Cooking with James Martin – a little taste of the treats on offer!

Our day at Food at 52  with James Martin was in two halves.  Our participation was called for in the morning as we were pressed into service as a rag-tag team of commis chefs in the preparation of the first three dishes – which made up our menu for lunch.  James guided and instructed and was only occasionally scathing of our efforts!

In the afternoon, already replete with amazing food, and enjoying a nice drop (or two!) of Sauvignon Blanc, we got to sit back and relax as James prepared a further six dishes while we watched, asked questions, and then struggled despite our already full bellies to taste all his wonderful creations.

Here’s a quick whizz through the wonderful dishes we tasted – hopefully I’ll be able to post some recipes in due course!

Lunch Menu

Thai crab risottoThai crab risotto – This was the first dish we tasted and was definitely one of the stand-out recipes of the day for me.  It has amazing complex & multi-layered flavours in exquisite balance, and despite how much is ‘going on’ in this dish somehow manages to taste crisp and clean and not at all muddled.  James described this as his ‘signature dish’ and I can completely see why – it knocks every risotto I’ve ever tasted into a cocked hat!

Smoked haddock rarebitSmoked haddock rarebit with confit tomatoes – An unusual twist on a Welsh rarebit, with the cheese-based layer built on top of a lovely naturally smoked haddock fillet.  Served with a confit tomato salad (which will definitely be making it into my culinary repertoire) it’s a lovely dish for an English summer’s day, balancing the clean crisp flavours of the tomatoes with the comforting warmth of smoked fish and grilled cheese.

Hot chocolate mousseWarm chocolate mouse with banana ice cream & custard – The freshly made ‘last minute’ banana ice cream is actually the star of this dish for me.  It’s packed with really distinct flavours and heaps of texture.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not that much of a chocoholic – the chocolate pudding is tasty, and gooey in the middle, but very similar to things I’ve had before.  The custard involved a lot of hard work, and is clearly something I should master, but I’m not that much of a custard fan and I’m not convinced it adds that much when you already have the gorgeous banana ice cream.

Demonstration Dishes

Pea and watercress soupPea and watercress soup served with a deep-fried egg – This soup is an amazing colour (no Photoshop trickery here!) and has a lovely fresh pea flavour.  I’ll certainly be playing with this soup recipe at home, though I have to admit to being a bit mystified by the soft boiled egg crumbed and deep-fried and served in the centre in a style – I’m afraid – a bit reminiscent of the famous Australian ‘meat pie floater’! It’s a dramatic ‘cheffy’ touch to finish the dish but I’m not entirely convinced it adds anything that a poached egg wouldn’t in terms of flavour (in fact I suspect I’d prefer the latter) and the crispy texture it imparts is duplicated in the streaky bacon garnish.  Think ham and egg with peas, but all taken apart and put back together again!

Pea and watercress soupLamb with chilli pickle – This is a great little dish, James described it as ‘bar food’ and it would be ideal for nibbles with drinks, but also makes a lovely light lunch or supper dish if you’re looking to impress someone!  Great fresh flavours with a lovely crisp tang from the freshly prepared pickled vegetables, and the lovely tender pink lamb loin is the perfect counterpoint.

Cod cheeks with tartar sauceVodka-and-tonic battered cod cheeks with tartare sauce – The batter was an unusual concoction, with the cocktail-cupboard ingredients and made ‘live’ with yeast, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  It fries up lovely and crisp and keeps the cod cheeks gorgeous and moist.  The freshly made tartare sauce is the first such I’ve ever actually liked!  I don’t batter and deep-fry much, but it looks like a  great party-piece!  I can imagine diving into a big bowl of this with a load of friends around a table, perhaps with some slightly spiced potato wedges.

Seared tuna with 'Japanese slaw'Seared tuna in spiced apricot marinade with ‘Japanese slaw’ – A beautiful dish to look at on the plate with some lovely flavours – there’s an almost North African vibe with the fruit & spice flavours.  By this stage in the tasting I was really struggling to eat another bite, but was very glad I did.  We don’t often cook fresh tuna at home but I will certainly adapt this marinade next time we do, as it just lifts that slightly bland character it can have while letting the flavour still shine through.

And now for some desert!  We now felt so full we could pop…

Strawberry cheesecakeStrawberry vanilla cheesecake – James introduced us to this dish, which is one that he developed for Thomas Cook‘s refreshed airline menu.  This is a wonderful quick simple & impressive little desert which you can imagine being able to adapt almost infinitely with different fruits in season and flavours in the cheesecake mix & biscuit crumb.  I particularly liked that this wasn’t an over-sweet dish, letting the flavours of the fresh English strawberries and the slightly acid-note from the cheese shine through.  It isn’t at all cloying and has an almost palate-cleansing quality, nice and fresh – just the thing when you’d eaten quite as much as we had!  All in all a great little dish and definitely another one for the repertoire!

Cheat's GateauxLast, but quite definitely not least, James’ rather marvellously named Bullshit (or “Cheat’s”, for polite company!) Gateaux seems quite the work of patissier’s art.  Just look at it!  In fact it’s startlingly simple – well, for the most part! There’s a story behind this cake – and the name – which I hope to share with you soon..!

For the time being here’s a little snapshot of the man himself doing some of his famous sugar-craft!

Sugar spinning

I hope this has really whetted your appetite for more details of these dishes – writing about them and going through the photos has certainly made me hungry!  I can safely say it’s the most amazing day’s foodie indulgence I’ve enjoyed in a very long time.  I can’t wait to experiment some more with the recipes and let you know how I got on!

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Cooking with James Martin – some initial thoughts & photos!

The big day was today – I’m finally back home from London (seriously, Londoners, how do you survive the Tube these days?!) exhausted but seriously excited about today’s cullinary adventure!  The competition winners met up with famous chef James Martin at the ‘Food at 52‘ cookery school in Clerkenwell, and he spent the day sharing with us some of the tricks of his trade and feeding us until we nearly popped (while he himself seemed to survive on a diet of Diet Coke and Red Bull!).  The whole event was thanks to Thomas Cook, with whom we heard James had been collaborating on aeroplane catering.

James Martin

There are recipes and tips to share with you, and we’ll get to those in due course (probably once I’ve re-cooked at least some of the recipes to iron out quantities etc!) but I just wanted to share a few initial ‘teaser’ photos featuring some of the marvellous ingredients we got to ‘play’ with today.

Brown crab  Ingredients  More ingredients

It’s also been a great opportunity to meet other keen cooks and bloggers, and I hope some fun things will come of that in the future, too!

Look forward to more blogging on the subject once I’ve had a good night’s sleep (perhaps several!) and caught up on myself a little!

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Exciting news – and a bit of a tease!

A little while ago, I entered a recipe competition with a variation on my jerk marinade, thinking ‘here goes nothing!’.  Last weekend, I received an email – I nearly deleted the winning notification – I mean, what else do you do with emails which start ‘CONGRATULATIONS!’ and go on to tell you you’ve won something??

1st Prize!

I was a bit gobsmacked, truth be told.  I’m the sort of person who never wins anything – not even a colouring competition when I was a kid!  In fact, the only thing I’ve ever won was a Blue Peter Badge (those of you outside the UK will have to look that one up!).

So, one day next week, I get to travel to a secret London location and spend the day enjoying a masterclass with one of my favourite celebrity chefs!  How cool is that??

I’m so excited about this (does it make me a prize-winning food writer, I wonder?) and can’t wait to share all the details & photos with you all after the event!

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Gosh, an award!

A very long time ago (goodness, back in March!) I got an unexpected blog comment from The Bead Den Craftivities awarding me this beauty –

It’s taken me forever to do anything about it, for which I can only apologise!  The rules of the award are quite simple, and require me to do the following –

First – and most importantly – to thank the person who awarded it to me.  So, thank you so very much to The Bead Den – and do go back and read the nomination post here, since it contains links to lots and lots of other worthwhile things.  The rest of the blog is also great, of course, and well worth your attention!

Second – to tell you all seven things about me you probably didn’t know.  This was hard (and the main thing to be honest that’s slowed me down these almost-two-months!). So here goes nothing!

  1. I’m a master mariner’s granddaughter.  Mostly this means I’m good at tying knots, and seem to have inherited a genetic resistance to motion sickness!  Once upon a time I could do semaphore and morse code, too, but I’ve forgotten how.
  2. I learned to love real ale aged 19 (university has a lot to answer for!).  Ten years later, aged 29, I started to brew my own.
  3. Three of my hens!I have four hens – Gertie, Mabel, Flora, and Spot.  I can heartily endorse back-yard hen keeping, which is a source of great joy (and fantastic eggs!).  Hens make wonderful pets.
  4. I have a 2.1 in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge.  This has no bearing whatsoever on my day job!
  5. I love learning new things, which tends to mean I acquire a new hobby at least once a year – much to my husband’s distress, as he points out (quite rightly!) that there’s no room in our small cottage for any more of my ‘stuff’.   When the hobby turns out to produce something he can eat or drink, he’s a bit more easily mollified!
  6. I have no formal training in cooking, sewing, brewing, curing, butchery, horticulture, photography, writing (beyond GCSE English!), chandlery, or really any of the other skills in this blog – I do have a habit of thinking ‘how hard can it be?’ and just giving things a try!  I have to remind myself from time to time that the other key question is ‘what could possibly go wrong??’.
  7. I adore the information, inspiration, and new perspectives which I get from fellow bloggers, and it’s great to think that in a small way I can contribute to that rich community!  [Ok, perhaps this doesn’t really qualify as ‘surprisng’ but I was really struggling for number 7!]

Third – to nominate seven more bloggers for this wonderful (and pretty, isn’t it?) award.  There’s no obligation here, folks, if you’ve been given this award before, I’m sorry to bother you again, and if you have better things to do, that’s just dandy!  But without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my seven nominees (along with a quick note about why I think their blogs are so great, and always look forward new posts) –

From Belly to Bacon – charcuterie, what more is there to say?

Very Berry Handmade – amazing fabrics, designs & sewing inspiration

The Rowdy Chowgirl – great food, and fermentation – just what every girl needs!

Into Mind – fashion & clothing customisation

Domestic Diva, M.D. – fabulous anecdotes & comfort food

Happiness Stan Lives Here – lots of red-meat based solid grub

Conker & Indigo Recipes – great food & photos

Finally, I have to go and comment on all their blogs to let them know they’ve won (and with apologies for the, um, kreativ spelling) – I hope they’re suitably psyched, or at least not too irritated with me!

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Bloggers – Your Country (Skills Blog) Needs You!

I’m still looking for a handful of volunteers for Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge!

If you want to try something new and very cool – making your own bacon at home – and have a UK postal address, get in touch, and I’ll provide the curing salt.  Then, just brag about your bacon wherever you blog and to whoever will listen!

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

Finally – Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge is here!

I love home-cured bacon, and I think you will too!  The experience of making streaky bacon for the first time was one of the main motivations behind setting up this blog, and more recently I’ve had great success with home-cured back bacon, too.  And yet despite how simple it is, and how wonderful the final product, the most common reaction I get is ‘Oh but that sounds very complicated, you’re braver than me!’.

Home-cured back bacon

In order encourage as many people as possible to try this simplest of all foody experiences, I’ve come up with the following, very simple plan.  I’m calling it ‘Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge’.

I will post an 80g pack of ‘Supracure’ curing salt (enough to cure up to 1kg of bacon) to the first 10 people to send me their UK postal address.

Then, I’ll post day-by-day instructions to follow.

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

That’s it, simple as that!  All I want from you in return is to make your bacon, and to write about it, take photos of it, tweet about it, post to facebook about it and generally brag to anyone who’ll listen about how awesome, easy and worthwhile it is!  With any luck, for some of you it may even become a habit of a lifetime.

In order to make your very own bacon, you will need to provide a piece of fresh pork belly or pork loin up to 1kg in weight (ideally with the skin on), a non-metallic dish big enough to hold the meat, ~20g of sugar (soft dark sugar is best), some cling film, a refrigerator, and a couple of minutes a day for five consecutive days.

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Heston Blumenthal – how not to roast a chicken

I saw Heston Blumenthal the other night on TV with his roast chicken recipe, and I wish I hadn’t.  His suggestions really worry me.  Leaving aside his recommendation to brine the bird before roasting (because what we all need in our western diets, ladies and gentlemen, is more salt!), he advocates roasting the bird at 90 degrees centigrade (70, even, in a fan oven!) for several hours to a target internal temperature of 60C in the thickest part of the breast.  While I have no doubt that this treatment results in a marvellously moist tender bird (it’s barely cooked after all!) the food safety implications of the process are pretty horrifying.

All raw meat is contaminated with bacteria. This is just a fact of life – after all, meat is dead animal, and animals have bacteria in and on them in life which are impossible to remove in the course of processing.

Poultry meat in particular is high risk.  A UK study published in 2000 identified Campylobacter jejuni in 83.3% of supermarket chicken that they sampled.  I would go as far as to say, I almost guarantee that any raw chicken you purchase will be contaminated with Campylobacter, Salmonella or E. coli, and the risks are probably higher with free range birds which aren’t raised in a sealed environment.

The reason we don’t all have food poisoning all the time is that cooking – the application of heat – is extremely effective in killing these pathogens.  Here’s the problem – Salmonella requires a temperature of 60C for 10 minutes to be effectively killed. Campylobacter also needs to get to 60C, though it’s a bit  more fragile so a minute or two should do trick.  E. coli is more robust – but less common in poultry meat – and needs to be heated to 72C.  The universal advice for safe cooking of poultry meat takes all of this into account and advises the thickest (and hence least heated) part of the meat should reach a minimum temperature of 75C for at least 10 minutes.

On these numbers you can see how Heston’s recipe might *just about* not be gastrointestinal suicide, but you would want to be very confident of your temperatures.  The trouble is, any error in measurement – if your probe isn’t really in the absolutely coldest part of the bird – is going to read higher than the true lowest temperature, making it very easy to overestimate the minimum temperature and have parts of your bird below 60C.

To be quite honest, I don’t care how tender and succulent this roast bird might end up – it amounts to food hygiene russian roulette!  I’ll be staying away from the Fat Duck, I think.

Please, if you want a wonderful succulent roast chicken, buy a good free-range bird with some good fat under the skin, add some lovely flavours in the cavity (I like a quartered lemon with some whole cloves of garlic and a handful of thyme), a little bit of salt and pepper on the skin with a couple of rashers of bacon if you fancy it, and then roast at about 180C to a safe internal temperature.  Rest for 20 – 30 minutes before carving, and enjoy a tasty, succulent, and above all safe roast dinner!

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