Friday, 19 December 2014

The Food Urchin Top Ten Foodstuffs Wot I Have Eaten And Drunk Or Cooked With In 2014

Yes, it's that time of year when lots of people who made their lists and checked it twice (working out who has been pleasant or not) and got all their Christmas shopping done weeks ago, can now sit back and smugly get on with the business of making merry.

However, some people out there will still be trying to figure what on earth they are going to buy for their partners and are anxiously glancing back and forth at pieces of paper (not to mention the calendar and the clock). Many will be currently at desks across the land, scanning screens furiously, emitting the occasional slow, foreboding yelp of fear as one by one delivery slots close and fancy looking dresses sell out. A few will begin to cry and take solace in the humble art of procrastination.

Because if you can't finish a list, it is always better to move on and make another list. At least then you can feel like you are actually doing something. Rather than nothing at all.

Which is why I am writing this list now! And so welcome to The Food Urchin Top Ten Foodstuffs Wot I Have Eaten And Drunk Or Cooked With In 2014 list. A collection of fine goods, meats, boozes and sensational seasonings that have impressed the most throughout the last year; coupled with a brief, witty appraisal.

I suspect this won't be the last list I put up on here either......

10 - Squirrel

I know what you are going to say - "Oh bore off baldy, with yer frigging rodent cooking, like a one-trick pony." But of course I had to put squirrel in here somewhere, largely because I had so much fun cooking with it. And plus the twins scored muchos kudos points in the playground when they told their friends what they ate last night. If you haven't tried it, you should. Gamey, sweet, lean, free-range meat. What is there not to like?

9 - unearthed Goose Rillettes (and gin)

I fell in love with unearthed's original pork rillettes a while ago now and you would be hard pressed to beat a small tub of sumptuous shredded piggy, to smear on a wedge of bread, whilst popping a cornichon or two into your mouth. But then those food explorers went and found goose rillettes. Similar in style but with a greater depth of flavour, this stuff is amazing and saved my life after a poxy day at work. The gin helped too.

8 - Baconnaise

Let's face it, anything that is labelled as 'vegetarian' and paired with 'bacon' doesn't normally come within a gnats' fart of tasting like the real thing and to be really honest, Baconnaise doesn't either. BUT this jar of artifice does still taste very good, in it's own peculiar way. Imagine Frazzles, in mayonnaise form. See, they doesn't sound too bad at all does it. Especially when dolloped on a burger. Given to me by a noodle enthusiast who has far too much food in her own house.

7 - Avocados

Don't feign surprise at this healthy inclusion, I don't eat crap all the time you know but I have to say this, I never thought I would grow to love avocados as much as I do now. Rammed with vitamins, minerals, acids and 'good' fats, I now regularly fork up a ripe beauty (mixed with lime and chilli) for a sensational spread for my hot toast in the morning. Thus helping me to leave the house with a spring in my step. Still not sure about using it in ice cream though.

6 - Bay

Is bay the unheralded super hero of the kitchen? The backbone, the stalwart, the simple essence that can change a good dish into an amazing one? I think it is and I have been using bay more and more in my cooking and the biggest hit of the year came when I threw it into the pot with some pears, lemon and marsala under the guidance of food writer Diana Henry. The resulting pudding was beautiful and that was largely down to the subtle, slightly peppery wink from the bay. Expect news of a fan club forming soon.

5 - Elderflowers

For ages now, I have always fancied making elderflower champagne, so when the blossom.....um blossomed in May this year (it was early) I leapt into a neighbouring field with a black bin liner and went into a wild frenzy of picking. A few buckets filled with water, lemon and sugar later, followed by swift decanting into plastic bottles through a pair of old tights and boom, we very quickly had our own fizz. This is sooo easy to make and delicious to drink. Shame it's not that alcofrolic but hey ho.

4 - Peckham Jerk

'Do not use Peckham Jerk marinade and stick your finger in your eye afterwards.' Helen Graves could well do with putting some sort of warning on the jar. But then again, I suspect that she never expected for people to rub their eyelids after smothering a whole chicken with the stuff, with their bare hands. So I can't really blame her and despite the OWFUGGGINHELL! this stuff truly transformed a BBQ in the summer. With many a guest marveling at the intense, fruity heat, all whilst pointing and laughing at my face.

3 - Innis and Gunn

I HATE seeing disclaimers on blogs but *sigh* disclaimer, Innis and Gunn have been sending me regular crates of their delicious, wonderful beer throughout the year to sample and lord help me, I love them for it. The beers have varied in style and substance. Some dark and rich. Some crisp and refreshing. Mostly all very alcoholic but not to the detriment of flavour. I have also cooked a far bit with it. An amazing brewery, that does amazing things with beer. And for purposes of balance, SABMiller wanted to do something similar and send me some of their lager. I told them to f*ck off.

2 - Rib of beef

Look at that. Just look at that. How can you look at that and not love it. Unless you is vegan. But yes, fore rib  has smashed into the top ten this year. Overtaking pork. Outsmarting lamb. Sticking a toe up the backside of duck. And that is all down to this lump of beef, sourced in Hereford, cooked in Hereford and eaten in Hereford at a birthday party. Lightly seasoned and roasted in a Weber with a firm crust on the outside and lovely pink within. It was gorgeous (after a thorough resting) and it is the reason why we are having this for Christmas dinner this year and not turkey

1 - Viking Smoked Salt from SousChef

Dun-da-da-dun-dun-daaaaaaaah! Yes, here it is! THE best thing we have used in well EVERYTHING in the kitchen this year. Half the year I mean. I picked some up at Sous Chef's Christmas show in July and the first sprinkling was scattered over a pair of fried eggs, on hot toast, and well, it transformed the whole plate. Absolutely bloody amazing and a small pinch goes a long, long way on meat, fish, baked spuds, cornflakes, whatever you fancy really. The reasoning behind the name does still allude me. I am not entirely sure whether any actual vikings were smoked during the process but to be honest, I couldn't give a fig. It maybe too late for Christmas to order some in but make sure you get this on your table for 2015. It will change your life.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Clerkenwell Kitchen, London.


Lunch today had pie and mash written all over it. I'd seen a tweet featuring a blackboard with "Pie and mash" scrawled snazzily across it and the minute I stepped outside onto the pavement and felt an icy, portentous wind whistle through my legs, I thought to myself - 'Oooh yeah, I am going to go and have a nice crusty pie, filled with soft braised beef, luxurious gravy, seconded with a creamy, fluffy dollop of mash." And so off I waltzed, down the street, legs-a-popping out sideways and heels-a-clicking like a veritable Dick Van Dyke. I always walk like that when it gets cold, gets the blood circulating you see. I even had a little rumba going off in my head like this: PIE AND MASH, CHA-CHA-CHA. PIE AND MASH, CHA-CHA-CHA. PIE AND MASH, CHA-CHA-CHA.

Such was my excitement.

Unfortunately, when I got to Clerkenwell Kitchen, my chosen destination for repast, I discovered that that pie and mash was in fact, on yesterday's menu and not today's and that I had been gawping at an old tweet and..........well you can picture the scene can't you. 

My heart sank and my bottom lip jutted outwards; the clouds gathered and unleashed a deluge; and a small dog trotted past my ankles and took a piss on my newly polished shoes. An imaginary dog that is. Imaginary rain too because I was standing inside. But yes, I felt totally bummed out when I realised that I was not going to be eating pie and mash for lunch today. So much so that I absentmindedly dropped my imaginary maracas on the floor. 

However, the great thing about Clerkenwell Kitchen is that the food in there is always pretty damn good and that blackboard, which gets refreshed everyday, had some delectable new options to choose from. Like duck hash with a fried egg and my god, it was lovely. On the plate it represented a simple mess really. Of crushed spuds, caramelised red onion, some sliced greenery, some gorgeously sharp chopped cornichons and of course, a decent shredding of warm, fatty duck meat. All topped with an egg, fried to crispy-edged perfection whilst still saving a silky slick of yolk in the centre. It was more than lovely actually and more than made up for the absence of pie. And mash. My pudding was very pleasing to eat too. A wedge of sweet and bitter lemon ricotta cake with a handsome dollop of roast plum, very lightly spiced.

I've popped into this quiet, unassuming gem a few times now when I've been up that London for work and have always come away happy. Cuttlefish stew, courgette and Parmesan tart and thick door step sandwiches, crammed with pork, crackling and apple sauce are just some of the delights I've sampled there and if you ever find yourself in the area (Clerkenwell that is, the clue is in the name) I heartily recommend you go there for some fantastically cheap, well-sourced, lovingly cooked, honest grub. 

I hate saying things like that about food though. 'Honest grub' sounds a bit twee, a bit daft and good food never lies. And I very nearly accused the guys at Clerkenwell Kitchen of doing just that today, of lying.

"YOU BLOODY WELL SAID YOU WERE SERVING PIE AND MASH TODAY!" I very nearly said.

But I am glad I kept my gob firmly shut when ordering at the till and ended up shoveling that beautiful duck hash into my mouth instead.



Monday, 1 December 2014

Lamb Stock

It shames and pains me to admit this but lately I have become far too reliant on pre-made stock pots, flavour shots and plastic sachets of meat slop. Don't get me wrong, they do have a place in the store cupboard and can get you out of a tight squeeze. A majestic meal of bangers and mash was very nearly ruined recently, for fear of having nowt moist to pour over it. But thankfully I had a little bucket of K-norr beef gloop tucked away and with the addition of some dried onions (now this is something you should always have to hand) I was able to knock up an onion gravy that was very nearly fit for King. Very nearly indeed.

I would like to get back into the habit of making my own stock though because nothing on the market can really replace a good lengthy* simmering of bones, water and vegetables on the hob. When you make your own stock, you generally don't have to worry about saltiness, any insipidness or involuntarily gagging on something that could have come straight out of a washing up bowl; a dirty sniff of grey, malignant water. Some pork stock cubes I once bought did that to me. Reminded me of drinking manky old sock water so it did. Not that I have ever drunk manky old sock water mind. Well, maybe in my student days.

No, you can't beat a home-made stock; rounded, healthy and deep with savoury flavour. And if it wobbles, then all the better. If there is any sign that a stock is a good 'un, it's when it wobbles like jelly, all gelatinous and rich. I made a fine lamb stock recently, not just from the bones of Shaun the Sheep but from a couple of whole shoulders. Which sounds very decadent and over the top but I should add that the braised lamb meat was used for a big family dinner partay. We have however been living on the resulting stock for last few days as there was tons left over.

Kept in the fridge, I've been taking a spoonful here, a spoonful there, adding it to meals with gay abandon. Soup, shepherds pie, pearly barley, porridge etc which has perhaps led to an overkill. But until it runs out, I am going to keep going. In fact, I wonder what it would taste like in tonight's vegetable curry? No one will know. And plus it would give a discreet fingers up to meat-free Monday.

Cue Muttley snigger.

I might just stick the remainder in the freezer for now though. In the bottom tray, where all the chicken carcasses are slowly building up, like a desolate frozen graveyard. A stark reminder that I should really make my own stock more often.

And I should really make sure it's wobbly.

Lamb fat rising to the surface, resembling an alien landscape, another world (he says, theatrically)


 
Gratuitous lamb stock video - NSFW

*Of course, I should add that lengthy is not always best. Especially with fish. And chicken.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Stir Up Sunday with Urban Fruit


Christmas pudding should never die. And by that, I mean a good festive plum pud, all dark, rich and fruity should never suffer from the rigors of time. Should you accidentally forget all about it that is. Oh, we've all done that before haven't we, eh? No? We've all made a batch of puds when full of excitable Christmas bonhomie and jazz, and found one stodgy bleeder hanging around the kitchen come New Year haven't we? Or even better, we've all scooped some up in the January sales, with the glowing frugal notion that we are saving money.

"Yes! 5 Duchy Original puds for two paaand fifty! We are sooo sorted for next year. Get in!"

*Fist pump"

*Star jump*

 Etc

And we've all gone to spring clean the kitchen a couple of years later, to tackle the cupboard of 'Doom, Plastic Bags And Other Unknown Detritus' and found stacks and stacks of Christmas puds at the back. Dusty, sad, and all alone.

But we shouldn't panic or feel guilt or grieve. Because Christmas puds never die.

Now, you might be wondering what the hell am I going on about. Well, this forthcoming Sunday is 'Stir Up Sunday'. Yes you know the one. To celebrate this tradition of making Christmas puds on the last Sunday before the Advent, the folks at Great British Chefs are holding a Twitter party in conjunction with Urban Fruit, the people who gently bake fruit; in an friendly, urbane sort of way. The main aim is to gather people online to discuss, exchange ideas and air frank views about Christmas baking. Given the upsurge in home baking, all thanks to Mary Berry's hair and Paul Hollywood's piercing blue eyes, it should be a riot

You may have a pet pieve about marzipan. You might want to know what mixes are best for mincemeat. Or perhaps you just want to find out the number of a good, reliable dentist (always handy as broken tooth cases soar around Christmas, what with all those coins secreted in figgy puddings).

Using a selection of fruits from Urban Fruit, I have a Christmas cake recipe that will be popping up here on the Great British Chefs website that sort of strays from the norm. A colourful Caribbean effort, that is filled with spice and bananas amongst other things. But the most important thing about this cake is that it is stacked with booze.

As you well know, Christmas cake, pudding or a chocolate log even, topped up with brandy, whiskey or sherry tastes magnificient (in my humble opinion anyway). Most importantly though, if you soak enough alcohol within that crusted frame, that sponge interior, you can be rest assured that that cake will never, ever, ever die. Which is very important indeed.

Join the party this Sunday, using the hashtag #stirupsunday






Monday, 10 November 2014

Potted Squirrel with sourdough, watercress and pickles


This post first appeared at Great British Chefs and yes, it's another squirrel post.

One well known trick that I have in my repertoire of culinary skills - of which there are many, I can peel a grape in under 2 seconds for instance - is the art of hiding food within food. Parents or partners of fussy eaters will know what I mean by this. Like adding a sprinkling of finely chopped carrot and celery here and there, into spaghetti Bolognese or lasagne. Coating steamed broccoli and cauliflower with cheese or masquerading fresh fruit with cream and chocolate. Essentially it’s a play-off and probably a bad one at that. But if I can pack those vitamins in without any sign discord at the table, then so be it.

This trick of hiding or disguising food is also useful in helping people overcome their prejudices. I have been tinkering around a lot just lately, with one ingredient in particular and a couple of the responses have been far from encouraging. “How could you?” “What? Like the ones we see in the park?” “So, you are eating rodents now are you Dan?” These are just a few of the comments that have come my way. Mostly from my Mum. But I think I have cracked it with this recipe. Well I know I have cracked it because I served her this potted dish last weekend and got some very enthusiastic feedback.

“Wow, this is good. Gamey but good. And I like the texture, bit like a rough pâté or um….like rillettes? Is that how you say it? What is it anyway? Pheasant? Rabbit maybe?”

“Squirrel Mother, you’re eating squirrel,” I told her. Like Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys.

She is still talking to me, but only just, which only goes to show how emotive we can be with our attitudes towards to certain types of meat. Cow, moo, beef, yes. Furry woodland creature, squeak, Disney, no. 

Whether I have convinced her that squirrel is the way forward remains to be seen. However I do urge people to try squirrel, as it really is a lovely, sweet, alternative source of protein to eat. I know Pascal Aussignac is a fan of this sustainable meat and they are becoming a lot easier to come by. I get mine from Brompton Food Market but most butchers should be able to find them for you these days.
So try this quirky starter and try to put saccharin images of squirrels washing up or gaily collecting nuts to the back your mind. Whilst you are at it, try and put images of that squirrel showing its nuts off on The Great British Bake Off towards the back of your mind too. 

Because that really will put you off your tea.


Potted Squirrel with sourdough, pickles and watercress – serves 4

Ingredients

2 squirrels, jointed into six pieces (and don’t worry, they usually come skinned and gutted!)
150gms smoked streaky bacon, cut into lardons
1 banana shallot, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 stick of celery, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
6 juniper berries
500mls dry cider
Salt and cracked black pepper
Unsalted butter
Sourdough bread
Watercress
Olive oil
Selection of pickles such as cornichons and silver skin onions

Method

Now I use a crock-pot for the first stage of braising the meat but you could also use a casserole and your oven on a very low setting, say 120C. The choice as they say, is yours. But yes, start by layering the bacon down first and then add the jointed squirrel and then scatter over the remaining vegetables, spices and herbs. Season generously and then pour over the cider. Set the crock-pot to low, cover and then leave for 6-8 hours. The principle point here is to melt the bacon into submission and cook the squirrel meat until very, very tender.


Leave to cool and then pour off through a sieve, reserving some of the cooking liquor. Take the squirrel out and as much of the bacon as possible and then, using your hands, pick the squirrel meat. This is a little bit fiddly and time consuming but you want to make sure that no tiny bones remain. So pick over a metal bowl and listen out for any pings.

When you have removed all the meat, combine with the bacon and mash together with a fork. You could stick this in a food processor if you wanted a smoother pâté but I prefer it rough (no giggling at the back). If the mixture is a little bit dry, add a spoonful of leftover liquor but not too much.

Spoon the mix into ramekins and put to one side. Take your block of unsalted butter and clarify by heating and melting in a saucepan on the hob, skimming any scum that rises to the top, whilst the chalky deposits fall to the bottom. The golden stuff in-between is what you are after. (To save on time and faff, you could also buy some Lurpak Clarified Butter)

Carefully pour the clarified butter over the top of the squirrel, leaving just a thin layer and place in the fridge to chill for an hour.

When ready to serve, toast your sourdough and dress your watercress lightly in olive oil and arrange on a plate with the potted squirrel and a scattering of pickles. 

NB - IMPORTANT! TAKE THE RAMEKINS OUT OF THE FRIDGE AND BRING TO ROOM TEMPERATURE BEFORE SERVING, OTHERWISE THE BUTTER WILL NOT MELT ON THE HOT TOAST. AND YOU KNOW HOW I HATE THAT.



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

#taximag


Towards the end of the summer I was introduced via email to a certain Kanna Ingleson, a devotee of  taxidermy and an enthusiast of the odd and she had a very simple proposal for me. Would I be interested in submitting a recipe for her new online magazine? A new magazine showcasing European taxidermy subculture and the people in it.

Now, I have had stranger proposals before and I must admit that I am not totally au fait with the whole business of stuffing dead animals but this rather quirky premise did appeal a lot to me. Probably because I am quite odd myself and I am a sucker for anything remotely alternative when it comes to food.

The main remit was to consider what could be done with the meat that is taken out of said dead animals. By all accounts, at some taxidermy classes (which are fast becoming popular by the way) there is often an added educational element where chefs come in to demonstrate what can be done with the carcasses afterwards. So the idea in itself isn't unusual. And plus there is the demonstrable concept of using this art form to promote total 'nose-to-tail' eating and zero food waste. In terms of connecting the dots, there is no real reason why we can't put food and taxidermy together. Seriously, think about it.

Of course, a slightly bizarre aspect does rear its ugly head when you consider that all manner of creatures can be immortalised through the medium of wool and wire or polyurethane. So where do you stop? Well perhaps eating your beloved Tiddles is going a step too far but if this magazine gains legs, other suggestions have been put on the table for future features and recipe development. Like, um, roadkill and other things. We'll wait and see.

But to start things off, we simply went for a squirrel recipe. Slightly out there but not too out there if you get what I mean. A lovely, warming ragu that would go down fantastic on a Friday night with a glass of wine. Before having to nip back in the kitchen to deal with the fur, skin and all the accoutrements to deliver a masterpiece for the mantelpiece.

So please do check out #taximag here and have a read. It's all rather interesting. Promise.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Theo Chocolate from Seattle


This is just a very quick post to a) get me into the habit of blogging more regularly and b) capitalise on the fact that this week is Chocolate Week in the UK, thus taking advantage of all the traffic that is currently steering its way. To all the chocolaty things on the Internet. Or not, as the case may be. Gawd knows how it all works. I am just going to hashtag the shizzle outta this.

But yes, chocolate! I had some rather nice chocolate the other day that found its way into my grubby mitts via the lovely and gregarious Susan....something or the other. You know, I don't think I know her surname but she writes a great blog, eats and drinks, is very funny and divides her time between the US and the UK and when I met her a few weeks ago, she very kindly gave me some chocolate from Seattle.

I then promptly forgot about these bars of delight, having stashed them away in my rucksack and only just came across them after fishing out a rather rancid over-ripe pear at the bottom of the bag. Yes, I am that forgetful. Thankfully, the chocolate wasn't ruined in any way and upon discovering them, they certainly delivered a triumphant fist pump to the air; a feeling akin to finding some Jaffa cakes in your pocket for instance.

Now, I am not a connoisseur of cacao by any means. The grubby stuff i.e. corner shop confectionery is more than suitable for my palate but I have always, rather snobbishly, assumed that American chocolate was really rubbish. Hershey's springs to mind. Past experiences and memories equate to gobfulls of too sweet, brown, grainy shite basically and how it has the temerity to call itself chocolate is beyond me. However, the bars of Theo Chocolate handed over to me were amazing.

Ticking all the boxes regarding provenance, non-GMO, organic, fair-trade etcetera etcetera, the guys at Theo do go to 11 on the worthy-o-meter but hey, what is the point of making something good unless it makes you feel good eh? And boy, does this chocolate does make you feel good. From what I understand is their 'Fantasy' range, I sampled (or we, I should say) the Bread & Chocolate bar, made using 70% dark chocolate and their Chai, using 45% milk chocolate. And chai tea, naturally.

The breaded bar was my favourite. Dense, smooth and slightly bitter with gorgeous nuggets of sourdough crumbs, it was reminiscent of other biscuit-based chocolate I've tried before. Like um, a Yorkie bar but it was much, much better and I don't even know why I am thinking about them. A poor comparison but hopefully you get the idea.

By contrast, the 'Chai' was stronger in flavour, spicier and more fragrant and I think I would have preferred it married up with dark chocolate, instead of milk. However, yet again, this chocolate delivered another pleasantly surprising hit. Tea. Chocolate. I could do this again. Perhaps with a cup of tea. How would that be? Too much? Maybe.

So there we have it. A new perspective on US chocolate. After trying these bars, I certainly won't be so dismissive in future. It might even be worth importing some from across the Atlantic. Although I might just wait till I catch up with Susan again. I must work on the forgetfulness though. Whenever we secretly eat chocolate at night; in the morning, when the children get up, they nearly always find the wrappers. Slovenly stowed not so secretly under the settee.

"Daaaaad, have you been eating chocolate again?"

Nothing worse than a tutting six year old, wagging a finger in your face, at 7AM. I can tell you that.

Also, I've said the word 'chocolate' and alliterated and rhymed far too many times in this post, sorry.