Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#onepoundpantry - the fourth

So, a string of family meals (thanks mum!) and dinners at friends houses (thanks chums!) has meant that, whilst I may have saved pennies, I've had to put my #onepoundpantry challenge on a temporary hold. 

Until today!!

After a loonnnng day at work, tonight I basically couldn't be bothered. So I had a look in my fridge and decided to make an  odds-and-sod it salad.

Languishing in my fridge and salad draw I found:

  • 2 carrots
  • A kohlrabi - leftover from a FoodCycle session at the weekend
  • Leftover cabbage from my #onepoundpantry turkey and bacon pie
  • Some slightly squishy tomatoes
  • Broad beans donated from a green-fingered neighbour
  • A red pepper and some frisée lettuce left behind by my housemate before he went away for the week (Mwahahaha! You snooze, you lose!)
  • Coriander bought for an abortive #onepoundpantey meal last week before Mum called with an invite - 49p
  • Eggs leftover from last week's beetroot ravioli.
  • Half a lemon

Being a kitchen gadget-aholic, I have a mandolin and decided that using it would make dinner quicker. I cut matchsticks of carrot, kohlrabi and an apple from the fruit bowl to create a makeshift slaw. To this I added lemon juice, a little white wine vinegar, olive oil and seasoning. There's even enough left for tomorrow! I finely sliced some of the cabbage to add to this, along with the frisée and some coriander. While I blanched and refreshed the podded broad beans and soft-boiled an egg, I cut fine dice of tomato and pepper. 

The whole lot got tossed together and served. Not only were there lots of different flavours going in here, it had loads of colour, and hence vitamins, a good filling hit of protein, and an added benefit of everything being chopped small means that it was quick to eat as well as make! 


TOTAL #onepoundpantry SPEND: 49p

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

#onepoundpantry - Wednesday

Tonight I cooked beetroot ravioli for my housemate and I, and given that I was not at work today I had a little extra time to spend. Saying that, dinner probably only took an hour from start to finish once the ingredients were in place.

Yesterday, aforementioned housemate bought a bunch of beetroot for £1 from the '£1 a bowl' man on the corner. I gave them a good wash before drying them and putting them in a roasting pan on a bed of sea salt and thyme stalks I had dried in a cupboard. This was fully enclosed with a foil lid and popped into the oven at 180C for about 45 minutes. The beetroot need to be cooked until they are tender so check them from 30 minutes onwards as their size will affect cooking times.

Once they were cooked I left them to cool with the foil still on the tray, allowing them to steam as this makes the skins much easier to remove - when they're cool enough to handle, that is, and wearing rubber gloves! Once they were cool I blitzed them in my food processor with seasoning and a little cream cheese I needed to use up to make a purée. I should mention at this point that some of my beetroot a turned out to be golden, and others pink, so I decided to make not one purée but two, in different colours. I kept a couple of little beetroots back for later.

Then I got onto making pasta. I bought a box of mixed weight free range eggs for £1 and beat two larger ones together. Once clean and dry, I used the food processor to blitz 200g of type 00 flour I need to use up on the cupboard with a good couple of pinches of salt. Then, with the motor running, I drizzled in the beaten egg just until the mixture looked like couscous. You will probably need to use all of the egg. If it clumps together, add a little more flour. You can mix it together by hand as well. Once you have the mix, knead it for 10minutes before leaving it to rest wrapped in cling film for half an hour; if it feels too dry, leave it to rest with a damp tea towel covering it instead. 

After half an hour, you're ready to roll! I have a pasta machine at home I bought for less than €20 on holiday in France that has served my needs fine, but if not you can roll it out by hand with a rolling pin. Dust surfaces with flour before you start and keep extra pasta covered with a damp cloth. Extra pasta sheets need to be dusted with semolina while you work on filling the others.

I worked out the sizing of my ravioli and used piping bags to pipe beetroot filling onto a sheet of pasta before carefully laying another sheet on top so that the edges matched together.

Then I used the blunt edges of a small cookie cutter to 'seal' the filling in the middle of the ravioli and cut them out with a larger one - but you could equally use a knife.

I put a large pan of salted water on to boil while I made a mint butter by melting a large knob of butter in a pan until it sizzled before adding wedges of the cooked beetroot I'd kept back. Once these had browned I added finely shredded mint leaves from the garden.

The ravioli take about 2 minutes to cook and can then be tossed in or drizzled with the butter - which would also work well with toasted pine nuts. Tonserve, I alternated the ravioli with the different colour fillings and piped on top some of the beetroot purées. Beautiful to eye and to palate!

TOTAL #onepoundpantry SPEND: £2

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

#onepoundpantry - Tuesday

Today's dinner made use of some turkey breast fillets from the freezer, a nice lean form of protein, and some frozen bacon, which is less so! Whilst not entirely the weather for it, the crushed potato-topped turkey and bacon pie with tarragon gravy was delicious.

I chopped an onion and softened this with defrosted and trimmed bacon rashers before adding the defrosted turkey, cut into bite-sized pieces. This was seasoned well and once the turkey was cooked I added some tarragon I found lurking in the fridge. I let the mixture simmer a little before adding some finely shredded green cabbage I bought for 69p. This all released a fair bit of liquid, so I added some flour to thicken the sauce. Meanwhile I boiled some new potatoes donated from a relative's weekly veg box - a bag every week seems to overwhelm them in summer and they were about to sprout! Once the potatoes were cooked, I crushed a few and used them as a topping for some of the turkey and bacon mixture in a mini casserole. I dotted a little butter on too, seasoned with salt and pepper and put it in the oven at 180C for about 15 minutes. 

And lovely it was too!

TOTAL #onepoundpantry COST: 69p

Monday, 28 July 2014

#onepoundpantry Monday

Todays's #onepoundpantry dinner was pork tenderloin with fennel and apple.

I bought and froze a couple of pork tenderloins that had been reduced in the supermarket a while ago, for a bargainous £1.99 for 400g, each one enough to feed two comfortably with this recipe or three with some added carbs such as mash or roast potato. This cut of pork can be cut into 150-200g pieces and cooked on a bed of fennel, apple and onion slices in a greaseproof parcel for each diner.

For my dinner, I thinly sliced the fennel bulb, bought for 80p at my local market, as well as an onion and two eating apples from a value bag. I sliced a couple of cloves of garlic as thinly as I could and tossed the vegetables together with olive oil, a little dried thyme from the cupboard and seasoning before laying in the bottom of a roasting pan. I trimmed fat and sinew from the defrosted tenderloin before seasoning it, drizzling it with oil and placing this on top of the vegetables into the oven at 180C. It took about 40-45 minutes to cook; check the juices run clear and if you have a meat probe use this on the thickest part of the meat.

Slice the tenderloin, place on top of some of the veg and dinner is served!

TOTAL #onepoundpantry COST: 80p

#onepoundpantry posts - the introduction!

Having thoroughly enjoyed cooking my way through a #FoodieWorldCup, stretching my culinary knowledge and techniques with dishes like Ghanaian Fotor, Brazilian Coxinhas and tea-smoked salmon for Russian blinis, I need a new challenge.

Times are a bit tough at the moment. Earlier in the year, my time managing a training cafe came to an end. Whilst I've had a fantastic culinary journey since then, learning abundantly through my time at Ashburton Chefs Academy, having lots of trial shifts in various kitchens and now working part-time at a fantastic restaurant, I am yet to establish what Sarah Serves does next for a stable income. This is all really exciting but it does mean the purse strings are fraying.

How to discover your personal OCD: Step 1.
However, one of the side benefits to this is that I've also got a bit more time at home than usual, and something this has been good for is reorganising my kitchen and having a good clear out! Not only are my cupboards slowly becoming more organised and tidy, but I've also found long-forgotten exciting and exotic ingredients at the back of cupboards that I'm looking forward to using. It's also time I emptied out my freezer to make way for BBQ meats, homemade icecreams and all those lovely summer berries growing out there ready for pies, sorbets and smoothies.

So it made perfect sense to put this together with my need for a new cooking at home challenge, and it starts today.

The principles of #onepoundpantry are simple:

  • For my main meal each day, I have to use what is available in my cupboards or freezer, given to me by friends growing vegetables or genuinely leftover from my sessions volunteering for FoodCycle Wandsworth
  • If I have to supplement the ingredients, I am only allowed to spend £1 per meal. If I need to spend more than that, I have to have the money 'in the bank' - it needs to be leftover from the day before. 
  • I'm starting the week with a few pantry staples, such as onions and garlic, milk and butter, and a reasonably occupied fruit bowl. 
  • If I'm cooking for more than one, I am allowed to accept ingredients from other diners up to a value of £1 per head, but need to try not to.
I appreciate that these rules are nowhere near as admirably stringent as challenges such as the breadline challenge or the belowtheline challenge. I'm using things in the freezer that I spent money on already, I'm not taking into account the cost of running my hob or oven, I'm ignoring how much it costs to grow the vegetables I'm given to use. The point of this personal undertaking is to do my little bit to help eliminate my food waste, save money and to make you, my readers, think about what's lurking in your cupboards and freezers unloved and unused. And to prove that you can have delicious dinners for not much dosh! I'm going to start by doing this for a week and see how I get on. You can see from the picture that there are a few exciting packets in my cupboards and there is no way I'm getting through the lot in one week. Why not have a try at this with me and let me know how you are getting on? You can follow my facebook page for updates, or tweet with the hashtag #onepoundpantry.

Good Luck!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Easy Cheesy!

Once upon a time, Christmas and birthday presents for me meant hair gadgetry, nail varnish or makeup. In the past few years, there has been a discernible shift as family and friends realise that this cookery malarky has gone way beyond being a hobby, and to reflect this, presents too have shifted towards food gadgetry and plate-up. A good thing too, hot kitchens, where hair is firmly scraped away from my face, melt most warpaint and pretty nails are now my stuff of legend.

Two of the most favourite of my foodie friends bought me 'The Big Cheese Making Kit' for my birthday this year and, spurred on by the fun I was having with my #FoodieWorldCup challenge, I decided to give it a go. As it turns out, whilst the kit makes a great present, with the process neatly packaged and cute, it is by no means obligatory as the ingredients are readily available on a high street near you. It is also almost disappointingly easy, and takes no more than an hour from start to finish. In fact you could, as I did, start your pizza dough, get your passata on the hob reducing away happily and make mozzarella so that the whole thing comes together in time to pop a delicious <insertfavouritepizzahere> into the oven for dinner! I started with mozzarella and plan to give ricotta a go soon, and may commence a quest for world cheese domination shortly afterwards. All I need is ready access to vast lakes of milk. And probably someone else to do the icky cow-rearing stuff for me.

What you will need (makes approx 900g):

  • 8 pints milk - fresh, full fat stuff! Don't use UHT. I resisted the urge to bulk-buy buffalo milk in Waitrose as this would be a) very expensive and b) a bit mental for my first go.
  • 1.5tsp citric acid - this is available from Asian supermarkets and will keep long enough for you to use for next year's elderflower cordial (click link for my blog on how!). It coagulates the milk and causes it to separate.
  • 1/4 of a rennet tablet - traditionally, rennet is enzymes derived from animal stomach linings, but vegetarian rennet is readily available in supermarkets and chemists and is what was provided in the kit. It helps the curds to set and keeps very well in your freezer
  • A large, heavy-bottomed pan (capable of holding aforementioned 8 pints of milk) with a lid
  • A long knife - a bread knife will do
  • A large slotted spoon
  • Rubber gloves - fairly thick preferably to protect your hands from heat
  • A thermometer - food temperature probes are, in my opinion, an incredibly useful bit of kit. Try to get one that will withstand temperatures for deep frying, making caramel and warming to 'blood heat', preferably digital for accuracy.

How to do it:

  • Dissolve the rennet in one ramekin of 50ml room temperature boiled water and the citric acid in another.
  • Pour the milk into the pan and add the citric acid solution. Stir thoroughly up and down - I used a potato masher to "mash" the mixture.
  • Heat the milk to 32.2°C, stirring frequently to ensure it heats evenly.
  • Once the temperature has been reached, remove the pan from the heat and gently "mash" in the rennet solution for 30 seconds. Then put the pan on the lid and leave it to have a think for 20 minutes.
  • After this time there the mixture will have separated into solid curds on the surface and yellowy-green whey liquid underneath.  Use the knife to cut the curds into 3cm cubes.

Whey-hey! (Apologies, it had to be done)

  • Put the pan back on the heat and warm to 40.5°C whilst gently moving the curds with the slotted spoon. They will break up at this point, and that's ok.
  • Use the slotted spoon to remove the curds into a microwavable bowl, or gently drain the curds in a colander and tip into the bowl. 
  • Microwave the curds on high power for one minute, before draining off excess whey, putting on those rubber gloves and kneading and folding the hot cheese (congratulations, you now have cheese!) for 30 seconds, removing as much whey as possible. 
  • Microwave for another 30 seconds, add 1 tsp salt (preferably flakey sea salt) and knead and fold the cheese for another 30 seconds. The more you knead the cheese, the firmer it will be. 
  • Microwave for another 30 seconds then continue to fold and stretch the hot cheese. At this stage, feel free to add herbs like basil or oregano, chilli flakes or chopped sundried tomatoes to jazz up the mozzarella. If the cheese doesn't stretch easily, microwave it for another 30 seconds as it needs to be too hot to handle with bare hands.
  • When the cheese is smooth, elastic and shiny, shape it into balls however you like. It can be eaten immediately but if possible, pop it into a bowl of iced water to cool it down and help it keep its shape. 

The cheese will last for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge but should not be stored in water. Leftover whey can be used in bread making (such as that pizza base!) or for soups, smoothies, soaking pulses or even in a bath! There will be quite a bit so it can be frozen and safely stored for up to three months. 

If you don't have a microwave, once the curds have been drained, heat the reserved whey to 82.2°C, shape the curd into two or three lumps and put them into a sieve. Dip them into the hot whey for a minute, remove from the liquid, knead and add the salt. repeat this until the cheese is smooth and elastic before shaping and storing as above. 

It was great fun to make and tasted just like it should. I like my mozzarella to be so soft that it's falling apart, which mine wasn't, leaning more towards the firmness of large blocks available in the supermarket, and this meant its melting capabilities were a little under-par. But I'm definitely giving it another go soon. 

Pizza night, anyone?

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Bom Apetite!

Love it or hate it, football is likely to cross your path for the next few weeks as the 2014 World Cup tournament gets underway this evening in Brazil. Whilst not strictly speaking a fan, my family is pretty male-dominated and my partner works his calendar around matches, so I have needed to find a way to make the tournament work for me. Which is why I have used it as the perfect excuse to explore the food of Brazil!

Ready for the opening ceremony tonight, I have made a Brazilian feast fit for the greatest fan – be they foodie or footie or both, and I have a sneaky feeling at least one of them might be working its way into my regular repertoire.

To start, we will be nibbling on Coxinha, a popular street food in Brazil. These are bite-sized “little chicken drumsticks” and great fun to make. I have to admit to accidentally polishing off the leftover filling while making them yesterday because it was so delicious, and as we all know that deep-frying multiplies food by a factor of delicious, this should mean the finished article will be delicious squared.

Coxinha are made by poaching a large chicken breast in stock and a mirepoix of vegetables before allowing it to cool and shredding it. In a deviation from how they are traditionally made, the chicken is then mixed with cream cheese rather than Mexican crema and a little tomato paste, as well as fresh corn kernels, grated garlic, sliced spring onions and seasoning. Some of the poaching liquid and a little oil are then brought to a boil and used to make a roux-based dough with plain flour, which is kneaded, rolled to 3mm thickness and cut into 10cm discs. Each disc is used to enclose a little of the filling as a teardrop-shaped pouch, which is then dipped in an egg wash and coated in breadcrumbs (I used Panko). The pouches are then deep-fried in batches, drained on paper and served hot with a sprinkling of salt. Whilst time consuming and a little fiddly these were great fun to make.

I really enjoy making streetfood like this, which in my mind, due to the necessity of portability, largely falls into a number of categories:
  • Things In Wraps – such as burritos, spring rolls, peking duck, nori rolls, masala dosa and gyros
  • Mouth-Pops – such as arancini, bhel puri, churros and Pão de Queijo (see below)
  • Hidden-Content Foodstuffs – where a filling is enclosed in some sort of pastry, such as Cornish Pasties*, baozi, brik and samosas

Slightly more tricky to make were the Pão de Quieijo, soft chewy cheese bread rolls. For these, I was supposed to use two different types of manioc starch. Manioc is another word for cassava, and the starch and the flour are not one and the same. The recipe called for both a sightly fermented version and a non-fermented version, but neither supermarket nor organic health food store could land me what I needed, even if it is gluten free! I did find ground manioc in Sainsbury's but this would make more of a porridge consistency, so I opted instead for Arrowroot, which also derives from rhizomes of a number of root vegetables native to South America, including manioc, and which research assured me would give a close likeness to the required consistency. Cornflour would prove too sticky, I was told, and potato flour would become slimy after cooking.

To make the bread rolls, I blended eggs and egg yolks with packed grated parmesan well in a food processor to make a loose paste. I brought milk, water and olive oil to a boil and added this to the arrowroot along with pinches of cayenne, nutmeg and pepper. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, use it!! I don’t, and my arms are now paying for the 15 minutes of hard work mixing and kneading this to a smooth and incredibly sticky dough. After resting overnight in the fridge, the dough is rolled into gold-ball sized balls and baked until lightly golden before serving while warm and chewy.

Next I made steak marinaded in Chimichurri Rojo. The marinade is like an Argentine Worcestershire, with sherry vinegar, oil, paprika, cayenne, minced garlic, ground cumin and pepper with bay and salt. I used thin sirloins but skirt steak is recommended. The steaks marinated overnight in half of the marinade ready to be quickly grilled the next day (the acidity in the marinade serves to cure the steak, greatly reducing its cooking time whilst increasing its tenderness). To serve with the steaks I made Cebollas Fritas – thinly sliced Spanish onion battered and fried before liberally covering with manchego cheese and baking.

To round off proceedings and provide occasional cheering fuel during the first match, I made chocolate Brigadeiros – chocolate fudge balls. Though a little time consuming, these were simple to make – I boiled condensed milk, cream, butter and golden syrup (a substitution for corn syrup) before stirring through chopped chocolate (I used 70% cocoa to counter the sweetness a little) and cocoa powder. This is then cooked, stirring constantly, ‘until the mixture moves as one piece’ and there is a burnt layer on the bottom. As an insurance policy, I used a probe and cooked it to 110C. This mixture was cooled in a bowl to room temperature and then covered in the fridge for a few hours before being rolled into truffle-sized balls and coating in grated chocolate. They are very sticky indeed and I’m not too sure how many of the ice-cream tub full even two hungry boys are going to manage, but I will do my best to help. 

Hopefully, one of those hungry boys will mix me a traditional Brazilian Caipirinha to go with it after my hard work. Gotta keep things authentic, after all!

So, if food, but not football is your thing, why not use the World Cup as an excuse to explore a few new world cuisines? You might find some new favourite dishes…

*Funny story, I once had an email jokingly refer to ‘nipple pasties’ and it took me a long time to re-adjust my thinking away from either the amazing (although possibly somewhat painful) concept of nipples adorned with miniature steak and swede-filled delights, or of canapé pastries in the shape of, well, nipples. Which miniature versions of the coxinha’s described above do in fact resemble.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Cordial Greetings!

Summer, I think we can tentatively suggest, is on its way. And this means a whole host of wonderful vegetables, edible flowers, abundant herbs, and opportunities for even newbies to have an outdoor forage. Now, this needs to be done with some careful research - I'm not suggesting anyone heads out into the wild gleefully munching on whatever they can pick - but one thing growing particularly rampantly right now, and fairly easy to identify, is elderflower.

From cordial, to sparkling wine, syllabub or sorbet, elderflower is a flavour that encapsulates Summer (almost as nicely as Pimms!). It is lightly floral and refreshingly citrus in flavour and elderflower bushes pop up everywhere. Right this minute they are out there at their best, so once you've finished reading this, pop on your sunnies and get out there with a pair of scissors and a sturdy plastic shopper to collect some.
Choosing where to forage is up to you, but I prefer to head for places that are low in traffic so that my pickings are as unpolluted as possible. I also do my best to forage responsibly, choosing a few blooms from a number of bushes rather than decimating a few. This has added benefits when it comes to elderflower, as the untouched flowers now will turn into delicious elderberries in Autumn. 
Elderflower is fairly easy to identify if you head out foraging in the morning. The creamy white flowers grow on bushes, often attached to trees, with the flowers growing in clustered blooms that should smell of - you guessed it - elderflower. By the afternoon, or when they are past their best - they begin to smell musty and should not be picked. They can be confused with other plants such as cow parsley and pyracantha but there are easy ways to rule these out. This is an excellent blog on how to identify the right target
To make about three litres of elderflower cordial, you will need to pick about 20 elderflower blooms. I picked mine from three different woods and commons and found that those in the sunlight and higher up in the bushes smelled freshest. One of the first rules of foraging is not to pick close to the ground if you can avoid it - basically wherever dogs can make their mark. Smell the blooms before you pick them to ensure you are getting the ones that smell as they should and beware - a few hours smelling these can wreak havoc on even mild hayfever sufferers like me!
Once you've picked your blooms, here is the best recipe I could find - BBC Good Food's recipes contains a lot more sugar and I wanted to keep a little more zingy freshness.

Elderflower cordial (makes approx three litres)
20 Elderflower blooms (no leaves)
4 unwaxed lemons
1.8kg caster sugar
1.2 litres water
50g citric acid (this can be bought from asian grocers or chemists but is not a vital ingredient)
  • Gently shake the elderflower heads to knock the blackflies and other bugs from their delicious harem. Do not wash them as this washes away more of the precious pollen than knocking them will. You won't be able to get rid of all the bugs, sadly, but do your best and think of the extra protein!
  • Put them in the roomiest saucepan you have, along with the peeled zest of the lemons, which then need to be sliced and added to the pot.
  • Add the water, boiling, to the sugar, and heat until the sugar has completely dissolved before pouring this on top of the elderflower and lemon. Pop a lid on the pot and allow it to talk to itself for 24 hours.
  • After this time, strain the mixture into a clean pot first through a large sieve or chinois and then through muslin to remove unwanted particles. 
  • Heat the strained mixture to boiling (do not allow to catch or burn before bottling in sterilised bottles. Bottles can be sterilised either by fully immersing in sterilising solution and allowing to airdry, or by running the clean bottles through a hot cycle in the dishwasher.
The cordial will keep for six weeks in the fridge, or can be stored in the freezer in ice cube trays or frozen flat in freezer bags on a tray for easier storage. It can be used as a cordial (mix one part to 8 or 9 parts water, added to champagne or prosecco, or used in cheesecakes, custards, syllabubs.. the list goes on.
And let me tell you, it tastes delicious. So what are you waiting for? Get your shoes on and get out there before it disappears!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Quantifying and Qualifying

It had finally arrived. The three days we all knew were coming. The three days they said we would fly through. The three days to decide it all.

The three days of Assessment Week.

Rationally speaking, we didn't have anything to work ourselves into a blind panic about - assessment required us to produce a three or four course menu from recipes we had all made successfully before and even replicated since we had been taught them. We had four hours to complete and present the dishes and then were assessed on how we tidied and cleaned down the kitchen, and on what we did with our leftover ingredients. We'd get the afternoon to recover and prepare for the next day before we started again in the morning, each day becoming progressively more difficult. The chef tutors had all been keen to point out all the way through the course that they were there to help us ahead of assessment, to answer any questions we had, to enable us to achieve the best results we were capable of. We had been put through a mock assessment a week ahead of the real deal, to help us to iron out any areas of weakness such as speed, seasoning, and prioritising tasks, and that had taught me the valuable lesson of treating my cooking process with a little more mindfulness and care.

Circumstances around my own assessment week were wonderful, but hardly optimal in an academic sense - I spent the weekend before away with friends, and the night before our final assessment day out to dinner with classmates at Rob Dawe's pop-up. But in fact, this all helped me to focus, to plan ahead and to reflect on the skills I had picked up. The weekend before gave me the opportunity to replicate some of the dishes as practise for a crowd who could give me supportive customer-style feedback and boost my confidence in the process. The pop-up reminded me what I'm doing this for - so that I, too, can continue to bring smiles to people's faces with my cooking, to share my skills and to enthuse others about food so that it can bring as much happiness to them as it does to me. And despite my original fears, the last, and hardest, of my assessment days, following my night off, was also my strongest and most enjoyable. Back in February, I would never have thought I could successfully produce minestrone, filleted and panfried fish, bread rolls, a French trimmed rack of lamb and dauphinoise potatoes with jus and a tarte tatin in four hours, looking beautiful and tasting great. And to enjoy myself in the process? Give over.

I struggle to believe all of this was a mere week ago, as it already feels like the days when I cooked and learned (and ate!) all day long are far more distant than that. Over the next few weeks, I will be taking time to go through all of my course notes, to digest the wealth of information I have absorbed and to plan on how to put it to use. I want to make sure my blog readers can benefit from my newfound knowledge too; I am so proud of the work I have put into recording my journey through the course and sharing my experiences with you and I hope you look forward to carrying on learning as much as I do. In the meantime, there are a few key nuggets of wisdom that I took away from the course that I will keep with me and that I hope will help you in your own kitchen endeavours.

Plan Ahead. For each day of our assessment, we had to prepare a Prep List. We didn't get much guidance on how to do this, and I went off and did what worked for me - a detailed breakdown of what tasks I needed to do, in what order. For any menu, be it making a sandwich for lunch through to a dinner party for twelve, there will be jobs that take varying lengths of time, different processes to be used, different operating temperatures, and these need to be planned together in a way that allows them to slot into each other like jigsaw pieces. It's kitchen choreography. This aspect may extend to days, weeks in advance as you take into account seasonality and availability of ingredients, dietary requirements, even unforeseen mishaps. Don't just make things one at a time; the most skilful chefs can dance between dishes, spinning multiple plates at once. I was told that my Prep List was the most organised and methodical they had seen and while I don't plan on replicating that style every time I cook by any means, I have definitely learned the value of thinking dishes through carefully!

Taste it, and taste it again. It takes practise to get seasoning right. I still have more to learn here, and lots of my dishes could have gone from 'great' to 'excellent' if I'd been a bit more brave with the salt. It takes time to develop a palate and the only way to speed up that process is to taste everything. Your food will be transformed when the seasoning hits the mark and it is important to respect salt, not to make it your enemy. Don't use table salt - the flavour is too harsh, and experiment with the different salts out there. You may be a Maldon lover or you may develop a Cornish Sea passion but the only way to know is to try. If you find yourself scared at how big a proper chef pinch of sea salt flakes is, try weighing it and you will be surprised at how little you are adding. If you get it right, you shouldn't need it at the table any more, which is an excellent move for better health.

Eat with your eyes. A beautiful tasting dish needs to be treated with respect, and this means making it look as good as it tastes. Think not only about portion size, but the shape of the items and hence the best corresponding plate shape. Consider the colours and how best to showcase them. Remember that human brains are wired to find odd numbers more attractive. Get rid of any unwanted drips, smears or fingermarks. And make sure the temperature of the plate supports the food as well.

Ask Questions. Learn as much as you can about ingredients - where they are from, how to treat them, and what they pair with. If you make a mistake, find out why, learn from it, and try again. Never, Ever Stop Learning. And practise as much as you can. One of the tutors told us that when he started out, he would come home with a 2.5kg sack of potatoes and sit in front of the TV practising how to carve each one. Every mouthful you make should be treated with dedication and respect, and if you fail partway through a recipe, don't blame the ingredients, but reflect on how you will do better next time. Having a failure does not make you a failure.

Be responsible. For every plate of food, there is a long chain reaching back to where the ingredients came from. Always strive to shorten that chain where you can, and to learn about it so that you can say with confidence that you have respected the way that ingredient was born, nurtured and eventually came to be on your plate. 'Catch it, kill it, eat it' may not be your style but it is still important to have an awareness of what is involved in that process.

As we sat together on our final day, our first day as a team of qualified chefs, happy tums full of the curries we had made together, the Academy Manager told us that this was just the start of our journeys. He told us that not a day goes by when food doesn't enthuse him in some way, when he learns something new about it. "The Perfect Dish," he said, "does not exist. Because you'll never know when you serve it, whether or not it was perfection. You can have tasted it and checked it all the way through but you won't know how it tastes to that person at that time and whether all the elements came together perfectly. And so you continue to strive for perfection every day."

I made a gamble when I started down the food path three years ago. I'm still making gambles now as I work out what to do next, how I will generate an income and the best way to balance my passion and my happiness. But I do know that I am on the right journey and I am proud of what I have achieved so far. My course has shaped me (in more ways than one!); I am grateful to the chef tutors for their time, their energy, their knowledge and their passion and consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from them.

And do you know what, I can cook!

I completed a six-week Professional Culinary Certificate at Ashburton Chefs Academy. This comprised of a CTH Level 2 in Culinary Skills an a CIEH Level 3 Award in Food Safety. You can find out more about the course here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A series of experiences

I have been lucky enough to get to know a couple of talented supperclub and pop-up restaurant geniuses in the past couple of years, one of whom I have worked with a few times and learned a lot from, and the other I have had the great fortune of being taught by. Rob Dawe is one of the most inspirational people I have met - and I don't use terms like that lightly. Chefs are often incredibly good at what they do, meticulous in their precision, fiercely proud of their work and renowned for their art. What sometimes slips away is their passion, worn down by years of seasons repeating themselves, trends coming and going, diner desires becoming ever more fastidious. So it is not every day that a chef comes along who not only has a wealth of experience, but also an abundance of passion about cooking, about ingredients and sourcing, and to top it all, a desire to help others to learn as much as they can and gain the most benefit possible from time in a kitchen.

Rob's years of experience cheffing in London eventually led to a post teaching in Exeter college and after while, he moved on to Ashburton Cookery School as a chef tutor. Fast forward a few years and he is now working there part-time while he also carries out consultancy work for restaurants and hotels, runs his own pop-up events and, probably my favourite part, forages for mussels. As you do.

As soon as I heard Rob mention his pop-ups, I asked him when his next one was. It turned out that it would be the night before the most scary of my assessments, and this put off almost half of my classmates. My philosophy on life, however, is that it is built from a series of experiences and opportunities, and I knew that I would be going regardless of how ready I felt for the next day.

The event was hosted at the Heart of Oak pub in Pinhoe, Exeter and was a sell-out within a few days of tickets going on sale for what turned out to be an even more reasonable £30 than I had originally thought. There were to be seven courses of wonderfully treated, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and my fears that perhaps devouring the steak and chips we had produced for our assessments earlier that day was a bit of an error, were quickly blown away when I saw the menu.

To start, we had a trio of pea, ham and beetroot. This was served as a warm pea soup mini cappuccino with a delicately salty foam, a tender and sticky nugget of glazed ham hock topped with pea shoots, and a pea and ham croquette with beetroot puree. It was great, as students, to recognise the various techniques in use on the plate and to discuss how they could be recreated. Pea shoots are one of my favourite salad gems, with a wonderful sweetness to offset the honeyed saltiness of the ham beneath.

Rob had taken us through how to prepare and serve mussels - hence his casual anecdote about foraging for them (we never found out if that was how he had sourced them this evening!) and so I was glad to see them on the menu, served 'à la Devon' with cider, bacon and cream. I could have done with a few more lardons in my portion, and we all agreed that some fresh, warm and homemade bread would have gone down a treat, although, as we grudgingly conceded, might have been a bit much with five courses to go... Still, I ignored all principles of restraint and finished most of my sauce because it was delicious. Cider gives a much more delicate finish to a mussel dish that wine can, and complements the sweetness of the mussel flesh well. Bacon rounds off what sounds like a heavy dish but ends up being light and flavoursome.

Next up was a palate cleanser ahead of the main event - delicate mojito sorbet with edible flowers. The balance of mint, lime and alcohol was just right and - a small but important detail - this was one of the occasions where we appreciated the attention of the front of house team. We had been given finger bowls for our mussels but also a teaspoon for our sorbet, and so could spend all our energy on enjoying the food and company.

The main dish was locally-sourced Crediton rump of lamb, with parsnip purée, spring vegetables and a port and rosemary jus. Spring is probably my favourite season, and vegetables like asparagus, firm and dazzling green like they were here, are a big part of the reason why. The parsnip purée had been infused with saffron - something I hadn't tried together before, let alone saffron in a lamb dish. But then saffron is largely produced in Iran, and lamb kebabs with saffron rice is a national dish, so it makes perfect sense. The purée had just enough liquid gold in it to complement the flavours without being an overbearing presence. The lamb rump was served in big, no messin' cuts, wonderfully pink and delectably tender. Parsnip crisps were a welcome addition to the dish, bringing an extra texture and fun presentation.

Next up was what Rob thinks may become his signature, mysteriously titled 'Mango, coconut, lime' and looking much more like 'Egg, chip'.

To reveal how this is done, how to eat it or what happens when you try would be too much of a spoiler. Suffice to say I had been told about this in advance, and it delivered just as described - in terms of flavours, textures, and, of course, theatre.
Hearing the room bubble with excitement, laughter and various 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' made me smile and I hope it had the same effect on chef.

This was served with mini fresh strawberry 'milkshakes' - another fun surprise, and packed with lots of vibrant flavour. The tiny bottles being carried to the tables in mini milk crates showed a great attention to detail and sense of humour.

Dessert was chocolate fondant with salted caramel and peanut butter ice cream, which I am fairly sure Rob must have designed especially for me.
The fondant had a pre-requisite gooey centre and its warm chocolate headiness was well complemented with the icecream, which nestled on a bed of honeycomb to give added texture. I'm normally a lover of raspberry but here felt that although the coulis looked perfect on the plate, it distracted a little from the stars of the show. That said, whoever came up with the pairing of chocolate and peanut was a genius. A little digging tells me that Alexandre Dumas, of Musketeers fame, may well have beaten Reece's cups to it, when he suggested that the Spanish called peanuts cacohuette because their flavour resembles that of cocoa, and used to mix cocoa into a peanut mixture to make a kind of cheap chocolate. Although I love my desserts, I've often struggled with this part of my 'last supper' scenario, but I feel more sure now that chocolate and peanuts would be involved.

Our after-dinner coffee was served with a handmade marshmallow, topped with popping candy, renewing my wish to give making marshmallow a go myself soon. Despite the number of courses we all felt comfortably full and disappeared off to the moors with happy faces and entertained tums.

Rob's next pop-up will be on Monday 19th May at the Rodean Restaurant in Kenton, starting at 7.15pm. This will be a six course Summer tasting menu for £35/head and is BYOB. If you would like to book a place, or to be added to Rob's email list and receive notifications of future events, please drop him an email here.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Something(s) for the weekend?

Having made our croissant and brioche doughs on the Thursday, Friday was the day when they were transformed into things of beauty. The doughs had been left to prove in the fridge overnight and when we peeked in to wake them up, the brioche had bulged to monstrous lumps barely restrained by its triple-layered clingfilm and the croissant wasn't far behind!

We started with the brioche and carefully unleashed it from its skin-tight clobber before tapping it with a rolling pin to start the knocking back process, which was completed with a quick kneading. We made a variety of shapes from the dough, such as a brioche burger bun and small individual brioches made from two ping-pong ball lumps of dough enclosing a few chocolate drops in a brioche tin, but by far my favourite, and which yielded the best results, was the large brioche loaf. We used a hand-rolling technique as with bread dough to make three equal-sized balls (ours weighed about 215g each) and snuggled them with each other in a loaf tin before generously egg washing. We left these to prove until they had doubled in size before they went into the oven at 200°C until golden. The resulting loaf was delicious - light, aromatic and comforting, and fabulous toasted. Definitely one to try again!

Next, it was on to the croissants and pains au chocolat. We had a template ready, a paper isosceles triangle with a base of 15cm and a height of 17.5cm. After removing about a third of the dough to use our chocolate treats, it was possible to see the spiralled layering in the dough; exactly what we were looking for as a result of yesterday's turning and rolling. We re-wrapped this chunk and put it back in the fridge.
Tapping the remaining dough flat with a rolling pin on a floured surface, as we had with the brioche dough, we then rolled it out, working quickly while it was still cold, to a thickness of 2-3mm, keeping the dough in as uniform a rectangular shape as possible. It is quite an active dough and shrinks back when you are rolling it out, hence the need to work quickly - this part is good exercise!
Croissants ready to be baked, each with lots of space!
Using the templates, we cut out one triangle at a time, before cutting a slit about 5cm long from the centre of the base of the triangle. This will reduce the density of dough in the centre of the croissant. Teasing the two 'legs' of the triangle away from each other, we rolled the pastry from the bottom of the triangle to the top point as tightly as possible, before bringing the two thin outer points in towards the middle, twisting them together and tucking them underneath the centre of the croissant. We repeated this for the rest of the dough, rolling out again as necessary if the pastry shrunk. With the scraps, we made an 'ugly bun' by smooshing them together with chocolate drops and dried fruit. Everything was liberally egg washed.

Pains au chocolat are considerably easier. For these, we again rolled the dough into a rectangular shape before cutting these into smaller rectangles, about 10cm x 15cm. We placed a few chocolate drops along the narrower base edge and rolled the dough towards the top. The dough cylinder was sealed by egg washing the open flap and rolling the pastry shut - the seam would be baked underneath. These, too, were egg washed. I also tried my hand at making a plait, which was beautiful to look at although I wish the filling was a bit more substantial! Starting with a rectangle of rolled-out dough, 1cm slits are made 1/3 of the way into the centre of the dough from the longer edges. In the open space in the middle of the dough rectangle I spread a little pastry cream and a few chocolate drops before folding the flaps in towards the other side of the dough, first from the left, then the right and so on. The top and bottom of the resulting plait is tidied and folded under before egg washing.
All of the pastries were left to prove for about 20minutes before a second egg wash to really glaze the pastry and they were baked first at 240°C then at 180°C after 15 minutes until they were deep golden brown.

I didn't have to try too hard to find some willing guinea pigs to try my first attempts at croissants and pastries, and their rapid disappearance was rather reasssuring! I was really pleased to see that the dough inside my croissants had spiralled like it was supposed to through the layering and rolling process. Chef advised us that if we could crack croissant dough, making puff pastry from scratch would be a doddle, albeit still a waste of a few hours of one's life. I'm keen to give these another go and see if I can make a better pastry by working quicker as mine seemed to leak more butter than I would have liked whilst I was turning it!

Lunch that day was a beef and mushroom steamed suet pudding. We had made the suet pastry the day before, as well as the beef filling. We drained the beef casserole filling and kept just the meat and the beef chunks, which we broke down into smaller pieces. We fried some sliced shallots in one pan and some sliced wild mushrooms in another, draining the mushrooms before combining them both with the meat. Meanwhile, the sauce had been reducing in a pan, and some of this reduction was used to bind the beef filling before seasoning. Ready for lunch, we rolled the pastry to 2-3mm thick before cutting it into a large disc, removing a wedge to make a 'pacman' shape and using it to line a small pudding basin (a cappuccino cup or dariole mould would also work) which had been oiled and lined with oven-proof clingfilm. We cut lids for the pudding bases, filled the lined basins with the meat mixture and sealed the filling inside the pastry, removing excess overhang before pinching the edges tightly together and closing the edges of the clingfilm together over this. This was all wrapped tightly in foil and steamed for half an hour.

To serve with this, we made a parsnip purée by peeling, coring and chopping parsnips into chunks and simmering in milk until soft. We drained the parsnips, retaining the milk, and once the parsnips had steamed dry we blended them in a liquidizer with as much of the milk as was necessary to make a smooth purée. This needed a LOT of seasoning, as parsnip can harbour an earthy bitterness that needs to be tempered with salt, but it was deliciously moreish. We also made beetroot en papillote by sprinkling chunks of raw, peeled beetroot with thyme, smashed garlic, rosemary, thyme, seasoning and balsamic vinegar in a foil parcel and baking at 200°C for 30 minutes.  Chef showed us how to make parsnip crisps by peeling strips of parsnip, dusting the with flour to stop them from sticking to each other and deep-frying these until golden before draining and sprinkling with paprika and salt. Lunch was served with the stew juices reduced down to a gravy and made into a glossy sauce with a little butter whisked through at the end of cooking. A lovely, simple and impressive dinner!

Could do better.
But everyone likes an ooze!
For dessert (can't spend the day making pastries and not have dessert, of course!) we made raspberry millefeuille. Millefeuille means 'a thousand layers' which might give you the clue that it is made from puff pastry. Most chefs will agree that as long as it is of a good quality, using good butter and base ingredients, ready-made puff pastry is a winner due to its consistency of product. We dusted the worktop with icing sugar and rolled the pastry with the layers pointing upwards, effectively ruining them in a process called 'back rolling'. When the pastry was about 3mm thick we rested it in the fridge in a sandwich of baking trays for 10 minutes before dusting with icing sugar and baking it in the same way for 15 minutes at 220°C. Once the pastry was cool, we carefully cut it into rectangles and used it to make our millefeuille, sandwiching fresh raspberries and piped pastry cream in between. The pastry cream was made with cornflour rather than plain flour this time, to give a more solid density, although mine was still a little too loose an could have done with being cooked longer rather than chickening out a little early as I did! I will have to carry the burden of needing to try making these again as well, I suppose!

It was a great day to finish a great course, and as we left that day, full of trepidation at the week ahead and the weekend of revision needed to get through it, I am sure I was not the only one having the occasional headshake of disbelief at just how much we had learned so far. I am so glad to have blogged it all!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

"You see, pidge..."

"...when you're footloose and collar-free, well, you take nothing but the best!"
(Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp')

I am proud to declare that today, I made some beautiful food. Both to the eye and the palate. And, hopefully, some beautiful doughs. This we shall find out about tomorrow! The doughs in question were for brioche and for croissants. This weekend, it seems, I will mostly be eating French breakfast goods.

Bring it on. 

Brioche dough is known as an 'enriched' bread dough as it contains a higher proportion of eggs, fat and sugar than other doughs. We made it by beating butter with sugar until very soft and loading this into a piping bag so that we could dose it carefully into our dough. We mixed fresh yeast with warm water and a little sugar, as well as beaten eggs. Meanwhile, we sieved strong bread flour and salt into a large bowl and gave this a good mix by hand, using a clawed hand. While still mixing, we gradually poured in the yeasty-watery-eggy mixture to make a sloppy dough. We piped the butter and sugar mixture in little by little, fully incorporating each addition into the dough. This dough can be made quite well in a mixer with a dough hook, and can be flavoured by mixing a flavoured butter through it, with additions such as dried fruits, saffron or cooked chestnuts as long as the quantities are kept consistent with the recipe. We left our dough to slowly prove in the fridge overnight and will finish our brioches tomorrow!

Next, we moved on to croissant dough. Croissants are made with a 'laminated dough', which means a dough is made and then layered up with butter. They are best made with French ingredients, we were told, as the French know what they are doing when it comes to their pastries! French butter, for example, will be more pure, meaning it can hold its shape at higher temperatures and it is also drier than English butter. We used French 'T45' flour, which is soft and relatively low in gluten. It is also best to ensure the flour used is no more than six months old, as it loses nutrients and natural sugars over time. So, first we made our dough by sieving the flour into a bowl and mixing through sugar, crumbled fresh yeast and then a little salt. To this we mixed in egg and milk beaten together and kneaded it a little before putting it into a lightly oiled bowl to prove it in the fridge for a couple of hours while we got on with other tasks.

 One of these was to place a block of butter between two sheets of greaseproof paper and tap and roll it with a rolling pin until it was a rectangle about the size of an A5 piece of paper. This was kept at a cool room temperature. After the dough had proved a little in the fridge, we rolled it out to a rectangle that approximately measured the length of the butter rectangle in width, and three times the butter's width in length. Then we placed the butter on the dough so the two were facing the same way, meaning the butter spread oer half of the length of the dough and had a little perimeter around the three other edges. We folded the 'free' edge of dough one third over the rest of the dough, and the 'buttered' edge of dough that remained was then folded over this. Keeping up? At this stage we had a folded piece of dough with butter in the middle, vaguely resembling a massively yummy business letter. We chilled it like this for a short while to re-chill the butter a little. Keeping the worksurface dusted, but the top surface as dust-free as possible, we then rolled this dough out to stretch it into a rectangle a similar size as the first dough rectangle had been, with the 'twist' edges now becoming the longer sides of the rectangle. Then we repeated this folding process twice more, and put the dough in the fridge with a weight on top to stop it expanding too much during an overnight prove. We will also finish these tomorrow!

Two last things we did for tomorrow were to make a suet pastry, and a beef stew ready for steamed puddings tomorrow. Suet is basically "dessicated" fat, typically surrounding beef kidneys. That may sound gross enough to make you reach for the vegetarian version, but that is made with palm oil, responsible for massive deforestation. A tough call either way.  We sieved self raising flour and added salt, chopped thyme and the suet, along with a little pepper. We then added in milk a little at a time to made a sticky dough, which we kneaded lightly to achieve a slightly smoother ball of dough which will also rest in the fridge until tomorrow. Suet dough should not be kept for more than one day as the flour will oxidise and it will turn grey! It can, however, be frozen. To make the beef stew, we seared chunks of rump steak in a hot pan with a little oil, before removing them to a casserole pan and using the pan to brown chunks of carrot, onion, celery and leek. We removed this to the same casserole, added a little more oil and chopped garlic to the hot pan before deglazing the pan with a little madeira. We had rehydrated some dried wild mushrooms in hot water before squeezing these dry and chopping them, and we added the remaining stock to the casserole, and the mushrooms went with the madeira along with thyme and a bay leaf. Everything then went into the casserole and was covered with veal stock before being brought to a simmer and put into the oven for four hours at 160°C. 

= Some of my life I'll never get back
Finally, it was on to making lunch. Prep for this involved two rather tricky tasks. First, peeling walnuts. This job is a proper pain in the a***. Bring water to the boil and drop the walnuts in there before taking it off the heat and leaving them in there for at least 30 seconds. After this point they are painstakingly peeled using a turning knife, or your fingers, and a massive dose of patience! Once the walnuts were peeled, we made a caramel by heating sugar until it melted to a golden colour, took it off the heat and dipped the nuts into it using a cocktail stick to coat them in caramel.

The second job was to butcher pigeons to get the breasts ready for lunch. This was fairly similar to our duck butchery task a few weeks ago, only slightly fiddlier due to the facts that pigeons are considerably smaller than ducks, with teeny, snappable bones, and a likelihood of shot, bulletholes or broken wings. We removed the wing but kept the skin on the breast as well as the mini fillet as both keep the breast moist during cooking. Our last bit of prep was a celeriac remoulade which we made by chopping celeriac into matchstick pieces and salting while we mixed a little mayonnaise, wholegrain mustard, lemon, capers, seasoning and chopped chives. We rinsed the celeriac and mixed it through. 

To cook the pigeon breast, we poured a little rapeseed oil into a hot pan and placed the salted breasts, skinside down, into the pan, applying a little pressure to prevent it curling up. After two minutes, we turned the breast over, added butter, a bashed garlic clove and some thyme to the pan and basted the breast continuously for a further two minutes. Then we rested the breasts while we prepared our plate.

Chef Tom had made a spiced apple jelly by mixing juice with agar agar and allowing it to set - I cut mine into discs. He also made an apple puree and apple pearls, by dropping the agar agar solution into cold olive oil, draining and rinsing the resulting pearls, and a tarragon oil powder by whisking tapioca maltodextrin through a little of the oil. A little carving of breasts, loading a chef ring with the remoulate, and artful arranging later, I loved how my lunch looked - almost as much as how it tasted! 

Such a beautiful lunch deserves an equally beautiful dessert. Yesterday we made chocolate and cointreau mousse and glass biscuits, as well as a raspberry reduction made by simmering raspberries with a little water and sugar before straining through a fine sieve to remove pips. Chef had made raspberry pastilles by heating raspberry purée with sugar and pectin, lemon juice and liquid glucose up to 108°C. This had been chilled overnight and today was tipped onto a board coated in caster sugar and cut into pieces, before we were set loose to freestyle our plate. 

I'm hoping tomorrow will look and taste just as delicious. Check back to find out!