Saira's Blog Archives | Small Aubergine
As I write this, September is drawing to a close. I’m bleary eyed having woken up in the middle of the night to watch the super moon lunar eclipse. These events always make you think about your place in the universe. I watched the shadow move across the moon surprisingly quickly; shivering in my PJ’s in the garden I certainly didn’t feel as though I was moving through space at 1000 mph, and yet the evidence was before my eyes. I realised yet again that smartphones and cameras have nothing on the human eye, as my blurry photos of the dusty-red moon will attest. I’m glad I made the effort, on such a clear night it was definitely something worth seeing. And the children were no doubt delighted to be woken up to share in the experience.
I was fairly surprised that I managed to wake up at all given how tired I was after a weekend of cooking and serving food to the thousands of visitors to Hyde Hall, just outside Chelmsford in the glorious Essex countryside. This weekend with its surprisingly warm weather saw the annual chilli festival take place within the Royal Horticultural Society gardens, and once again they invited to me to do live cooking demonstrations for the visitors throughout the weekend, all with a chilli theme.
And there was an added bonus. During a meeting with Lara, the event organiser, she advised me that the Indian food stall from last year had unexpectedly withdrawn from the event. I’ve been thinking about breaking into festival food myself and it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a go. So with three days notice, and mainly via the power of online ordering, Saira’s Bengali street food stall was up and running by 10 am Saturday morning!
The menu of Chotpoti (my signature tamarind and chilli chick-pea dish), Chicken Jalfrezi and samosas was simple enough, but the logistics of transporting and then serving hot food in essentially a tent in a field is something else. It was a family affair in terms of service, Jim and Tommy were there and also my chef friend Jon, and between them we cooked and served over 400 samosas, and several hundred portions of the curries too. The boys were awesome, and exhausted after 2 days of service, as well as the mountain of prep that happens beforehand, but we left happy and with some incredibly good feedback on the food which is of course, all that matters.
I couldn’t help with service very much, as I was busy with six cooking demos over the 2-day event to really great crowds in the marquee. I shared 3 recipes during the demos, all inspired by the amazing chilli fruits on display grown by the RHS gardeners and from the garden centre at Battlebridge Mills which specialises in chilli seeds and plants (tag line – the hottest gardeners in Essex!), along with the other chilli-inspired products being showcased at the festival. There were chilli sauces and jams by producers such as Glyn Kirpalani who owns Norfolk Heatwave featured on BBC’s Countryfile, and who in a bizarre twist of fate used to work with Jim and me years ago in Heathrow Immigration. It’s amazing where former officers end up! There were also spice kits and curry sauces for sale, chilli beers, chilli-inspired art, jewellery and pottery which was all flying off the shelves in the late summer sunshine.
My role as festival chef was to showcase chillies and also to give people new and fresh ideas for cooking with this amazing ingredient. I am a huge fan of chillies, and will munch away on raw green chillies alongside my curries and put hot sauce on cheese on toast. I cook with them in so many different dishes, not only Indian food. It’s not all about heat, it is absolutely about the flavour and aroma cooking with fresh chillies introduces into your repertoire. I spoke to the audience about how to deal with the range and versatility of chillies in cooking, so much depends on the chilli itself, the way you prepare them and when you introduce them into the cooking process.
This year, Alan Lodge from Battlebridge Mills had selected another fabulous range of chillies for me to cook with. I had the gloriously named Pink Habañero (more on that later), the Super, the Santa Fe Grande, the really hot Datil and one of my personal favourites the Hot Lemon. There’s nothing like a cocktail with samples to get a cooking demo going, and for this year’s choice I wanted to channel my summer holiday experiences of Cuba and came up with a chilli Mojito. For obvious reasons the Pink Habañero was the chilli of choice; Habañero is of course not just a type of chilli pepper but also the word to describe a native or resident of Havana; or Habana as it is properly known in Cuba.
Having consumed rather a lot of mojitos in Cuba and payed close attention to the methods used by the bar staff, I have now developed the ultimate Mojito recipe. My favourite rum was the 7 year old Santiago de Cuba, but if you can’t get this, an aged Havana Club golden rum is really good in this cocktail too. But if an old bottle of Bacardi is all that there is in the back of your cupboard – that’ll work too! Feel free to try it, get out there while the sun’s still shining and make Mojitos!
Saira’s Pink Habañero Mojito
Ingredients (2 servings)
Two measures (60 mls) Havana Club aged dark rum
1 lime, cut into eights (halves then quarters)
1 chilli, a habañero or jalapeño, sliced lengthways through the stalk
4 stalks of fresh mint and leaves
2 tsps caster sugar (or 20 mls of sugar syrup)
Splash of sparkling water to top up
- Split the chilli lengthways. Bruise the mint stalks and leaves in your hands but don’t chop them or the leaves will discolour.
- Place the chilli and mint in a jug, or straight in the glasses. Cut the limes and squeeze some juice in to the jug before throwing the pieces in afterwards too. Add the sugar or sugar syrup and muddle together well.
- Add in the rum and ice and mix well with a long spoon until the sugar has dissolved.
- Top up with sparkling water then strain into a glass. Garnish with a slice of chilli.
Don’t forget the longer you leave the chilli in, the hotter your cocktail will get! Fiery chilli and warming rum combined with the freshness of lime and mint. Doesn’t get much better than this…
Having had a few weeks away I wanted to squeeze as much as possible into the last few weeks of the summer. It seems that everyone and their grandmother goes to music festivals these days, but it’s not really my scene. In my youth it was only hard core music fans that went to festivals. I had a memorable weekend at Donington Monsters of Rock festival in the early 90s, but I was pretty sure that once I ‘grew up’ I wouldn’t have to consider going off to some mud-drenched field, being unable to wash properly whilst surrounded by various drunken idiots dancing to the music in their heads. But the demographic has changed it seems, and now everyone from baby boomers to actual babies go off to Glastonbury and the like.
Luckily I can escape the pressure to partake of these delights because I have different sorts of festivals to keep me occupied. I’ve written before about my work with Foodies Festival (www.foodiesfestival.com). I’ve cooked on their stages many times now, but this time I had been asked to host the main Chef’s theatre at the Oxford show, acting as compère for the other chefs performing in the live cooking theatre.
My enhanced role meant a mid-week photo call in a damp, drizzly Headington Park which gives incredible views over the ‘dreaming spires’ of the city. I met Tony Rodd (MasterChef finalist 2015) and Chris Bentham (Head Chef at The Black Boy gastro-pub) where we posed with vegetables and kitchen implements until the photographer was happy with his shots, much to the amusement of the passing dog walkers. But we made the front pages so it was all worth it!
I’m not usually nervous before cooking on stage, but hosting was a slightly different matter. I had to research my chefs, ensure the audience knew what was happening, get incommunicative chefs to talk and get garrulous chefs to stick to the time limits!
I worked with some brilliant chefs including two of my real food heroes, the inimitable Giancarlo Caldesi and the simply wonderful Sophie Grigson. I also hosted Anne Shooter, whose book Sesame & Spice is brilliant, featuring baking recipes inspired by Anne’s Jewish roots and travels in the Middle-East. Anne made the most delicious baklava with an orange blossom syrup which was ridiculously more-ish.
Finally I met János Vereš, a Hungarian-born chef who is the head chef at the Hind’s Head in Bray, a Michelin-starred gastropub under Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck group. János cured and then tea-smoked a side of salmon which he served with soda bread, home-made butter and pickled cucumber. Simple; classic but absolutely perfectly executed.
A really full day, but one I genuinely loved. People who know me well, know that I can talk non-stop when I’m passionate about something or when I meet interesting people for the first time, so I really felt in my element. This is the first time I’ve hosted a cookery theatre, but I really hope it won’t be the last.
Lamb is without doubt my absolute favourite meat. If I had a choice of roast, I would always choose a leg of lamb; cooked beautifully pink with lashings of mint sauce, roasties and carrots. That is Sunday lunch heaven if you ask me.
Some of you will already know that I am a Bengali-Welsh-Essex girl. With my Bengali heritage, red meat curries would usually be made with goat or beef. But when my parents moved to Wales, lamb was the obvious substitute that my mum turned to and so it was lamb that I remember having as a child. My mum’s lamb bhuna, made with the underrated neck fillet which has in my opinion the best ratio of fat marbling required for curries or slow-cooked stews, was without doubt my favourite dish that she cooked. It was always the dish I requested on birthdays or when I was visiting my parents house after I had flown the nest.
I am always looking to develop new recipes, and to celebrate British Lamb Week I wanted to combine the two cultures by making the best spiced roast lamb I could. This is a slow-roasted dish and so the shoulder was the cut of choice. Follow the recipe below.
1 shoulder of lamb
For the spicy marinade / wet rub
1 red onion
1 whole scotch bonnet pepper (seeds and all)
2 small green chillies
6 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
3 cm piece of ginger, peeled
a large 100gm bunch of fresh coriander (stalks and all)
a small bunch of fresh mint (leaves picked)
the juice of 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon of sea salt
2 teaspoons of cumin seeds
2 teaspoons of coriander seeds
- Make sure each ingredient for the marinade is roughly chopped before you put in the blender or you will have a job to get the requisite paste and you might break your blender! Whizz the whole lot together until you have a rough paste.
- In a dry frying pan, lightly toast 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds and 2 teaspoons of coriander seeds and whizz them (or use a pestle and mortar) to a powder too. Finally mix the whole lot together in a bowl.
- Prepare the lamb shoulder by using a small sharp knife to make lots of incisions, at least 1 cm across all over the joint, top and bottom. Finally (and I would recommend wearing gloves for this) massage the paste into the lamb really well until it is all used up and the lamb is completely coated.
- Place the joint in a deep roasting dish, cover with a tent of foil and place into a pre-heated oven at 200ºC for 30 minutes.
- After this time, reduce the heat to around 170ºC, put a cupful of water in the bottom of the roasting dish and return to the oven for at least a further 2 hours. Check if the lamb is tender after this time, if not you can cook for a further 30-60 minutes. Add a little more water if the dish becomes dry at the bottom as there will then be a risk of burning the joint.
- Once the cooking time is over, you must rest the lamb. I know it’s tempting to start eating it straight away but you mustn’t! Cover tightly with foil and leave in a warm place for at least 20-30 minutes; the lamb will then become beautifully tender and even more delicious.
- Serve this joint with naan breads and salad and maybe some home-made cucumber raitha. It is great on its own or as the centrepiece of a more elaborate feast.
I hope this will give you another idea of how to prepare great British Lamb in a less traditional way.
Have a look at www.smallaubergine.com/recipes for more inspiration and bring the flavours and spices of Bengali-British fusion cuisine to your table.
About a year ago, I was mucking around in a castle with a bunch of Royal Marine Commandos cooking over open flames and fire pits. I enjoyed myself so much that my agent booked me to be a guest judge at this year’s British Army Sustainer, which is an annual competition for Army chefs. Alongside my pal Tony Singh, I was an invited guest to the event which was hosted at the 167th Catering Support training facility in Lincolnshire. The 167 are responsible for training and equipping both regular and reserve soldiers as chefs and form part of the wider Royal Logistics Corps. The motto of the RLC is “We Sustain” which sums up their core mission and explains the name of this annual competition.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I reported for duty at 0730 hours in a bright, sunny but windy field I could tell this was a really big event. My agent had advised me to wear flat shoes as we would be cooking outdoors, but she had undersold it somewhat. This was the British Army after all, so there was a veritable small town of tents and marquees set up, with dozens of field kitchens, all under cover, with full carpeting underfoot and commercial grade stainless steel prep areas.
I met up with Tony Singh shortly after I arrived. Tony is the irrepressible Edinburgh chef you may know from TV shows such as the Incredible Spicemen and A Cook Abroad. He is always pretty distinctive and didn’t disappoint on this occasion with his bright red turban, paisley shirt and Harris tweed kilt. After a sausage sarnie breakfast we were shown round the event by our host for the day Warrant Officer Silverwood and briefed on the plan for the day, which was far more extensive than I had realised. There were competitions running throughout the day in the show kitchen, open to chefs from both regular forces and from the Reserves (formerly called the Territorial Army). These included competitions for the best dishes made with, for example, lamb or pasta and culminated with a grand prix where teams of 2 chefs were preparing a 3 course menu which Tony and I would be helping to judge.
Being surrounded by so many soldiers the conversation soon turned to the equipment and its relative merits. I have to say that most of the field kitchens were incredible bits of kit. The stoves were powered by what looked like jet engines, and funnily enough could be powered by aviation fuel, which burns cleaner and hotter than diesel. Each tent had two or three stove and oven fittings, plenty of clean workspace and full extraction facilities piped out through pre-made chimneys in the tent ceilings.
But the real eye-opener for me was the Improvised Field Catering Challenge which was set up in a far corner of the event field. This challenge was for teams of three chefs to cook a two-course meal for twenty using only ingredients from operational ration packs they wouldn’t see until 15 minutes before the challenge started. And first they had to build their kitchens. All within 3 and a half hours. Every team had a range from materials which included empty metal drums, metal grids and bricks. Several of the teams were clearly planning to dig holes to make turf lined ovens with metal oil drums and there was lots of surreptitious watering of the ground to make the digging easier when the whistle finally went.
Unfortunately I wasn’t there for the judging of this challenge but the menus and photos of the food produced out in these improvised kitchens were incredible. One of the 3 teams from 167 produced a chicken and rabbit fricassée with Mediterranean vegetables and sauté potatoes. Dessert was a choice of sablé biscuits with a lemon syllabub served with raspberry coulis or a pear tart with custard. All produced in a field out of a metal drum in a pit over burning wood.
Tony and I also had to compete, in a cook-off alongside Captain Collins-Lindsey, who is the Director of the Combined Services Culinary Arts Team, has over 25-years catering and competition experience, so I knew this was going to be a tough challenge. We would be cooking on a Type 5 field kitchen (no jet engine!) which consisted of 2 gas burners and a metal box on top which was an oven; the two heat settings available were ‘Really Hot’ or ‘Off’. We were given a mystery box of ingredients and a larder our challenge was to produce 2 courses in one hour whilst being watched by a large audience.
Having seen the standard of food being produced in the other competitions, I was genuinely worried, and I was right to be. Although my menu of mixed vegetable pakoras followed by Bengali beef Bhuna with tarka dhal and pilau rice was definitely popular with the soldiers, and the Commanding Officer said her favourite were the pakoras, the final decision went to Captain Collins-Lindsey with his Moroccan-spiced cod loin with apricot couscous and chocolate soufflé with berry sauce. He deserved to win just for the soufflé in my opinion although Tony also really pushed the boat out with a 3 course meal in the hour, his salmon ceviche starter being the stand-out dish for me.
The prize giving followed the end of all the competitions and it was wonderful to see everyone’s hard work being rewarded. There was a good mix of winners from both Regulars and Reserves and it was great to see the enthusiasm with which they were cheered by the crowd and their peers. This was clearly a competition that was taken seriously and the winners would be going on to represent the Army in the Combined Services competitions later in the year and potentially even their country in international competitions further down the line. There was no doubt that this meant a lot.
What also stood out for me was the was the quality of the food produced in the competitions. This wasn’t just hearty grub; it was refined, interesting and very tasty. It’s good to know the Army are being well fed wherever they are in the world, and I am really grateful to 167 for their hospitality and for giving us the opportunity to be part of their event. Next year we want to go up against the Army in the field kitchen challenge – digging practice starts now…!
This week I managed to combine 2 of my favourite pastimes; driving on a sunny day on fast-ish B roads (the B1054 is a new route of choice) and teaching people how to cook. Sometime ago George Unwin contacted me to tell me about his new cookery school, wine and kitchenware shop at Baythorne Hall, near Haverhill. George had developed the former farm buildings into a really modern, well equipped venue in the middle of the Essex countryside and was looking for chefs to deliver cookery courses.
Teaching is one of the things I do regularly and I absolutely love it so I jumped at the chance. I had a think about what would be the best use of a full day for people who were interested in learning about cooking Indian cuisine. Should it be a selection of curries, or maybe street food favourites such as samosas and kebabs? In the end we decided to focus on an entire menu that could be used for a dinner party. ‘How to host the perfect Indian Dinner Party’ was the title of the course and we covered a 3 course menu which would delight any discerning guest.
For once the preparation I had to do was minimal, which was a really welcome change for me. After all it would be the students doing most of the work. Even better, I had 2 helpers on the day who were there to assist the students and were clearing and washing up constantly through the course so the students could really just concentrate on the dishes and enjoy their day.
It was brilliant, a mixture of me demonstrating elements of the dishes and of the students getting stuck in and making them all from scratch themselves from the selection of ingredients that had been supplied by Baythorne Hall. There was an added bonus of wines to taste with a few of the dishes too, a delightful Gewürztraminer from Alsace and a type of Portuguese Vinho Verde which I absolutely will be trying again to go with the Chicken Dopiaza that we made.
Having made the starter, dessert and rotis the students then broke for lunch to eat it all and it went down very well. They were thanking me for a lovely lunch but I reminded them that it was they who had cooked it – not me! We covered the rest of the menu during the afternoon, and people were so efficient we had time left over for me to throw in a couple more demos whilst the students took a well-earned break and let me do some of the work.
I enjoyed the day immensely and really hope I’ll get to deliver further courses at Baythorne Hall again soon. In fact I was fairly tempted to register for some courses myself as they cover several really interesting topics already, sushi-making, bread and fish courses and chocolate work too.
So if you fancy having go at the menu yourself, here it is… All of the dishes can be prepared in advance, leaving you lots of time to spend with your guests. The recipes are on my website www.smallaubergine.com for you to follow but for a really stress-free evening, you may want to follow these steps.
The Day Before
Step 1 – do the shopping including wine.
Step 2 – peel the onions for all the dishes and the garlic cloves and store in a food bag in the fridge – that’s one messy job out of the way.
Step 3 – make the cardamom syrup for the dessert, cool and store in a jar in the fridge. Keep any leftovers – it’s great for cocktails!
The morning of the dinner party
Step 4 – Dessert – Make the orange and polenta cake. Whilst still warm, soak with the cardamom syrup, wrap well and keep at room temperature.
Step 5 – Chop all the onions and garlic for the starters and mains in one go. Make fresh garlic and ginger pastes unless you are using the lazy versions (in which case open the jar!)
Step 6 – Starters – Make the chutney – cool and store in the fridge, but bring back to room temp before serving.
Step 7 – Starters – make the kebab mix and chill. Pre-fry the kebabs then stack on baking trays and keep in the fridge until the evening.
Step 8 – roast the shallots and garlic for the Dopiaza.
Step 9 – make the curry base, then cool down and leave aside.
3 hrs before the dinner party
Step 10 – make the side dishes of aubergine and dhal; they can be re-heated later.
Step 11 – make the chicken curry
Step 12 – prepare the rice by washing, drying and then frying in ghee and spices. This is now ready to be cooked when your guests arrive.
Step 13 – Make the rotis for the starters – wrap well in clingfilm – these can be reheated in the microwave just before serving
Go and get ready!
30 mins before your guests arrive
Step 14 – Add the water to the rice and cook
Step 15 – Whip the cream with vanilla and icing sugar and store in the fridge
The party has started
Have an aperitif and relax!
Step 16 – Finish cooking the kebabs in the oven, reheat the rotis and serve with the chutney
Step 17 – Reheat the main courses and serve with the rice
Step 18 – Serve the dessert with the Chantilly cream and some extra syrup
That’s it – enjoy the compliments and praise from your guests and get someone else to wash up!
To all my wonderful friends and potential helpers… I NEED YOU!!
On Tuesday the 23rd June I will be cooking for over 200 lovely people at a quiz night to raise lots of money to help the people of Nepal affected by the terrible earthquakes. All the money raised will be going directly to the local population there.
The event is being held at the Rhodes Centre – Bishop’s Stortford. I need a small team on Monday 22nd 2-6pm – chopping and general preparation. On Tuesday 23rd I need people during the afternoon to help cook and also people from 6.30 pm to help with service and clearing up. Lots of you have already offered to help; please could you email me at email@example.com ASAP to confirm and include your mobile number.
Tell me which days and hours you are able to help. Even if it’s only for an hour. It will be a lot of fun; you will be fed (on Tues); and most importantly you will be doing something really positive to help some of the nicest people on Earth who have suffered this terrible tragedy.
I look forward to hearing from you. If anyone wishes to make any donations, they will also be very gratefully received; please also let me know by email. Saira x
Since I started my second career as a chef I have been often surprised at how many different types of jobs there are in the food industry; from producers and wholesalers to food stylists who make those cookbook recipes look so tempting.
Earlier this year I had a call which definitely piqued my interest. My pal Tony Singh, the Edinburgh chef and one half of TV’s the Incredible Spicemen, had been asked by a food manufacturing company called KK Fine Foods to do some consulting work for them on a new range of curries. As he was otherwise committed he suggested they give me a call. I was really keen to see what being a consultant on such a big project would be like, so I enthusiastically agreed.
So a few days later I found myself on a train to Chester with my own recipes for the 7 curries I was going to work on. I was slightly nervous about what to expect and apprehensive that I might not even like the food. I don’t like ready-meals or processed foods, so should I even be getting involved?
But I couldn’t help being fascinated by the process and I wanted to know more. Haven’t you ever wondered how those ‘pierce film lid’ meals come into being? Or even, as I had long suspected, the food you order at many of the big chain restaurants? Well I was about to find out…
I was met at my hotel by KK’s managing director Samir Edwards, who I liked immediately, because of his obvious love of food and travel which put me at ease straight away. This was clearly not a person churning out tasteless food, he was passionate about making the best possible dishes and the effort he was putting into this product development reflected this. So then I had a new worry; would my recipes be good enough?
I learned that KK was a family business started by Samir’s mother Leyla back in 1987, who remains the company’s Chief Executive and is a glamorous dynamo of a woman. Leyla started out by cooking vegetarian food in her own kitchen and door-stepping the landlords of pubs in North Wales until they agreed to sell her food in their kitchens. From those humble beginnings, KK Fine Foods is now a vast modern food manufacturing facility employing over 200 people in Flintshire.
I was amazed by the size of the development kitchen, and the number of chefs working there. I was teamed up with Andy, one of the development chefs with a particular interest in world foods. Andy explained the process to me which went something like this:
- I cooked my recipe in the way I would normally make it in my own kitchen, and note down exactly how it came together, down to the last tenth of a gram of each ingredient. This would then be blast-chilled, packaged in a ready-meal tray and then ‘re-generated’ or heated and served as it would be had it been purchased in a supermarket or restaurant.
- My recipe would then be subject to ‘the panel’, meaning it would be tasted and compared with the KK version of the same dish, alongside several other versions of the same dish from supermarkets and KK’s competitors.
- If the panel approved my dish, I would then work with Andy to make my recipe more ‘factory-friendly’ as if it was going to be made in the production facility. Then I would make it from scratch again, and it would be subject to the panel again.
- Whichever version of the dish went forward would then be cooked again, packaged and put forward to the client at a later date.
For someone who never measures anything in recipes this was going to be a difficult few days for me. And I have to say I haven’t worked so hard in a very long time! It was relentless, and there were no corners to be cut and absolutely no guesswork. The recipes have to be scientifically accurate, and measured at every stage. Even before and after cooking so that the amount of evaporation that occurs during cooking is calculated, so that it can be exactly replicated in the manufacturing process. As you can imagine the quantities that are made in the factory are huge, so even 0.1 of a gram of error could have a massive impact on the final product.
I suppose the main prejudice I had against ready-meals has been put to bed now. These are not machine-made products. They are dishes developed by real chefs, in a well-stocked kitchen that looks like any other commercial kitchen and the care and attention put in to getting the flavour right was a real eye-opener. It was a great experience for me but I have to say I won’t be in a hurry to taste 7 varieties of chicken jalfrezi at 11 am again anytime soon!
So what was the final result I hear you ask? When all the dishes were tasted, you’ll be pleased to know that 6 of the 7 dishes I produced made it through the panel. It was good to know that the flavours that came from my own recipes could be replicated in the factory-friendly format that we developed together and I was happy to contribute to the project in a meaningful way. The one that didn’t pass was my Chicken Qurma recipe; we still don’t think the great British public are ready for a ‘proper’ Bengali Korma or Qurma. But if you get the chance to try it, you really should – it’s fabulous!
CategoryMedia / Press
Posted on2nd March 2015
Many of us will have had the joy of trying to keep our children entertained during half-term, so I decided to decamp for a few days up to North Norfolk, quite sure that a British beach in February would be perfectly fine for my two to run off some energy. I think I am guilty of deluding myself about what my children like to do on holiday. I imagine they still like to visit castles and museums and buy a pencil case in the gift shop afterwards, or write their names in sand on the beach and skim stones in the sea. But they sort of tease me about these trips now and all they really want to know is the password for the hotel wifi. We are definitely in a transitional phase!
But I had an ulterior motive for this trip. I wanted to revisit a fabulous boutique hotel called the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market; the small town dubbed by some as Chelsea-on-Sea. I’d been lucky enough to stay there a year ago for a friend’s ‘significant’ birthday celebrations but the family couldn’t join me on that occasion. It’s one of those places full of cosy corners and overstuffed sofas, a proper pub and an amazing restaurant, and has a strong tradition of using the best of local Norfolk produce on its menus.
As you’d expect, the lure of Norfolk’s fine food was also a significant factor in my choice of half-term destination. There is a distinct fishy theme to the first two delights of Norfolk produce with the small and sweet Cromer crabs and big, juicy Brancaster mussels being probably the most famous. Only slightly less well-known is the bootiful Norfolk black turkey (sorry I just couldn’t resist!) and the most excellent Colman’s English mustard. I recently saw cricketing pundit and all-round dear old chap Henry Blofeld bemoaning the rarity of this Norfolk condiment nowadays and I must agree that it is a vastly underrated ingredient.
Maybe less obvious but did you know that more mint is grown in Norfolk than any other county in the UK and they have more breweries too! And a really delightful surprise was Mrs Temple’s Cheese; hand-made in Wighton from two herds of Holstein Friesians and Swiss Brown cows. The cheeses were developed specifically to offer a Norfolk cheeseboard to local restaurants and the selection we had at our hotel was possibly the best cheeseboard I’ve ever had.
Much to my children’s delight we managed to visit lots of different Norfolk towns on our mini-break to see exactly where these delightful foodstuffs came from. I particularly loved going back to Cromer. My friend Karen’s family had a static caravan in Cromer when we were at school together, so I have brilliant memories of going there with her family several times. We spent a lovely hour or so wandering around the narrow streets, eating ice-cream even though with the wind-chill factor the ambient temperature must have been close to freezing. We had a quick look at the church, with its clock tower which I remember climbing up as a teenager, and I remember Karen’s sister Helen getting stuck halfway up: too scared to continue up or go down! We also found a lovely fishmonger who offered to wrap up a couple of dressed Cromer crabs in icepacks so we could get them home and enjoy a bit of Norfolk cuisine even after our trip was over.
There are many ways to enjoy a bit of fresh crab: on crunchy toast with lots of butter or in a salad with home-made Marie Rose sauce. But if you wanted to take a slightly more exotic approach you might want to try your hand at my South Indian spiced crabcakes, which make a great lunch or a smart fish course for any dinner party.
Hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed our gourmet trip to the beautiful county of Norfolk.
The recipe – South Indian spiced crabcakes
- Boil 250 gms potatoes in their skins until just cooked through. Drain, peel and then grate into a large bowl.
- Use the same amount of fresh crab meat and add to the bowl. Cromer crab is exceptionally good, but any fresh or tinned crabmeat works in this recipe.
- Heat a small frying pan on the hob and add a tablespoon of cold-pressed rapeseed oil. When the oil is hot, add in a tablespoon of mustard seeds and some finely chopped curry leaves if you can get them (fresh or dried). When the seeds start to crackle, pour the whole lot over the crab mix.
- Then add in ½ tsp ground turmeric, a pinch of cayenne or chilli powder and the some finely chopped coriander and de-seeded finely chopped red chillies if you like. Season well with sea salt and then mix everything thoroughly until the spices are evenly distributed.
- With clean hands, form the crab mix into walnut sized balls and press down to make small cakes. Refrigerate for 30 mins.
- Now to pané or crumb the crab cakes. Prepare 3 shallow bowls with plain flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs. Roll the balls first in the flour until they are lightly coated, then in the beaten egg and finally roll in the breadcrumbs until completely covered.
- Heat a good glug of oil in a shallow frying pan. Fry the crab cakes for 2-3 mins on each side until they are evenly golden. Drain on kitchen paper and serve as soon as possible.
- My favourite accompaniment for this is a salad with thinly sliced raw fennel and pink grapefruit dressed with sea salt, cold-pressed rapeseed oil and a wedge of lemon.
Have you noticed that almost as soon as the excitement of the festive season fades and the cold, dark reality of January starts to kick in, we are surrounded by holiday adverts. Golden sandy beaches; sparkling turquoise waters; sun-tanned, healthy-looking, smiling families are suddenly everywhere you look. They’re not daft these advertising companies; they know that we’re yearning for the next thing to look forward to and they know that we are sick of the dark evenings and cold, frosty, windscreen-scraping mornings, not to mention the ‘dry January’ that some of us have foolishly embarked upon.
I for one am thoroughly sick of the cold and a conversation with an old friend this week has gotten me to thinking about a much warmer and sunnier period in my life. My friend Jo and her partner Liz are planning a trip to Egypt and contacted me for some advice about their trip. They asked because we spent 3½ happy, chaotic and wonderful years living in Cairo so I know a thing or two about travelling there and will also use just about any excuse to reminisce about our time there.
My first impressions of Cairo were just bewildering. We arrived in Egypt on Christmas Eve 2008. We had Christmas lunch on board a pleasure boat on the River Nile and our post-lunch walk was around the Great Pyramids at Giza. Quite an introduction to life in Cairo, but even more memorable was trying to cross the road at the height of Cairo rush hour!
Lots of Brits holiday in Egypt every year, I had been myself, but we tend to stick to the Red Sea resorts or the Nile Cruises from Luxor. Cairo is a whole other kettle of fish, a massive super-city with over 20 million people thought to live in the metropolitan area. This is something like a quarter of the entire population of the country so to say it is crowded is a bit of an understatement.
Anyone who has been to Cairo will probably remember a few things, the pollution, the traffic and the looming Pyramids visible whenever the smog and dust clears for a short time. I drove my great big 4×4 in that Cairo traffic for 3 years and I promised myself many times I would never again complain about potholes or traffic in the UK.
People probably don’t remember much about Egyptian food, it’s not a particularly memorable cuisine. The closest thing to national dish in Egypt is something called ‘koshari’, which is a real stick-to-your-ribs dish entirely unsuitable for those following a low-carb diet. Rice, pasta and brown lentils mixed together with an intensely garlic-flavoured tomato sauce and garnished with lots of crispy fried onions. Really delicious but I could never finish an entire plateful!
The other classic dish is ‘fu’ul’ which is always served at breakfast and remains to this day one of my husband’s favourite ways to start the day. This is a dish of stewed and mashed fava beans flavoured with cumin and garlic and then served with lots of garnishes of lemon, finely chopped raw onion, parsley and pickled chillies. Better than porridge for keeping you going until lunchtime. And then there is the wonderful roadside snack of ‘ta’ameyya’ which is the Egyptian version of the Lebanese classic falafel, made of crushed and spiced broad beans and the deep fried in small crispy nuggets and served with traditional flatbreads and drizzled with the wonderful sesame seed paste called ‘tahini’ . Wow this is making me hungry!
Special mention must go to the large flat breads called ‘baladi’ bread, meaning literally country bread which is the staple carbohydrate of most Egyptians. Or as my Dad called it when he came to visit us, “Have you got any more of that bloody bread?!” It was incredibly cheap due to government subsidies, enough for the four of us for one meal for about 10p. Freshly made every morning and carried around by boys weaving in and out of traffic with towers of the stuff stacked up on plastic crates carried on their heads.
My years in Cairo certainly influenced my culinary development. Not only did I discover some fabulous middle Eastern cuisine, but the availability of ingredients and the seasonality of the fruit and vegetables in particular made me develop some new skills and many more vegetarian recipes as meat was scarce and sometimes of dubious quality. Fish was also quite difficult to come by in Cairo although I had easily the best fish supper I have ever eaten in my life on a trip to Alexandria which is on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
It was also where I started to give my first cooking lessons to my friends in the expatriate community who were missing a good curry from back home. I even gave a cookery lesson and cooked a meal for guests at the Ambassador’s residence one memorable evening. I cooked and taught and then the meal was served by white-coated serving staff using what I guess was the second-best silver and china. We ate with the sights and sounds of evening Nile felucca traffic as our backdrop and finished with coffee and shisha pipes on the terrace.
There is insufficient space on this page to convey all of my memories of Cairo, good and bad. But as I write it is the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, just one of the historic events in the region during the so-called Arab Spring. It was a scary time for the whole family as we were evacuated out of what was essentially a war zone, but we will never forget the kindness and bravery of our Egyptian friends, colleagues and even strangers. Egypt is a proud nation with an incredible history and I wish them only the best in securing their future.
In the meantime for Jo and Liz and anyone else going to Egypt soon, don’t forget to ask for a few of those local delicacies. And my favourite Arabic phrase…? To be used when something is really very good and you are very happy ‘Meyya, meyya! Walla feraakh gameyya!’ You will delight any Egyptian if you compliment them with this phrase – meaning literally “Excellent, excellent! All the chickens are in the shop!”
Enjoy the sunshine.
It’s nearly that time of year again when we are planning our all important Christmas dinner. I think people expect something more exotic from me, but it’s tradition all the way in the Hamilton household and always have the full works: turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets, roasties, parsnips, sprouts, carrots, red cabbage, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, gravy and frankly anything else I can squeeze onto the plate!
Regular readers may remember that I gave you my brining recipe for turkey in last year’s blog so I wanted to take a different approach this time. My butcher Matt was telling me about the Great Garnetts’ turkeys he sources direct from the farm just outside Dunmow so I dropped in to the farm to see what I could find out.
I found the farm easily and as I was looking for somewhere to park and wondering what all the white, fluffy stuff was floating through the air, I nearly ran somebody over who turned out to be Jonathon Smith who owns and runs the farm with his wife Julie. Despite the poor driving I was invited in to the office where I also met Sarah who thankfully recognised me as she had been to one of my pop-up restaurants previously.
Sitting down with Jonny, Julie, Sarah and Basil the black Labrador it turned out I had arrived in the middle of plucking time – hence the white feathers all over the place! The Smiths had been farming at Great Garnetts since Jonny’s father Mike had come to the farm in 1971 and decided that he would get 50 turkeys one year to grow along with the cereal crop. That one-off endeavour has now become 6000 turkeys produced annually on the farm with the main business of the farm being pork production. What a great combination, you can get all your Christmas meat: turkey, garnishes and gammon from one farm.
Turkeys are quite different to anything else that farmers produce as they are the only ‘crop’ grown to a date rather than to maturity. Great Garnetts’ turkeys are all 24 weeks old at slaughter and yet customers demand all sorts of sizes and weights of bird. A farmer cannot be late to market with this particular product; there’s no point getting a perfect 12 kg weight bird on Boxing Day. So the only way to approach this is by rearing different types of the animal.
Whether the free-range Bronze or the barn-reared White, the team at Great Garnetts are absolutely committed to a slow-grown bird which is fed on a nutritionally specified feed of mainly wheat, which is provided by Marriage’s (the Essex millers – if it’s good enough for Paul Hollywood it’s certainly good enough for those turkeys!) It’s all about the flavour ultimately; a happy and well-developed bird will always taste better for that once-a-year meal.
Jonny used a car analogy to explain his philosophy about his turkeys: you can have a Skoda or a Rolls-Royce. They are both cars, they both have engines and a chassis, you have to put fuel in them and they will both get you to where you need to be. But the experience of getting there is very different; and we both agreed from our different perspectives that it is important to get the best turkey you can afford for Christmas Day.
I was interested in what turkeys were actually like as creatures and I was surprised to see them in action when Julie showed me some video taken of their 3 little boys trying to herd the bronze turkeys out in their field. It was hilarious; rather than run away the turkeys run towards you so I saw these small boys running out of the field, closely followed by a hundred or so chattering turkeys. But when the boys stopped the turkeys also stopped about 2 or 3 feet away and got back to pecking and foraging. They were really quite charming looking things, particularly as chicks, but I suspect in the nice-but-dim category of animal!
The production of the birds on the farm is also different to the way supermarkets produce their meat. The birds are dry-plucked by hand which limits the spread of any bacteria meaning the birds can be hung in a cold store and aged for around 10 days, further developing the flavour and softening the texture of the meat.
It was really great spending the morning with the whole team at the farm, particularly Basil, and to be amongst people who are passionate and committed to providing the best possible pork and turkey that they can to the local community. And they really are trying to look after their customers; with feedback that some people are still a little nervous about the exact cooking times for turkey, they are providing a nifty little gadget with all their birds this year called the pop-rite cooking timer for turkey! Although it sounds like something from the 1950s the timer goes into the turkey when you put it in the oven and has a red stem which pops out when the core temperature is at the correct level – how easy is that? Although I still maintain that every well-stocked kitchen should have a meat thermometer in any case – remember my ‘kitchen must-haves’ column readers!
As well as supplying many of the local butchers and farm shops in the area, and a few gastro-pubs, Great Garnetts also have a small retail outlet on the farm which opens on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as an on-line ordering option. Best of all they host regular farmer’s markets in the barn throughout the year and I can’t imagine why I haven’t been to one yet – so that’s certainly in the diary for next year.
As this is probably my last blog of 2014 I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers and clients a very merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. If you want a different approach to the Bridget-Jones-turkey-curry-buffet for all your turkey leftovers have a look at the recipes page on my website www.smallaubergine.com/recipes for a delicious turkey and cranberry biryani recipe.
Best wishes, Saira
The subject of my column this week might seem a little strange, given that the weather is definitely taking a turn for the worse and I’m sure that you, like me, have been scouring the cupboards looking for the box of scarves and gloves that you put away back in March. But I want to talk to you about a type of food we usually associate with long, hot summer days and, in particular, a producer on our doorstep who is taking this gorgeous tempting treat to a whole new level.
Saffron Ice Cream is hand-made, but I soon learned that there is science behind the process. Ice cream, it seems, is all about ratios and balance between fat and sugar. This ratio is really crucial to the flavour and texture of the product.
Ice cream is made quite differently around the world. The world-famous Italian gelato, for example, is usually made from pastes as opposed to fresh ingredients, which gives them a very concentrated flavour. They also use a lower fat ratio of only 6 per cent (as opposed to the USA, which can go for a whopping 18 per cent fat ratio) meaning flavourings don’t have to cut through a higher fat content to reach the taste buds, thus appearing stronger.
Temperature is also crucial to the flavour and texture. Italians serve it warmer at around -8 degrees as opposed to our -18 degrees, which also has a positive impact on the flavour and means it appears to be creamier. But there is a downside: the lower fat content means they need to use more sugar to make the product scoopable and means it resembles a milky sorbet.
Although Dom started off with basic recipes, he, and now Harry, have experimented and come up with a range of innovative flavours. They use natural products, all prepared by hand. These guys are seriously dedicated. Saffron source many of their ingredients locally – it’s great to see local businesses supporting local producers and there’s no doubt that Dom, as a local boy, has this as a key part of Saffron’s ethos.
Dominic Parry started making ice cream in his mum’s kitchen when he was 22. Five years on, and in new, bigger premises, Dom is now joined by Harry, a friend from school, in the business.On the day I visited, Dom and Harry were making their new Christmas range, including Winter Cinnamon, Chocolate Orange, Cotswold Cream, Coffee and Walnut and, my personal favourite, Christmas Pud flavour. The factory uses state-of-the-art machinery and yet the ingredients and making of the ice cream is still done by hand. The effort and care put into the production was clear.
There’s no danger of any nasty surprises in Saffron Ice Cream, and now I’ve made you all drool you’ll probably want to know where to get some of this lovely stuff. The easiest way is to contact Dom directly at the factory on 01799 513552 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
There have been ceremonies all over the world this week to mark the centenary of the Great War and Remembrance Sunday. I spent the morning with my son who is a ‘sixer’ in the 1st Hallingbury Cub Scouts. The Cubs were joined by the Beavers, Brownies, Scouts and Explorers as well as veterans and residents of Little Hallingbury village. It was a beautiful service; and I loved the fact that old and young were equally involved in this extra-special Remembrance Day. The Last Post being played by the bugler in the cold morning air and the haunting refrain of ‘Abide With Me’ during the service were truly poignant moments. The whole Hamilton family attended the service and we were joined by my mother-in-law Mary, who has been visiting us from Devon for the week.
Now I know Mary won’t mind me telling you this, but she was born just before the start of World War 2 and was evacuated from London to Exeter when she was just 2 years old. Earlier in the week I read a fascinating article about a woman named Carolyn Ekins who had lost 7 stones in just over a year, following a WW2 rations diet. A bit extreme you might say, but not only did she lose weight she saved thousands of pounds; spending a mere £2 per day on food. Having read about this, I was quizzing Mary about her memories of wartime eating and the years of rationing. As a large family (she is one of 9 siblings) there were always plenty of coupons to hand, although not always the money to pay for their full allocation. But Mary remembers ‘digging for victory’ with plenty of fresh vegetables from the allotments to supplement their rations. She would get a hot meal during the school day, but many meals at home were just bread and jam; she said the family used to get through a 2lb pot of jam a week easily. There was also no chance of being a fussy eater, everything on her plate would be finished whether she liked it or not, and everyone was hungry by dinner time!
So although I should probably have given you a recipe for Lord Woolton pie (diced vegetables and oatmeal with a potato pastry top) which would no doubt have gained the approval of the Ministry of Food, I wanted to celebrate our acts of Remembrance this week. I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than with a great cake recipe using poppy seeds. I hope you’ll make it and as you enjoy a slice with a cup of tea, remember the sacrifices of all those who made it possible for you to enjoy the safety and freedom to do just that.
Lemon and poppy seed cake
- 3 eggs
- Up to 170 gms golden caster sugar
- 170 gms butter or margarine (+ extra for greasing)
- 170 gms self raising flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp poppy seeds
- Icing – 50gms icing sugar and enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to make a drizzling consistency glacé icing
- Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (170 fan). A really well pre-heated oven is important for a good bake, so put it on as soon as you get into the kitchen.
- Grease and line a 9×5 inch loaf tin with baking parchment.
- I make all my cakes this way, it may sound unconventional but I’ve always done it this way and it always seems to work. Don’t worry if the mix looks a little bit curdled, it doesn’t seem to affect the finished product!
- First crack the eggs into a bowl and measure the combined weight using kitchen scales. If they weigh 160 gms, then measure exactly the same weight of margarine, sugar and flour and add into the bowl with the eggs. Add the baking powder and beat really well together. I usually put everything into my stand mixer and beat the heck out of it for exactly 3 minutes.
- Finally add in the lemon zest and juice and the poppy seeds and stir through.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes. When the top is well risen and golden brown and a skewer comes out clean, the cake is done.
- Let the cake cool for 10 mins or so, then carefully remove the cake and place on a presentation plate. Use a skewer or sharp knife, poke lots of holes in the top of the cake and drizzle over the icing.
There is a definite Christmassy feel to the menu for the last small aubergine pop-up of 2014!! Here’s to a very merry Christmas night out!!
Spiced roast butternut squash soup served with pumpkin bread and chilli oil
Murgh pilau – ginger-marinated chicken pieces, cooked with whole spices and cranberries served in a buttery basmati pilau rice
Served with with mixed seasonal vegetable curry and tarka dhal
Vegetable and Chickpea Jalfrezi – mixed roasted, seasonal vegetables with chickpeas, chillies and fresh coriander make a delicious vegetarian main course
Christmas Brownies with Saffron hand-made ice cream
Home-made Irish cream liqueur served with petit-fours
This is a ‘bring your own’ event so please bring along drinks to have with your meal. There will be a corkage charge of £1 per person which will be donated to Age UK. Table water will be provided. There will be also be wine coolers, wine glasses and water glasses on request.
My next pop-up restaurant night is Thursday 20th November at Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford and will be followed by live music from Chris Lord and her Blues Express. The menu for the night will be:
Pop-up restaurant with Saira Hamilton
Rhodes Centre, 20th November 2014
‘Saag paneer’ tarts – mini-tarts filled with lightly spiced spinach and feta and mozzarella cheeses
Lamb Jalfrezi – a spicy and vibrant lamb curry, packed with flavour and enriched with roasted tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, chillies and fresh coriander
Main courses served with aloo gobi, pilau rice and naan bread
Vegetable and Chickpea Jalfrezi – mixed roasted, seasonal vegetables with chickpeas, chillies and fresh coriander make a delicious vegetarian alternative main course
Orange and almond cake – moist dense orange and almond dessert cake soaked with a cardamon infused syrup
It’s been a week of nostalgia for me. We’ve marked the year anniversary since my dear Mum passed away and I’ve re-established contact with two people who were also very influential on the grand passion I have for food and cooking which has so transformed my life.
At one of my recent guest chef nights at the Orange Tree in Sawbridgeworth, one of the diners asked if I might remember her mother, who had taught me at school. I attended the Hertfordshire and Essex High School in Bishop’s Stortford and Mrs Beeston had been one of my Home Economics (as it was still called in those days!) teachers and form tutor in the fifth form so I remembered her very well, and very fondly. Numbers were exchanged and we arranged to meet up for coffee as soon as we could. Luckily Mrs B was also still in close contact with Mrs Copeland, another of the Home Ec. teachers, who had been my cookery teacher, and she was also available to join us.
And what a special afternoon it was. Mrs Beeston, whom I am now to call Jean and Mrs Copeland, or Sue, hadn’t changed a bit. My friend Helen, who I met on my first day at Herts & Essex all those years ago, came along too and we had a great time reminiscing and remembering former students and teachers alike.
I have great memories of being at school. I was quite academic but I loved the practical Home Ec. lessons too. I think my love of cooking was strong even back then, and I guess what I really got out of those lessons was the exposure to classic British cooking and basic skills which I couldn’t get from my Mum. As we sat with our coffees, we remembered the recipes we had produced during those years (apparently Sue still has them all): bread rolls and Swiss buns, home-made pizza, scones, apple crumble and the cheese and potato pie which was our very first recipe, and which I recreated at home from memory just the other week. Fabulous comfort food as the nights are drawing in by the way.
And as well as trying to keep us at the books as 15 year olds in our GCSE year, Jean had the unenviable task of trying to teach me needlework. I was not one of Jean’s finest needlework students it is safe to say; I have never had the patience for sewing. But we talked about the way that these were such important life skills to have taught us as children; I may not be able to follow a pattern and make an A-line skirt from scratch, but I can hem a pair of trousers, sew on a button and use a sewing machine. Similarly, not everyone in Sue’s cookery class will have entered MasterChef or be making their living as a chef, but at least they will have learned some basic kitchen skills which will be useful for the rest of their lives. Helen and I used to take the train to school, and we recalled having to juggle our heavy baskets full of ingredients as well as all our books, and the last minute dash to the shops with exasperated parents to get the one ingredient we didn’t have in the cupboard.
It was really fabulous to meet Jean and Sue again and reminisce over seven great years in my life. In the same week I was contacted by the Herts & Essex who are looking at re-establishing contact with some of their alumni and had asked me if I should like to get involved. How fabulous, and if anyone other former pupils are reading this I would encourage you to get in touch! And then, I also bumped into Mrs Oxley (Jill) who had been our librarian at school and whom I used to help out in my lunchtimes (what a swot!) Given that I ended up working as an Immigration Officer when I left school, I think it was all that stamping that I enjoyed.
So the grinning youngsters in this photo are now quite a few years older, but I am well aware how fortunate I am to be as close and connected to my amazing friends. Helen, Carol, Karen and I were pretty much inseparable at school, and we pretty much still are. It’s a bit daunting for boyfriends and husbands to deal with our little cabal, but I’m sure we are all worth it! All I know is that I couldn’t have gotten through the last year without their friendship and support and I am eternally grateful and blessed to have them in my life.
September has been a month of food festivals for me. I have been up and down the country, with my pans and baskets of ingredients and cooking and talking my little heart out. And I’ve had the most amazing time doing it. From Essex chilli festivals, to North Yorkshire market towns, via a picture perfect castle perched on the banks of the River Exe estuary.
The festival at Powderham Castle in Devon was a little bit different, in that there were no cookers as such but only great big fire pits, barbecues and smokers. There were also Royal Marine Commandos, who train just down the river at Lympstone village and had come along to demonstrate how they get through their missions with a 4000 calorie per day ration pack they carry with them. The marines contingent was led by Colour Sergeant Mike Beaton, who having served in various theatres of war around the world, was now leading a slightly different battle, teaching disadvantaged youngsters how to cook and feed themselves with healthy and nutritious food.
He was cooking a chicken curry (which featured the unusual ingredient of a chocolate Bounty bar), so the director of the festival thought it would be a great idea to have me go up into the van and have a cook-off. It was certainly one of the most surreal moments of the year so far, taking on a Royal Marine Commando in his own environment, but I’m pleased to report that I held my own and the tasters I handed out received a resounding thumbs up from an appreciative crowd.
And from the frying pan it was straight into the fire. To be exact it was back to the theatre of fire and smoke, which was held in a big tipi perched on the edge of the estuary. The fire master was Peter Greig, who with his wife Henri, run Pipers Farm which is an all-grass, family farm, just north of Exeter.
Peter, who is a charismatic and handsome fellow, had the audience completely fascinated during his talk about raising and butchery of livestock. He spoke of his own journey from working for his father in an industrial chicken unit and how after he met his wife Henri, and once their two children were born, they wanted to change the direction of the way that they were producing food. They realised that they didn’t actually want to feed their own children the chicken that they were producing, and so began the Pipers Farm vision.
Peter was inspirational in the way he talked about the natural and traditional way in which they raise animals on the farm. He talked about their Red Ruby cattle, which are only ever fed mother’s milk and grass, and which are reared slowly out on Exmoor. Pipers Farm, said Peter, are not in the organic business but rather the orgasm business; providing orgasmic meat to be enjoyed by all. Tasters were handed out and the resultant ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of enjoyment seemed to rather confirm Peter’s hype!
Peter taught himself to butcher animals, travelling extensively in Europe to discover the different way that they butcher animals there, and gave an insight into why certain cuts of meat are better used for certain types of cooking. He explained that cuts from the four corners of the animal (such as brisket, neck or shin) had worked hard all their lives, developing sinews and muscle which, when slow-cooked, break down to give unparalleled flavour. This flavour will only come from animals that have matured slowly and from meat which has been hung for the appropriate length of time. Cuts from the middle of the animal, such as the forerib or fillet had enjoyed an easier life, meaning they could be cooked quickly and still be tender and delicious.
Peter spoke so passionately about the way meat is produced these days. He described how the naturally reared Pipers Farm pigs farrow and make nests for their piglets, but most commercially produced pork is from pigs that don’t have space to turn around let alone build nests. Interestingly, he made a great case for eating less meat but to have the best possible quality, without added water or the routine doses of antibiotics that are found in intensively farmed meat.
It was a genuine pleasure to meet Peter and Henri and I bought some amazing beef, lamb and pork to try again at home. It was all so delicious that I will no doubt be making a follow-up online order very soon! And the chilli and sesame fillet beef canapés that I made for the audience during my demo were so utterly delectable that I have a feeling most of the audience were entirely convinced as well. So with the Royal Marine Commandos and the orgasmic beef, Powderham Castle was definitely one of my best days out this year. I’m really hoping they invite me back again next year.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a big garden and with parents who were mad-keen on gardening and growing their own fruit and vegetables. My parents had all manner of produce in the garden, from aubergines and broccoli to rhubarb and spinach. And chillies. My mum loved to grow chillies, and her finest hour was the naga chilli plant she grew from seed on the kitchen windowsill.
So when I was approached by the Royal Horticultural Society at Great Hyde Hall, near Chelmsford to take part in their Chilli Pepper Weekend, I felt Mum would have approved. The RHS have recognised the rocketing trend for home chilli growing in the last few years, maybe due to the interest in world cookery so it was a natural fit to have some live cooking demonstrations as part of the weekend’s festivities. I adore chillies; there really is no good replacement for fresh chilli in so many dishes, nothing that can give the same punchy flavour, aroma and fragrance – it’s not just about heat.
When planning my menu I made contact with Alan Lodge of Battlebridge Mills Garden Centre who specialise in growing chillies and have won many RHS gold awards for their chillies over the years. I asked for a range of flavours and heat levels for the dishes I wanted to make and Alan recommended the delightfully named Green Gusto, Hot Lemon and the more prosaic, Indian chilli. I caught up with Alan at the festival and quizzed him about his chilli obsession.
Apparently it was the food that came first, he loved cooking and eating Indian food and other spicy dishes which led him to invest in his first box of mixed chilli seeds and once he had lovingly nurtured these to fruition, he was hooked. The garden centre now stock hundreds of varieties of chillies from mild to very hot and Alan had on display some crackers I’m sure you’d be familiar with; habaneros, jalapenos, scotch bonnets, Trinidad scorpions and of course the wonderful naga chilli. But there were so many I hadn’t heard of, including the one that Alan confessed was his favourite when I asked him – but, hang on, isn’t that like having a favourite child? The Fattali chilli was the one he named – I admit I’d never heard of it but the fat orange wrinkly fruit looked fairly impressive!
Alan and his team ran a chilli challenge at the festival, where volunteers, having signed a disclaimer, were challenged to eat a slice of 5 different chillies, the super, jalapeno, habanero, hot lemon and the fattali, which ranged from quite hot to extremely hot. Glasses of milk were provided but drinking it would signal the end of that contestant’s journey. I did not participate, mumbling excuses about needing to protect my chef’s palate. There was talk about Scoville Units, but to be honest just watching the reactions was enough to see the incremental levels of pain being experienced by these brave souls. 7 out of nine reached the end of the challenge, much to the delight of the crowd!
And in the truly beautiful setting of the gardens at Hyde Hall, to packed marquees in my little field kitchen I demonstrated how to make two cocktails made with chillies, Fire & Ice – inspired by the late, great Keith Floyd – and a chilli rum punch, baba ghanoush made with roasted aubergines, Bengali fishcakes and griddled pineapple with chilli syrup. My plan was to try and show people that chillies can be used in less than obvious ways. The flavour of chilli, when balanced with freshness of mint, sugar and lemons makes a fabulous foil for clean, crisp vodka. Or a winter warmer you’ll love, rum with chilli, lime and ginger beer fiery but oddly soothing. Great if you’re fighting a cold.
The food went down a storm, particularly the cocktails, and I think I convinced a lot of people of the Bengali trick of using salt and chilli to make fruit taste amazing. Thinly sliced pineapple, cooked on a griddle pan to encourage the natural sugars to caramelise with those pretty charred lines, arranged on a platter and soaked with spicy and sweet syrup is a truly beautiful thing to grace any dinner table.
I’m looking forward to trying out new dishes with all the lovely chillies I bought, and am very tempted to buy even more chilli plants for my windowsills because they are beautiful to look at – and useful too!
I received a birthday gift of a bean slicer from my dear friend Carol recently. It’s a bit of a private joke as whenever she comes for dinner I make her slice the runner beans, because she does it so much better than I can! It’s a fabulous gadget; I can’t think why I didn’t get one years ago!
It won’t surprise you that I have quite a fondness for kitchen equipment but, like anyone I also have gadgets and widgets which seemed like a great idea at the time, that I never use. So a quick look through the kitchen cupboards gave me the chance to work out which equipment is a must-have for the enthusiastic cook and which ones are the turkeys of the widget world.
- A stand-mixer – I have had a Kitchen-Aid mixer for the last 5 years and I don’t know what I would do without it, a lot less baking that’s for sure! I have three attachments, a paddle for cakes, a whisk for meringues and cream and a dough hook for bread. Unless you have patience and big arm muscles, you will struggle to get a meringue mixed to perfectly snowy-white stiff peaks. I use mine mainly for making bread dough, because it’s just so easy and the results are pretty much guaranteed. So in terms of time savings and results I think a good mixer is essential.
- A mini-chopper – I use this all the time to make fresh garlic and ginger pastes, or to chop fresh herbs, chillies or onions. You can also make up fresh chutneys or dipping sauces as well as small amounts of batter for pakoras or pancakes. They are really invaluable, take up very little space and I think every kitchen should have one!
- Fine grater – I have a small collection of these but you only really need one. I swear by Microplane graters, because they are so sharp and they don’t rip or bruise the ingredient you are grating, rather they cut them into fine shreds. These are wonderful for adding citrus zest into recipes but work equally well with ginger, garlic or chillies. These graters are different because they are manufactured using acid to etch out the blades rather than with a cutting tool, so you end up with a totally clean edge. This sharpness means you use minimal effort to get a great result.
- Mandoline slicer – These cost less than you think, and will give even thin slices of vegetables which will make everyone think you’ve had a crash course in knife skills. They can be dangerous if you don’t use them properly because they’re so sharp but just remember a) always lay them flat on the work surface – don’t try and hold them up, that’s when they slip and take the top of your finger with them, and b) always use the guard if you are using smaller pieces of food – it’s okay to throw away the last bit of onion, rather than a trip to A&E in a fetching blue bandage!
- Knife sharpener – so many homes have blunt knives which are more likely to cause a cut finger than a sharp one. Not everyone can use a steel effectively, and there are many other types which you can buy inexpensively. I use an AnySharp for my day-to-day knives which sucks onto the work surface and sharpens the blades in just three swipes.
- Citrus reamer – I use citrus in so many of my recipes, and a reamer will help to you to get every last drop of juice out of the fruit. Mine also has a handy guard to catch any pips, useful if you don’t have huge paws like Jamie Oliver to squeeze lemons with!
- Meat thermometer – one of my favourite buys, cheap but so useful. No more guessing when roasted joints, chicken or sausages are cooked – just read the dial on the thermometer, serve and eat.
I realise not everyone will agree with my choices, but these are the things I couldn’t live without in my kitchen. Of course if readers have any other gadgets they can recommend, I’m sure I can find a corner in a cupboard for something new.
And the turkeys…
Bread maker – I’m convinced that every loaf I ever made in mine tasted exactly the same, no matter what ingredients went in. And I really don’t like bread with a hole in it – so off to the charity shop it went… Nothing you can’t do in your conventional oven.
A full size food processor – I so rarely use mine and it takes up so much space! Just the thought of resultant washing up usually is enough to put me off getting it out.
Silicone bakeware – can’t stand it, it’s too wobbly and I have dropped more muffins than I have successfully baked! Nothing wrong with metal cake tins and baking parchment in my book.
The garlic peeler – why? It takes seconds to bash a clove of garlic and slip it out of its skin.
The strawberry huller – yes, really! Nothing you can’t do with a paring knife
Regular readers may remember a previous blog about the Chowdhury village home of Dampara, which is a remote and rural place in Bangladesh. I was there again last week for a very special event; a memorial service in my late father’s memory. My father was very highly regarded in his village, and he in turn loved it and its people, so my sister and I were determined to make this an event Dampara would not forget!
The plan was simple enough: arrange a feast for as many relatives and village people as would turn up. Vegetarians look away now, but we decided we’d need 4 entire cows to cater for the crowds we expected; the fresher the better. The beef curry would be served along with a mountain of rice, lentils or tarka dhal, and freshly made yoghurt to finish. There were also 60 houseguests and 40 or so helpers to cater for, so we planned a special breakfast kedgeree made with cows’ liver for the morning of the event.
Preparation for the feast started hours in advance, with fresh spices being ground by hand by a small team of village women all of whom brought along their own spice-grinding equipment. As I was chatting to them I learned that each woman was given their spice stone and pestle when they got married and they keep them for life. They worked non-stop for 6 hours grinding whole spices such as cumin, turmeric, red chillies and ginger. I did have a go at helping them, but to be honest I wasn’t very good or fast enough, so they soon shooed me away.
The yoghurt-making also started early in the morning, with 350 kilograms of fresh milk being boiled and reduced in huge vats over wood stoves. The cows were brought over at lunchtime and the back garden was converted into a temporary abbatoir. The cows were slaughtered at about 11pm and the butchery went on through the night. I don’t think any of the butchers slept; I could still hear them chopping at 4 am. Watching the men with their incredibly sharp knives and cleavers working their way through the carcasses was truly amazing – the youngest of them was no more than 13 but he was whipping through the ribs with a filleting knife at an alarming rate. Whilst the men dealt with the meat, the onions, garlic and ginger were all peeled and chopped through the night by the women. Bengali onions are smaller than shallots, so you can imagine how long it took for us to peel 40 kgs of them.
I sneaked a few hours sleep in the early hours and woke to see the kedgeree had already been cooked and the first batch of beef bhuna was on the stoves. A field at the front of the house had temporary structures built for both the kitchen and dining area and was being decorated with traditional fabrics. The servers were fed first and were identifiable by the bright yellow ribbons worn as a bandanna. The guests started arriving without any obvious signal and people continued to arrive in a constant stream, seated in shifts over about 4 hours. By the time the dust had settled, the kitchens had been packed up and the dishes were washed, we estimated that we had served something like 3,500 people. The idea is that sharing good food with people will increase the blessings for the deceased, so I like to think my Dad did pretty well out of it.
It was a truly memorable day; Molly and I will never forget it and I know my Dad would have absolutely loved it if he had been there. And even with the 40 of us who organised the event, I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired as when the last people left on the boat. So if you ever hear me complaining about sore feet or aching muscles after one of my pop-ups, please feel free to remind me…