Flavour fortnight, Scottish style Thursday, Aug 15 2013 

 

While staying at the French inlaws’ place this summer, and taking advantage of their TV (we don’t have one…everything we watch is online, baby), we enjoyed a most entertaining travel programme about Scotland (part of a series named Fourchette et sac à dos, or Fork and Backpack in English, or Gimme a fookin fork and let me deal with this in Scottish). In this, French TV presenter Julie Andrieu, who seemed most concerned about the state of her hair while on potentially messy activities (such as fishing), did a whistle-stop tour of all the Scottish clichés, including eating haggis and deep-fried Mars Bars, listening to readings of Robert Burns poetry, and attending the Highland Games. The culinary aspects of the experience attracted mixed reviews from the presenter: perhaps unsurprisingly, the haggis and fish and chips got a big thumbs up while the deep-fried Mars Bar got a big thumbs down (she didn’t even finish it…wimp).

But there’s more to Scottish cuisine than animal innards and fast-tracks to the emergency room. At the end of August, south-west Scotland will start its Flavour Fortnight – a food festival featuring artisan producers and hands-on foodie experiences. Commencing on August 31st and running until September 15th, the festival promises to feature everything from foraging to farmers’ markets. There should be something to suit all tastes and honour all traditions: a cider-making course with the country’s only traditional cider-maker will undoubtedly be a highlight.

With food festivals frequently centering on London and the south-east, this is a great chance for Scots to get involved in something just as good (and maybe even better!) on their own doorstep. I’d definitely be on the case of the Great Scottish Tablet hunt if it were me. OCH AYE.

Food TV Review: Masterchef series 9 (episode 2) Thursday, Mar 14 2013 

At the start of episode 2 of Masterchef series 9, we are confronted by four new contestants: Jez, Rob, Ingrid, and James. This is despite there being 50 contestants in this round, of which 5 already played yesterday, making us wonder how the show’s producers plan on spreading them out evenly over the initial stages.

The show began with a somewhat tricky invention test thanks to the inclusion of tofu, which is a bit of a beast to work with, and no meat. This somewhat fazed Jez, a flat-cap-wearing “meat and two veg” man, but pleased Ingrid, who was vegetarian for ten years and knew how to use it. She and Rob were able to use it successfully, with Jez’s attempt produced a blander result. James, on the other hand, bypassed the tofu completely and opted for a mushroom crêpe dish.

Middle Eastern magic from Ingrid

Middle Eastern magic from Ingrid

One element, however, that characterised all of the contestants’ dishes in this episode was the serious effort with presentation by all accounts. Presentation skills cannot, though, override the basics of cooking, as the palate test (which required them to make a pigeon wellington) proved: some contenders still needed further work on the importance of tasting, seasoning, the ability to make basic sauces, and the ability to cook meat well. It was this that got Rob sent home, while the others were sent to a professional restaurant to cook during the lunchtime service. This having gone well, they were then left to make their own dishes for Gregg Wallace and John Torode. The vast majority of them came up with exciting and original flavours and dishes, with Ingrid’s Middle Eastern dumplings with radish salad and beetroot raita being just one example of this. Jez fell behind in this respect, with results revealing that he, like Rob, also lacks basic skills in terms of cooking times and balance of seasoning, and his eviction was another good decision by the judges. However, as previous series have proven, they aren’t always right, so I won’t be holding my breath for consistently good decisions throughout the series. I’m also not holding my breath regarding the voiceover: India Fisher is in the unfortunate position of having to read out a sloppily-written script, with “lentil dhal” being today’s error. What other kind of dhal is there?!

Emily and Dale (from the previous show) then rejoined Ingrid and James to cook for three previous Masterchef champions – Steven Wallace, James Nathan, and Shelina Permalloo. This task was to be the decider for the semi-final, with each contestant cooking two courses. I’m not sure it’s right that entrance to the semi-final should be decided at this stage, as this means contenders are only competing within a very narrow group of people – it seems wrong to have 50 people in the running but to only compete against three of them for a semi-final place.

Nevertheless, this did not stop the contestants from rising to the challenge, with the two boys keeping it classic. Dale decided on a salmon fillet with butter bean cassoulet and Iberico ham, followed by a traditional tarte tatin with crème anglaise; meanwhile, James cooked a chocolate fondant with honey and chocolate chip cream for dessert, preceding this with a deconstructed fish pie (pollock with pollock mash and mussel cream). Neither lost their cool and it was this measured approach and skilful cooking that won them their places in the semi-final. Both attracted rave reviews from the three Masterchef winners as well as from Wallace and Torode. On screen, the dishes looked inspiring, and I don’t think I’ll be able to stop my husband from trying to make that deconstructed fish pie at home.

This round did not go so well for Ingrid and Emily, though. While Ingrid’s menu proved innovative and appealing, thanks to a combination of Indian flavours, there ultimately proved to be just too many mistakes for all of the judges. She lost her nerve slightly when preparing, and it ultimately showed. Even though her dhal was given the thumbs-up for consistency, it lacked a layering of spices, and her cumin lamb was verging on overcooked. Her chai masala tarte tatin was judged too wet and too sweet, and lacked the stick darkness of Dale’s. Her rosewater kulfi was also overly perfumed, and it seems a shame that such an inspiring menu appears to have fallen by the wayside in this manner.

The biggest disaster, though, belonged to Emily: her timing was way off, meaning she initially had to tell the judges her lamb would be late before then deciding she didn’t want to serve it after undercooking it and thinking she would not have time to recover. The judges are given her sauce to try, but even this doesn’t do well: the sauce was flavourful, but the rice was undercooked. Equally undercooked was her lime and chilli chocolate pot, which was also unbalanced in terms of flavour.

This in the end meant that the writing was on the wall. Emily was the first to be asked to leave the show, and unfortunately, due to her sequence of mistakes, Ingrid followed. I felt this to be slightly unfair, and believe that if Ingrid had been judged against a wider selection of the 50 contestants she would have gone through on this occasion. Her creative ideas mean that to my mind, she didn’t deserve to leave so early. Her strong personality and distinctive style mean that she would have been a unique new face on the celebrity chef scene, and hope that she does still manage to achieve some success in the field of food.

Food TV Review: Masterchef (series 9, episode 1) Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 

L-R: Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale, Claire

L-R: Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale, Claire

Another year, another series of Masterchef. I know some people feel, as with many reality TV shows, that after so many years the format has become stale and overly emotive. However, as I’ve only been watching it for 2 years (with this being the third), I’m still enjoying myself, and looking forward to another winner of the calibre of Thomasina Miers, Tim Anderson and Shelina Permalloo being discovered as a result of this process. With Thomasina now being firmly established as a cookery writer and presenter as well as proprietor of her own Mexican restaurant in London, and with Tim’s Japanese-inspired restaurant set to open in Shoreditch this spring, it’s perhaps fair to say that the winners of this show don’t fade into obscurity after their big win, with them genuinely able to capitalise on their love of food and newly-developed expertise after the show is over.

So what of the new series? The initial rounds appear to have been set up differently this year, with the first 50 contestants being split up into groups of 5. We then get to see one group of five per knockout-round show, enabling us to get to know them better even from day one. This Tuesday evening it was the turn of Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale and Claire. While Dale kept his cool throughout and managed to produce excellent food, and Emily’s sense of daring and natural cook’s palate impressed the judges, the other three made silly mistake on silly mistake, which saw them eliminated quickly.

Some aspects of the programme have remained the same for these initial rounds, with contenders being asked to cook dishes according to the whims based on the plate of ingredients set in front of them, with all contestants having the same ingredients in order to facilitate the judges’ comparisons later. A little bit of “freer” cooking is permitted towards the end of the episode, so the whole thing isn’t completely regimented.

There are also some interesting additions, with three of the five contestants being sent into a professional kitchen in the very first show. If I recall correctly, this did not happen before until much later in the selection process in previous series. However, it appears to be a good thing, as it gives contestants a chance to see if they can cope with the pressure early on, and to develop skills from a much earlier stage too. The palate test is another worthy segment of the programme, with John Torode cooking a dish, allowing the contestants to taste it and pick up on as many of the ingredients it contains as possible, and with the contestants then finally being given all of the ingredients (plus a few false friends to deliberately throw them) and being asked to cook the same dish themselves without a recipe. This not only shows whether the contenders have a natural cook’s brain, but also whether their tastebuds’ perceptions can be translated into practice.

My only criticism would be India Fisher, the BBC’s choice of voiceover artist. To my mind, it makes no sense to have someone doing the voiceover for a food show when they clearly have gaps in their knowledge. Sorry to be anal, but it’s pronounced “crem patissiAIR”, not “crem patisserEE”, and the little pieces of bacon are just “lardons”, not “bacon lardons” (as opposed to what? Banana lardons? Fish lardons? You cannot have lardons made from any other ingredient!). Sadly I suspect that we are stuck with her for the whole series – but if that’s the only thing that’s wrong, then let the good times roll.

Luxurious lunches Tuesday, Mar 12 2013 

As does much of the nation, I love the Hairy Bikers and their budget-conscious yet quality-focused approach to food, as well as their witty banter and general horsing around on TV. I’ve also very much enjoyed their recently-concluded series, Everyday Gourmets, thanks to its usual blend of mouthwatering recipes, human interest, and humour.

However, episode 5, entitled Luxury Lunches, riled me a little. Why? Because it barely took account of ordinary people’s lunch hours. Even though the recipes looked lovely, for the vast majority there was no way of preparing them and transporting them adequately or having enough time to eat them (in the sense that you could probably shovel them down, but you wouldn’t have time to enjoy them).

My lunch hour usually looks like this. I get out of my lesson at 1.00pm if I’m lucky (I’m a teacher). By ‘unlucky’, I mean I’ve had to keep a student behind, ask a colleague a vital question that cannot wait, or chase up some necessary paperwork. That, or you get embroiled in various odds and sods, such as having to tidy your box when everything’s just fallen out of it (again). So realistically by the time I hit the kitchen it’s between 1.05pm and 1.20pm. You then have to wait your turn to use the kettle or microwave, taking into account the fact that you can’t use both microwaves AND the kettle simultaneously in my workplace unless you want to blow the fuse box. Then you have to actually sit down and eat your lunch once you’ve had a chance to heat it up (cold lunches don’t do it for me, sorry), bearing in mind that you only have until 1.45pm in my workplace. Very occasionally I buy lunch, which means the time spent standing around to heat up lunch is often replaced by the time it takes to go out and fetch it. So at best you have about 40 minutes to eat lunch, and at worst you have about 25 (I have some colleagues who skip lunch altogether, but I’m not that much of a martyr), including waiting/heating/food-buying time.

So the hirsute duo’s suggestions of, among other dishes, spiced fillet of lamb in filo pastry, pan-fried pheasant breast, and salmon gravlax with gin, are just not that practical for lunchtime. Dishes that require such thought and skill deserve to be savoured, which you can’t necessarily do in 25 minutes. Plus, they are usually going to depreciate in quality if eaten the day after they’ve been made (and after a spell in the microwave to boot).

However, we all want inspiring lunches, and while I feel that the bikers could have made more of this in their show, I decided to take a look and see if any of the recipes from the Luxury Lunches episodes (and a few others from the series) could be adapted in some way for workplace lunching. Happily, some solutions were found! Try them out for yourself:

  • The gazpacho hispaniola can be stored in a flask once cooled and served directly from there – all you need to do is bring your own bowl. With no reheating required, it’s perfect for summer. Bring a ziplock bag of croutons as well if you like.
  • The bikers’ summer berry cheesecake can still be enjoyed as a dessert at work: just make mini versions in small ramekins, and ditch the sugar nest that you see in the picture. Cheesecakes are, of course, perfectly adapted for making in advance, and are portable too. Put foil over the top of the ramekin to protect it during your commute – or, even better, a shower cap swiped from your latest hotel stay! (Nobody actually uses shower caps for showering, do they?!)
  • Also perfectly designed for the purpose of work lunch is their Eastern spiced shepherd’s pie: you’ve got all your food groups in one box, and shepherd’s pie is one of those dishes that doesn’t suffer at all from being reheated.
  • Use any leftover salmon gravlax with gin to make a gourmet sandwich with a mini baguette. Dress with lemon juice, black pepper, fresh coriander and fresh dill, plus green salad leaves, and you’ll have a blinding sandwich that all your workmates will envy.
  • Make the pork, leek and apricot pie for Sunday tea, and there’s nothing to stop you taking leftovers into work for your lunch on Monday. Instead of serving the jelly on the side as the bikers do, cut down the meat mixture inside the pie and pour the jelly into the extra space as you would with a normal pie. This will add extra portability. You can even reheat this one if you like 🙂
  • Those supermarket rice sachets are great for jazzing up leftovers – basics ones are fine if you’re tightening your purse strings. The hairy bikers’ beef chilli with bitter chocolate, spiced pulled pork, and Thai vegetable curry can all be popped into a box and then mixed with a heated rice sachet later. All should be eaten hot, which suits me perfectly.
  • For something even easier, the lemon and thyme pork schnitzel can just be boxed up with the bikers’ potato salad and reheated all in one shot.
  • And for the easiest lunches of all, the bikers have made a great selection of finger food in this series. A slice of roast vegetable and goat cheese tart, or a serving of gyoza or kofte, can be eaten warm or cold and don’t even require cutlery.

I appreciate that the bikers’ food looks even better on a plate. However, I now feel even more encouraged to know that from this series alone, there are plenty of their recipes that will taste just as good from Tupperware, and add a little luxury to my lunchtime.

The Little Paris Kitchen…in St-Germain-en-Laye Friday, Mar 30 2012 

We’ve been glued these past two weeks to new series The Little Paris Kitchen, starring Rachel Khoo, who opened Paris’ tiny restaurant in her very own studio flat in the 19th arrondissement. Even though the restaurant is now sadly closed so Rachel can work on other projects (like this TV show!), she clearly still loves Paris (after coming to France to study at the Cordon Bleu cookery school, she is still here 6 years later) and delights in taking advantage of the freshest ingredients and in getting to know local dishes (before putting her own twist on them, of course).

One of those “traditional-with-a-twist” recipes featured on her show so far is the recipe for croque-madame muffins. Croque madame is basically a ham and cheese toastie with an egg on top, and in Rachel’s version, the entire crunchy cheesy melty goodness is packed into muffin tins and served as a dinky snack (although in Paris it’s typically more of a lunchtime thing to eat croque-madame, we made these to expand on our English breakfast one morning!).

Even though I plan to buy Rachel’s book in due course, I have to admit that I did copy this recipe down using her commentary in the programme, as we just couldn’t wait to try it straight away. Here’s Rachel’s attempt on the left, and here’s ours on the right.

Not bad eh? Proves the recipes are really quite idiot proof, and you can try them yourself at home as a taster of her cooking by following my directions below (shamelessly copied off iPlayer):

To begin, take as many slices of white bread as you are making muffins (so 6 slices for 6 muffins). Cut off the crusts then flatten them with a rolling pin (you can flatten multiple slices simultaneously by stacking them or by laying them side by side. Brush them with melted butter (you’ll need about 2tbsp butter for 6 slices) and then squash into a muffin tin any way they’ll fit (a silicone tin is best).

Preheat the oven to 180°C while you make the filling. Cut ham into generously-sized pieces and cover the bottom layer of your “bread muffin case” with ham (not too many layers now! You need all the space you can get).

Croque madame muffins, St-Germain-en-Laye style.

Make a béchamel sauce using 2tbsp butter, 1tbsp flour, and 200ml milk, whisking constantly and adding the milk gradually to avoid lumps. Add salt, pepper, and a small amount of nutmeg and mustard to flavour the sauce. Set aside.

Next, take one egg per muffin. Crack each egg carefully over a cup or small bowl to allow some of the white to drain out. This is because if you leave all the white in the egg then the muffin will be overfull. Put the yolk and remaining white of the egg into the bread muffin case, then cover with béchamel sauce.

Finally, grate over some Cheddar or Comté, and put into the oven for 15 minutes if you like your egg soft/runny. Add an extra 5 minutes for a firmer egg. To this end, don’t leave your muffins in the tin once cooked, as they will continue cooking! Remove all the muffins from the muffin tins the moment they are cooked and put onto plates (the best method of removing them is to take two tablespoons and make a sort of “claw” with them with which you can lift the muffins to safety and deliciousness).

Et voilà!! A tasty, (semi-)healthy and definitely filling snack for any time of day 🙂  Now to go and buy the book…