Ferret’s findings Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 

Five ferrety posts you may not have seen yet! Apart from a few relatively new posts that you may not have seen yet, take time to check out these vintage wonders that have been read only by a lucky few:

  1. Spice up your life! In which Ferret extols the virtues of ginger.
  2. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares! In which Ferret wonders how far the outbursts on this popular show are staged.
  3. Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy. In which Ferret muses over many deep foodie questions, including the criminality of pickiness and whether food critics’ views are really ‘truer’ than ours, or if they’re just more eloquent.
  4. Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s. In which Ferret visits this heartland of Southern American cuisine.
  5. Wake up and smell the coffee. In which Ferret sings the praises of its chosen coffee machine.

Time-travel back through the annals of FFW and enjoy 🙂

Celebrity chefs gather in Liverpool Friday, Aug 23 2013 

If you’re as much of a telly addict as me, then you’ll remember celebrity chefs Shelina Permalloo and Levi Roots from such shows as Masterchef and Dragon’s Den. Now, if you’re in the Liverpool area in a couple of weeks’ time, you’ll be able to meet them for yourself at the Liverpool Food Festival, which launches on the 7th and 8th of September. The launch weekend will include masterclasses and demonstrations not just from the famous foodies but also from several local chefs, and there should be something for everyone thanks to the diversity of events: an edible garden, street food corner and beer festival all feature.

What’s more, sign up to Guardian Extra and get 50% off the cost of a pass to the opening weekend, allowing you to pay a cool ÂŁ4.50 instead of ÂŁ9. That, to me, seems like blinding value for money. Markets and champagne marquees are also highlights, along with appearances from Gizzi Erskine and John Whaite on the Sunday. Failing that, if you can’t quite make the opening weekend, you have until September 15th to take advantage of the festival’s events and offers. I, meanwhile, will be paying homage to Levi and Shelina that weekend by cooking coconut and mango chicken, as well as sticky rice with mango, lime and papaya. I think they’d approve!

Masterchef, series 9 (episodes 12-14) Saturday, Apr 27 2013 

a sample of Louise's food

a sample of Louise’s food

I have NO idea where my beautifully crafted notes for Episode 12 have gone, but if I ever find them, I’ll tell you. Guy, Saira, Louise, Drew and Natalie feature, with Saira’s modesty being charming on a show where ego can at times be king. Saira, Louise and Natalie go through to the next stage.

 

Episode 13 sees James, Barry, Jo, Graeme, and Rachel pitted against each other. There was some scope in the invention test for a dessert, thanks to the inclusion of almond, apricot, ricotta and mint in the ingredients, but all contestants chose instead to use the pork fillet, meaning that more than ever they had to show that they had the skills to differentiate between home cooking and Masterchef cooking.

 

The degree to which the contestants were able to cook the pork well naturally varied. Graeme had the good sense to wrap the pork in pancetta, which kept moisture in. Rachel went down a similar route, wrapping the pork in prosciutto, but this didn’t work in her favour, as the pork was still overcooked in her case. Barry also did well to keep the meat moist, while Jo’s and James’ fillets both came out dry. Presentation also had its ups and downs, with Jo’s, Graeme’s and Rachel’s looking beautiful, James’ looking watery, and Barry’s looking amateurish. Great imagination was present in the contenders’ side dishes, with Jo serving a garlic and lemon mash (albeit an undercooked one) and a stunning apricot stuffing alongside, while Graeme’s fig, ricotta and olive salad also proved an excellent addition (although his patatas bravas lacked spice due to the limitations of ingredients on the bench). James and Rachel dared to be different with their respective tomato and basil and almond cream sauces, but neither worked well with the pork. Graeme and Barry seemed the strongest at this stage, with the others lagging behind.

 

The ensuing palate test saw the five contenders trying to recreate John Torode’s scallop and crab ravioli with spiced prawn sauce. The trick lay in the fact that the sauce was strained, and so had no prawn pieces in it to give the contestants a clue ; rice was also unconventionally used as a thickening agent. Contestants could make their own pasta, but didn’t have to. Graeme’s palate was the most impressive, while conversely, Rachel showed her lack of knowledge through essentially putting 5 lots of salt into the sauce thanks to her inclusion of soy sauce, fish sauce, tamarind and salt. Some contestants’ sauces looked nothing like John’s – creamy and herby rather than brown and translucent. Jo’s sauce was too orange and too spicy, but this was the only criticism. Equally, Graeme’s sauce was far too salty, but nothing else was criticised. Barry’s sauce was creamy and lacking in flavour, but he managed to produce excellent pasta. James and Rachel fared less well, however, with James’ pasta looking lacklustre and suffering from having split open ; in addition, the flavours were bland, and Rachel’s dish overall was completely different to what John produced. As a result, these two were asked to leave, with Graeme, Barry and Jo going to work at the Terrace Bar and Grill for the day.

 

After this, the three come back to cook, with Jo making a fillet of sea bass (served with fennel, kale, leeks, and a ginger, chilli and rhubarb sauce) as well as a Highland surf and turf, using venison and scallops as the main ingredients and carrots, turnips, and blackberries as complements. In the end, her starter didn’t look that appetising, with the fish too pale and big, and the sauce proving extremely pink (nearly to the point of luminosity). The rhubarb was almost lost in ginger and chilli, making the sea bass’ flavour completely undetectable, and the kale, too, did not prove a good match. As for her main course, the venison was grossly undercooked, and ultimately the combination did not work, with the delicate flavour of the scallops being completely overpowered by the rest of the plate.

 

All of this put her place in danger, and she was in the end asked to leave in the face of Barry and Graeme’s triumphs. While Graeme’s presentation was arguably slightly lacking, both dishes were still enjoyable and of high quality. His classic leek and potato soup was given a twist thanks to the addition of black pudding, and his monkfish and pancetta, served with a sweet and sour red pepper sauce, spinach, and tapenade, was also far from dull. Barry, too, stayed secure thanks to his main course of scallops served with pea purĂ©e and chorizo foam (even though the scallops needed more cooking), and despite presentation problems thanks to his messy, watery honey and black pepper sauce, his pan-fried duck with bok choi still held its own.

 

In Episode 14, Graeme and Barry cooked with Natalie, Louise and Saira for three previous Masterchef winners : Peter Bayless, Mat Follas, and Thomasina Miers. However, they were only asked to cook one course each this time, as there were five contestants in this round, which seems a little unfair given that there were only three people in others.

 

However, in this episode decision-making was easy. Natalie performed excellently with her pan-fried sea bass, fennel purĂ©e, crab bonbons, shaved fennel, and sauce vierge. Equally, Saira’s lamb bhuna with new potatoes, aubergine, tamarind chutney, tomato and onion salad, and crispy onion rice was judged stunning, even though it looked like a little too much on one plate for Masterchef. Even though Louise’s work seemed slightly rushed, her roast duck, served with wilted spinach, pommes purĂ©es, chanterelles, caramelized onions, pea purĂ©e and Madeira sauce made a traditional roast even more sophisticated.

 

However, while Graeme and Barry had good ideas, they weren’t able to bring them off in the end : Graeme’s duck breast was tough, his beetroot fondant was too hard (and the brie it was stuffed with added nothing), and his red wine sauce was insufficiently reduced. Only his potato rosti and parsnip purĂ©e came up for praise. Meanwhile, Barry also tried his hand at pan-fried sea bass, without being as successful as Natalie, with his red pepper broth pronounced overpoweringly sweet. His additions of asparagus, crab, chive and crushed potatoes also meant that the flavours didn’t work well together and the dish lacked unity – meaning that he and Graeme got sent home. Just in time for John and Gregg to step up the pace next week…

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.

Food TV Review: Weight Watchers – How They Make Their Millions Tuesday, Jan 29 2013 

the wedding day!

As you may already know, I’m a former adherent of the Weight Watchers programme. I turned to it to shed the extra pounds before my wedding, and to my mind, it worked: I think I lost around a stone in total, was able to shimmy into the most gorgeous dress I’ve ever worn in my life for the big day, and have kept most of the weight off in the (nearly) 2 years since I got married. So I was very interested to see what Dispatches would come up with in last night’s investigation into the world’s biggest weight loss company, which aired on Channel 4 and is now available to watch on 4od in case you missed it. Ironically, it appeared that in the spirit of things, Dispatches decided to do a “diet” version of its programme, which yesterday evening only lasted thirty minutes (most episodes of Dispatches last an hour). On the one hand, I was disappointed by this, as there was so much more scope for further investigation than this ultimately rather superficial episode allowed; but on the other hand, I was relieved, as it was possibly the worst episode of Dispatches I have ever seen. It was packed with spurious reasoning, and the slightly arrogant presenter Jane Moore seemed determined to find fault at every turn. This was obvious right down to her tone of voice in the voiceovers.

So what were the allegations exactly?

First up was the cost – firstly of the meetings, and then of the products themselves. Of course they didn’t talk to anyone who found that they got value for money out of the cost of membership, and their comparisons of Weight Watchers food product prices with ‘normal’ product prices missed the point also. All brands have different price points; Weight Watchers is no exception. Plus, as is mentioned in the programme but just as quickly glossed over, nobody has to buy the products: it’s perfectly possible to thrive on the plan without touching a single one, and the presenter herself admits that it’s laziness in calculating ProPoints values that drives her towards the Weight Watchers products during her week-long experiment with the system (more of which later). I admit that I have bought some Weight Watchers products in my time, and that they taste nice, but that as they can be a tad on the expensive side, I only buy them at Poundland at times when I know the same product would cost me more than this at a leading supermarket. Even if you don’t want to shop at Poundland, the programme also failed to mention that many supermarkets frequently have offers on Weight Watchers products, which increases value for money somewhat (at Tesco, for instance, you can buy any two Weight Watchers bread products for ÂŁ1.40 at present, which sounds a darn sight better than the 95p a loaf cited by Dispatches). In the end, too, the purchase of diet foodstuffs is just another of the many buying decisions we make each day. To my mind, people spend hideous amounts of money regularly on all kinds of stupid things, such as cigarettes, nightclubs, and jaw-dropping mobile phones – so who is anyone else to judge if a person wishes to pay a small premium for a multipack of Weight Watchers baked beans?

The sales structure of Weight Watchers also came under Dispatches’ scrutiny, with the idea of Weight Watchers staff being paid commission for product sales, signups, and even users’ weight loss amounts being criticized. This is no different to any other sales job (including Avon, where I used to work). In fact, many sales companies employ far more immoral tactics, and pay their employees far more for it (Weight Watchers staff make a modest average of ÂŁ27,000 a year). The criticism of these methods of making money seemed like little more than an anti-capitalist diatribe from the programme makers. The best part of the programme was perhaps the bit when Jane Moore didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for from a member of the public when she revealed the difference between the price of a Weight Watchers loaf and that of a Hovis loaf: he just shrugged and said something to the effect of “that’s marketing for you”. As mentioned above: if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay. Information abounds online about how to follow the programme without paying the monthly membership fee, the Weight Watchers cookbooks are accessible to all, and you don’t have to buy the food products.

Jane Moore with a selection of Weight Watchers products

Next it was the health value of the products that came under fire. While Haagen-Dazs ice cream was revealed to have only five or six quality natural ingredients, the Weight Watchers ice cream was shown to have a list of ingredients that looked more like a chemistry lesson. This is the case for most diet products, and no secret has ever been made of the sweeteners and chemicals that are pumped into such products to give them fewer calories while still delivering the same level of flavour. It’s also not as if Weight Watchers have ever claimed to produce fully natural products. Again, the Weight Watchers products are optional, as you can easily work out the points value of any food you wish to purchase thanks to the various methods of calculation available (I’ll come back to this). But in short: anybody who thought this was new information or was in any way shocked by it must have been living on Jupiter for the past few years. Plus, I’m betting that anybody following Weight Watchers probably isn’t famed for putting the purest of the pure into their bodies in the first place.

One of the aims of the Weight Watchers programme is that we do increase the healthiness of our diets. This message is emphasised in several ways: firstly, that most fruits and vegetables are zero points, so you can eat them in abundance. Secondly, the concept of the one-point snack is highlighted as a reasonable way to manage cravings when the munchies strike. Thirdly, there are several points calculators available so that you can see exactly how many points are in the food you want to consume. Once you’ve worked this out, you can then make an informed decision about whether or not you still wish to eat it. The electronic points calculators are greatly derided in the programme, mainly due to their cost of around ÂŁ10 – no mention at all is made of their efficacy. However, what the show also fails to mention is that free slide rules are distributed during Weight Watchers meetings. I have one of these and use it far more than the electronic calculator. It’s incredibly quick and simple to use, as well as being portable and discreet, so that you don’t feel like a weirdo when doing your food shopping. Arguably even more discreet is the free ProPoints mobile phone app, but naturally this is only given a passing mention by Dispatches. In the face of this, Jane Moore’s claim that the system is not easy to follow doesn’t stand up quite so well – especially given that her trial of the Weight Watchers programme was over in the blink of an eye with practically no analysis. This, along with the impression that she didn’t try very hard, makes her unconvincing.

Others interviewed for the programme also apparently failed to see the value behind the points system, figuring that you can’t be on such a system for the rest of your life and that such a system will not help you to make wiser dietary choices. Theoretically you could remain on the system indefinitely if you wanted to. But it’s as with the Weight Watchers products – nobody is asking you to. Plus, as anyone who has actually followed the system for a reasonable length of time is aware, it does encourage healthy choices, since (as mentioned previously) healthier foods contain fewer points. As someone who eats a lot normally, you’re focused on trying to get as much food out of your points as possible, and you quickly realise that you can do this by sticking to the lower-value (and thereby healthier) foods.

A further bone of contention lay in the fact that the NHS spends millions of pounds on sending people on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses, which are paid for by primary care trusts. Funnily enough, only the tabloid newspapers really seized on this with any fervour in Britain when this was made known to the public. It makes me wonder if people would feel better if the NHS went through a different diet company for its referrals: is it just Weight Watchers people love to hate, or the diet industry in general, or something else entirely? In addition, I feel it’s more profitable to spend money on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses for those who need them, rather than spending the same money on gastric bypass surgery, or treatment for obesity-related illnesses. Why not spend the money on giving people the chance to change before they need more severe and ultimately more costly treatment?

It’s true that the system is not easy to sustain long-term (say, for more than six months), and that’s probably why I’ve just joined the ranks of the guilty and signed up for a gym membership recently. However, no diet programme is easy to sustain for this amount of time, and it depends how much effort and commitment you are willing to show. I’ll put my hands up: I stopped putting in as much effort, and so I have put back on a little of the weight I initially lost. But this is like with anything in life: if you slacken your effort, it will show in your results. Studies of the effectiveness of the Weight Watchers programme show good short-term results – and to me this shows honesty, as most people will not attend the Weight Watchers meetings on a long-term basis (although I hear that you can attend for free forever as long as you stay within 5lb of your target weight), and individuals’ motivation after they cease to formally follow such a programme is very difficult to measure. Dispatches therefore blames Weight Watchers for individuals’ choices when discussing the apparent lack of long-term weight loss engendered by the system.

The studies are also criticized by Jane Moore and co for their lack of accessibility (of the 80 or so studies that have been done, only around 10 were available to the Oxford researcher featured in the programme), the presence of self-reporting in the studies, and the fact that some of the studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers themselves. Weight Watchers rebuts the first point by stating quite legitimately that journal access is governed by the journal publishers themselves, and that accessibility is therefore outside of their control. I believe this to be the case – but feel that to counteract doubt, they could surely arrange to make PDF copies of the studies more available after a certain period of time has passed. In terms of the second point, the reliability of self-reporting is going to pose problems with any kind of fieldwork, meaning that the same cracks could show up in other fields of research, rather than being unique to the Weight Watchers efficacy studies. Thirdly, Weight Watchers funded six out of the ten studies the Oxford researchers could access. While I can see how this may lead to the selective publication of positive results only, Weight Watchers was not the sole research fundraiser in any of these cases, so this is an unlikely outcome. Even if it were a likely outcome, they would not be the first brand to indulge in this practice: many high-profile beauty brands in particular are also extremely selective with which results they publish. I don’t condone this in any way – but mention it only to point out that Weight Watchers would hardly be alone in this. I also don’t believe that funding automatically has to equal bribery – but this is the conclusion that Dispatches leaps to.

It therefore dismays me that people may have watched this programme and been taken in by the ill-informed claims presented within its thirty-minute time slot. But all I can do is urge people to fully research any diet plan they may consider embarking upon, so that their decision can be balanced and considered. People will always have good experiences with a brand or product, and people will always have bad experiences with the same brand or product – but I’d like to think that the ability to help people make such choices is one of the main reasons why I started blogging, and why I still enjoy it.

As for my own use of the Weight Watchers programme, I’m not adhering to it strictly at present, but perhaps needless to say, I haven’t been put off it completely. My slide rule has already had one use this evening and the points book with the values of different foods is never too far away. And at the moment, I’m looking forward to March, which will bring with it my next trip to England, and Poundland – where I can stock up on batteries, toothpaste, and – you guessed it – Weight Watchers crisps.

Food TV Review: Exploring China Thursday, Aug 23 2012 

“You can have this,” my mum said during my last visit, sending a Ching-He Huang cookery book my way. “I hardly use it.”

Her loss is my gain, as I have not only been enjoying Ching’s recipes lately, heading to the depths of Paris’ 13th arrondissement in search of the trickier ingredients from the city’s Chinatown, but also enjoying her latest TV series, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, which I partly started watching due to recognising her name. Alongside the formidable grandaddy of Chinese cuisine in the West, Ken Hom, she has been exploring China’s different regional specialities, from picking tea in Yunnan to getting rained on in Sichuan.

Now that we’re three-quarters of the way through the series, it seems a good time to step back and analyse what they’ve accomplished. Have Ken and Ching, so far, achieved what they set out to do? As far as I can tell, their aim was to present a geographical cross-section of Chinese cuisine, recognising what each province has in common as well as what makes each place special. To my mind this has been achieved as far as is possible in what is only a four-hour series (the final episode will be aired on Sunday, with all of the others available for catch-up on iPlayer until September 2nd), and in that time they’ve crossed the country, from Beijing in the north-east, to Yunnan in the south (where China borders Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), and, lately, to the western Kashgar, which bears more similarity to neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan than to much of what we perceive to be Chinese. This has given an eye-opening view of just how diverse a country China is, showing tea-pickers, restaurateurs and halal butchers from all walks of life, demonstrating almost every conceivable type of cuisine.

However, Ching and Ken don’t just aim to break down China into digestible chunks. They also slip in a bit of history, allowing us to realise how phenomena such as the Silk Road and the Cultural Revolution have permeated every aspect of Chinese life, including its food. To this end, they as chefs try to understand the cuisine further, and come up with their own versions, hoping to innovate while still respecting and upholding tradition. In doing this, they repeatedly win the approval of their hosts – even if at times this approval comes Chinese-style (where “quite good” or “not bad” seems to be the equivalent of the American “fantastic”).

Ching and Ken also have personal reasons for undertaking this epic road trip. Having been born of Chinese parents, but raised variously in Chicago, South Africa, and the UK, they have a clearly keen and authentic interest in reconnecting with their roots. Speaking the language and cooking the food is one thing – but it’s perhaps another to be able to do that in the places and with the people where these traditions originated. Viewers have a feeling that for them, this is a genuinely personal journey – and this is bound to culminate in a truly emotive finale on Sunday night.

But what do the viewers gain? As well as giving these two talented chefs exposure, the programme educates in a really enthralling way. Not only are we given historical insight into this fascinating country in a non-patronising manner, we are also inspired to get into our kitchens, cook its food, and perhaps even visit it ourselves one day.

For us, the series has also had a perhaps unintended side effect: in the Chinese’s sometimes surly manner, suspicion of visitors and reluctance to compliment, and in the cuisine’s love of all bits of the animal and lashings of garlic, we in fact saw something that was intrinsically French.

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