Cooking news Archives | Small Aubergine

Festival fever at Foodies Oxford

Leave a comment...

Posted on

29th September 2015

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.

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

Cadet Chef in training!

Leave a comment...

Posted on

9th August 2015

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…!

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

How to host the perfect Indian dinner party

Leave a comment...

Posted on

16th July 2015

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!

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

Pierce film lid…

Leave a comment...

Posted on

18th May 2015

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

Blog post – the haves and have-nots of kitchen equipment

Leave a comment...

Posted on

23rd September 2014

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.

Must-haves

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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!

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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!

 

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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!

 

  1. 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

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

11th September Bishop’s Stortford pop-up menu announced

Leave a comment...

Posted on

10th August 2014

The menu for my next pop-up night is now online. To see the menu and book tickets please click here

Join the conversation and leave a comment...

Essex Food Festival 2014

Leave a comment...

Posted on

27th January 2014

I’m delighted to announce that I will be on the live cookery stages at this year’s Essex Festival of Food and Drink alongside cookery stars such as Joanne Wheatley, Ruby Tandoh and Tony Singh.

Further details to follow.

Join the conversation and leave a comment...