of fruit cake if it’s not blanketed in sweet, sticky marzipan.

Of course, you’ve got to treat them properly. As a general rule nuts always taste better when toasted – it brings out the natural oils and gives them a rounded, less raw flavour. There are several ways to achieve this – you could place them in a dry pan and roll them around to stop them catching. This is the easiest option, but there’s a pretty large chance they’ll burn on one side. You could put them in a roasting tin in a medium oven for 10 minutes, which will toast them more evenly all over. If you’re going down this route, set a timer as I guarantee you’ll forget about them and they’ll end up black. Or, if you’re using them as a garnish and not an ingredient, you could heat a little oil in a frying pan and toast them in that – the oil distributes the heat so you get an even toasting, and also adds flavour.

If a recipe calls for them to be ground in a food processor, take care not to get carried away – whiz them too finely and you’ll push all the oil out which will leave you with a sticky lump instead of beautiful, fine crumbs. And always let them cool after toasting before grinding, to avoid the same thing happening.

Recipes using ground almonds, will be more delicious if you grind your own, rather than buying pre-ground. Doing it yourself means you can toast them first, and  control how far you take them  – leaving them mainly ground but still with a bit of texture will give you a cake with more bite and texture, and adding a couple of drops of almond extract will really enhance the flavour. As a general rule, you can substitute between half to 2/3 of a cake’s flour content for ground almonds, but add half a tsp of baking powder to the mix to counterbalance the heaviness.

 If you’re keeping open packets of nuts for longer than a few days, be aware they’ll go stale pretty quickly, and as anyone who’s delved into the bowls on the tables of an All Bar One will testify, stale nuts taste VILE. This is where the freezer comes in handy. Frozen nuts can be toasted straight from the freezer, but you probably won’t want to eat them untoasted once they’ve been defrosted.

And what’s my favourite nut? I really couldn’t pick. Almonds seem made for baking, whereas peanuts achieve their life’s purpose in peanut butter. A box of chocolates would be meaningless without hazelnut praline, and I can’t even imagine ice cream without pistachio. All of them work in salads, on yogurt, in muesli, and roasting a mix of them with honey, sea salt and thyme will give you one of the most moreish snacks on the planet. Just ask my father.

So my Ode to the Noble Nut is complete, and I’ll sign off by saying that if you don’t cook with them very often, this weekend please give it a go – there’s a very good chance you’ll become addicted. And since it’s Friday, and my mind is devoid of nut puns, I’m now going to invite your entries, with a mystery prize for the best one.

GO.

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The Secret Art of Pastry Making

 Since around this time of year, I reckon there’s a fair few people thinking about mince pies, I thought I would write something about pastry. It seems to be a lot of people’s cooking nemesis, and while I sympathise, I’ve also learnt a few tricks to make life that little bit easier. So read on, all ye who fear to bake, and I will try to enlighten you.

 First of all, there’s no hiding it but compared with throw-it-in-a-pan cooking, pastry is a nuisance. And while I stood in a 35C kitchen trying to roll a whole block of butter into my puff pastry for the Leiths final exam, fat melting everywhere as the sun streamed down, I pretty much vowed never to touch the stuff again. Certainly when I got my mark sheet back and they declared ‘good rise, but a little too greasy’ I felt like I might just give up altogether. But that was Leiths and their expectations of pastry are frankly impossible, not to mention totally impracticable. For us mere mortals, a lower standard of perfection will suffice.

So, a few good pointers. Mainly, it mustn’t get hot. This is essential, and really the best piece of advice I can give you. If in doubt, stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes, and avoid the temptation to knead it. It’s not bread, it’s not Playdough, so leave it alone. If you’re making shortcrust or puff (which is more hassle than it’s worth), you should chill the pastry once you’ve brought it all together  – it will make rolling it out much easier if it’s cold and firm. You should also chill it once it’s been shaped. It must always, always go into the oven cold – it is the butter melting in the oven and creating steam which, in shortcrust, will help it to stay tender and essentially, short, and with puff, will make it rise (and not be greasy…hmph.) And don’t think if you’ve used bought you can ignore all of this. It’s exactly the same principle, just without the initial mixing process.

Another very important point is that if you’re making pies, then the filling has to be cold when it goes in. A hot filling will melt the pastry, and anyone who has struggled trying to shape soggy, raw pastry will understand. Chill, chill and chill again. It will be worth it in the end. If you’re making a pie that has a bottom and a top shell, always use a metal tin, preferably with a removable bottom. Those ceramic things your granny gave you may look lovely, but they’ll never heat up enough to give you a crisp base and you’ll end up with a grey, flabby bottom. And nobody likes those…

And so on to blind baking. If anyone’s seen this in a recipe and wondered what it was all about, it simply means baking a pastry case before adding a filling. To do this, you have to weight it down otherwise it will balloon and you’ll be left with a very wonky base. Most cookbooks tell you to use baking parchment to line the pastry case before adding the baking beans (NB. These don’t have to be the proper ceramic beans that cookshops charge a fortune for – I’ve used rice, split peas, even flour very successfully – as long as it’s heavy enough and won’t melt you’ll be fine), but we always line ours with tin foil – you get a sharper right angle and the metal foil heats up and cooks the pastry from the outside too. Always use plenty of baking beans – a small scattering won’t do – the case needs to be almost full. Also, always leave an overhang of pastry rather than trimming it to exactly fit the case. Pastry can have a nasty habit of shrinking in the oven, and the overhang will mean that you’re not left with a case that’s only a cm high in some places. After blind baking trim the edges with a serrated knife flat on the edge of the tart. You’ll end up with a lovely, neat blunt edge. Very cheffy.

If the recipe tells you to blind bake something for 15 minutes, it will almost never be long enough. An 8-inch tart case will take at least 25 minutes on about 190C, plus another 10 minutes at 170C with the foil and beans removed. These are just estimates – so keep an eye on it, the pastry should be completely sandy coloured, with no grey patches. Once your pastry is cooked, if you want to be really fancy you could glaze the inside with some beaten egg yolk and return it to a low oven for 10 minutes to dry out – this will form a waterproof barrier, and make sure your pastry stays completely crisp and delicious. I would really recommend this with custard based fillings – quiches and lemon tarts especially.

So there you go, the Truefoodie Guide to Pastry Making in under 900 words. I realise all of the above sounds quite complicated, but I promise it isn’t once you get into the habit, and the difference in your results will be extraordinary. Just don’t try and make almond pastry. If the Roux brothers find it tricky, then the rest of us have no chance…

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